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In Italy, #MeToo Falters Amid Public Scorn

A woman takes part in a demonstration to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Rome in November.
Tiziana Fabi
AFP/Getty Images
A woman takes part in a demonstration to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Rome in November.

In the months since allegations of sexual harassment by major media figures took center stage in the United States, the #MeToo movement has had a ripple effect in Europe, prompting national conversations on a once-taboo topic. In some countries, the movement has been embraced.

But in Italy, the public has largely reacted with scorn and skepticism.

One of the first women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault was Italian actress Asia Argento.

Hailed in the U.S. for speaking out, she was attacked in her native country by commentators, both male and female.

Vittorio Feltri, editor of Italy's right-wing daily Libero, told a radio host it was hard for him to believe Argento's allegations of rape.

"First, these women give it away," he said. "Then, 20 years later, they repent and denounce the alleged rapist.

"And if they gave it away in exchange for a part in a movie," he added, "that's a form of prostitution."

Interviewed on Italian TV from Berlin, Argento angrily denounced — as she put it — being "slut-shamed" by the media and said she left Italy because the atmosphere was too hostile.

In November, the Italian TV show Le Iene reported that 10 women accused film director Fausto Brizzi of molesting them. Two days later, Warner Bros. suspended all future work with the director and pulled Brizzi's name from his about-to-be-released movie.

That triggered a backlash, says Rome-based screenwriter Francesca Marciano, turning the alleged molester into the victim. Brizzi denied the allegations, and media coverage was mostly in support of the director.

"The press is not giving voice to the women," says Marciano. "It's just giving voice to the men and the men who defend the men and the women who defend the men. The culture of support for women is nonexistent."

Since the allegations against Brizzi were made public, no major figure in Italy's media, business or political world has been publicly denounced for sexual harassment.

Twenty-five-year-old Arianna Pavoncello believes that is because in Italy, "there is always this thought of the female who provokes, and so boys will be boys."

Pavoncello, who studied at an American college in Rome, says her grandparents' and parents' generations believe that man is a hunter and women his prey.

"It's mostly the older generations [that] think, 'What's the matter with a man touching your butt?' " she says, "or, you know, 'it has always happened and it will continue to happen, and it's just fine.' "

Feminist author Lorella Zanardo says Italians' double standard has roots in centuries of Catholic education.

"Either you are a good wife, a sort of saint," she says. Or "you behave very freely and you are considered not a very serious girl, let's say."

Zanardo also blames media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose lowbrow commercial TV networks have helped shape Italian society for three decades.

As prime minister, Berlusconi popularized so-called "bunga-bunga" parties — bacchanals with minors and prostitutes — while his TV empire showcased women as desirable objects, dancing provocatively, never uttering a single word.

"All these images have really created a culture where it was accepted that a woman is used as a decoration," says Zanardo.

Italian conservatives are not alone in attacking the #MeToo movement. Many leftist intellectuals are convinced that it threatens sexual freedom.

Author Chiara Barzini says this leftist view reflects snobbery against America, a society many Italians see as puritanical and having a take-no-prisoners mindset.

"There is no compromising," she explains, "and Italians love to live in the gray zones of life, you know."

Those gray zones — of hypocrisy, fatalism and cynicism — are now being shaken by a younger generation of Italian women, says 24-year-old Bianca Rondolino, who works at an online platform aimed at millennial women.

"We didn't have a Twitter storm of hashtags 'MeToo,' but I know the whole country had a lot of private conversations on this topic," says Rondolino. "It was a painful process, but I am also very aware that it is bringing actual change."

Rondolino says men her age are more respectful of women than their fathers or older brothers are. But she acknowledges it will take time to change a patriarchal culture that belittles women — and far too often, pits them against one another.

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Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.