‘I Am The Girl You Know’: Ashley Olsen and the Cruel Gaze of Social Media

Ashley_OlsenThe murder of Ashley Olsen last week has shaken and saddened the Florentine community. Not surprisingly. By all accounts (I did not know her), Olsen was a talented, kind-spirited young woman, well-known and well-liked in her Florence neighborhood, with many friends and professional ties in the community. She came to Florence to study art. Like so many of us, she fell in love with the city. She made a life here, one that to any observing outsider seems to have been a very good life indeed: creative and energetic, full of love, friendship, beauty. She was thirty-five years old.

Even as I write these words, I’m not entirely sure what I want to achieve with this post. I imagine my thoughts on the crime itself, the brutal and horrific end to a woman’s life, do not differ much from those of thousands of others.  But something forceful is compelling me to write. In a word, it’s The Stupid. For our purposes here, The Stupid refers to a vast group—mainstream and alternative media outlets and those in their employ, rabid social media pseudo-pundits, armchair experts, racists, sexists, a-holes, and all your run-of-the-mill mouth-breathers in between. I’m so very sick and tired of The Stupid. Today more than usual.

Less than a week has passed since Olsen was found dead in her apartment. Over the past few days, an investigation that appears to have gone very much by the book (an autopsy, DNA evidence and fingerprints collected, video surveillance reviewed, interviews, etc), has led to the arrest of a suspect who just this morning admitted his involvement in Olsen’s death. Some must surely be relieved. Many others are skeptical, expressing opinions verging on paranoid and bent on drawing connections between this case and the Amanda Knox trial (the same Florentine official is leading the investigation). This line of thinking, summed up, is that since Italians mucked up one case involving a (white, female) expat, surely they cannot be trusted to oversee any case with similar components. Suspicion among this camp is high; and those in it intractable in their convictions, despite the much more complex and convoluted nature of the Kercher murder. This morning, just after news of the arrest, I saw many comments on Facebook similar to this example:

‘mmmmmm…arresting someone makes them look good, if nothing else’ …’given the experience of the Amanda trial I have little hope’. What qualified this person to make such assumptions?: ‘I have lived in Italy for over 40 years and am very familiar with the way things are done here.’

The skepticism itself is not what troubles me. Surely a skeptical view forms part of a critical thinking process we’d all do well to practice more often. What’s bothering me is the quantity of individuals making broad proclamations about what must be this investigation’s inevitable faults and ultimate failure, when so far there’s been nothing to suggest mishandling of any kind. Very few are actually privy to all the details at this point, yet somehow everyone’s suddenly a bloody expert on forensic, investigatory, and legal processes. And anyway, if we are to judge the entire Italian criminal justice system by the Kercher case alone, then we must be prepared to accept the non-American’s (endless and nasty) assessments of our own system based on the example of the O.J. Simpson case. Or, as a friend put it today, ‘Not to mention the number of people on death row who should never have been there in the first place. And, worse yet, those executed who were instead innocent.’

The media doesn’t help. Facile and speculative reactions from news sources feed into The Stupid, fostering a cycle of uninformed, superficial debate. I call this ‘the pounce.’ We’ve seen it before, of course, too many times to count. Lacking relevant, concrete details, media outlets pounce on any informational tidbit in the race to hit the publish button. In this case, aside from the basic specs on her residence, livelihood, and reputation among neighbors, in the two days following the discovery of Olsen’s body, several local publications published stories that I’d categorize not only as irresponsible, but unethical and offensive as well—with a disturbing focus on her physicality, her youth and beauty. Here are some examples taken today from various media outlets (my rough translations):

‘Piccola di statura, molto carina, capelli biondissimi, quasi bianchi’ (‘Small stature, very cute, very blond, almost white hair’)

‘I capelli biondissimi di Ashley e il suo viso delicato dai tratti anglosassoni non sono passati inosservati nella piazza più battuta dell’Oltrarno’. (‘Ashley’s super blond hair and delicate face and Anglo-Saxon features did not go unnoticed in the Oltrarno quarter’s busiest piazza.’)

‘la bella americana bionda dal sorriso luminoso’ (‘the pretty blond American with the bright smile’)

‘Silenziosa, bella e biondissima, Ashley era la pin-up di Santo Spirito’ (‘Quiet, pretty and blond: Ashley was the pin-up girl of the Santo Spirito district’) This was, if you can believe it, a headline from an established Florentine newspaper.

