The Berlusconi in Us All: Bunga Bunga's Real Meaning

Sabrina Ferri, an Assistant Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Notre Dame, said she hears whispers of colonialism and capitalism in the phrase. "It implies a conscious distinction between those who are inferior, subjected to someone else's will, and those who are superior. Why are they superior? Because of money and power." It's domineering, she said, but also "childish and infantile and comic, with a grotesque quality."

The actual processes of bunga bunga are harder to pin down. It may involve a swimming pool. Robustelli conjectured, "We think it's a sort of orgy. It's when men do as they like, and also includes sodomitic things."

That sounds a little racist.

You might say so.

"It is full of heavy sexual and racial connotations about which Berlusconi is probably not aware, because he's not very sophisticated," Robustelli said. "But everyone else can see it."

Bunga bunga, said Ferri, "perfectly captures the essence" of what Italians call Berlusconismo: unbridled consumption, endless beautiful women to toy with -- in short, an ideology in which wealthy white men rule. Or, as Ferri defines it, "a combination of geriatric infantilization and racism."

But Italy, like any country with a legacy of nationalism, had racism long before it had Berlusconi. Old Fascist habits die hard, and in December 2003, Umberto Bossi, leader of the anti-immigration party the Northern League (a far-right party Berlusconi relies on for his delicate coalition in Parliament), referred to immigrants as "bingo bongos" in explaining why immigrants should be denied housing. "You work your whole life and then we give a house to the first bingo bongo that arrives?" he asked. "You must be kidding."

Bossi pressed hard for a tough 2009 immigration law that makes it a crime for an immigrant to be in the country without a job, and that allows unarmed citizens' brigades to help enforce the law.

Saskia Sassen, a Columbia professor who studies the social and political dynamics of immigration, called this law unusually blatant in its racism. "It basically allowed vigilantism," she said. "There is something about the racism in Italy against immigrants that seems to cross a line."

But there are immigrants, and then there are young, bosomy, female immigrants, like Karima el-Mahroug -- who reportedly lacked immigration papers at the time of her arrest -- or the several Brazilian women who have also stepped forward to testify.

"Karima represents the weakest in society," said Vittorio Longhi, a columnist and a consultant for the International Labor Organization. "She's a young woman, a child, and a migrant. These are the most vulnerable people in Italy today, so it's quite ironic that this young immigrant woman who has troubled Berlusconi so much."

Sassen said that while leftist politicians are grateful, even admiring of the Brazilian and Moroccan women who are speaking out, even they are trapped in a bunga bunga mindset themselves. "They mean to speak well of them, but they still use this racialized term. It's entered the subconscious of a nation."

Hey wait, bunga bunga sounds a little sexist too.

Berlusconi and a few old rich cronies enjoying the favors of a more than a dozen women a third their age?

You call that sexist?

Sexism, of course, thrives on the soil of many nations, but Italy's indicators for women's status are particularly poor compared to those of its European neighbors. As Newsweek reported, a 2010 Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum found that "in every category but education, Italy lags badly: in labor participation, 87th place worldwide; wage parity, 121st; opportunity for women to take leadership positions, 97th."

For young women, opportunities are especially limited.

"We have a very high percentage of young people who are unemployed, about 25 percent, but about half of young women are unemployed. This is the real fact we have to keep in mind," said Fernanda Minuz, President and legal representative of the Orlando Association, one of Italy's most prominent women's rights organizations.

With employment prospects so dim, is it any wonder that more and more young women covet a career as a velina, or TV showgirl, on one of the stations privately owned by Berlusconi?

"Being a professor or policymaker pays very badly. They have this model of womanhood that says they are only successful if they are beautiful. Then you can go on TV and have a very rich husband," said Robustelli.

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for

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