The recently deceased Silvio Berlusconi, Italian’s former Prime Minister and billionaire media tycoon, was a man marred by a slew of sexist remarks, abuse of power, objectification of women, corruption, as well as a pretty hefty tax fraud conviction.
As an Italian gen Zer, who was born and raised during some of the 30 or so years of Berlusconi’s political run, I couldn’t help but feel the need to use the controversial man’s passing as an excuse to dive into how his political ruling influenced the trajectory of Italy’s youth (myself included), in turn shaping our political consciousness and why we are driven by aspirations for change. So, let’s get into it and bid Berlusconi the farewell he deserves, shall we?
The “Cavaliere” was known for his derogatory language and offensive comments which perpetuated age-old stereotypes and undermined efforts to achieve gender equality—particularly in the political space. By publicly flaunting his relationships with younger women and boasting about his sexual conquests, he reinforced a culture of misogyny and diminished the role of women in politics.
From the many stories that came out of Villa San Martino where Berlusconi hosted his infamous Bunga Bunga sex parties, it’s not hard to get an idea of how he viewed and treated women. Blurring the boundaries between politics, power and sex was what the billionaire did best. Former guests and acquaintances of Berlusconi have previously claimed they attended wild nights in the villa located in Arcore, filled with orgies, female strippers, and pole dances.
In fact, the term ‘Bunga Bunga’ was coined following the events of a peculiar ritual that took place during these parties. Some reports suggest that women performed erotic dances and sexual acts on Berlusconi and his guests.
The untamed nights were said to include aspiring models and actresses sometimes referred to as “Berlusconi’s girls” or “showgirls.” However, much to the late lothario’s dismay I’m sure, things came to a head for him in 2010 when he was accused and initially convicted of paying a 17-year-old Moroccan dancer for sex.
The news would mark the beginning of a long court battle for Berlusconi, as well as the unravelling of his private life.
As more and more reports came out in the midst of Berlusconi’s sex probe, it was revealed that around 20 women frequented his official residence, some of whom were provided with apartments in a residence on Via Olgettina, earning the moniker “olgettine,” a term which is now used to refer to a woman who’s been seduced by a highly influential politician.
The women who lived at the residence specially built to ‘host’ them also received monthly financial transfers from the man. While the list is long, ten women, in particular, had an undeniable presence in the former Prime Minister’s life. In November 2011, Berlusconi was forced to resign and leave then-President Giorgio Napolitano’s residence through a side entrance to chants of “buffoon, buffoon” from thousands of demonstrators outside.
Yet even after that, being caught in a series of scandals over his private life, including his alleged dealings with younger women and prostitutes, in April 2011, Berlusconi said: “When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30 per cent of women said ‘Yes’, while the other 70 per cent replied, ‘What, again?’”
As is so often the case, the legacy of Berlusconi’s sexism and blatant disrespect for women (and the law) undoubtedly shaped the political consciousness of Italy’s youth. While his reputation has sparked a wave of activism and a push for greater gender equality across the nation, Berlusconi’s power also directly contributed to the perpetuation of an alpha-male mentality, akin to figures like Andrew Tate.
He helped normalise the use of offensive language in public discussions, leading to a polarised and incredibly toxic political climate. The younger generation witnessed this harmful shift, and unless journalists were affiliated with his TV network, they were almost prohibited from expressing their opinions on the country’s situation.
Long before Donald Trump made “fake news” his favourite term, Berlusconi exemplified how wealth, along with influential connections (including ties to Italian criminal organisations like Camorra and Ndrangheta) could enable individuals to pursue their goals, albeit through tyrannical means, all the while nurturing a sense of entitlement. Despite facing a staggering 35 criminal court cases, the politician managed to end up with only one definitive conviction, leaving behind a trail of controversies and legal battles.
It’s therefore simply ridiculous that during the launch of his 2006 electoral campaign, Berlusconi, a man who clearly never had to think about anyone else but himself, stated: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics, I am a patient victim. I put up with everyone. I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
I have distinct recollections of the representation of women in the media while growing up in Italy. I remember witnessing numerous instances of naked women being shamelessly exploited on live TV. They were treated as mere objects, seen as nothing more than dolls or pieces of meat to be touched, judged, and solely intended to provide pleasure to men.
SCREENSHOT reached out to a few women who were born and raised in Italy to gather their thoughts on the repercussions of our infamous former Prime Minister’s tenure.
Anna Giulia, 26, said: “He shaped the misogynism concept, objectified women, and impacted how we perceived our bodies, and how our bodies should be perceived by society.”
“Berlusconi’s politics have massively impacted individuals who grew up in a political era whose reforms cut public school fundings, undermined job security by pushing precarious employment, has fermented a sexist wave that is still currently shaping our society and is hard to eradicate,” Sofia, 28, told me.
“It has supported immigration laws that enabled thousands of people to die. These among much more. Gen Z are the ones who, alongside millennials, have to confront today’s Italy and its many flows and legacies in a current landscape in which the ground was arguably fermented by Berlusconi’s policies and cultural role too” Sofia continued.
It should be noted that some young Italians, while acknowledging the need for change and greater gender equality, have also embraced elements of Berlusconi’s harmful culture, perceiving it as a symbol of strength and success. This can manifest in behaviours and attitudes that perpetuate traditional gender roles and power dynamics.
Another one of Berlusconi’s most controversial quotes took place at a motorcycle industry show in Milan in 2010 where the politician noted: “Better to be a beautiful girl rather than to be gay.”
Even after his death, Berlusconi still plays a part in Italian politics. Our current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni—Italy’s first woman to hold the post—owes a lot to Berlusconi. He gave Meloni her first big break in frontline politics, making her the youngest government minister in Italian history at age 31 in 2008.
The former Italian leader was also instrumental in triggering the downfall of Mario Draghi’s premiership—a short-lived leadership stint that only lasted a little over a year and a half. Berlusconi orchestrated a meeting between right-wingers over lunch at his luxurious villa, at which they plotted to bring down the government.
While fervent supporters laud Berlusconi’s accomplishments, particularly his influence, relationships with women, and ability to evade accountability, the younger generation understands how his contentious and problematic legacy has drastically impacted their own quality of life in Italy. They are resolute in their pursuit of transformation, aiming to dismantle the remnants of sexist politics, promote inclusive and progressive ideologies, and build a society that truly respects and empowers all citizens.