Fractured feminism and "Citizen Rose"

Will Rose McGowan's new series give women of color, who helped build the platform on which she stands, their due?

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 28, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Rose McGowan participates in the "Citizen Rose" panel during the NBCUniversal 
 2018 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour (Getty/Frederick M. Brown)
Rose McGowan participates in the "Citizen Rose" panel during the NBCUniversal 2018 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour (Getty/Frederick M. Brown)

Earlier this month when Rose McGowan appeared before reporters at a press event in Pasadena, Calif., one journalist asked McGowan whether a show such as her five-part documentary series “Citizen Rose,” debuting Tuesday at 8 p.m., could have landed at a network like E! if it were introducing an everyday person or an unknown activist.

Qualifying the question by asking about the benefits of following such a story with “a familiar face at the helm,” the reporter asked whether she could think of other differences to mention.

“Yeah,” McGowan answered curtly. “It’s me.”

You may have noticed lately that Rose McGowan has been all up in our grills. In addition to her E! series, Vanity Fair and the New York Times have run recent profiles of her. The headline of an Elle profile that published Jan. 3 declared McGowan to be the “decorated General in the revolution against the Patriarchy.”

And it’s her slightly shaking but defiant facial expression, framed by her signature minimalist coif, that launches readers into Time’s Person of the Year coverage, where she’s heralded as one of “The Silence Breakers.”

McGowan has been an outspoken social media fixture since 2015, when a few tweets calling out the sexism in the industry made her something akin to persona non grata, although by then she had begun to machete herself a new path as an artist. Around that time, she told reporters, she trademarked Rose Army, the name she coined for followers who came to her defense many times on social media. McGowan says Rose Army has mobilized into a movement empowered to act not merely on her own behalf but in service of a much greater cause. “I’m really just trying to stop international rapists and child molesters,” she told reporters that day. “It’s pretty simple. After that, I’m golden.”

What this statement omits is that McGowan’s book “Brave” is on the verge of being released, handily on the day her E! show debuts. She also has an album coming out. In short, 2018 is shaping up to be a very good year for a woman all but written off by Hollywood — much of that thanks to a smear campaign she says was spearheaded by the man she only refers to as “the monster.”

“I love it when people are, like, ‘You’re so lucky you have a platform,’” she said. “I’m, like, ‘Do you understand what I have been through for 20 years? Do you understand that my sitting here is a miracle? I have fought. I have clawed. I have scraped. And I have done it strategically so I could arrive at this moment. It’s not an accident that I’m sitting here. And I earned it, and I worked.’”

When McGowan delivers statements like these with armored brashness, only an ogre wouldn't want to pull for her. Taking into account all she’s been through, many do: McGowan alleges that Harvey Weinstein raped her in a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. He denies the crime, but then he also paid her a $100,000 settlement to keep quiet about it.

No amount of money in the world mattered after the New York Times released its exhaustive investigative piece on Weinstein detailing a pattern of sexual misconduct and assaults dating back decades. Vindicating as that must have been, the piece came years after McGowan’s movie career had effectively withered and died, in no small part, she says, because of that life-altering assault and Weinstein’s influence in the industry — part of which, she says, included paying off media outlets to paint her as crazy.

Now she has the opportunity to steer the conversation, restyle her image and resurrect her brand. But as we approach the launch of “Citizen Rose” it’s fair to ask what, exactly, Rose’s revolution is really doing to lift all boats. As that report alluded to in a sideways fashion, there’s absolutely no way that E! would be doing such a documentary on Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement in 2006, when McGowan was filming the final episodes of “Charmed.” Yet a large reason we’re seeing “Citizen Rose” is because McGowan has received a hefty slice of credit for blasting #MeToo to the top of the cultural conversation.

Though review episodes of “Citizen Rose” weren’t widely circulated to critics, I can’t help wondering whether McGowan is going to use that platform to examine the ways that the mainstream feminist movement relies upon the work and participation of women of color and yet fails them time and again. McGowan had her own flirtation with an ill-informed racial faux-pas in an October tweet that has since been deleted, in which she chastised James Corden for a blue and insensitive joke about Weinstein's actions by inviting him to replace the word "women" in his jokes “with the N-word” to see how it feels.

Without meaning to McGowan stumbled into the precise issue that black women have been dealing with for years when it comes to feminism, specifically feminism as envisioned by a majority of white women, a movement that assumes their experience is typical of every woman's experience. Such a statement fails to recognize that black women and other women of color have been dealing with racially based attacks and harassment for centuries now, and pretty much hourly on Twitter, one of McGowan’s favorite megaphones.

This is why, when Twitter disabled McGowan’s account in October and her supporters staged a protest, women of color rightly asked where were the protests against their mistreatment, the most recent and glaring examples being the attacks sustained by Leslie Jones and Jemele Hill.

So as much as women of color likely support McGowan’s resurrection tale, understand why many of us may wonder aloud whether this “decorated General in the revolution” truly stands for all of us or if she’ll neglect to offer her hand to the black, Latinx, Asian and indigenous women who anonymously worked for years to build the platform she’s standing on now.

This is aside from the other more obvious incongruities of seeing “Citizen Rose” on the same channel that was recently the subject of its own controversy over pay inequity involving the departure of host Catt Sadler -- a channel that also airs a number of series that may chafe feminists, such as the plastic surgery-gone-wrong series “Botched,” and that treats celebrity gossip news and red carpet coverage, that circus of unrealistic, unattainable body image and privacy invasion, as the bread and butter of its brand.

McGowan was careful to mention that she “really, really [likes] the people at E!” and that what she’s doing is “quite separate from ‘Me Too,’” explaining that she began filming footage for “Citizen Rose” three years ago. Promotional excerpts hint at its taking a very personal approach to larger social and political issues.

“It’s not important for me to be seen as anything,” she insisted. That’s fair, as long as she also accepts the part she’s playing in the way we’re seeing her now and how her image has been co-opted as the standard of a movement that, so far, has mostly benefited white women of means and privilege.

“I was waiting for someone else for so long, you guys, just waiting,” McGowan told reporters. “There was nobody that came.”

Women of color know that feeling far too well.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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