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2013 SIS Postgraduate Colloquium – Critic’s corner


Keynote Lecture discussed– Danielle Hipkins, Post girl power? Prostitution and Politics in Contemporary Cinema

by Serena Bassi (University of Warwick)

In her keynote lecture at the Society for Italian Studies Postgraduate Colloquium at the University of Reading, entitled Post girl power? Prostitution and Politics in Contemporary Cinema, Danielle Hipkins returned to the representation of female prostitution in Italian cultural production, a question that is central to a substantial part of her critical work. Dr Hipkins has explored national identity formation in 20th century literature and cinema, foregrounding the place of gendered narratives and metaphors within it; specifically, her work on the representation of prostitution in post-war Italian cinema underlined how Neorealism employed the trope of the prostitute to formulate a ‘call for a new vision of Italian society, in which responsibility for Fascism was held at a distance through the image of the contaminated female body’.

Dr Hipkins focussed on the way in which the trope of the prostitute resurfaces in today’s cinematic production in the aftermath of the sex scandal that drew international attention onto former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, as well as bringing a series of debates on women, women’s agency and sex work to the fore of Italian political debate. Hipkins interrogates the cinematic trope of the young working-class woman who sells sex by focusing particularly on the 2012 mid-brow romantic comedy Un giorno speciale by Francesca Comencini. Un giorno speciale is centred upon a day in the life of 19-year-old Gina, an aspiring actress whose mother has arranged an appointment between her and a politician, which later turns out to involve sex work. Gina’s appointment gets delayed throughout the day and she ends up spending the day driving around Rome with the young Marco, the politician’s driver in his first day on the job.

The film appears to attempt a sort of reinvention of the trope of the prostitute as sacrificial figure. As Hipkins argues, such trope recurs throughout Italy’s cultural history and forms one critical segment of what Millicent Marcus has called Italy’s ‘feminized body politic’. In fact, Gina, the protagonist of Comencini’s film, is reminiscent of the protagonist of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, the 1853 operatic melodrama that can be read as registering and encoding some of the tensions that underwrote the constituting of Italy as a new national State. Hipkins reminded us of how in La Traviata, the romantic heroine Violetta frames her own death as a sacrifice which allows for the creation of ‘the building block’ of the nation, the family.

In her important article ‘“Whore-ocracy”: Show Girls, the Beauty Trade-Off, and Mainstream Oppositional Discourse in Contemporary Italy’,[1] Hipkins problematized the tendency within the Italian mainstream oppositional discourse to employ the image of the ‘velina’ and of the sex workers implicated in Berlusconi’s sex scandal as a symbol to foreground Italy’s moral, cultural and political decay in the age of Berlusconi. In her keynote lecture at the Reading colloquium, Hipkins went on to demonstrate that this symbolic use of the body of the female prostitute as shorthand for national decay has a long history in Italian popular cinema. As an example, in Lattuada’s 1954 film La Spiaggia the cold war tension between communism and capitalism is played out across the female body of the film’s female protagonist, a single mother who formerly worked as a prostitute.

In Un giorno speciale, ideas of sacrifice and womanhood as victimhood re-emerge, but they interestingly and somewhat contrarily intersect with a series of recent transnational postfeminist discourses on female agency and sex work, which have also been central to popular Anglo-American cultural production on contemporary girlhoods since the 1990s. Scholarly critiques of Anglo-American postfeminist cultural production have highlighted that alongside a consistent discourse that imagines girls as empowered subjects and reframes their agency, which is seen at once as a product of feminism and as rendering feminism superfluous, as ‘girl power’, the mainstream media offers an equally recurrent narrative of contemporary girlhood that sees young women as ‘at risks’ in a culture that is increasingly commercialised and that seems to increasingly imagine girls as hyper-sexualised subjects.

Finally, Hipkins asks to what extent Comencini has succeeded in centring the narrative around the trope of the prostitute without re-activating the narrative arc ‘pure-to-fallen’, which takes away agency from the female protagonist and fixes the representation of womanhood as victimhood. Comencini’s position with regards to the politics of sex work appears ambiguous and this ambiguity manifests itself in a complex and multi-layered representation of contemporary Italian working class femininity. In this respect, Hipkins suggests that this text contains a series of ‘lines of flight’, which interpret ‘the meanings of girls’ utopic but also violent or aggressive fantasies […] as energetic lines of flight outside of normative, oppressive boundaries of (working class) femininity’.[2]

The male/female relationship is also, within the film, a space to renegotiate the paradigm of the sacrificial prostitute. Hipkins notes that the construction of masculinity is as critical to understanding the functioning of the text as that of femininity. Such construction is structured through a duality of ‘the oppressive patriarch versus the disenfranchised young man’ (the former represented by the politician and the latter by Marco), whereby a redeeming representation of Gina is enabled by Marco’s non-objectifying ‘sympathetic male gaze’.

Serena Bassi obtained her PhD from the University of Warwick with a thesis on translation, the contemporary publishing market and British images of Italy. Her current research interest include Translation Studies, the study of contemporary popular culture and Gender & Sexuality Studies.

[1] Danielle Hipkins, “‘Whore-ocracy’: Show girls, the beauty trade-off, and mainstream oppositional discourse in contemporary Italy,” Italian Studies 66 (2011): 413-430.

[2] Emma Renold and Jessica Ringrose, ‘Teen girls, working class femininity and resistance: Re-theorizing fantasy and desire in educational contexts of heterosexualized violence’, International Journal of Inclusive Education 16 (2012): 461-477 (465).


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This entry was posted on March 12, 2014 by in Critic's corner.
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