Simona Siri is an Italian freelance journalist based in New York. She is regular contributor to Vanity Fair Italy and the newspaper La Stampa.
Right now, the climate in the two countries could not seem farther apart. In the United States, there is a widespread sense that the country is experiencing a fundamental shift in terms of power dynamics between men and women in the workplace. In Italy, the #QuellaVoltaChe movement (the equivalent of #MeToo — it means “that time that”) generated 20,000 tweets in the first week and a lot of discussion online. Then it quietly was buried among the topics that no one really wants to address.
In Italy, the only two high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct are Giuseppe Tornatore and Fausto Brizzi, both movie directors — of the two, the latter’s name was removed from the posters for his movie “Poveri ma ricchissimi,” which is out now in Italian theaters. A week later, the controversy seemed to have died down in the mainstream press.
To be sure, the reasons for this disparity go far beyond Berlusconi. He didn’t create misogyny in Italy. Instead of being the cause, he was the product of 2,000 years of patriarchy mixed with Catholicism. The cultural phenomenon of his personal machismo signaled to Italian men that it was acceptable and even normal to objectify and diminish women. (Two examples among many: when he reportedly called Angela Merkel “unf–––able” (he denies this allegation) and when he told a young woman concerned about finding a job that she should find herself a rich husband like his son.) The result is that the already present and strong sexist Italian culture now seems almost impossible to reverse.
Unlike many other European countries that have elected female prime ministers or put many others in high offices, Italy continues to have a dramatic deficiency of women in positions of political and economic power. And the few who exist do not choose to exercise their influence to challenge status-quo attitudes. Under the current prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, we have five women in the national government, but none of them have spoken out to support women who have come forward with the #QuellaVoltaChe movement.
Culturally, we have a very high bar for what constitutes sexual harassment, both socially and legally. We are more tolerant of men’s improper behavior. Any Italian woman is used to having men commenting on her physical appearance: We call them compliments (and men think of it as just being men). No woman would go to Human Resources if a male colleague were to ask about her sexual life: We call that joking.
Our lack of regulations for norms about sexual interactions in the workplace leaves the issue to improvisation and personal resources: Not having anyone to whom we can report improper advances, the majority of women prefer either to be silent or to brush off the behavior. A bill to regulate sexual interactions in the workplace was proposed less than a month ago by Titti Di Salvo, a politician belonging to the Partito Democratico. Until then, the only piece of legislation on the matter was the European bill signed in Italy by labor unions — but not until January 2016, after nine years of negotiations.
All this helps explain the different conversation we are now having on social media. Instead of having their voices amplified, Italian women supporting the #MeToo movement are constantly mocked online by men and even other women who see them as uptight feminists. A sample counter-argument: If we consider advances as sexual harassment, the human race is going to be extinguished. In the press, victims of sexual harassment are constantly called into question and sometime openly shamed. Not accidental is the fact that attacks on women’s credibility come stronger from the right-wing press that is still supporting Berlusconi (yes, he is back in the political arena). Even more telling is the growing chorus of Italians trying to discredit the progress being made in the United States by saying that Americans are prude and have nothing to teach: They elected Trump, after all!
Somehow they are right. Italy’s troubles with treating women equally send a message to the United States — social progress should not be taken for granted. Trump may not be able to stop the #MeToo movement here in the United States, but it would be naive to think that he didn’t lay the groundwork for a backlash. Italy shows that the consequences of having misogynists in power can be long-lasting and potentially devastating.