The most disturbing line of reaction to this case relates to the sexual aspects. Early on it was determined that Olsen had engaged in sexual activity with her killer, and this together with other evidence (such as the lack of defensive marks on her neck) led to swift speculation by the media about the possibility of a ‘gioco erotico’ (could any two words be more click-baiting than ‘sex game’?). Leaving aside a woman’s right to engage in any form of consensual sexual encounter she chooses, this rush to cast Olsen’s final hours in a lurid and sensational light represents the rock-bottom of journalism. Yes, she was found nude. Yes, she had sex, most likely willingly (the suspect has said their sex was consensual; the post-mortem apparently confirms this). These facts play a part in the investigation, to be sure, and while I personally find the onslaught of the words ‘nude’ and ‘erotic’ to be at best in poor taste, I concede they are relevant factors.  Police have subsequently established that there was no ‘game’ going on at all. Yet the resulting character assassination backlash from The Stupid has been savage:

‘In questa triste vicenda mi fa pena il suo fidanzata (sic) che era innamorato di una zoccola’ (‘This sad business makes me feel sorry for her boyfriend, who was in love with a whore’)

‘Ottima idea scopare con un clandestino….avanti cosi donne…naturalmente passerà solo il concetto di femminicidio…perchè è questo che fa comodo al vittimismo…avanti avanti così…’ (‘Great idea fucking an illegal immigrant…keep it up, ladies…naturally femicide is the only explanation…since this serves the purposes of victimization…keep it up’)

Italy is not exactly famous for its gender equality. Worse, in many ways rape culture thinking still taints this society, and female victims here must often confront the odious medieval mindset that justifies rape. This is not a rape case, yet those inclined to blame the victim as a rule cannot resist viewing the Olsen case through the same abhorrent lens. For being out late, for (allegedly) having used drugs, for taking a man home to her apartment—she asked for it. I don’t wish to delve too deeply into this cesspool of commentary, as it is obvious how very ugly this vein of thought is from just a couple of examples:

‘Se l’è cercata? Si, se l’è cercata. L’integrazione ‘funziona’ solo nel crimine e nel degrado. Particolarmente bene nel mondo dei tossici’ (‘Did she ask for it? Yes, she asked for it. Integration ‘works’ only in the world of crime and slums. Especially well in the world of druggies’)

‘Se le cercata, una troia che andava con cani e porci! Il mondo ne può fare a meno.’ (‘She she asked for it. A whore who lies with dogs and pigs! Good riddance.’)

(A racial element is at play here, as you might have gleaned from one of the comments. The man charged is a Senegalese man who has been in Italy only a short time. What’s more, he’s reportedly a drug dealer. Many of the more, shall we say, uncharitable comments I’ve encountered today manage to not only stereotype and offend across a broad range of issues, but also extrapolate from this one tragic act a rationale for all anti-immigrant propoganda. Some of the worst, which I’ll not reprint here, cast both victim and perpetrator as similarly and equally immoral and depraved.)

As I’d like to conclude this ramble with something positive, I’ll point out how many sensible, sensitive, rational and balanced reactions I’ve come across in the past days. I strongly recommend reading this post from the blog Abbatto i Muri, which addresses (more or less, and more eloquently) what I’ve been attempting to say here; and this from Saverio Tommasi (both are in Italian).

The letter from Olsen’s friends published by The Florentine, so far the only piece published that speaks sincerely to the victim’s humanity, reminds us that it was a person, not a type, who was murdered in Florence last week. That sense of her humanity was particularly strong today when, while looking at Olsen’s Facebook page, full of photos of friends and travels and inside jokes, I saw her post of the song ‘Miss World’ (from one of my favorite albums ever, Live Through This), whose refrain I am the girl you know I’ll probably never hear again without thinking about this awful episode, and the girl known, truly, to very few of us.

As for The Stupid, thankfully it suffers from a short attention span. Barring some titillating turn of events to hold its gaze, The Stupid will move on to other targets soon enough, leaving those who knew Olsen to mourn and remember her free from the vicious scrutiny of the masses. And that must be some consolation, however small.

Posted in Current Events, In a Strange Land | 34 Comments

Pro Loco Grezzano: ‘In Favor of the Place’ I Call Home

photo by Luca Varlani

photo by Luca Varlani

If you follow this blog at all, you’ll have no doubt noticed that I’m rather fond of the sleepy Tuscan village I call home. Not unlike countless small towns throughout Italy, beneath Grezzano’s homespun appearance lies centuries of historical intrigue, legend and lore, ancestral recipes, and (most fortunate for yours truly) locals happy to oblige my curiosity about wartime experiences in these parts.

