Rose McGowan is Free From The Matrix and Wants You to Break Out, Too
Rose McGowan has one of the most interesting voices I have ever heard, and not just because the whole world is finally listening. It evolves mid-sentence, whisper-soft vulnerability alchemizing into fierce resolve, punctuated with profanity that lands with audible impact. She says the word fuck like it was always meant to be said: sharp and thrown straight to the gut. Her deep voice climbs in register when she is speaking about her younger self, or about the thousands of rape and assault survivors who have reached out to her, growing gentle and reflective, brimming with urgent and poignant tenderness.
In the span of a sentence, she is capable of expressing an almost unfathomable range of emotions, from gut-wrenching rage to exhausted disdain to quietly persevering optimism. Her voice bends, but it does not break. The ability to captivate an audience has long been considered the benchmark of a successful leader, and McGowan, the actress turned feminist activist who has spent the past few weeks unapologetically and systematically decimating the pervasive powers that have enabled assault and abuse to thrive in Hollywood for decades, has positioned herself, rightfully, on the front lines of a resistance that feels revolutionary, both long overdue and decidedly of the moment.
McGowan, who formally left acting three years ago and has been waging a war to bring attention to the mistreatment of women in the industry ever since, was one of the first women to come forward with accusations against producer and predator Harvey Weinstein, speaking up as the rest of the industry seemingly froze in silence. Since then, nearly a hundred women have come forward with allegations against Weinstein that range from verbal coercion to rape, sending a shock wave through the industry and empowering men and women alike to share their stories, exposing a handful of high profile serial predators in the process.
It also inspired a resurgence of the #MeToo movement, which was started 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke as a simple and meaningful shorthand that both expresses trauma and stands in solidarity. The movement recently reached a fever pitch on social media, with millions posting the hashtag, forcing us as individuals and as a society to confront the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse in our daily lives, to examine the devastating magnitude of this epidemic with eyes wide open.
Throughout all of this, McGowan has emerged as the de facto torchbearer of the movement, encouraging survivors to come forward while strategically calling out those who are consciously or subconsciously complicit, critiquing the ways in which we both ignore and enable rape culture, and not letting anyone get away with any of it. Her fearless and impassioned Twitter take-downs of agents, studio heads, corporations, lawyers, and actors who could and should have spoken out has stripped away the stigma, revealing the systemic rot at the root of the problem. It has also inspired a literal army of followers: #ROSEARMY, her far-reaching and fiercely devoted online following, which she describes as “a social justice flash mob.”
Suffice it to say that McGowan has risen, and has no intention of ever backing down. With a memoir turned manifesto, Brave, coming out in early 2018 and a “future folk-pop” album, Planet 9, slated for release shortly after that—not to mention an industry-defying skincare line and a documentary series in the works—McGowan carries herself with the cool and calm demeanor of a woman with a plan. When she speaks, you can feel the pain that she keeps close, like a bruise just beneath her skin, adding depth to her sadness and teeth to her anger.
After decades spent escaping from cults that expected her to abide by the power of men, she refuses to enable your mediocrity, your misogyny, or your bullshit. She has never played by your rules, and she doesn’t intend to start now. I sat down with McGowan in her cozy, art-filled home in the Hollywood hills late one Saturday night to discuss the effect of the #MeToo movement, the power of social media in activism, and the message that connects all of her upcoming creative projects.
What you’re doing right now is powerful and unprecedented. You’re taking this incredibly personal and traumatic event, and you’re not allowing people to stall at the “thoughts and prayers” plateau that we as a country get stuck on…
Fuck thoughts and prayers. I don’t want your thoughts and prayers. I want you to fucking do something. You have to really blow it up before you can reconstruct. It doesn’t work to put Band-Aids on things. There’s this organization called Women In Film, and I would put forth, ladies, since statistics for female versus male directors haven’t changed since 1946, I would respectfully submit that what you’re doing is not working. And I feel that way about most groups. Unless they’re a radical organization, it’s not doing anything because playing nice hasn’t really gotten us anywhere. Not being angry hasn’t really gotten us anywhere. We’re so scared as women of being labeled as being angry or as “bitches”—I’m like, "You’ve labeled me with every single thing you could possibly label me with, so fuck off. You want a bitch? I’ll fucking be a bitch."
Honestly, most people are scared to do what you’re doing and speak truth to power. How do you rise above that fear?
I don’t really care what people are scared of because being scared kills people. Being scared keeps us exactly where were at. You’re scared? So what. I’m scared all the time but I’m still brave. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. America very much has a problem with that. I remember moving to the States and they had all these bumper stickers, saying no fear, no fear, no fear. And I just thought that was the stupidest thing. If you try to shove down being afraid, it eats you. We’re just going ahead despite it.
THE ROW dress and THIS IS THE UNIFORM bodysuit.
I wanted to ask about your involvement in the #MeToo movement. What effect do you think it’s having on women and the world in general?
The hashtag #MeToo was created by Tarana Burke, who introduced me onstage at the Detroit Women’s Convention, which was such a huge honor. In my speech I said, "Thank you, Tarana Burke, for giving us two words and a hashtag that have helped free us." Because what I feel like it did was create a shorthand. Like if you say you’ve been assaulted and I say I’ve been assaulted, we both have different stories but the commonalities are huge and there was no bridge to having a conversation about it.
