Every Wednesday, L.A. Weekly focuses on a woman making a difference in Hollywood. For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, artist-actor-writer Rose McGowan — author of the best-selling memoir Brave, star of Citizen Rose and creator of the new Planet 9 album — shares her journey to becoming a leading #MeToo orchestrator and activist in a conversation with sexual assault survivor and advocate Marnie Goodfriend.
Brave. Unapologetic. Determined. Artist and actor Rose McGowan is a force in the fight against the pervasive sexism, harassment and assaults against women in Hollywood. She is angry, and rightly so.
While McGowan is one of the most influential voices of the now-global #MeToo movement, along with the hashtag creator and activist Tarana Burke, many aren’t aware of how she set off the fire drills with a story that was impossible to ignore. What evolved from an investigative journalism piece to a worldwide movement wasn’t happenstance but powerfully orchestrated strategic planning on McGowan’s part.
By sharing her harrowing experience of being sexually assaulted in 1997 by Harvey Weinstein with reporters — including Ronan Farrow, who was with NBC at the time, and The New York Times writer Jodi Kantor — and pitting two media outlets against each other, she caused a wildfire. When Farrow broke the story in the New Yorker in October 2017 after NBC refused to air it, a media frenzy ensued, catapulting #MeToo into a historical moment while creating a safer space for other women to come forward with their own stories. Both the New Yorker and The New York Times and their teams of reporters covering the Weinstein story of his massive abuse of women and its aftermath recently received Pulitzer Prizes for their unflinching work exposing Hollywood media moguls, high-level executives and celebrities in their investigative exposés.
In 2015, McGowan made her directorial debut with a 1960s period piece, Dawn, available on YouTube, which challenges the male gaze and explores the constraints and danger of growing up female. Prior to the short film's release, she began to work on an interconnected project reclaiming her own image and voice while speaking out for others beginning to enlist in bravery over politeness: her best-selling memoir, Brave, published in January; Citizen Rose, a five-part docuseries airing on E! Network; and a new album, Planet 9, available on iTunes.
What sets McGowan apart from most Hollywood figures is her alliance with every woman who has been affected by harassment, bullying and sexual assault. Instead of compartmentalizing these issues as separate causes, the #RoseArmy stands strong against a patriarchal society where women’s potential and growth has been compromised by limitations embedded in everyday language. From name-calling to rape, the cycle of abuse is intrinsically intertwined.
McGowan leverages her social media presence to both agitate and inspire her followers. Be a thorn! and I am you! she says. And with the formidable hurdles she is facing for women to thrive without fear of being attacked, we should not only believe her but stand strong beside an incandescent light shining the way for others. That is brave.
McGowan spoke with me from London about her latest projects, #RoseArmy and how it is necessary to experience temporary discomfort in order to effect real change. Thorns do not scar, they only bleed.
L.A. Weekly: I was on board with the #RoseArmy when I heard you speak out at the Detroit Women’s Convention, “My name is Rose McGowan and I am you.” Do you feel that some women have to speak on behalf of those who are still silenced?
Rose McGowan: I have always seen myself as a worker amongst workers, a person amongst people, not special, not better, just the same. I’d like to think anyone in my position, a position I worked my ass off to get to, would do the same. I feel anyone with a microphone can do this, can amplify, should amplify.
There has been a concern that Hollywood actresses sharing their stories will not trickle down to every woman. I know that you have aligned yourself with women who do not have the resources or platform to come forward. Can you talk about this and how someone with a public persona can clear the way for others?
Well, first of all, they have to be brave, they have to know there will be blowback, but that it is important to endure it for the greater good. I think many people are speaking out in all walks of life.
Let’s talk about language and reappropriating words and phrases that embed themselves into our cultural consciousness. What is your relationship to labels such as “survivor”? Do you think that we need to reclaim language or reconstruct our own as you did in penning your own memoir, Brave, by calling out the media and Hollywood for casting women as sexual objects and speaking and writing about women from a male perspective?