I’m very pleased then to learn that plans to start a Pro Loco for the Luco di Mugello-Grezzano townships are moving forward. The local publication Il Filo del Mugello reports that later this month a public assembly is to be held in Luco to elect a council and settle other inaugural matters. A Pro Loco will help a town like ours to organize and promote social and cultural activities of interest to visitors and residents alike, generating, ideally, greater visibility for this very special place. See below.









Posted in Chasing the Good Life, Local History | Tagged | 4 Comments

Farewell Lucia Boetto Testori


Lucia Boetto during the war

One of the last surviving participants in the Italian Resistance died today. Lucia Boetto was born in 1920 near Cuneo. During the Resistance, together with her future husband Renato Testori, Lucia was the official liaison between the Piedmont CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale) and the Enrico Martini divisions. Like many female partisans, she worked as a courier, transporting secret documents, messages, and weapons between the Cuneo area and Turin. In the summer of 1944, she collaborated with the Allies on various missions, and is remembered particularly for having delivered a Medal of Honor awarded to partisans in northern Italy by the Italian government, hiding it under her coat to ensure its arrival. Lucia received a bronze medal for valor, in recognition of her bravery and the sacrifices she made to participate in the movement. Even after her invaluable services became known to the Germans—she was targeted by the S.S.—Lucia continued her vital role as a tireless messenger and guide.

Lucia Boetto Testori was 95 years old. Her funeral is tomorrow in Turin.

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‘Fare San Michele’: Moving Day for the Métayer

'Alba di San Martino' by artist Roberto Viesi*

‘Alba di San Martino’ by artist Roberto Viesi*

Fare San Michele is an Italian idiom synonymous with ‘moving day’. In the mezzadria era, contracts between farm laborers and landowners expired on September 29, which is also the feast day of Saint Michael (aka Michaelmas), and thus it was on this day that folks loaded down horse-drawn carts with their personal effects and moved out. A related saying, San Michele ribalto (Saint Michael ‘overturned’ or ‘capsized’), describes any chaotic or disorderly situation or unexpected turn of events. This expression is linked to a tale of one such peasant family, for whom moving day ended disastrously: an overturned cart, their belongings scattered and broken. The expression Fare San Martino has the same meaning, as November 11, the feast of Saint Martin, also saw the conclusion of seasonal farm work and the departure of laborers and their families.

*to see more of Roberto Viesi’s art work, visit his website.

Posted in Curiosità, Holidays & Customs | Leave a comment

‘Tanto Sono Donna’ Part II: Misquotation and the Power of Media Manipulation

I spent the better part of yesterday reading about and observing reactions to Alice Sabatini’s gaffe during the Miss Italia pageant, in which the contestant purportedly said the following:

“Vorrei essere nata nel 1942, per vivere la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Sui libri ci sono pagine e pagine, io volevo viverla per davvero, poi essendo donna non avrei nemmeno dovuto fare il militare.” / “I would have liked to be born in 1942, so I could live through the Second World War. Books are full of pages and pages [on the war], and I would have liked to really live through that time, and anyway being a woman, I wouldn’t even have had to fight.”

I watched the video from the pageant in the morning, having just sat down at my desk with my first cup of coffee to get the day’s projects going. As my own personal reaction to Sabatini’s statement began to take shape, I dived into the deluge of online articles already published as of yesterday morning. When I decided to write about the episode, I referred back to the brief article I’d read first on Huffington Post Italia’s website. I copied the direct quote of Sabatini’s words verbatim—the quote above, to be precise—and dropped them into my draft for contemplation and reference as I proceeded.

While scanning social media outlets throughout the day, I saw that much had been made about the first portion of her comment, in which she said she would have liked to be born in 1942. For some people, this statement clearly did not reflect the young woman’s intended meaning; and surely the context and common sense made the takeaway obvious: Sabatini meant she would have liked to be living in 1942. To others, however, these words, even if not a precise reflection of the speaker’s intent, implied a gross misapprehension of the war period or at least paved the way for further doubt come the remainder of her response, that part about being a woman and not having to fight and staying home without fear—inaccurate, in light of the role of women in the Italian Resistance.