So if you use #MeToo, it’s kind of like a secret handshake, but it’s not secret anymore. It’s a language tool. It encapsulates an experience, pain, tradition, sameness, universality, trauma, PTSD, rage…it’s like a plaintive wail. You can even laugh at #MeToo because it’s literally absurd that there are so many. The thing that troubles me about #MeToo is that I just want there to be a counterpart #IDidIt. Where are those guys? The statistic that one out of five women have been raped is such a joke. I have four sisters and we’re all #MeToo’s. I just think those other two women weren’t aware they were assaulted. Maybe they didn’t know the word for it.
Since the start of the #MeToo movement I’ve had some very interesting conversations with men where they are shocked at the pervasiveness of rape culture, which they couldn’t or just wouldn’t see before.
I don’t explain. I just literally take them down. It’s exhausting and literally until two or three weeks ago people thought it was their job to tell me in all ways what to do with my life, how to live my life, how to approach my art, what to think. I’m just like, “Do I look like I don’t know what I’m doing?”
There were two Lyfts that I took recently, and they started talking about the whole situation—they didn’t know it was me because I have a different name for cars—and I was sitting behind them so they couldn’t see me and they started talking about it. And one of them was saying, “I don’t understand why they didn’t just slap him and push him back,” and so he got taken down from the back seat. But he understood. I said, “Have you ever frozen like a deer in the headlights? Where you just left your body and you were like a statue because the fear and trauma were too much to process?” and he said, “That happened to me when I was 8. I just froze. I’ll always remember that. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t move.” I said, “That’s what it’s like. That’s what happened.”
Your directorial debut, Dawn, came out a few years ago to critical acclaim. And aside from your memoir, Brave, which comes out in January, you’re also releasing an album this year?
It’s all aligned. Dawn is a complete metaphor for what was done to me in Hollywood and what’s done to girls in general in the world. Just sending them out to be polite and what happens when you meet monsters. We get so scrambled in our brains from having to be inoffensive. What’s wrong with being offensive? Brave is about how I fought my way out of two different cults and reclaimed my life. It is a memoir, but it is also very much a manifesto explaining how I got out of the system and fought back against it.
As for my album, Planet 9, I’ve been executive producing the experience of it and putting it all together for the last two years. It’s really trance-y and hypnotic. One of the tracks is such a club banger, but the lyrics are for rape survivors. I’m making all the videos for it as well. I’m trying to make a sound that doesn’t exist, that I hear in my head. I just feel like people don’t really even know what actual emotion sounds like anymore. It’s kind of like how they automatically retouch women when you get photographed. Maybe it’s better not perfect.
So yeah, everything that I’m putting out into the world, I link together. Everything delivers the same message.
And what is the message?
Free your mind. Don’t be part of the machine. Even the people that already think they’re different, go even harder in that direction. People, especially women, are scared of being disliked. I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t kill you. I’ve been disliked by many people, judged by millions, harassed by even more. I’m still here.
Do you think the world is capable of changing?
Are people willing? They’re never going to be willing to be uncomfortable. Men can’t even stand an itchy tag in their clothes. They have a very comfortable existence and I’m here to stop their comfort. I was on NPR last year and the male host was like, in his soft NPR voice, "What if what you’re saying makes men uncomfortable?" I just said, "What if me walking down the street at night makes you think you’re going to rape and kill me? Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable?"
It’s like that Margaret Atwood quote: "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."
That’s exactly what it is. I was at this dinner with all these disgusting Hollywood guys about a year and a half ago and they were all going around the table telling the hardest thing that had ever happened to them in their lives. And every single one of these dipshits told the story of how they were late bloomers and girls didn’t like them. So they start by resenting women because they’re not giving them what they want, because this rape culture tells them if you’re attracted to them, they owe it to you.
I get so many guys who are like, "I’m one of the good guys." Great. Be better. You have shutters and blinders on towards your own behavior. If you are a good person and you hear someone saying something racist, you would shut it down. Do the same thing when somebody’s slurring women. Shut it down; correct their course—like a chiropractic adjustment for the mind.
It’s important for women to do that as well. So much self-loathing and misogyny is internalized from a young age.
It’s so obvious in the press. USA Today, which is obviously douche-y anyways, covered the women’s convention and it was a woman that wrote the article. The first thing she said was, "The atmosphere there was like a pep rally!" What? No, the atmosphere was fierce as fuck. It was freedom fighters. But you’re right, we’re just cheerleaders! People need to see how they use their language to slant with all those stupid click-bait headlines.
You’ve used Twitter to consistently hold people accountable, and to organize your supporters. When you were suspended, #ROSEARMY literally rose up in your defense.
They rose up. And that’s what #ROSEARMY is, a kind of flash mob for justice, leaning on people to do right and do better.
How would you describe your relationship with Hollywood?
I was the ultimate insider-outsider. I don’t want them and they don’t want me. But I worked in it so I saw everything and I know who does what and why people cover it up, which is just weakness and greed and avarice and lack of morality.
