The XX Factor

Berlusconi Said What?

The language surrounding Silvio Berlusconi’s most recent scandal-and now, his indictment-makes me wish I remembered my college Italian better. The news stories highlight the degree of what I’ll gently call a culture of plainspokenness in Italian politics.

Berlusconi is, after all, a guy who once called Rosy Bindi, the middle-aged woman who heads the opposition Democratic party, “increasingly more beautiful than you are intelligent.” Her response was to tell him “I am not one of the women at your disposal,” which prompted an “I’m not at your disposal” campaign in support of her. (Bindi’s rejoinder may have sounded more pithy in the original Italian.) Like that exchange, the insults in the so-called Rubygate scandal are fascinating for their degree of bile, if a little stilted in the translation.

A few days ago, before Berlusconi was indicted for allegedly hiring an underage prostitute, more than 100,000 people, mostly women, came out across the country to protest his dalliances with young women. (Not to mention his penchant for institutionalizing sexism by, among other things, putting skimpily clad showgirls on the networks he owns .) This prompted Berlusconi’s education minister, herself a woman, to label the protestors “the usual snob heroines of the left.” By American standards this is a fairly stunning thing for a high-ranking politician to say. Not to mention a great band name.

Berlusconi’s response, according to the Daily Telegraph , was an effort at wounded umbrage. He emphasized his “respect” and “regard” for women. “I have always made it so that every woman feels, how should I say, special.” Apparently the double meaning was evident in the Italian. An opposition politician was quoted as saying, “We know only too well what kind of ‘respect’ Berlusconi has for women and how he makes them feel ‘special.’”

Most recently, the New York Times quoted Berlusconi’s lawyer responding to the news that the prime minister’s closed-door trial would be in front of three female judges. “Great,” he told an Italian paper. “Women are always appreciated, sometimes even agreeable.” This is sarcasm, right? Oh, for more context.

Photograph of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images.