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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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Introduction to Part I


Barbara Caine and Glenda Sluga have observed that the ‘regulation of prostitution was a marked feature of late nineteenth-century nation-building’ across a number of European countries, emphasizing that ‘it is no coincidence that the first law introduced by the new Italian Prime Minister (enacted as a ministerial decree) and undertaken while the laws of unification were still underway, dealt with prostitution’.1 The aim of Cavour’s legislation was to control prostitution by permitting its practice only through a series of state-regulated case chiuse or ‘closed houses’ as the brothels were known, because their windows were to remain shuttered and the women’s entry and exit regulated. To obtain entry into the brothel women would be subjected to a vaginal examination, and thereafter undergo health examinations twice a week; they would be controlled by a madam and retain merely a quarter of their takings.2 Regulation was further tightened with the defeat of the new Italy’s first attempts at empire building at Adwa in 1896, to ensure that Italy’s troops remained as healthy as possible.3 The close tie between national ‘health’ and the regulation of prostitution was not unique, indeed it reflected similar tendencies throughout Europe. Nonetheless, its particular importance in the Italian case is underlined by its prioritizing of legislation on the matter.

Prostitution has remained at the forefront of public discourse throughout the nation’s history. The work of two men in particular helped to keep it there: Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrari. As the new secular state developed...

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