Anger over Italian talent show’s sexual assault ‘prank’

An organization campaigning against sexual violence is calling for Italy's politicians to introduce comprehensive ethical guidelines for media, after a 'prank' shown on an Italian talent show attracted criticism.

Anger over Italian talent show's sexual assault 'prank'
The 'prank'. Photo: Screenshot/Canale 5

“In a country like Italy, affected by high levels of femicide and violence against women, the mass media is contributing to a dangerous culture,” Cristiana De Lia, one of the activists behind the petition, told The Local. 

The prank – which involved a backing dancer groping Italian singer Emma Marrone during show rehearsals – was broadcast on Monday on Italy's Canale 5.

Marrone was visibly uncomfortable, repeatedly asking the dancer to stop pressing up against her, rubbing her thighs and kissing her. But the dancer continued to touch her hair, legs, buttocks and breast, as well as kiss her buttocks and shoulder.

“I don't want to be a prude,” Marrone is heard telling one of the technical assistants. “But when he touches me so much, I can't sing. This isn't dancing!”

After repeating the phrase “No, a bit less”, Marrone grew increasingly agitated, pushing him away and eventually pushed him to the ground, shouting. Only at this point did producers reveal that the episode had been a “joke”.

The clip was shown in Monday's episode, to laughter and applause from the studio audience, presenters and guests, including Marrone herself.

The TV show shared the clip on their social media profiles accompanied with the caption “'A bit less' – Quote of the day!” and a crying-laughing emoticon. It was soon trending on YouTube Italia and received widespread media coverage – with many publications suggesting Marrone had overreacted.

Il Corriere della Sera, Italy's most widely read newspaper, appeared to minimize the incident, saying the prank “went a bit far and the singer reacted badly”, while other outlets labelled the prank “a sexy joke”.
A presenter from satirical show Striscia La Notizia, Valerio Staffelli, defined the prank as “the funniest joke of the year” and presented Marrone with the 'Tapiro d'oro', an award given by its presenters each week to celebrities who have been humiliated.
The singer laughed while accepting the prize, but said: “In that moment, I felt very strong emotions.”
Women's rights organization Non Una Di Meno tweeted “Sexual violence is never something to laugh at!”, while other social media users branded the prank “disgusting”.
“This type of scene is broadcast because it gets people talking in whatever way, in order to get higher audience figures,” a spokesperson from Non Una di Meno told The Local. “The problem is the price at which this comes.”
La Malafemmina, a group which campaigns against gendered violence, set up a petition calling for those involved in the prank to resign, and for Italy's politicians to create ethical codes for TV programmes to prevent future incidents of the same kind. By Thursday afternoon, it had received more than 1,500 signatures.

“As well as affecting the singer, a 'joke' like this affects all victims of violence and abuse, making them believe that abuse is normal – so normal, in fact, that we should laugh about it,” Cristiana De Lia, who founded La Malafemmina, told The Local.

De Lia pointed out that the audience of the programme, Amici di Maria De Filippo, is predominantly made up of young people, and said the show “should not promote a sexist culture”.

The most recent figures from Italian statistics agency Istat show that around one in three Italian women suffer from violence at some point in their life, while a 2015 study found that one in four young Italians believed violence against women could be justified by “love”, or exasperation at the woman or her clothing.

In February last year, an Italian inland revenue manager was acquitted of sexual harassment after a Palermo court ruled that he was “immature” and had touched colleagues' breasts and buttocks “in a joking manner”.

In an interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano published on Thursday, presenter Maria de Filippi denied that the episode had any link to a sexist culture.

“If some people think that the joke was sexual assault, that means the world has turned upside down. I don't think that anyone who is even slightly rational could think such a thing,” she said.

It's not the first time that TV presenters have been called out for appearing to excuse sexual harassment.

In France last year, hundreds of TV viewers lodged complaints after a male presenter kissed a woman's breast – after she had told him 'no'. The country's minister for Equal Rights was quick to denounce the incident.

And only last month, Italy's state broadcaster Rai was forced to apologize for a programme exploring relationships between Italian men and Eastern European women, which said women from countries in Eastern Europe were “always sexy” and “perfect housewives”.

ANALYSIS: 'Violence against women conditions every aspect of our lives'ANALYSIS: 'Violence against women conditions every aspect of our lives'

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP


Analysis: Why doesn’t Italian media look beyond the country’s borders?

Italy may be a fascinating place, but why isn't the country's media more interested in international stories and perspectives too? Silvia Marchetti explains.