Today someone asked me about this on Facebook. Curious, I went back through the original articles I’d read, then did a search of what’s been published since last night. I discovered something rather disturbing. Even more intrigued, I went back and watched the video again. It turns out, Sabatini never actually said Vorrei essere nata nel 1942, as reported by many, many sources (yours truly among them). Here is her actual statement, transcribed word for word:

“…nel ’42…millenovecento….per vedere realmente la Seconda Guerra Mondiale; visto che i libri parlano…hanno pagine e pagine…la voglio vivere, però tanto sono donna quindi il militare non l’avrei fatto…sarei stata a casa…” / “...in ’42…nineteen hundred…to really see the Second World War, since books talk [about the war]…they have pages and pages…I want to live it, but anyway I’m a woman and so I would not have had to fight…I would have been at home….”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, what seems to have offended people most is the later part, regarding what women would or would not have been doing during the war, together with an overall naïve, idealized view of war that Sabatini’s words manage to impress upon us, whatever her true intent.  But what I’m more concerned with here in this follow up is just how many sources misquoted Sabatini.  Here is a (not exhaustive) list of sources that directly quoted Sabatini yesterday and today, in article headlines or body or both, as having said Vorrei essere nata nel ‘42:

 L’Huffington Post
Corriere della Sera
Nuova Società
Il Giornale
La stampa
Blitz Quotidiano
Il Terreno
Blasting News

Many more sources quoted Sabatini as saying “Avrei voluto vivere nel ‘42″ / “I would have liked to live in 1942”, which is closer to an accurate quote but is also not, it should be noted, what she actually said. I located one source that quoted her almost accurately, by starting with “…nel ’42…”.

Living as we do in this era of sloppy, lightning-fast communication, I imagine it rarely occurs to the average news consumer to double-check facts or even apply a bit of scepticism from time to time. I am aware of this (and am hardly the first to make the observation) and yet I was, frankly, astonished at how quickly Sabatini’s words created an almost witch-hunt-like atmosphere on social media. Despite the humor and (always welcome) Italian flair characterizing many of yesterday’s new-born memes, at the core of this story is both our facile interaction with what we read and the swift power of media to shape public opinion. In this specific case, it has been the power to transform our assessment of Sabatini from not-exactly-brilliant public speaker to utter half-wit.

Meanwhile, attacks on Sabatini continued today after her comments last night on the comedy program Striscia la Notizia, which surprised Sabatini to award her their famous Tapiro d’Oro (gold tapir), a satirical recognition for public blunders and screw-ups committed by movie stars, politicians, athletes, et al.  When asked which Italian historical figure she admires, Sabatini responded, after a long, awkward and bemused pause, Michael Jordan (she plays basketball).  The reaction? A Google News search for Alice Sabatini + Michael Jordan returned over 650 hits.

I’m hoping to see this addressed by some intrepid Italian journalist, or anyone who writes in Italian, honestly. Consider that up until two days ago no one in Italy saw this young woman as anything more than a beautiful distraction, and today thousands are participating in her verbal battering with a disquietingly Schadenfreude-esque enthusiasm. An examination of how the media is portraying—and to great extent misrepresenting—the ‘Miss Italia mess’ may not remove the stigma of ignorance Sabatini has incurred, yet it might stem the backlash tide, which is probably what is needed right about now. See below.

I would like to live during the Second World War. Anyway I'm a woman - I'll be safe.

I would like to live during the Second World War. Anyway I’m a woman – I’ll be safe.

Posted in In a Strange Land, World War II in Italy | Leave a comment

‘Tanto Sono Donna’: A Look at the Miss Italia Mess

Yesterday an 18-year-old woman named Alice Sabatini was crowned Miss Italia in the national beauty pageant that’s been running in Italy since 1939, and whose past participants include Sofia Loren (a finalist in 1950, at age 14). During the show, one of the celebrity judges asked contestants: ‘If you could live in another historical period, what would it be and who would you have been?’ In less than 24 hours, Sabatini’s answer to this question has generated a virtual shitstorm of reactions, ranging from lewd remarks and snarky memes via countless social media outlets to serious criticism and debate and among historians, feminists, mainstream Italian press, et al. Here’s what Sabatini said:

Vorrei essere nata nel 1942, per vivere la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Sui libri ci sono pagine e pagine, io volevo viverla per davvero, poi essendo donna non avrei nemmeno dovuto fare il militare.” / “I would have liked to be born in 1942, so I could live through the Second World War. Books are full of pages and pages [on the war], and I would have liked to really live through that time, and anyway being a woman, I wouldn’t even have had to fight.” (my translation)

Take a moment to digest this. Take two.

While it’s Sabatini’s closing comment that has got most people up in arms, let’s first look at the opener. Part of today’s viral assault has taken aim at her seeming trouble with numbers. As is painfully obvious, someone born in 1942 would not have lived through the war in the sense Sabatini intended. Baby Alice would not even have been weaned, would probably be taking her first steps, right around the time the war started to get interesting in Italy. She would have napped right through the fall of Mussolini, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the signing of the Armistice. She’d be just about ready to start nursery school come the 1945 Spring Offensive.  So, back to those ‘pages and pages’, Miss Italia. Have you actually read any of them?

