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Italy’s Other Women

Gender and Prostitution in Italian Cinema, 1940–1965


Danielle Hipkins

In the period 1940 to 1965 the female prostitute featured in at least ten per cent of all Italian-made films, but she cast her shadow over many more. With reference to the changing social and film industrial context, this book explains why the figure of the female prostitute was so prevalent in Italian cinema of this period and offers a new account of her on-screen presence. It shows that the prostitutes that populate Italian cinema are much more than simply 'tarts with hearts' or martyr figures. Via the constant reworking of the prostitute trope across genres, the figure takes us to the heart of many ideological contradictions in postwar Italian cinema and society: these include the entanglement of rhetoric about political truth with the suppression of postwar guilt and shame, fears about racial contamination, and a preoccupation with non-normative forms of masculine behaviour and desire. The book also shows how the female prostitute is important to Italian national cinema as a 'borderline identity', used to establish, but also destabilize, the hegemony of respectable femininities. It is precisely through her borderline condition, this book argues, that the prostitute 'haunts' gender, sometimes policing it, but more often than not problematizing its very construction.

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The problem with the prostitute is that we think we know all about her. Of course we do, for the very idea of the ‘prostitute’ is our own dear fiction, a product of the fervid nineteenth-century cultural imagination and its nation-building categorizations. Just as the kind of labour that sex work is remains under-theorized, the kind of cultural work that the prostitute does in Italian cinema has been under examined. As I have worked on this book, I have tried to understand why that has been.

Certainly, the knowledge that sex itself entails, the ‘non-knowledge’ threatening to undo the self’s sovereignty, as Berlant and Edelman would have it, does in itself trigger a desire to label, to contain, to hold at a distance. In the case of the prostitute this is further compounded by the sense that she is, off-screen or on-screen, the object of male pleasures, perceived to be a ‘bad thing’. By dismissing her with a label, the critic can distance himself from that, but this serves merely to compound the ‘othering’ that she already represents. What I hope to have achieved with this book, by engaging in the messy business of beginning to disentangle her rich and varied meanings, is some redress for this exclusion.

What emerges from this study is that the prostitute functions in Italian cinema between 1940 and 1965 as a borderline identity haunting women and men in a variety of ways, one that can function conservatively, for...

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