Americans and Italians are such similar creatures: We both care about news only if it concerns us. Thatâs why in Italy thereâs no such thing as the Harvey Weinstein scandal; here, itâs the Asia Argento scandal. Either way, it hasnât made us look good.
âVictim-Blaming,â Vanity Fair proclaimed last week, after Ms. Argento, who says Mr. Weinstein raped her, declared that she was considering leaving Italy because of attacks on her by her compatriots. âWeinstein Accuser Feels âDoubly Crucifiedâ â read the Associated Press headline. Suddenly we were patriarchal, sexist Italy again.
Itâs true, I thought when reading these reports, but itâs not the whole truth.
Sure, itâs only recently that Italy stopped conducting itself like an agrarian nation from two centuries ago. Until 1981, a wifeâs 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. Thereâs not much sensitivity when it comes to issues of sexism or power dynamics between men and women, and thereâs 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 doesnât ring true to me in the idea that this episode is another example of my country just being male-run, sexist Italy.
It hasnât, for instance, been in the male-dominated world of newspapers where Ms. Argento has been on the receiving end of the worst attacks. While there have been some widely cited examples of egregious behavior â the editor in chief of a right-wing tabloid said Ms. Argento âmust have liked itâ â these are exceptions. The bulk of the Italian press has been on Ms. Argentoâs side. It has, rightly, treated her gently: The newspaper La Stampa published a 2,000-word interview with her in which she denied that sheâd maintained a five-year relationship with Mr. Weinstein, despite having previously acknowledged one in The New Yorker; the interviewer never challenged her on this. Prominent male columnists have come to Ms. Argentoâs defense â 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 Ms. Argentoâs account has been truly vicious has been on social media. And there, it has primarily come from women.
There was the woman who wouldnât believe Ms. Argento because she did not find her likable when she was competing on âDancing With the Starsâ; the one who claims âAsia asked for itâ because she once filmed a scene in which she French-kissed a dog; the one who says â as if it matters â âIâve simply never liked her.â (I wonât link to the likes of them here.)
What this tells us about Italian feminism isnât clear, but itâs certainly ugly.
Thereâs 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 oneâs worldview as a sort of battle between high-school cliques: I will fight for your rights â as long as weâre 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.
Iâve seen this face of Italian âfeminismâ before, in other episodes, and it has a genuinely stifling quality. The debate, for instance, over whether surrogacy should stay illegal in Italy â a topic worthy of serious, engaged discussion â long ago devolved into something more like a catfight. In the case of Ms. 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 thereâs a sense that we have to fight for scraps; thereâs room for only one sort of feminism here, and itâs mine (or my friendsâ). Surely itâs 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 âthe terrible amalgam of envy and elective recognition which inevitably constitutes the friendship between two women, two subservients in search of their emancipation.â
Or perhaps it has to do with â Italian clichÃ© though it may be â our history with the Mafia. Our attitude toward life mimics the Corleone familyâs: Our family, our friends, our clique will always come before abstract concepts of right and wrong. Itâs a variation on âthe devil you knowâ: 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 neighbor with a knife. Rather than submit, she let herself be stabbed to death. The Roman Catholic Church made her a saint. Sometimes it seems sheâs 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.
Guia Soncini is a columnist for the weekly magazine Gioia.