The Differing Portrayals of the Prostitute Before and After the Merlin Law
The Economic Miracle was a pivotal period during Italy’s industrialization from 1956-1966 as it made modern consumer products not only accessible to the wealthy, aristocratic members of Italian society, but also to the middle and working classes. The possibility to take part in the expanding consumer culture created a clear divide between the large portion of upper, middle, and working classes who could partake in practices of consumption and the poor laborers and sub-proletarians who could not. During this period a culture was created in which the commodities that people owned acted as a way of “symbolizing a particular life-style” and defining their social class (Sparke 234). Thus, the poorest strata of the population become viewed as having little social value in a society in which material wealth and the ability to help grow the economy were of the utmost importance. As a means of eliminating vestiges of the less productive, pre-industrialized Italy, the Italian Parliament passed the Merlin Law in 1959 that made prostitution illegal (Restivo 81). The government was able to pass the law under the guise that prostitution was degrading the social and moral foundations of Italian culture; however, by juxtaposing the portrayal of the prostitute in films created before and after the Merlin Law, it becomes apparent that the negative and immoral depiction of prostitutes did not occur until after the law was passed.
The Christian Democrats, a political party rooted in Christian values and free-market capitalism, was the party with the most political power throughout the Economic Miracle when the Merlin Law was passed. The DC’s particular combination of social and economic values made it easy for the party to target the sub-proletarian class, namely prostitutes and pimps, as an unproductive and morally depraved population that they needed to quash. On a basic level, the money-making activities that the sub-proletarian engaged in such as stealing or prostitution did not add any new value to the economy. As Italy aimed to “turn into a consumer society, along American lines,” the nation needed to focus on strengthening its economy by producing and selling products of new value like Fiats, typewriters, or modern Italian furniture (Sparke 230). The nations that Italy hoped to mirror and eventually compete with in a global market did not sustain themselves by allowing legalized sub-proletarian activity like prostitution. Thus, the creation of the Merlin Law “was a product of the ‘enlightened’ Italy and modernizing discourses that” Italy had adopted hegemonic free-markets notions (Restivo 81).
Nonetheless, the advent of the Merlin Law did not bring an end to all practices of pimping and prostitution, but instead merely brought about a new social awareness about the extreme difference there was between the sub-proletarian culture and that of the working and upper classes. People adapted a new understanding about the wrongness of prostitution after being inundated with the persuasive pieces by L’Espresso and other publications (Restivo 81), regularly listening to the Vatican condemn the profession (Sitney 16), and finally witnessing the delegalizing of prostitution in 1959. It seems as if this shift in the public perception of prostitution stemmed mainly from the aforementioned influences, rather than having occurred organically within society.
This abrupt shift in the portrayal of prostitutes can be most clearly understood when examined in the context of modernist films before and after the Merlin Law. Before the Merlin Law was enacted, prostitution had not yet been the main focal point of a film, perhaps because the profession was not yet understood as being out of the ordinary or of extreme negative impact on society (Sitney 16). Previous to the Merlin Law, the portrayals of prostitutes in films were limited to small roles such as the women working in the brothel in Ladri di biciclette, Gloria, the entrancing escort in 8 ½, or the young prostitute waiting outside the Alex Joyce’s hotel in Viaggio in Italia. In all of these films the prostitutes are not examined as causes for the moral degradation of the protagonist or Italian social values on a larger scale; on the contrary, the prostitutes act as a source of relief for the protagonists who are feeling trapped by the social pressures shaping their personal circumstances. In Ladri di biciclette Pasolini notes how there is a “brief moment of near comic relief” that makes the tragedy of Ricci’s stolen bike seem less devastating, “when Ricci chases the epileptic thief through a brothel, temporarily closed for a work break” (Sitney 16). In 8 ½, Gloria disrupts the monotonous pace of the modern bourgeois existence through her strange outbursts and unexpected mannerisms. Alex Joyce’s momentary encounter with a young prostitute outside of his hotel in Naples provides him with the necessary opportunity to understand his desire to work through his struggling marriage is Viaggio in Italia. These encounters with prostitutes seem to create respites that the male protagonists must experience in order for them to make important revelations or temporarily feel at ease during an emotionally burdensome situation.
