A recent wave of testimony from inside the Italian entertainment industry again failed to gain much attention, another example of MeToo failing to take off in the traditionally sexist country. There are multiple explanations, though also quieter signs that something may be changing.
For a few fleeting hours, it seemed the MeToo movement might finally break out of the shadows in Italy: the internet was buzzing after the La Repubblica daily had published the testimonies of several actresses recounting the sexual harassment they’d faced.
A week later, on Jan. 16, the associations Amleta and Differenza Donna held a press conference to report 223 additional testimonies of sexual harassment and violence in show business.
The activists broke the cases down by gender (in all but two cases the abusers were men, and 93% of the victims were women) and by job title (directors made up 41% of the abusers, followed by actors, producers, teachers, casting directors, agents, critics, and even some audience members). But it was also notable that only 12 actresses had brought their cases to court, and that the names of those accused would not be revealed so as not to compromise ongoing legal actions.
A few newspapers reported the news. Then, nothing more.
Since MeToo took off in the United States in 2017 following the revelations of systematic abuse of power and sexual assault by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, other countries and industries have had their own reckonings and high-profile public debate.
Can the lukewarm reaction be explained by the lack of a famous name facing criminal accusations, as Weinstein’s had been in the United States? Is it a problem of mindset and resistance to change in an Italian society where sexism and male privilege remain entrenched? Or perhaps, contrary to the overall perception, a change is underway, but has gone mostly unnoticed?
Before this month’s press conference, the most relevant episode in the Italian MeToo had been the 2018 publication of Dissenso Comune, a manifesto signed by 124 actresses, directors and producers. The letter expressed support for the women who had spoken out against their abusers in the immediate aftermath of MeToo, and chose the path of challenging not only the powerful man of the day but an entire system of power that was also active in their workspace.
Missing were the very few women who had been naming and shaming their predators.
However, missing from the signatories were the very few women who had been denouncing for months and naming and shaming their predators, such as the women who accused the movie director Fausto Brizzi, the showgirl Miriana Trevisan, who had accused director Giuseppe Tornatore, and Asia Argento, the Italian actress, and daughter of horror director Dario Argento, who was one of the accusers of Harvey Weinstein. Argento criticized the initiative by saying that it was a performative act with no real impact as it was not naming names.
Even though no other country experienced quite the same earthquake that shook the United States, nationwide debates broke out in the UK and Nigeria, where the movement targeted the academic world, and Greece, where Olympic sailing champion Sofia Bekatorou appeared as a defense witness on behalf of a 21-year-old athlete claiming her coach raped her when she was 11, prompting a wave of support.
The Italian version of #MeToo - #quellavoltache (#thattimewhen) - has not had anywhere near the same effect as #BalanceTonPorc (#exposeyourpig) in neighboring France, where a discussion erupted between two generations of women about the normalization of men’s predatory behavior in different sectors, such as that of entertainment.
The lack of a bona fide Italian Metoo moment has not gone unnoticed, with the New York Times publishing an article in Dec. 2017, “In Italy, #MeToo Is More Like ‘Meh’”.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and TV presenter Barbara D'Urso
In search of the “perfect victim”
In Italy, as in other parts of the world, accusations of sexual violence are almost systematically followed by questions about who the allegations are coming from.
Any woman reporting abuse is confronted with the paradigm of the would-be “perfect victim,” an ideal of an innocent, modestly-dressed woman who does not drink and is suspicious of strangers. The subtext is of course that a woman who doesn’t tick all those boxes somehow holds at least part of the responsibility for the crime or abuse she suffered.
In Italian rape trials, women are still asked if they were wearing provocative clothing or underwear.
The first famous case of the Italian MeToo was that of Asia Argento, a controversial figure with a troubled biography, far from the “perfect victim” that the Italian press and public opinion would have required to give her accusations a proper hearing. Moreover, a few months after her complaint against Weinstein, U.S. actor Jimmy Bennett in turn accused Argento of having abused him when he was only 17 years old, which led the already fractured Italian movement to distance itself from her.
The other (few) women who had come forward also received similar treatment. Miriana Trevisan, for example, was discredited on social media and in the press for having built her career as a television showgirl, regularly wearing revealing outfits, since she was 19.
Blaming the victim in rape and abuse cases is part of entrenched gender norms in Italy, a country where until 1981 a man who raped a woman avoided criminal prosecution if he decided to marry her.
More recently, the past 20-plus years of cultural and political influence of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have contributed to maintaining gender stereotypes, which were losing influence in other countries.
Even though the trials concerning his ‘Bunga-Bunga’ parties with underage women and prostitutes have weakened his political power, no alleged victim ever publicly accused Berlusconi of sexual violence (unlike both Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump).
For some, the 86-year-old billionaire is still considered the epitome of the Italian playboy and has never really been defeated on a cultural level. His sexist jokes towards women have always been met with laughter. His most recent exploit was to ensure a safe seat in the Italian Parliament for his 33-year-old girlfriend Marta Fascina.
We can also gauge MeToo attitudes in the case of a very different politician. When a teenaged girl accused the son of Five Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo of a gang rape of her in 2019, Grillo (who had long mocked Berlusconi) posted a video in which he defended his son and three other young men accused, saying that it was suspicious that the victim had waited eight days to report the crime.
Although many condemned the video, the claim that the girl had only come forward because she had been ashamed of having agreed to take part in the act was the subject of multiple talk shows and newspaper columns.
More recently, a football journalist and a TV presenter who were inappropriately touched on air and who then denounced the incidents were accused of wanting to destroy the lives of two innocent men who, after all, “had done nothing so serious.”
Women at a feminist protest in Italy with the word "Basta" (Stop in Italian)
Nothing has changed?
And yet, perhaps, real change is happening below the surface.
In an article published in the Rome-based weekly magazine Internazionale, Giulia Siviero writes that a MeToo movement has indeed happened in Italy, even if it did not result in spectacular trials and prominent men behind bars.
Instead, the movement has led to a more quiet increase of awareness — particularly among women — regarding the existence of rape culture and systemic sexism in the country.
The common understanding of what can be considered courtship and what is harassment is definitely shifting, though not without resistance.
It is still too early to say whether the allegations made public this month by Amleta will lead to firings or court cases or a revolution in Italian workplace behavior. What we do know is that even just 10 years ago, this kind of debate in Italy would have been dismissed with a television skit or two — with showgirls, of course.