Putin and Berlusconi constructed their careers based on an idea of virility at a time when the concept seemed to many to be outdated. Augusto Come investigates the strategies both have employed, and finds a striking association with images from the fascist past.
Putin and Berlusconi are two of the most powerful political leaders in the world. Connected by their close friendship, which goes well beyond their institutional relationship, the Italian and Russian Prime Ministers also have much in common. Both have shaped their national political scenes by asserting themselves as new leaders completely disconnected from the previous national standard. Berlusconi’s brilliant image popped up in the early 1990s, in a political scene profoundly dominated by the old and grey bureaucrats of the Christian Democracy party and by the severe and austere members of the Italian Communist Party. Always prodigal of smiles and colourful expressions, Berlusconi started to charm Italians with his irreducible optimism, in part thanks to his successful personal business success story. In a somewhat similar way, Putin succeeded in captivating Russians by building his image in contrast to Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s second mandate drew a painful picture of a country led by an old, sick and alcoholic man, who even had difficulties standing without falling and speaking comprehensively during official meetings. In Putin Russians had a young and vigorous leader.
Putin and Berlusconi have shaped their national political scenes by asserting themselves as new leaders completely disconnected from the previous national standard.
Vitality and virility
What appears to be clear in both cases is the fact that Berlusconi and Putin both profited from their vitality, or at least, from the image of vitality the public attributed to them. Of course, vitality, describing a state of being active and full of energy and willingness to take initiative, is a common characteristic of many political leaders, from Gandhi to Charles de Gaulle, vitality being the sine qua non condition for undertaking action. Nevertheless, in the case of Putin and Berlusconi, vitality translates itself into a quite particular form. In Berlusconi - the sciupafemmine, and Putin - the silovik, vitality is often associated with virility. The latter could be defined as a characteristic of a male in his manhood and it is associated with physical strength, forcefulness and vigour.
As vitality, virility has been a central element of politics from time immemorial. Virility is closely related to power, in the sense that it is enrooted not only in the sexual domination of women by men, but also in the domination of other men by the most virile one. Frans de Waal, in his well-known book “Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among apes” , explains that “there is a definite link between power and sex; no social organisation can be properly understood without knowledge of the sexual rules”, pointing out how, in the chimpanzee community, sex proves the monopoly of power enjoyed by the male ape. Animal communities aside, virility has always been a central element of leadership in pre-modern societies, like ancient Greece, where it was the principal trait of Homeric heroes like Ajax or Achilles, as well as in anti-modern societies. For example, virility was discovered again during fascism when it was deliberately exacerbated as a powerful political tool.
In April 2006, when Berlusconi presented the new MP Mara Carfagna, top model and show girl, to other MPs he said “Dear Mara, I have to remind myself that there is a rule in our political group: the jus primae noctis”. (photo: flickr.com)
In a quite unexpected way, Berlusconi and Putin discovered the power of virile behaviour and rhetoric in a time when the concept of virility seemed to be outdated. Of course, in looking to attract consensus among a large portion of the male and female population, they have had to adapt virile rhetoric and behaviour to their audience, since the concept of virility is far from universal. Writing in “Masculinity as Homophobia” the American sociologist Michael Kimmel noted, “Manhood is neither static nor timeless; it is historical. Manhood is not the manifestation of an inner essence: it is socially constructed. Manhood does not bubble up to consciousness from our biological makeup; it is created in culture. Manhood means different things at different times to different people”. Culture and social construction have meant that Berlusconi on the one hand plays with the myth of the women’s man, while Putin refers more articulately to the strong male model. Both, as we will see, converge into the synthesis of a fascist model of masculinity.
Berlusconi: the virility of the macho lover
Virility is one of the peculiar aspects of Berlusconi’s colourful image. Despite his age, Berlusconi’s virility mostly has a sexual connotation: Berlusconi likes to play the role of a powerful lover. Yet, the celebration of his virility is systematically detrimental to women. (In analysing his image, we will focus exclusively on his public behaviour and statements, and not on sexual scandals, which were not supposed to be made public).
Berlusconi has systematically adopted a degrading attitude towards women, offending their ethical value, image and human dignity by courting them, paying unrequested compliments and making sexual allusions. Women are chiefly portrayed as subordinate objects whose sole purpose is to satisfy the needs of men. In many of his public statements, they are represented as an object subordinated to the pleasure of the male. In both Italy and beyond, the recurrent imagery in his speeches is of the pleasant woman, who supplements the country but is not — contrary to the Italian man — an integral part of its economic, social or political structure.