It is not until Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria that the life of a prostitute becomes the main focus of a film. Cabiria, released in 1957, is a film that follows the life of a “good natured and innocent ‘whore’,” whose life is dictated by a series of misfortunes and bad luck (Sitney 176). The film opens with a clip of Cabiria’s month-long boyfriend pushing her into a river in an attempt to drown her and steal her dowry. After surviving the first incident, the remainder of the film follows Cabiria’s evenings in Rome and interactions with other prostitutes. The film concludes in a clip that is similar to the beginning in which her new fiancé attempts to kill her, but spares her life in exchange for her dowry. Nonetheless, in spite of the seemingly depressing plot that is Cabiria’s life, throughout the film she is portrayed as one of the most genuinely proud and happy female characters to grace the screen of Italian modernist films. Cabiria is satisfied with the life that her profession has enabled her to create; during one touching scene between Cabiria and the famous actor, she speaks happily about the house she has been able to maintain when she says, “I have my own house with water, electric, bottled gas…I got everything!…See this one here? She never slept under an arch!” (Le notti di Cabiria). Cabiria’s ability to partake in the consumer culture by means of owning a home differentiates her from other sub-proletarians whose social status remains inferior due to their lack of material wealth.
Although it is known that Cabiria is a prostitute, she in no way appears to be the morally depraved or emotionally depleted figure that was perpetuated through hegemonic discourse that was used to pass the Merlin Law. Cabiria, in fact, appears to be entirely contrary to this figure as her quirky and positive attitude makes her a loveable character for the viewer. Within the first few seconds of the clip below, Cabiria jumps out of the vehicle of a john with whom she appears to have a long-time rapport, and before skipping back to her cluster of friends who are also prostitutes, she says to the man in an upbeat tone “Remember to come see you princess!” (Le notti di Cabiria). In spite of the obvious fact that Cabiria is coming back from an evening in which she has commoditized her body, there is not an aspect of the scene that seems sleazy or immoral. Cabiria does not appear to be ashamed by her evening affairs with the man who dropped her off; in fact, the skip in her step makes it appear as if she is in a distinctly positive state of mind. Furthermore, Fellini decision to play a mambo throughout the entire clip, which eventually Cabiria and a few others begin to dance to sets the tone for the entire scene. The waiting spot for the prostitutes and pimps could appear to the untrained eye to be nothing other than a group of friends enjoying the evening by socializing and dancing.
Cabiria is liberated by her job as a prostitute as it provides her with a unique sense of independence in which she can decide on all of the details of her sexual encounters. Cabiria chooses not to work with the assistance of a pimp, and thus she maintains complete control over her income and clientele. Cabiria’s work as a prostitute has provided her with an entrance into the new consumerist culture developing in modern Italy as she is able to pay for her own home and the fancy clothing and furs that she desires. Thus, although her services do not directly add any new value to the burgeoning economy, Cabiria is still able to contribute to it by means of her consumption. Cabiria expresses the value that modern Roman society places on materialism when she is examining one of the other prostitute’s new Fiat. She states, “With a car like this life’s a lot different. You sit up there, high up…people think you’re well off– a secretary, a daddy’s girl… it feels great!” (Le notti di Cabiria). Thus, ironically, in a society in which material wealth and one’s ability to participate in the free market defines a person’s social value, a prostitute like Cabiria can give off the appearance of being a member of an upper class simply because of the clothes she is wearing or the car that she is driving.
However, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Accattone created an entirely different image of the prostitute in Italian cinema merely two years after the Merlin Law was passed. Unlike Cabiria who was described as “the sweetest and the least sexual of the long line of generous whores in Italian cinema and literature” (Sitney 176-177), Pasolini’s pimp named Accattone appears to be the most broken and hopeless out of all the aforementioned sub-proletarian characters. The film shadows the life of the impoverished protagonist who abuses his girlfriends by forcing them into prostitution and steals from his family and friends in order to survive. Pasolini effectively creates this raw and realistic portrayal of the Roman borgate by harnessing aspects of neorealism. Pasolini chose to shoot in the actual rundown urban spaces in the poorest neighborhoods using unprofessional actors from the borgate to play his characters. Pasolini emphasized, ““None of them—I repeat for the thousandth time—was an actor; in so far as each one was himself. His reality was represented by his reality. Those ‘bodies’ were like those in real life as well as on the screen” (Pasolini 101). He also worked to unveil more about this unique sub-proletarian culture by perfecting the native dialect of this particular class of Romans.
