A little less than 20 minutes into the first episode of Citizen Rose, a five-episode E! reality series about the actress, artist, and activist Rose McGowan, McGowan addresses the audience from inside a bathtub. “If you guys have ever known anything about me at all, anything at all, it’s ‘Huh, who’s that kind of weirdo?’ Did you ever wonder why you think that? Do you ever wonder who is telling you that? Do you ever wonder who is paying them to tell you that?”
In 1997, at 24, McGowan was allegedly sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. (Weinstein has denied all charges.) At the time, she wanted to file charges against him but was discouraged from doing so even by her own manager. The assault, in her words, “killed the very sweet innocent person that I was,” and, as with so many other women, altered her career, cutting off opportunities and limiting employment. A few years ago, McGowan quit acting and became an activist, a feminist Twitter presence raging against Hollywood’s corruption even before the Weinstein story, for which she was an early source, broke. Her point is simple; if you think of her as a “weirdo,” it’s because Weinstein and his enablers wanted you to. She knew too much. She was too outspoken, too angry, too honest to do exactly as she was told and so was recast as a bad girl, a sexualized Barbie doll, a strange chick. McGowan’s refusal to cooperate with the Hollywood machinery does make her weird—not in the pejorative sense, but in the unique one. Citizen Rose is a testament to McGowan in all her gnarly singularity.
Reality series are revealing documents, and never entirely in the way that their subjects intended. Citizen Rose, produced by McGowan and the storied Bunim/Murray Productions, has a slightly different mission than a normal reality show, which obeys only the directive to entertain, however bad it makes its participants look. Docuseries like Citizen Rose have a gentler, more sympathetic relationship to their subject. This approach does not always make for honest (or entertaining) television; in I Am Cait, another E! docuseries produced by Bunim/Murray, Caitlyn Jenner kept the audience at such a distance the show had the skewed, stolid air of propaganda. McGowan takes the opposite tack. She may no longer be an actress, but she relishes playing herself. After being unseen and unknown for so long, McGowan wants to be seen and known, on her own terms.
Citizen Rose has been drafted to do the kind of emotional work that an E! reality series is rarely asked, and may not be entirely equipped, to do. McGowan wants to share the whole messy, contradictory, gutting, empowering, devastating business of being an artist and a woman trying to recover—mentally, professionally, and holistically—from sexual assault, while also repackaging herself to the public. The show is a meant as inspiration, as corrective, as empowerment, as a cri de coeur, as proof of struggle, as proof of survival, as validation, and as a PR strategy, and it is pretty successful at all of those things at once.
The series, which arrives on the same day as McGowan’s memoir Brave and on the same evening as Trump’s State of the Union—quite the act of counterprogramming—has a loose chronological structure. It takes place over a few months, beginning right as the Weinstein story is breaking. The show runs, fleetingly, through McGowan’s past, which includes not only Weinstein—who she refers to only as her “monster”; his name is distorted whenever it appears on the show—but a childhood spent in a cult. (“I traded one cult for another,” McGowan says, in typically blunt fashion, of Hollywood.) And then it organizes itself around a number of encounters, with friends, with Ronan Farrow, with Asia Argento, moderating a #MeToo panel, at a domestic violence march, giving a speech, at her family’s Thanksgiving, at her father’s grave. All of this is interlaced with narration, close-ups on her tweets, and sequences of McGowan, in black clothes with short black hair and slashing black eyebrows, sitting in a milky-white tub.
The voiceovers tend toward the dramatic, as does McGowan. Some of her theatricality is surely innate—once upon a time, she wanted to be an actress—but some of it is a survival strategy: She is still putting herself back together again, one bold self-affirmation at a time. The show makes clear that braggadocio and vulnerability are intertwined components of coping. She speaks with a swagger that doubles as reassurance. “I would say it’s a miracle that I survived, but I did it all myself,” she says in one exemplary aphorism. Meanwhile, she cries openly, easily, and often. McGowan knows she is strong because she is willing to share when she is weak. Asia Argento, who also alleges that Weinstein raped her, reassures McGowan that she’s not a victim. McGowan replies, “I really dislike not being able to be a victim. There is a part of me, the dead part, that is a victim. Some other part is victorious.”
There are moments when the format gets away from McGowan, like a staged support-group meeting, presumably for domestic abuse survivors, in which the other women seem like props. And it seems disingenuous for McGowan to insist that her activist group, Rose Army, is named not after herself but after the flower, which has thorns; surely it’s both, ego and flower. Her conflict with her mother and the memory of her father are too complex to be contained by the show, however much it tries. But even the instances when McGowan is not entirely in command of what is happening can be telling. In one scene, McGowan says to her friend Amber Tamblyn that people are trying to kill her—they may be; crazier things have happened—and then whispers to her, in tears, “If I die, you have to keep my work, to be studied. It has a purpose. It all has a purpose.” In this moment, the objective caliber of McGowan’s art is irrelevant; you can feel how much she needs to believe in its importance and how that belief is sustaining her.
During the first episode, which is an hour and a half long, McGowan sees a story about herself published on the front page of the New York Times and learns Time magazine wants to include her in its Person of the Year package. In both instances, she begins to cry. After years of being considered a kook, mainstream recognition moves her. These outside sources are a validation. But one gets the feeling that this kind of recognition is never going to be quite enough, at least not while McGowan is still on the outside of Hollywood, the business she despises but remains furiously absorbed with. Citizen Rose, the show, is another one of these outside sources of validation as well as another self-affirmation, declared publicly in order to come true: that this tough, angry, wounded, sad, persevering, proud woman will be the real Rose McGowan.
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