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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 Prostitute on the Italian Screen: Between Stereotype and Context Writing about the prostitute figure, Nadia (Annie Girardot) in Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli [Rocco and His Brothers] (Visconti, 1960), P. Adams Sitney declares that ‘she is perhaps the most fully articulated instance in Italian cinema of the enduring icon of the good prostitute. With the intensification of the debate which finally led to the closing of the brothels in 1958, this figure flourished in major Italian films: Le notti di Cabiria [The Nights of Cabiria] (1957), Il grido (1959), La dolce vita (1960), Accattone (1961)’.1 Adams Sitney’s reference reflects the standard manner in which the figure has been treated to date, as a passing cliché, barely worth comment, and only within the auteurist canon. My project on the female prostitute in Italian cinema began with a conviction that Nadia was more than merely a stock figure, and my work on her disruptive role within the film led me to believe that the prostitute might have a more interesting function in Italian cinema more broadly.2 In the period 1940 to 1965, as the appendix to this book demonstrates, the prostitute herself appeared on average in at least 8 per cent of all Italian-made films, but her shadow fell over many more. This book uses the prostitute’s appearance on screen to reveal the crucial entanglement of cinema and gender construction in a period when cinema-going was the most popular leisure activity in Italy. With 1 P. Adams Sitney, Vital...

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