I’ve found the English language very often lacking in nuance. That is why I think it is tremendously important to reframe meaning and find as much nuance in the words available. Survivor is something you grow into, and I think it’s important to remember that there is no shame in being a victim, too. They are both sides of the coin, neither of which we wanted. There are not a lot of great choices. Personally, I think we could all benefit from a new dictionary.
In Brave, which you call a “how-to” memoir, you encourage individuals to stand up for themselves and others who are being mistreated in the workplace. How do we support these acts of necessary rebellion knowing that many will suffer a similar fate in losing their job and being blacklisted?
It’s a very hard thing, to go against the grain. Each person will have to find their own path, but I’d like to think it is going to be a bit easier and the repercussions will land on the perpetrator and not the whistleblower.
In working concurrently on your album, Planet 9, your Citizen Rose documentary and your memoir, Brave, has this given you the ability to infiltrate new spaces and explore other ways to express, and in a sense enforce, a cyclical theme of bravery, and a more determined and unabashedly unapologetic way of rising up?
Yes, it is exactly that! I wanted to (and needed to) process in my own language, in my own way. It is a way of unwiring and rewiring minds, most especially my own. I wanted freedom, I wanted to live on another planet, so I made my own. But it requires a bit of work to get there — we have to let the earthbound go first, and the way to do that is by going through it.
In both your self-portraiture and music, there’s a celestial theme and an exploration of woman inserting “herself” into space, which could also be interpreted as taking up and claiming territory. What do you find inspiring about the landscape?
Years ago, when I suffered from anorexia, I realized I was scared of taking up a place on the planet. This is my way of saying, “We are the planet.”
One of the ways that you have taken control of your image and away from Hollywood, the male gaze and the media, is with your artwork and self-portraiture. How did this evolve for you?
My artwork has been an evolution for sure. @RoseMcGowanArts is my Instagram art page that gives a taste of where I live and what I explore. It took me years to realize that I, who had been in numerous relationships with artists, had been told I was the muse, because as a beautiful young woman, that must be all you can be, right? Wrong. It took me a while to see it was me that was the artist all along.
You recently asked people on social media to have a look at the tapestry of their lives and to examine and extract the synthetic pieces to find their authentic self. Is this symbolic of a larger theme of nurture versus nature, eschewing the parts that have been ingrained in us but are not a part of our true character?
Yes! Examining the tapestry of your life, that which makes up you, what is yours and what has been implanted in you? What are your beliefs and what are theirs? It is so important we identify and expel that which doesn’t serve us.
There’s a great quote by photographer Sylvia Plachy that reminds me of your resilience and brazen, unfiltered call to action. She says,“What we do, is not polite. We search for that secret which, like a pearl in the ocean, is not easily found or given up.” As girls we are raised to be complacent and compliant in our culture. What do you have to say to girls and young women to help them find their voice?
That’s an amazing quote. So much implantation has to do with ingrained female politeness — that’s what I want rid of. I made a movie about it, Dawn, that I put on YouTube. Dawn is a beautiful study of gaslighting and politeness and its ramifications, which are severe. I think the more we can see reality for what it truly is, the more we will speak, the more we will rise.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and the silence has been deafening. While we are hearing stories from survivors, what isn’t being addressed enough is the lasting trauma and the pervasive mask of shame. How have you found the strength to “rise up from the ashes” and advocate for others while still recovering?
It’s a process. Some days, some moments, are incredibly difficult. You just get back up because it’s the only option.
How do we step into our innate feminine power, to be brave?
We have to learn to be all right with the discomfort in the short term. My book, I think, helps in the quest for sure; that’s what I wrote it for. Kind of a roadmap to awesomeness and strength.
Citizen Rose returns to the E! Network on Thursday, May 17, at 10 p.m.
Marnie Goodfriend is a writer, memoirist, and sexual assault survivor and activist living in Los Angeles.