It has been six weeks since Asia Argento helped set off an avalanche that knocked down the most powerful man in Hollywood.
Since her public accusation of rape against Harvey Weinstein – Argento was among the first to make the allegation in an exposé published by the New Yorker – hundreds of women and some men have come forward with their own stories of workplace harassment and assault, from newsrooms in Washington to the corridors of power in Westminster.
The accusations have upended careers and broken taboos that once protected powerful and allegedly predatory men; Argento, an Italian actor and director, is keeping close track of all of them.
“The consciences are waking,” she told the Hlcarpenter.com. “Every time one of these pigs fall, it’s a badge of honour.”
But the awakening has been slow in the country Argento calls home, a place where she says she has always felt oppressed. Far from being hailed as brave, Argento’s allegations were initially treated in some Italian media outlets with a mix of scepticism and scorn.
Nowhere does the divergence in public response to the scandals seem more stark than in the country’s political life.
In the UK, members of parliament have been suspended by their parties in the wake of allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, the 81-year-old former prime minister who was known to enjoy sex parties with young women while he was in office and regularly makes sexist comments, is staging a political comeback that has been free of any serious discussion of his record on women.
Earlier this month, Berlusconi was back on the campaign trail in Sicily, where he was applauded by adoring crowds and helped his rightist bloc coalition cruise to victory in regional elections.
Sitting in her apartment in the outskirts of Rome, the city she fled for weeks after the public attacks became too much to bear, Argento says Italians “just don’t get it”.
“We have been so lobotomised by the objectification of women that we, as women, don’t even know that we are being harassed and treated the wrong way,” she said.
“Here people don’t understand. They’ll say, ‘oh it’s just touching tits’. Well yeah, and this is a very grave thing for me. It is not normal. You can’t touch me, I am not an object.”
After Argento alleged that Weinstein forcibly performed oral sex on her in 1997 – a charge Weinstein strongly denies – Vittorio Feltri, the editor of a rightwing newspaper, Libero, dismissed the notion that what allegedly occurred could even be considered an assault.
“That’s a little lick … and a little lick is always pleasurable,” he said in a radio interview. The encounter was the price Argento had paid for wanting to become a “big actress”, he said, while women who “refused” settled into their lives as cashiers or shop assistants.
Argento, who says she plans to leave Italy for good next summer, said Italians’ “archaic” attitude can be traced to many things, including a legal system that, until 1981, ruled that a wife’s extramarital affair could be considered an extenuating circumstance if she was murdered by her husband.
But she links the Italian “aesthetic” of women as sex objects to the rise of Berlusconi. His return to political life, despite a conviction on tax fraud, is a sign of Italians’ short memory and love of “machoism”.
“Everyone loves a man who is virile and who likes to show his masculinity. They think it is charming. It’s not like, hey, this is disgusting,” she said.
Italian television was serious before the rise of Berlusconi, who owned TV networks and other media properties before he entered politics – but his influence made the image of “showgirls” ubiquitous, which the actor said fed Italians a steady diet of women as sexual objects.
Argento, who has worked as an actor since she was a child and whose father, Dario Argento, is a well known director of horror films, can track her own objectification in the entertainment industry to her role in Miramax’s B. Monkey, which set the stage for her encounter with Weinstein.
“The movie required me to be naked and do sex scenes. I turned 21 on the shoot. I had to research my femininity for that movie. I was not someone who put on high heels, it was not my thing,” she said.
After the film, she was mostly offered roles as sex workers or women who were mentally ill, and always scantily dressed. For a time, she says she accepted the persona because she had to work and raise a family, even though she did not like it.
Eventually, she found she did not want to act anymore.
“I understood that my false self could not live anymore with my true self and that this persona that I helped to create – this sexual persona – was hard to make fit with my real self, so much so that I lived in great isolation in Italy,” she said.
“I don’t have many friends in the Italian film industry because I feel like they cannot see me for who I am,” she said. An old scene in which she played a sex worker and in which a dog licked her face, was still used “to vilify me, to say that I am a whore,” Argento said. “Well, I am not a whore. I am a mother. I am a daughter. I am a woman.”
She says she lives in fear in Italy. Her wariness has been justified, Argento says, by another report in the New Yorker, which detailed the alleged lengths Weinstein and his legal team went to in order to keep track of actors who had been subjected to the producer’s abuse, including hiring a firm that used ex-Mossad agents to secretly investigate his alleged victims.
Argento describes with fierce pride the moment earlier this month when she called Ronan Farrow, the journalist who wrote the New Yorker story, and told him that he could use her name, and to tell other women that she was going public.
“I had this thought, how can I live with this truth I know? How would I feel about myself if I don’t come out? All it took for me was talking to my conscience, and it was really screaming,” she said.
Now, talking to other alleged victims has given her a new purpose. One that she hopes – and predicts – will awaken others in Italy.
For now, not a single fellow female actor who is well known has spoken out in support of her, even though the Italian film industry is rife with abuse.
“In France, people stopped me on the street and thanked me. In Italy, they look at me badly. Not one person says ‘brava’, and I swear it is not paranoia. I don’t know if I should hold my head high or hide it in a scarf,” she said.
But Argento has been bolstered by the decision of 10 women who have come forward and accused Italian film-maker Fausto Brizzi of sexual misconduct, ranging from unsolicited messages to the use of force. A lawyer for Brizzi denied that he ever engaged in non-consensual sex.
“More pigs will be revealed,” Argento said.
“What I see is that this is like an avalanche, where the first stone falls and it is so big,” she added. “It is destroying something, it is changing the landscape, where women can work, where women can live, where women in every industry don’t have to fear men. I’m sure the men are now very afraid of us, and before they do anything will think 10 times.”