A man reads Italian news headlines about domestic politics.
Where are the headlines on topics other than domestic politics? Photo: Filip Mishevski on Unsplash

Evening news in Italy is family time. After a day’s work people get together in front of the television to catch up with what’s going on – mainly in Italy.

It’s mostly all news on Italian politics, internal affairs, disputes within the government, a politician under investigation, or party propaganda and campaigns. 

I always put myself in the shoes of foregn residents who speak Italian, and feel bad for them. 

Talking to a few foreign friends in Rome, they confess that they find Italian news shows boring and provincial and are horrified that television channels barely talk about what is happening in the rest of the world.

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And yet Italians love television. According to national statistics agency Istat, 90% watch TV on a daily basis, while only 38% reads a newspaper at least once a week.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been focused on the Italian situation, which I perfectly understand given the death toll it has led to and the many challenges Italy has faced in the vaccination campaign.

But there was almost zero information on what the scenario was like in distant countries such as India, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Australia or India at the peak of the emergency, and how authorities were handling the crisis. Africa never made the news, except when desperate migrants landed on Italy’s southern coasts. 

The Italy-focused approach of Italian media predates the pandemic. Generally speaking there’s a poor offer of global news, international economics and geopolitics and this concerns both TV and print media.

Italy’s politicans and journalists become familiar faces on evening current affairs talk shows. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

I’d love to know how rural villages in deepest France or Spain are coping with Covid, or how New Zealand is tackling climate change, or the Maldives. How do people kill time in Iceland or Alaska, and how are African farmers living?

I’m yet to find one single channel or paper that fully looks outside the country. I’m not saying there should be an English-speaking Italian news program for foreigners living in the country – what a utopia! – but there should be more international news,at least.

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It would also be good to have a special television program with stories of interest to foreign residents and tourists, possibly with English subtitles.

The truth is, internal politics tends to dominate the Italian stage and this is reflected in the media. 

At dinner I often end up switching off the TV because I’m fed up of listening to ‘patchworks’ of colorful commentary and exaggerated reactions from politicians of different parties, who exploit the microphones to vent their anger at their rivals, or even at coalition allies. 

In Italian journalistic jargon these shows are quite fittingly described as ‘pastoni’ – aka, big platefuls of pasta with every possible (political) ingredient inside.

Global news usually comes at the end of TV news programs, I think mainly because producers know that audience shares tend to be higher at the start and then thin out, so they feed viewers with what’s appealing. 

According to studies, barely 15 percent of Italians seem to care about what’s happening in the rest of the world versus the 34 percent ‘very interested’ in internal politics. 

Half of the Italian population says it follows global news only a few times per year.

This is quite a pity because in our globalized, interconnected world I don’t think anyone can afford to be too ’local’. 

The worst Italian TV programs, mainly from an expat’s point of view, are the current affairs shows where newspaper editors of different political affiliations yell at each other, making a show of themselves. It’s like perverse little form of theatre.

To find a serious documentary that focuses a little more on non-Italian stuff you need to wait until midnight, and by that time most people who work have already gone to bed.

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Same goes for newspapers. Unless there’s a major global catastrophe or the US presidential elections, you just need to turn the pages of any paper to see how politics-centered the Italian media is.

The first ten pages are on internal affairs and political parties, government measures, budget issues and ruling allies bickering among themselves over key reforms. Written versions of ‘pastoni’ with statements are the norm. 

Then you’ll find some economic news, not too in-depth. And then the foreign affairs pages – usually no more than two.

Expats I know just refuse to buy Italian newspapers, and I can’t blame them. I have a hard time reading them too.

Italian media has always been a narcissistic reflection of politics; one strengthens and legitimizes the other. I guess it’s more or less the same in many other countries, but in Italy politics-centered information is stronger.

That’s mainly for two reasons. One: most Italians – not all – adore watching politicians and newspaper editors bicker. They take sides or make fun of them. It’s like a circus. 

Politicians speak, the media amplifies their messages, and citizens are the more or less involved, and influenced, spectators.

The second reason is that not only state TV but all major national and regional networks are in some way controlled or influenced by political parties, so each gets its visibility share depending on consensus.

Italy is a wonderful, multi-faceted country with so many things going on both at national and local level worth being covered, but not while neglecting the rest of the world. 

The Italian media should really start looking beyond its backyard. Many Italians I have spoken to would love to read or learn about non-domestic stories, to escape from their own everyday realities and to be able to relate to the outside world.