Berlusconi never fails to miss a single opportunity to feed into this macho image by relying on his preferred means of communication: jokes. In his opening address to the Milano Med Forum 2010, he informed delegates that whilst his "playboy" days were over he remained a "play-old". He invited Mediterranean leaders to "bring some good-looking girls over some time", telling them: "We would appreciate them because we're Latins." Berlusconi is unable to resist the temptation of boasting about his alleged skills as a lover even in the most official of situations. In 2005 he stated that he had brushed up on his playboy skills and had used a series of tender pleas in order to convince the Finnish President to have the European Food Safety Authority based in Parma. Finland immediately convoked the Italian Ambassador asking for official apologies.
Connected by their close friendship, which goes well beyond their institutional relationship, the Italian and Russian Prime Ministers also have much in common.
Berlusconi’s successful image is constructed from a troika of power, money and women, which in his mind are insolubly linked. At the congress of his People of Freedom Party he stated that "women are lining up to marry me, because I'm a nice guy, because I'm loaded, because I know how to deal with women." He omitted the fact that many females prefer older and rich men in order to inherit their fortunes. During a TV show in 2008, Berlusconi told an attractive young voter who questioned his economic record that the best way to climb out of poverty was to marry a millionaire, “like my son”.
Money and power are tools of sexual domination. In April 2006, when Berlusconi presented the new MP Mara Carfagna, top model and show girl, to other MPs he said “Dear Mara, I have to remind myself that there is a rule in our political group: the jus primae noctis”. In his mind, the sexual domination of the male over the female is something natural, which is sanctioned by the social order. “Another reason to invest in Italy”, he declared in an address to the New York Stock Exchange – “is that we have beautiful secretaries... superb girls".
"Berlusconi’s vulgar jokes are often considered gaffes, especially by foreign observers. Yet Berlusconi is one of the most successful communicator in the world. Berlusconi deliberately surfs the macho and sexist wave, which is rooted in the common sense of the Italian society."
Such sexist jokes uncover Berlusconi’s conception of women, who he perceives as objects or worse, in the words of the Democratic Party MP Paola Pellerini, as “fresh meat to be consumed”. This conception is confirmed by Berlusconi’s lawyer Nicolò Ghedini, who excused his client after a sexual scandal involving several escorts, as he was just the “final user” of a prostitute paid for by others, equating these women to simple commodities and Berlusconi to a consumer.
Berlusconi’s attitude towards women is often criticised. Berlusconi’s wife, who divorced him after the umpteenth sexual scandal of her husband, expressed all her consternation in a communication to the Italian news agency ANSA: “Someone wrote that all of this is solely for the entertainment of the emperor. I completely agree: what comes out of newspapers is indecent rubbish in the name of power”. Independent of the amount of criticism he receives, his behaviour fails to change, even when protesters are foreign governments, like the Spanish one (the Italian Premier said that the government contained too many women to be manageable). With his impenitent position, he incites everyone to express their disaccord.
Building his virile image, Berlusconi plays the homophobic card without any hesitation. In June 2009, whilst visiting a building site, he shouted at some workers asking them why they did not have any woman with them. “Are you gay? Next time I’ll bring you some veline (showgirls)!” In November 2010, Berlusconi justified his most recent sexual scandal- which allegedly involved an underage Moroccan escort- by asserting that it was always better to like pretty women than to be gay.
Such vulgar jokes are often considered gaffes, especially by foreign observers. Yet Berlusconi is one of the most successful communicator in the world; the gaffe interpretation is mistaken because it underestimates the political meaning of those messages. Berlusconi deliberately surfs the macho and sexist wave, rooted in the common sense of the Italian society, caching sympathies in overlapping social classes and political identities. That is the reason why his sexist and macho attitude played in the omnipresent “theatre of virility” must be interpreted as a political communication strategy.
The Russian prime minister was filmed, equipped with combat boots and a camouflage uniform, shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquilliser gun.