The clip below depicts an image of the prostitute that seems to be in line with that which the Merlin Law aimed to bring an end to. This scene shows the extremely abusive relationship between a rising pimp, Accattone, and his girlfriend, Stella, whom he is trying to manipulate into prostitution. Accattone moves between verbally abusing Stella as he demands her to learn how to become a prostitute from her “cow of a mother”, and falsely comforting her when she cries as a result of his abuse by saying, “I was kidding… What is important is that we’re in love” (Accattone). Aside from the horrifying spoken exchanges between the two characters, Pasolini enhances the nightmarish quality of the sequence by having a morose soundtrack of string instruments to accompany the couples’ journey. The camera remains a constant distance in front of both characters and seems to capture their hopeless trek to a nonexistent destination. As Stella walks next to Accattone with her shoulders slouched and her eyes toward the ground, it becomes very apparent that she lacks the agency to remove herself from her abusive relationship. Stella has become a damaged woman, one who is trapped in poverty and the depressed reality of Pasolini’s sub-proletarian.
The disturbing sequence sheds light on what Pasolini felt was a culture that was being overtaken by the hegemonic norms of bourgeois society. Pasolini openly admitted his “hatred for the bourgeois” as he felt that it was a class the projected its own ideals onto the rest of the society (Stack 26). Pasolini recognized that the sub-proletarian culture of the borgate was extremely foreign to the predominant bourgeoisie cultural norms; however, Pasolini did not believe that the gritty culture of the sub-proletarian should have to conform to the social norms of the bourgeois solely because it did not fit within their particular social framework. Pasolini explains his views:
The characters of Accattone were all thieves and robbers or people who lived from day to day; it was a film, in short, about the underworld… But as an author and as an Italian citizen, I did not by any means pass negative judgment on those characters from the criminal underworld; all their defects seemed to be human defects which were pardonable as well as being socially perfectly justifiable: the defects of men who obey a scale of values different from that of the bourgeoisie, that is to say, men who as I have said were totally themselves. (Pasolini 102)
Pasolini recognizes that by passing the Merlin Law, the bourgeois were attempting to make each cultural faction within Italy accountable to the same “scale of values”. The idea that the varying strata of Italian society should reform their daily lives in order to fit into the modern consumerist culture of the Economic Miracle was what Pasolini believe to be a “cultural genocide” (Pasolini 101-102).
During a few sections of Pasolini’s documentary Comizi d’amore, he explores the way in which Italians understand the sub-proletarian culture in light of the Economic Miracle and after the enaction of the Merlin Law. One of the most telling portions of this film in when Pasolini interviews a series of factory workers who have readily adapted the idea the prostitutes are of negative value to Italian society. Pasolini asks one of the women, “Why have you chosen to earn little, working so much more?”, and the girl immediately responds, “better a decent job” (Comizi d’amore). Another woman shares “It’s not right…I see it as something outside of normal” (Comizi d’amore). Both of these responses stem from the hegemonic discourse that the Merlin Law seemed to enforce about what constitutes a socially acceptable way of existing in Italian society during the Economic Miracle. The first woman appeals to a notion of decency that correlates with the hegemonic system of Christian values that is predominant in Italy. The second woman seems to privilege the bourgeois idea of normality that emphasizes productivity and contributing to Italy in a way that benefits economic growth.
Pasolini’s depiction of the prostitute and pimp as being worn, morally depraved, and traditionally unproductive members of society stemmed from his desire to expose a dying culture. The sub-proletarian culture was becoming squelched by “the hegemonizing discourses” of the bourgeois that were, “attempting to produce the ‘new Italian’” (Restivo 79). Although the depiction of sub-proletarian in Pasolini’s film appalled viewers who were unfamiliar with the particular population, the film remained effective as it raised awareness about a population that existed within a different social value system. However, with the creation of the Merlin Law, this different culture would be eliminated as it did not fit within the nations larger economic framework. Although the destruction of this particular facet of society—the occupations, the values, the dialect—may have appeared to be a positive step for Italians, it dually represented the violent way in which a popular discourse could cleanse differing aspects of society to fit with in a particular mold. This idea that unique aspects of Italian identity and history could be lost due to a conformist movement was one that should not be forgot in a nation propelled by free market values and goal of economic growth.
Accattone. Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Arco Film Italy, 1961.
Comizi D’amore. Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Perf. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Arco Film, 1965.
Le Notti Di Cabiria. Dir. Federico Fellini. Perf. Giulietta Massina and Francois Perier. Dino De Laurentiis Cinematografica, 1957.
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Lutheran Letters. Manchester: Carcanet New, 1983. Print.
Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002. Print.
Sitney, Adam. “New Wave Neorealism: Pasolini, Olmi, Rosi.” Vital Crisis in Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics. University of Texas, 1995. Print.
Sparke, Penny. “‘A Home for Everybody?’: Design, Ideology, and the Culture of the Hone in Italy, 1945-72.” Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy. 225-41. Print.
Stack, Oswald, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini on Pasolini; Interviews with Oswald Stack. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969. Print.