Americans and Italians are such similar creatures: We both care about news only if it concerns us. That’s why in Italy there’s no such thing as the Harvey Weinstein scandal; here, it’s the Asia Argento scandal. Either way, it hasn’t made us look good. “Victim-Blaming,” Vanity Fair proclaimed last week, after Argento, who says Weinstein raped her, declared that she was considering leaving Italy because of attacks on her by her compatriots. “Weinstein Accuser Feels ‘Doubly Crucified’” read the Associated Press headline. Suddenly we were patriarchal, sexist Italy again. It’s true, I thought when reading these reports, but it’s not the whole truth.
Sure, it’s only recently that Italy stopped conducting itself like an agrarian nation from two centuries ago. Until 1981, a wife’s affair could be considered an extenuating circumstance for her murder. When it comes to rape, it has been just 21 years since it was declared a crime against a person and not just against public decency. And what institutions lack, ordinary people do not provide. There’s not much sensitivity when it comes to issues of sexism or power dynamics between men and women, and there’s a casual attitude toward what other countries would consider harassment.
So, yes, we have room for improvement when it comes to gender relations. And yet something doesn’t ring true to me in the idea that this episode is another example of my country just being male-run, sexist Italy.
It hasn’t, for instance, been in the male-dominated world of newspapers where Argento has been on the receiving end of the worst attacks. While there have been some widely cited examples of egregious behaviour — the editor in chief of a right-wing tabloid said Argento “must have liked it” — these are exceptions. The bulk of the Italian press has been on Argento’s side. It has, rightly, treated her gently: The newspaper La Stampa published a 2,000-word interview with her in which she denied that she’d maintained a five-year relationship with Weinstein, despite having previously acknowledged one in The New Yorker; the interviewer never challenged her on this. Prominent male columnists have come to Argento’s defence — this, in a country that has a total of zero national newspapers edited by women and zero female columnists in its main national papers.
Where the reaction to Argento’s account has been truly vicious has been on social media. And there, it has primarily come from women.
There was the woman who wouldn’t believe Argento because she did not find her likable when she was competing on Dancing With the Stars; the one who claims “Asia asked for it” because she once filmed a scene in which she French-kissed a dog; the one who says — as if it matters — “I’ve simply never liked her.” (I won’t link to the likes of them here.)
What this tells us about Italian feminism isn’t clear, but it’s certainly ugly. There’s something under-ripened about the state of feminism in my country. In other countries, to proclaim oneself a feminist is taken to mean that you are a person who defends the rights of women to live as they like, to have equal rights and opportunities, and to be in charge of their sexuality. In Italy, those who call themselves feminists treat what is supposed to be a fundamental component of one’s worldview as a sort of battle between high-school cliques: I will fight for your rights — as long as we’re friends. If a sexual assault victim has been unfriendly, we will side with the next one, the one who answers our phone calls. Our sympathies are determined not by who has suffered but by who has invited us to her dinner parties.
I’ve seen this face of Italian “feminism” before, in other episodes, and it has a genuinely stifling quality. The debate, for instance, over whether surrogacy should stay illegal in Italy — a topic worthy of serious, engaged discussion — long ago devolved into something more like a catfight. In the case of Argento, there are plenty of real discussions to be had: about the line between a relationship gone wrong and harassment, about the statute of limitations, about power plays and workplace relationships. We are not having those discussions.
Perhaps it has something to do with the broader place of women in Italian public life, where there’s a sense that we have to fight for scraps; there’s room for only one sort of feminism here, and it’s mine (or my friends’). Surely it’s no coincidence that the most significant Italian novelist of the past few years is Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan series, as the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis puts it, illustrates “the terrible amalgam of envy and elective recognition which inevitably constitutes the friendship between two women, two subservients in search of their emancipation.”
Or perhaps it has to do with — Italian cliche though it may be — our history with the mafia. Our attitude toward life mimics the Corleone family’s: Our family, our friends, our clique will always come before abstract concepts of right and wrong. It’s a variation on “the devil you know”: The patriarchy you know will always be more appealing than a triumphant feminism in which none of your acquaintances are involved.
In 1902, an 11-year-old named Maria Goretti, the daughter of a farming family living outside Rome, was threatened with rape by a neighbour with a knife. Rather than submit, she let herself be stabbed to death. The Roman Catholic Church made her a saint. Sometimes it seems she’s the ideal paradigm for Italian feminism today: The only woman everyone here can agree is a victim is the one who got herself killed. The one we do not need to compete with.
— New York Times News Service
Guia Soncini is a columnist for the Italian weekly magazine Gioia.