Two of the biggest names in the #MeToo movement are in the middle of a very public feud. For weeks, Asia Argento and Rose McGowan, both of whom accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault last fall, have been sending out tweets and press releases accusing one another of civil and criminal offenses. It started when McGowan announced that her partner, model Rain Dove, had shared with law enforcement officials possible evidence of Argento’s alleged sexual abuse of a 17-year-old boy in 2013, when Argento was 37. On Tuesday, Argento announced she was suing McGowan and Dove for “deception, fraud, coercion, and libel.”
The Argento-McGowan friendship, short-lived as it was, had been forged in the crucible of shared trauma. Since coming out against Weinstein, the two women had become extremely close: They got matching tattoos, and after Argento’s partner Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in June, McGowan took her to Berlin to mourn in a place unsaturated by his memory. Both have endured pointed criticism and harassment since becoming self-styled leaders of Hollywood’s movement against sexual exploitation. Some of that pushback has come from well-meaning critics, as when a trans activist confronted McGowan about anti-trans statements she’d made. In other cases, it’s been malicious: Bourdain fans blamed Argento upon his death, and they’re still attacking her on Twitter more than two months later.
As we’ve gotten to know more about McGowan and Argento since they’ve been thrust into the #MeToo spotlight, and as we’ve witnessed their public falling-out, it’s become increasingly clear that they’re both imperfect spokespeople for a diverse, dispersed, and embattled movement. McGowan’s volatility and uneasy relationship to fame—she vehemently rejects the Hollywood machine that turns women into products, but still commodifies her own victimhood with a skin care line and personal hashtag—have compromised any efforts she might make to turn the attention toward less-powerful women who’ve been abused. Argento allegedly enacted Weinstein’s exact pattern of abuse—isolating someone in a hotel room, performing nonconsensual oral sex on him, tying career opportunities to sexual compliance—on an underage boy. (Argento denies the allegation that she had “any sexual relationship” with her accuser, Jimmy Bennett.) And the way they’ve recently disparaged one another in public to safeguard their own reputations has made Argento’s alleged sexual assault seem like just another plot point in a fight between two famous women, one that’s threatening to overshadow the tedious and effective work other activists are doing to combat workplace sexual harassment and assault.
The veracity of Argento and McGowan’s accusations against Weinstein is not being called into question, nor are the claims of the 90 or so women who’ve accused him of harassment and assault. But the way Argento and McGowan have presented themselves has made it easier for naysayers to dismiss all the good that they and other victims have done by coming forward. After news broke that she’d agreed to pay Bennett $380,000 in exchange for his agreement to forgo legal action against her, Argento announced she was starting “phase two of the #MeToo movement,” in which victims who have not “led a blemish-less life” would be encouraged to tell their stories without fear of being discredited by their past misdeeds. It takes an enormous amount of self-regard to declare yourself the leader and inventor of a new phase of a social movement. It takes an even greater amount of disregard for other survivors of sexual violence to link that new phase to your own alleged history of abuse.
As Argento has defended her place in the #MeToo movement by publicly attacking McGowan’s credibility, McGowan, too, has tried to shore up her #MeToo-hastened career renaissance by throwing her critics under the bus. When a trans woman accused McGowan of persistent transphobia, McGowan pinned a tweet to the top of her Twitter timeline that accused the woman, a private citizen, of being a sexual predator and paid protester. McGowan has built a mini-empire around her victimization at the hands of Hollywood, including a speaking tour, an art show, a reality series, and a memoir, Brave. When the allegations against Argento emerged in the press, McGowan sent out a press release—a long, convoluted, tea-spilling tale of the growth of their friendship and her disappointment when she discovered that Argento had denied having sex with Bennett publicly but had allegedly admitted it to McGowan’s partner, Rain Dove. To protect her own standing in the movement, McGowan redirected the Argento assault narrative away from the victim and the accused and toward herself.
This publicity battle is a cautionary tale, one that reveals the dangers of asking so much of a few famous-but-inexperienced people who are motivated more by the chance to be heard on their own terms than the opportunity to help effectuate incremental social change. The A-list celebrities who came out against Weinstein kickstarted the #MeToo movement. In the long run, though, the health of the movement depends on the willingness of stars like McGowan and Argento to amplify the work and stories of women who don’t have the security of fame and riches—instead of using the momentum from that work and those stories to create career opportunities for themselves.
This week, McDonald’s workers in six cities went on strike to protest the company’s failure to take action on complaints of workplace sexual harassment. Organizers say it’s the first strike in more than a century to focus on this particular issue, and it’s one of the clearest and most convincing signs that the potential consequences of #MeToo could reach industries far removed from Hollywood. It was also the kind of action that could have benefited from high-profile publicity and pressure from, say, a celebrity who claims to command an entire #RoseArmy against sexual harassment. Instead, the entertainment press has stayed focused on the Argento-McGowan fight, which is veering further from the core issues of #MeToo every day.