#MeToo in Italy’s Mafia Culture
To the casual observer, Italy has all the right ingredients for a momentous shift in gender politics in the #metoo era.
It has a famous actress who went on the record about producer Harvey Weinstein, an investigation of a high-profile director who had his own pattern of abusing young actresses and a catchy hash tag campaign created by women in media.
But when actress Asia Argento spoke out, she was called a whore and all but run out of Italy by the Italian press. When the provocative TV news program Le Iene, or The Hyenas, revealed that Fausto Brizzi had abused more than a dozen young women, the episode sparked more criticism of the journalists than the director.
And the Italian #metoo-equivalent hash tag campaign, #quellavoltache, has barely caused a ripple in mainstream Italian culture.
As meaningful anti-harassment movements sweep Western Europe, including neighboring France, it’s raised the question: What’s the matter with Italy?
Simply put: “It’s a Mafia country,” said Dino Giarrusso, a former TV journalist who broke the Brizzi story.
According to Giarrusso and other prominent Italian journalists who participated last month in a panel discussion on Italy’s sexual harassment movement, Italy’s Mafia culture of silence and protecting your own has stopped its would-be #metoo movement from gaining any real ground.
In a country where hiring is often based on personal relationships rather than professional merit, the harasser is likely to be a relative or close friend of the person hearing abuse claims.
The result is a stark example of how omertà, cronyism and nepotism are incompatible with women’s rights.
“A fight against sexual harassment has not really emerged in Italy. It’s been treated as gossip and morality, not a political issue,” says freelance journalist Claudia Torrisi.
One obvious example is the case of Argento, 42, who was among the first women on either side of the Atlantic to share her Weinstein story publicly. Argento agreed to be interviewed on the record for the early New Yorker piece that helped out Weinstein as a serial abuser who for decades paid his victims to keep quiet.
She was 22 and at the start of her career when, she says, Weinstein forced himself on her and made her submit to unwanted oral sex in a hotel room. In the U.S., the Weinstein revelations spawned the #metoo movement, with everyday women sharing their stories of abuse and harassment to give others a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
In Italy, the press responded with venom and vitriol, calling Argento a prostitute and saying she should have enjoyed the encounter.
Even so-called feminists dismissed Argento’s story as a “late lament” and implied she had it coming because she agreed to take a meeting in a hotel room (and gave Weinstein a massage when he asked for one, per his usual M.O.). Things got so bad that Argento fled to Germany to escape the media abuse.
But other women in Italian media were angry about the way Argento was treated, said Giulia Blasi, a journalist for Italian Radio 1. Together with members of a secret Facebook group, Blasi came up with the hash tag #quellavoltache, or “that time that,” as the Italian equivalent to #metoo.
“The campaign was born from our specific anger related to what was happening to Asia Argento and others on Italian TV,” Blasi explained. “I was angry, also with myself because I realized that it was a tragedy that seemed like a comedy at first, like [former Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi.”
But, perhaps not surprising given the media abuse Argento suffered, Italian women generally declined to come forward with their own stories.
#Quellavoltache generated only a few hundred mentions on social media, compared to the hundreds of thousands of reports of abuse that were published in France under the hash tag #balancetonporc , or “squeal on your pig.” French officials responded with proposals to institute fines for street harassment and increase the statute of limitations for abuse cases involving minors.
In Italy, meanwhile, “There’s a fear to file complaints, and not only because there is clearly not a press that will stand beside them — which there isn’t — but also because there aren’t mechanisms to protect women who make complaints,” said Tiziana Ferrario, a journalist and author of the book Pride and Prejudice: Women’s Awakening in the Time of Trump.
Members of the press in the U.S. have suggested that Italy is simply more sexist than its counterparts in Western Europe, its misogyny deeper and more virulent. But they’ve tended to neglect the question of why Italy is more sexist.
What structural forces allow sexism to thrive there? And what lessons, if any, does Italy hold for other countries with similar structures in place?
One answer is found in the three prongs of Mafia culture: silence, cronyism and nepotism. Like the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of hell in Greek mythology, Mafia culture is the Cerberus that guards Italy’s sexist institutions against attempts to evolve in the #metoo era.
Omertà is a Sicilian word that describes an unwritten code of silence that prohibits naming names and cooperating with official investigations. Under omertà, silence is a “point of pride” that is undertaken in order to maintain good standing in the community.
Omertà started as a way for the Sicilian Mafia, Cosa Nostra, to maintain control of the local population, and has morphed into a broader culture of looking the other way when confronted with evidence of any type of wrongdoing.