I worked on films for thousands of hours and it took me a long time to realize that what I loved was the totality of it. I hated being an actress. It was so humiliating. I had this big line inside of my cheek where I would chew when directors would make me do something. I was sick all the time. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my life. At the height of Charmed, I was at 7/11 one night and I remember thinking, "I think I’m the loneliest person in the world." And right after that, the guy behind the counter goes, "You must have the best life." And I looked at him and I went, "Yes, I have the best life."
When do you feel like you really walked away from that world? What was the final straw?
I’d say probably about three years ago. I was married then, and my husband and I were at the Chateau Marmont, and this douchebag agent named Michael Kives came up. I knew him—he’s a slime bag CAA agent type. I was speaking to someone and he came up and touched my arm and said, “Oh, that feels so amazing!” and he starts petting my arm.
I just stuck my arm out like it was an object for him to pet while I continued my conversation, like, “Here, touch my arm, get it over with and then go away.” My husband was sitting across from me. Then he brings this other guy over and they’re both looking at my husband, and he goes, “Oh, you don’t mind if we touch your wife’s skin, do you?” and I was just ignoring it. I literally had my arm out like, “Here’s the object, do whatever you want with it.” Then my husband got up and punched him across the table at the Chateau, and I was like, “Oh god, this is going to bring so much trouble my way!”
Trouble? Trouble from whom? What are they going to do to you? My husband and I got in fights because I couldn’t see why it was wrong. I was like, “Look, everybody touches my skin, what’s the big deal?” I’ve been on sets where I stuck my arm out for what felt like 100 crew members to touch. My body was such an object—it was just a shell to be petted or grabbed at. And now I’m like, “Punch him! Punch him harder!” I wish I would have.
You’re an actor, artist, musician, businesswoman, filmmaker, author, and activist. Is there a certain creative vein you connect most with?
All of it. I’ve met so many people who are like, "I’m not creative," and my response is: Who stole that from you? How old were you when it happened? If I were an accountant, I would be the most creative accountant. I don’t know how normal people do things because I didn’t grow up in that system. In the cult I grew up in, anyone who wasn’t in it was called a “systemite.” It’s kind of a chilling term but I find it very apt. They’re in the Matrix and they don’t have to be. You can get out at any time.
That’s why I’m just smacking everyone over the head with all the different things I have coming out over the next year. I realized I couldn’t effect change just coming out in one vein so I have the book in a few months and then the album a few months after that. Two months after that is the skincare line, and two months after that is the Docu-series. Just continually cracking society’s coconut brain open to wake up.
Do you think all of this would be possible without social media? Do you still face resistance when going after someone like Weinstein, even on a supposedly level playing field like Twitter?
No, it definitely wouldn’t be possible, although Twitter silenced me so you certainly can silence people on social media. They’re protecting one of their own. This whole thing is bigger than us. That hideous monster man looks like the face of all our sexual harassment, looks like the face of global rape, looks like the face of abusive white male power, looks like the face of everything that is rotten in this society, embodied in one being. And that fucking being touched me, so I had to take that beast down.
I feel like I cut the head off, but the body has to stay down. And the body is all the rest of them—these fat pigs that all blur into one fat, ugly pig. His head is the head, and it’s a big head. Did you know that Steven Spielberg has been thanked the most at the Oscars, and then fuckface and God are tied? So when I say it was a massive conspiracy, it was a massive conspiracy. No one has ever gone rogue in Hollywood. Nobody. Frances Farmer tried and she got her brain fried.
People say things at award shows—fuck your award show. People are like, “What would you do if you got nominated?” I’d tell them to fuck off. I just turned down a Vanity Fair cover. I don’t want to be in your stupid magazine. I don’t want to be in your stupid status quo. I don’t want to sell your stupid idea. I don’t want to be in your machine. I don’t want to be in your system. Even when I was four years old, they would say, “Rose, have you let God into your heart?” And I would say, “No, not today. Try again tomorrow.”
Do you have any guidance for survivors who are currently feeling their way through this darkness?
Everything is a journey and sometimes journeys are really hard. Especially if you’ve had part of you stolen, there is a funeral of self that you have to have. There is a death of self. But what I can say is that you will build 2.0 and that 2.0 is strong as a motherfucker and that 2.0 will burn the system down that did this to you and did this to our sisters and brothers. And I’m here and I have my invisible arms wrapped around all of you. It’s only just begun, although we’ve been working on this for a long time.
The thing with great pain and deep pain is we get to see more beauty. It came at a very, very high cost, but it does make the beauty that much more beautiful, and it does make the art that much deeper, and it does make music sound that much more intense. We see a color palette others don’t. It’s really good over here on the other side. I know you can make it. I believe in you.
Written by Alison Green
Photographer: Ian Morrison at OPUS Reps
Stylist: Tara Williams at Lang Management
Hair: Frankie Payne using Number 4 Hair Care at Opus Beauty
Makeup: Harriet Hadfield using Dior Addict at Opus Beauty
Producer Assistant: Britton Litow
Photography Assistant: Alexander Dickinson
Location: Albright LA