Putin: the virility of the strong man
Putin’s virility is quite different from Berlusconi’s because it is based on other grounds than sexism. Of course, women are part of the mosaic composing his image of the virile man. He enjoys high popularity among Russian women. Indeed, in the beginning of 2002, a sociological survey found 3500 of 5000 women considered the then-President to be the “new sex-symbol of Russia”. Putin does not, however, personally promote this image. It is rather through the initiative of others that his sexual virility is highlighted. This was the case of the erotic Happy Birthday calendar named "Vladimir Vladimirovich, we love you", which contained 12 journalist students in lingerie, with provocative messages, such as "you put out forest fires, but I'm still burning”. It is of interest to note that one of the rare times Putin embraced the lover strategy, saying “I love all Russian women, (…) the only ones who may compete with them are Italians”, was in response to an embarrassing question, during a joint press conference with Berlusconi in Italy. On that occasion, there was an amazing role switch with Putin playing the Casanova and Berlusconi the silovik, pretending to shoot down the annoying journalist with a machine gun.
Much more than sex and women, what characterised Putin’s virility communication strategy is his image of a strong man, based on elements such as health and physical strength, courage and dynamic action.
In 2007, several pictures of Putin appeared during his holidays in Siberia. Those photos show him armed and topless while fishing, hiking and horseback riding.
Putin enjoys the image of a strong and healthy man. He is a judo-black-belt and this fact is well publicised in the media. He published a judo manual and proposed, in 2009, at a special coaching session broadcast on state television, to join the Olympic team: "If you need direct help, you can count on me” Putin told the trainer. Besides showing himself in his white judogi, Putin is frequently pictured practicing other sports. In 2007, several pictures of him appeared during his holidays in Siberia. Those photos show him armed and topless while fishing, hiking and horseback riding. The tabloid Komsomolskaya pravda subsequently published an article-guide called "Be Like Putin" enumerating the required exercises to build up a torso like that of the Russian leader.
"Putin’s virility communication strategy is his image of a strong man, based on elements such as health and physical strength, courage and dynamic action."
Another important element of Putin’s virile strategy is his image of the brave action-man, who does not fear weapons, speed and death. Besides practicing judo, which after all remains a fighting sport, Putin is often captured executing dangerous activities. One of the first pictures, shows him in March 2000 in the SU-27 cockpit, dressed as a Russian military aviator, before his flight to Chechnya. Since then, he has never stopped flying aircrafts, testing new bombs, or dropping water on burning Russian forests. Recently he drove a Renault Formula 1 car, wearing a special helmet decorated with the colours of Russia and the national double-headed-eagle emblem. The Russian prime minister was also filmed, equipped with combat boots and a camouflage uniform, shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquilliser gun.
Putin’s image strategy thus relies on the imagery of the strong man Russia needs — a real man, virile in politics as well as in his everyday life.
Tell me your virility and I will tell you your electorate
We have seen how central virility is to the public image of these Russian and Italian leaders; and also how their virility strategies follow very different paths. While Berlusconi’s strategy is mainly sex-driven, Putin’s image is founded on the myth of the strong man. The two main reasons for this are related to the two imperatives of political marketing. That is to say that the promoted image must on one hand be adapted to the product we want to sell, and on the other hand to the market we are targeting. Virility must be adapted to both leader and to his electorate.
The erotic Happy Birthday calendar named "Vladimir Vladimirovich, we love you" contained 12 journalist students in lingerie, with provocative messages, such as "you put out forest fires, but I'm still burning”.
Take the example of Berlusconi put in action-man shoes in Siberia. He would clearely not be at ease, just like Putin in the sciupafemmine’s role in Italy. Similarly, Putin could not play the action-man catching Mediterranean sharks with a knife, and Berlusconi could not play the Casanova in Russia (though he did, in 2004, try during a factory visit to Lipetsk, calling a female worker the “most beautiful and committed of the factory”. His antics were not not well received by Russian public opinion). The reason may be that the concept of virility is understood in various ways in different countries: somewhere some of its manifestations are acceptable, elsewhere they are not.
One last point. Viirility is not a universal concept, immutable over time. In the Italy of the the 20s and 30s, for example, Putin’s virility could well been a great success. How could we forget those pictures of Mussolini, topless, helping farmers collecting wheat? Indeed, if one thinks about for a second, Berlusconi’s style also suits the Duce’s image of a woman’s man well. You might say the fascist ideal of virility is a good synthesis of both, with Berlusconi and Putin representing both sides of the fascist man: penis and muscles.