This is more or the less the current vein of ridicule regarding the first part of Sabatini’s answer. It’s uncomfortable for Italians, for any people really, to witness such scant understanding of history—arguably the most important moment in 20th-century Italian history—in one of their youth, and during prime time no less. And when faced with such a discomfiting reality, most people tend to go on the attack rather than introspect. A creative media group called The Jackal immediately launched a parody of the inconsistencies in Sabatini’s clearly unrehearsed answer, meant to entertain but delivering as well, at least in my opinion, a backhanded message: please note that not all young Italians are ignorant, as our clever work here demonstrates.

Moving on. There’s a certain artless quality to Sabatini’s response that tempts one to forgive her blunder, if not overlook the gaffe altogether. She’s only 18 years old, after all. What did any of us know about our country’s military history at that age? And could we have articulated what little we did know any better? Lurking within this apologia, however, is yet another aspect to consider: that the perception of the war has become so romanticized (thanks, Hollywood) as to elicit this sort of starry-eyed reply. Of all the periods in Italian history worth revisiting, surely the horrors of the Fascist era and the war should make it the least appealing of time periods? To give Sabatini the benefit of the doubt, she has since stated that she was nervous, and expressed herself badly; she meant to convey a desire to live in that era out of sincere interest. Does this mean we should credit her with a deeper understanding of the war than she was able to convey on stage then? Perhaps, but unfortunately the damage is done. Along with the hashtag #tantosonodonna (something like ‘anyway I’m a woman’), countless memes, some rather funny, have come out today mocking Sabatini:

'I love the smell of napalm in the morning.'

‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’


storming the beach

storming the beach


One commentator asked, Whatever happened to old cliché about wanting world peace?

A lot of memes and jokes are playing on the construction I would have liked to be born (insert place or time) + anyway I’m only or anyway they only and so on:

'I would have liked to be born during the zombie apocalypse. Anyway they only eat those with brains.'

‘I would have liked to be born during the zombie apocalypse. Anyway they only eat those with brains.’

The final element under scrutiny is Sabatini’s inaccurate statement about women during the war, particularly troubling to those versed in the history of the crucial and unique role Italian women played in the Resistance. The stories of female partisans are many, complex, heroic, terrifying, thrilling, and, in terms of sheer numbers, as Tom Behan notes in The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies, pretty extraordinary:

“Once the individual stories are assembled together an interesting picture emerges of tens of thousands of women shaking off the stereotype of being passive home-carers. Most accounts estimate that 35,000 women took part in military actions, out of a total resistance force of 300,000; indeed recent research from Emilia-Romagna also indicates that 10 per cent of the partisans who fought in battles were female. A total of 623 women lost their lives in battle or in revenge attacks; 4,600 were arrested, tried and tortured, while 2,750 were deported to concentration camps. Women’s activities were not just military but also involved political leadership—after the war 512 women were recognised as having been political commissars at various levels.”

Miss Italia among Italian partisans

Miss Italia among Italian partisans

The impression I’ve come away with after reading about this episode for most of today is that, while a lack of refined historical knowledge is forgivable, the romanticizing of the war years alongside the erroneous suggestion that women did not, or could not, fight in the war is not as easy to excuse.

Once the storm around these various talking points has subsided, we’re still left with one weighty matter to consider: the disturbing hypocrisy of beauty pageants. Organizers may try to distract us with talent portions and questions about how to change the world, yet deep down we all know what pageants are ultimately about. As long as lining women up against one another to be inspected on their physical merits remains an acceptable form of entertainment, should we really be disappointed or shocked when any young woman turns out to possess a less than stellar intellect? I’m not suggesting Sabatini is not smart, merely underlining the absurdity of parading her around in a bathing suit for the world to judge, meanwwhile pretending to care about what’s going on inside her mind.

Posted in In a Strange Land, World War II in Italy | 1 Comment

Borgo San Lorenzo: A Wartime Snapshot

INGRESSO-IN-PAESEBorgo San Lorenzo was liberated on September 11, 1944. Days later, Allies would break through the Gothic Line in a series of crucial battles fought in the mountains to the north. This photograph shows locals returning to Borgo with their belongings after the liberation via a Bailey bridge constructed over the Sieve river, alongside soldiers on motorbikes. From the archive of Mugello writer and folklorist Tebaldo Lorini, this photo is featured on the cover of his book Il Podere di Lutiano. 

Posted in Local History, World War II in Italy | Tagged , | Leave a comment