In Italy it’s not just the Mafia who participates in Mafia culture. Even the Catholic Church follows a form of omertà, leading to the decades-long cover up of child abuse and pedophilia within the priesthood.
“It’s a cultural problem underlying the relationship between power and information,” explained Giarrusso, who recently made the switch from journalism to politics.
Last November, Giarrusso uncovered a pattern of abuse by director Fausto Brizzi that bore some strikingly resemblances to the Weinstein affair. Giarrusso independently spoke to 15 different girls who described the Italian director inviting them to audition at his home studio, suggesting massages to get relaxed, and then instructing them to perform scenes that moved increasingly closer to sex acts.
“Italy isn’t any more corrupt or amoral than other countries; the difference is how we manage all the disgusting, awful things once they come out. When you reveal something bad you’re isolated,” Giarrusso said.
Unlike the abuse revelations linked to Harvey Weinstein, nobody was fired following Giarrusso’s investigation. The only people who have been punished so far were the victims who came forward. (The case may be headed to court, but the details aren’t clear.)
“Girls who complain don’t find an agent here,” Giarrusso said. “That’s the difference.”
In other words, victims in Italy don’t just face problems being believed — they also face heightened forms of retaliation.
In the U.S., the dozens of women who came forward about Weinstein made it impossible to dismiss the stories as fabrications. Once the stories were accepted as true, everyone from the studio heads to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was forced to respond.
In Italy, Giarrusso found a pattern of behavior that also made it nearly impossible to doubt the veracity of the victims’ stories. And still, nothing happened. The press either ignored the story or picked apart the victims’ decisions leading up to the attacks.
“People didn’t comment on the truth of the claims,” he explained. “They commented on other things. ‘Oh well you don’t do auditions at the director’s house.’ Even though he had a studio at his house, the audition lasted an hour, and then he abused her.”
Exacerbating the culture of omertà is the prevalence of nepotism and cronyism in Italy.
To ask whether Italy is a meritocracy is to elicit laughter from native Italians. After all, they invented nepotism; the word derives from nipote, which is Italian for nephew, and originally referred to the favors that were showered upon the Pope’s nephew.
Nepotism’s close relative (pun intended) is cronyism, in which friends of those in power also receive undeserved benefits — particularly in the form of jobs and promotions.
Nepotism and cronyism are so rampant they have been called “the Italian disease.” Last October, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. wanted to know why for decades, Italy had “stood out among developed economies for its abysmal performance on labor productivity.”
Business productivity essentially means doing more with less. It’s the most important determinant of an economy’s long-term performance, and Italy’s has been stalled since the mid-1990s. Labor output per hour worked grew by just 0.5% from 1996 to 2006, compared to 1.7% in Germany, 1.9% in France, and 2% in the U.S. and Japan. As a result, Italy’s overall labor productivity is now 17% lower than other developed nations.
The NBER researchers concluded the leading cause of this lost productivity was the “lack of meritocracy in the selection and rewarding of managers.”
This productivity failure coincided perfectly with Berlusconi’s tenure as prime minister, which lasted from 1994 to 2011. Berlusconi vowed to run Italy like a business, and in fact did run it like one of his businesses — he installed his cronies across all levels of government.
The result is that Italian women face a top-down culture of nepotism and cronyism that pervades both the public and private sectors.
Workplace sexual harassment is illegal in Italy, but how do you report it when the man who harassed you also happens to be the nephew of the company VP? What do you do when your boss’s best friend from Kindergarten makes lewd and explicit comments about you in front of your colleagues every day?
“In Italy today, name a person who is even moderately important — not even the head boss — and you lose your job,” author Flavia Perina said.
Ultimately cronyism has boxed women into a corner. It has blurred the line between men’s professional and personal relationships, making it more difficult for women to speak out about abuse. It has also devastated the economy, making the stakes higher for women who do speak up and are retaliated against — and making it harder to just pack up and find a new job.
There’s no room to move, leaving one glaring take-away: cronyism is fundamentally incompatible with women’s professional rights.
Changing a centuries-old culture of nepotism and cronyism is not likely to happen anytime soon, but workplace rules and regulations can be put in place to protect women who come forward — regardless of whom they’re naming.
The first step is to understand what conditions are missing that would allow women to report without fear of reprisal, and then to implement policies to protect them against those specific forms of retribution. “Yes we are in a Mafioso country where everyone is someone’s cousin,” Ferrario said. “But still we can make a series of requests.”
This article was originally posted in Kheiro Magazine.