How Rose McGowan Styled Herself as the Woke Preacher of #MeToo

Her memoir sheds light on exactly why she’s such a complicated figure to help lead this movement.

Photo illustration: Rose McGowan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rebecca Cook/Reuters.

To understand how Rose McGowan became one of the most visible #MeToo activists, start with her ascent to Twitter celebrity. It began when she shot off a tweet in 2015 about a demeaning casting note in an Adam Sandler script, which asked actresses to audition in a “form-fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push-up bras encouraged)” and “form-fitting leggings or jeans.” A week later, McGowan tweeted that her agency had fired her because she “spoke up about the bullshit in Hollywood.”

Emboldened by the response from media outlets and feminists, the former film and television star has now made protesting Hollywood bullshit her full-time job. She hosted a Los Angeles art show inspired by the #yesallwomen hashtag. She’s given her Twitter followers frequent, candid assessments of the entertainment industry’s twin idols, sex and youth, and penned a furious response to a 2016 Variety column that scolded Renée Zellweger for getting plastic surgery. She opened the convention the Women’s March organizers put on in Detroit last fall with a blistering speech about courage and resilience. And months before the Weinstein reckoning, McGowan had already begun working on Brave, her new memoir, which itemizes the incalculable acts of degradation and abuse she’s endured in her 44 years. Lately, she’s been doing the talk-show circuit to promote both the book and Citizen Rose, a five-episode E! reality series that depicts her as a still-recovering survivor firmly rejecting one kind of public approval while begging for another.

Brave is as much cultural critique as it is memoir. The book opens with a meditation on “groupthink” and “cults,” a label McGowan applies equally to political parties, TV fan clubs, and the Children of God, a religious sect that once allegedly encouraged adults to rape children as a way of sharing Jesus’ love. McGowan was born into the latter. Her childhood in Italy, as she describes it, is woven through with trauma: She was fed her pet lamb without her knowledge, given inadequate meals, forced to sleep on plastic mats in the cold, and made to work long hours begging on the street. She also witnessed the sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl orchestrated by church leaders. When her father finally escaped with Rose, her siblings, and his second wife, they left Rose’s mother behind. They later reunited with her in the U.S. But there were so many women in the cult and so little intimate parenting that, at the time, McGowan writes, “I didn’t have a firm grasp on my mother as an individual.”

Armchair psychologists will draw easy connections between McGowan’s dystopian early years and her later struggles, including the eating disorders, abusive relationships, and homelessness she weathered all before her 18th birthday. The author, too, has clearly spent a lot of time unraveling the strands of her personal story, whether in therapy or in contemplative solitude. Having a wart unceremoniously carved from her hand at age 4 “started a narrative that fucked with my head for years, that of perfection as self-protection,” she writes. Her mother’s abusive boyfriend punished her in her tweens by forbidding her from speaking for an entire month; McGowan calls it a “silencing” that “set a kind of pattern in my life.”

It’s no wonder that a person raised under such bleak circumstances has come to see cult-like brainwashing everywhere she looks. “How old were you when they homogenized your mind?” she asks readers in Brave. McGowan tallies every indignity and act of gender conditioning she’s faced—pink school uniforms, a bully director, a dentist’s suggestion that she straighten her teeth—and uses her memoir as a blunt instrument of retribution. At times, Brave reads like the ravings of a conspiracy theorist determined to convince untold flocks of sheeple that they’ve been force-fed poison since birth. McGowan claims that mainstream society has commissioned “a centuries-long smear campaign against women”; that ever-younger women are prized in Hollywood not just because they’re beautiful, but because they’re easier to manipulate than older ones; and that schools deliver years of racist and sexist “propaganda… So that by the time you graduate, you’re chanting along with everyone else: America, hell yes, white men are number one!”

These observations would sound insane if they didn’t contain essential truths wrapped up in their tinfoil hyperbole. In an industry where men routinely negotiate the exact length of time a woman’s breasts will appear on-screen, where physical and sexual exploitation are fundamental components of critically acclaimed artworks, and where wearing a black gown instead of a colored one is seen as radical direct action, McGowan’s emptied reserve of patience may be the only space cavernous enough to hold the mammoth rage the status quo deserves. To fully grasp the scope of malice the industry endorsed in the career and cover-up of Harvey Weinstein—the dozens, maybe hundreds of women whose humanity was sacrificed so a few film executives and agents could continue pocketing uninterrupted streams of money—one must surely dispense with all rational expectations of decency. Tracing Hollywood’s tentacles of cruelty to their very ends, which may never come into view, all but requires a brief suspension of sanity.

