RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

OK. So, in Italy visitors often comment on the skimpy frocks and the sheer quantity of exposed female flesh in ads and on TV. This trend has been growing for years. And feminists say Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his television empire have led the way in encouraging what you might call the commercial exploitation of the female body. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this from Rome.

(Soundbite of music)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: A recent popular TV show was a contest for two showgirl slots on a top satirical program. More than 5,000 women applied. The prime requisites were perfect bodies and the ability to dance on tabletops.

(Soundbite of people applauding and cheering)

POGGIOLI: Both on public TV and networks owned by Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, scantily dressed women can be seen but rarely heard on all types of programs from quizzes to political talk shows. Opinion polls indicate the showgirl is the number one role model for young Italian women, including 21-year-old student Livia Colarietti.

Ms. LIVIA COLARIETTI (Student): (Through Translator) If I were a little thinner, I would have joined the contest to become a showgirl. I enjoy those shows. I really like to watch them.

(Soundbite of song "Imagine")

Ms. MARA CARFAGNA (Italian Minister of Equal Opportunities): (Singing) Imagine all the people, living...

POGGIOLI: One very successful showgirl is Mara Carfagna, who left an uncertain singing career for politics. Prime Minister Berlusconi chose her for minister of equal opportunity as both denied media reports they were having an affair. Satirist Sabina Guzzanti has publicly scorned the former topless calendar girl.

Ms. SABINA GUZZANTI (Italian Satirist): Because there's absolutely a scandal. Here we have more a pinup than exactly a showgirl. I mean, someone really just showing her body, and she became minister of equal opportunities.

POGGIOLI: Veteran feminist Grazia Francescato concedes the Carfagna model is winning.

Ms. GRAZIA FRANCESCATO (Italian Feminist): We've gone from equal opportunities to equal opportunism. You try to be very appealing to the other sex, especially to very, very powerful men. I'm very, very disappointed by women.

POGGIOLI: Feminists were powerful in the '70s, winning legalization of divorce, abortion, and universal health care. But then there was a backlash. Today Italy has the lowest percentage in Europe of working women. Only two percent of top management positions are held by women. That's even behind Kuwait. And only 17 percent of MPs are women, less than in Rwanda and Burundi. Television has become women's only showcase, and social scientist Elisa Manna has studied its impact on society.

Dr. ELISA MANNA (Italian Social Scientist, Censis Research Institute): To sell your body for a calendar, for a career is not considered now so bad. For many, many young women, this kind of attitude is connected to television because they have this kind of model in every hour of the day.

POGGIOLI: With remote in hand, a viewer can zap from game shows with giggling girls in bikinis to primetime anchorwomen with plunging necklines. All this sexiness on TV began with the birth of Berlusconi's networks in the 1980s. The 72-year-old prime minister speaks openly about sex. He recently bragged, "I sleep for three hours and still have enough energy to make love for another three." The Berlusconi TV model is widely seen as having shaped Italy's contemporary society.

Journalist Lilli Gruber says feminism and solidarity among women are out of fashion. A former TV anchorwoman who resigned from public television in protest over Berlusconi's control of the media, Gruber says most women appear unwilling or unable to assert themselves and are too weak to fight.

Ms. LILLI GRUBER (Italian Journalist, Former TV Anchor): To fight back against growing sexism, growing violence against women and domestic violence especially, fight back all these politicians who don't move an inch in order to allow women to be in charge and take on responsibilities.

POGGIOLI: Gruber points out, however, that the majority of Italians now studying in universities are women - a generation she believes won't be passive and might even succeed in breaking down Italy's old boys' network. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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