Gender violence is a violence without witnesses. Not just because there are often no other witnesses, which makes it even harder for women to testify, but also because witnesses tell something that is already known, and already judged. Can we imagine other modes of subjectivation that are not based on individual testimonies, but rather, on the refusal to talk about oneself, or to do so, but in unexpected ways? How can we remain true to our feelings (love, intimacy, and suffering) without being constantly considered responsible for our condition as gendered subjects? What we tentatively call “speaking violence” in the face of institutions is a way of speaking about violence through narratives that do not imply the rhetoric of personal experience, nor the objective statement of facts. It rather foregrounds a different rationale and a potential rupture of the institutional devices that produce women’s complaints about sexual harassment as inappropriate and inaudible, while violence against women appears as both socially acknowledged and unrecognized, as it constantly needs to be substantiated, be it in the media, or within judicial frameworks.

Non una di meno demonstration, Rome, 24 November 2018. Photo by Michele Lapini

While we are reflecting about the political significance of complaint for feminist struggles in Italy, we want to go back to the misfortunes of the #MeToo movement in this specific context, in order to underline the difficult, albeit necessary, articulation of the singular and the collective in addressing the complex entanglement of institutional apparatuses and cultural representations. Around 2017, as the debate about sexual harassment in the film industry was gaining momentum, the local mainstream response was mostly predicated upon a moralistic urge to “judge” the movement. The #MeToo was either discussed in its significance, effectiveness and dangerousness or, more often, it was accused of fostering uncontrolled denigration and false consciousness masked as political correctness. Complaints emerging in the #MeToo movement were judged as biased: either women ignore (or are unable to acknowledge) the difference between harassment and desire, or they simply lack in innocence. In fact, they are not expected to be mere victims: they may have their own agendas.

Despite the numerous attempts to delegitimize the complaints that were emerging within the Italian cultural sector, and the film industry in particular, discussions were infuriating, especially since actress Asia Argento came forward on National TV recounting her experience of being sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. However, her emotional and clear-cut account was mostly received with a mixture of resentment and moral reprobation for “making such a fuss out of it”. The fact of publicly complaining about the violence she had been subjected to was deemed unacceptable coming from someone that was widely viewed as privileged, famous and successful. Her testimony was therefore misconstrued as lack of gratitude for her privilege, or worse as manipulative, as a way of attracting attention.

Argento was eventually accused of sexual misconduct herself and her testimony ended up being entirely delegitimized. Whereas the #Metoo debate was short lived, feminist discussions in Italy have shifted towards domestic violence, especially since the pandemic hit the country in the Spring of 2020. The limitations in mobility have translated into an increase in everyday violence, as women’s shelters keep on denouncing. Gender disparity in reproductive care duties and job precarity constitute the backdrop on which gender violence is replicated.

Argento’s mediatic treatment and ultimate fall into disgrace is a case in point of how the absence of other complaints make it hard to recognize that there is something to complain about, as Sarah Ahmed would argue. To put it differently, the attacks against the actress’ credibility and legitimacy as a victim were successful in hindering, by way of intimidation, a more structured and collective alliance within the local film industry and cultural scene. Despite the solidarity expressed by the intersectional feminist movement Non una di meno, Argento was alone in her professional field, a fact that contributed in the ultimate failure to structurally address gender violence in the Italian film industry, and more generally in the cultural sphere at that specific moment.

Moreover, the widespread distrust surrounding the actresses’ legitimacy as political subjects is sided by an overall acceptance of the idea that the realms of art and culture are somehow immune to violence, which often appears dissimulated as seduction, sexual freedom, and normative heterosexuality. Needless to say, the cult of the (male) creative personality produces a specific form of entitlement that actively participates in dismissing women’s complaints. There is no room for a critique of the creative genius in Italian cultural institutions, even when creativity and freedom are exerted at the expenses of subaltern subjects, as if artistic expression could exist outside of the structural hierarchies based on gender, race, and sexuality defining social relations.

If actresses speaking out are accused of merely keeping on making a spectacle of themselves, then who is entitled to speak about violence, and how? Not the single woman, not the many, nor the feminist movement: the shift from personal suffering to social recognition should pass through institutions. However, the path towards institutional recognition is full of traps as abused women are constantly called on to represent themselves and their condition within a framework that over-determines them. The law, for example, requires congruence, accountability, as well as intentionality from the alleged perpetrator; it asks for a statement. The victim is singled out and constructed as such via a number of institutional devices. Social services and the juridical system, in their claimed neutrality and thus self-referentiality, fail to recognize the specific entanglement between violence and intimacy and appear therefore hardly capable of taking gender violence into consideration in all its complexity.

Speaking violence in the face of institutions on the contrary suggests the possibility to express something different from what is expected: a challenge, a withdrawal, or a deviation. One of these tactics can, precisely, take the form of the refusal to be singled out and to remain alone in order to address the systemic nature of gender violence via collective actions and speech acts, no matter how fragmentary these might appear in the framework of the #MeToo movement. Hence, through this multiplicity of modes of expression, a multitude of idioms of resilience, resistance and agency can emerge, beyond the intentionality of a straightforward assertion: different ways of being, of coping, and of surviving.