But there’s a reason why other actresses have taken quieter, more incremental routes to feminist activism. McGowan’s brash, take-no-shit persona actually does not lend itself well to capsule interviews or book tours. Her strange, stream-of-consciousness performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert made the studio audience uncomfortable; she responded to a critic who noted their unease with a couple of irritated tweets. When a transgender woman confronted McGowan at a promotional event with reminders of the transphobic remarks she’s made in recent years, McGowan let loose a befuddling rant (“I might have information you want. I might know shit that you don’t. So fucking shut up. Please systemically. For once.”) and canceled all her other scheduled appearances. The Women’s March, which had previously welcomed McGowan as a keynote speaker at its convention, tweeted a scolding rejoinder. As of this writing, the pinned tweet at the top of McGowan’s Twitter feed is an attack on the trans woman who confronted her, whom McGowan calls a “monster” who launched “an aggressive two minutes long assault on a long abused woman who is simply trying to change the world and make it better.” “The Cult of Complicity—those I call out are after me,” McGowan writes above a screenshot accusing the woman of sexual assault.

Now, McGowan is in a tight spot. Having dispensed with her role as a Hollywood sex symbol and picked up the mantle of woke preacher, she has found that her new audience still expects a specific kind of performance, one she may not be equipped to deliver. Brave contains several passages that would make even an amateur progressive activist cringe. She introduces the acronym “GOC,” a term no one uses, to inject a non sequitur about girls of color in the criminal justice system into an anecdote about her own moment in court. In the middle of her critiques of a culture that objectifies and diminishes women, McGowan describes her own grandmother only as a “mentally fragile beauty.” She says walking around in public with stage makeup on, covered in fake bruises and blood, gave her “great insight into the invisibility of an abused woman,” then advises readers, “You should always ask if a woman needs help if they look abused,” an oversimplified suggestion that could pose a danger to survivors of abuse and well-meaning interveners.

These missteps could theoretically present an opportunity to learn and grow in public, a natural win for someone like McGowan, who seems to be selling her vulnerability in the way most celebrities capitalize on an image of unflappable poise. But McGowan doesn’t demonstrate any interest in sincerely grappling with the diversity of experiences she’ll be expected to represent if she becomes the feminist superstar she wants to be. Instead, in both Brave and Citizen Rose, she insists that she is too atypical, too independent-minded for almost anyone else to understand or accept. That may pose a problem for a former actress trying to make a living off being accepted and understood, albeit by a new crowd. McGowan spends a good majority of Brave condemning the Hollywood manufacturing plant that turns living, breathing women into profitable products. Yet she seems remarkably comfortable commodifying her own victimhood, essentially turning herself into an updated version of the same product. After more than 200 pages describing all the horrifying ways she’s been wronged, McGowan ends Brave by plugging her #RoseArmy hashtag, her photography Instagram account, and her forthcoming skin care line “that challenges what the beauty industry tells you you need.”

Talking about surviving a sexual assault used to be a no-no for actresses, who have long been expected to exude sexual inviolability and self-possession. Once the public has a mental image of an actress being raped, the thinking went, that’s all they’ll envision when they see her on-screen. That calculus may soon change; post-Weinstein, it seems harder to find an actress who hasn’t been victimized by harassment or assault than one who has. For McGowan, opening up about her abuse at the hands of Weinstein and others has actually boosted her career. It’s a far cry from what she imagined would happen if she spoke up in 1997, when Weinstein’s alleged assault took place. In Brave, McGowan recalls deciding whether to come forward. She believed that if she did, she would never work again, fall back into homelessness, and die. “I knew if I died I’d be remembered for revealing my rapist, but not for my achievements,” she writes. “I didn’t want his name next to mine in my obituary.” This feels like a perverse irony: Now that McGowan has used her anti-rape advocacy as a launch pad for a new phase of her career, it’s impossible to imagine her public image ever parting from Weinstein’s. She helped take down Hollywood’s biggest monster, and in return, she has to pay the price that kept her from giving him up in the first place.

Brave by Rose McGowan. HarperOne.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.