If there is any hero to come out of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s Rose McGowan.
McGowan, who is best known for playing the mean girl in 1999’s Jawbreaker and one of the witches in the WB series Charmed, has spent the Weinstein scandal speaking out against both Weinstein and anyone who might be complicit in Weinstein’s actions. She circulated a petition calling to dissolve the board of the Weinstein Company. When reports emerged that Colony Capital was in talks to purchase the Weinstein Company, McGowan called on her supporters to boycott.
For McGowan, the movement is an extension of the story she’s long been telling about her life, a story of fighting against the world’s desire to reduce her and other women to sexual objects. It’s a story that begins with her childhood growing up in cult that would be plagued by stories of child molestation, and continues into her career as an actress continually cast as sex objects; the 2007 car crash and subsequent plastic surgery that made her a target of public mockery; and her decision to turn her back on the norms of Hollywood and call on women to unite to upend them. That’s the story she’s bringing to its culmination in her upcoming memoir, Brave, the story she’s now preparing the public to accept.
“I’m assembling an army,” she told BuzzFeed in 2015.
Here’s how McGowan came to build that army.
McGowan spent her childhood in a restrictive polygamous cult
Until she was 9 years old, McGowan was raised in the Italian chapter of the Children of God cult, a group that began as a hippie peace-and-free-love religious separatist sect but would quickly become dogged by allegations that sexual abuse ran rampant in the confines of its compounds.
McGowan says it was a controlling place to grow up, describing it as “a bit like the Medici court.” In a 2011 profile for People, she said, “You weren’t allowed to have imperfections. I had a little wart on my thumb, and I remember walking down this hallway — a door opened and some adult grabbed me and just cut it off with a razor blade and stuck me back out in the hallway with it still bleeding.”
While physical imperfections weren’t permitted, neither was makeup or glamour. You were expected to be perfect as God made you: You were to purify your body, but do it naturally. For McGowan, who loved glamour — “I basically just came out of the womb waving red lipstick,” she told People — the rules were disquieting. But they were also liberating. "I don't remember ever seeing any mirrors," she said. "So I grew up without actually registering that I was a girl or a boy. Or registering that I was anything but a mind."
For women among the Children of God, the rules were much stricter than they were for the men. “They were basically there to serve the men sexually,” says McGowan. Men in the Children of God practiced polygamy; the women would serve them and then go out to bars to seduce new recruits in a practice the cult leadership called “Flirty Fishing.” “At a very early age I decided I did not want to be like those women,” says McGowan.
McGowan says she did get an education of sorts while she was in the cult; she’s fond of quipping in interviews that she was reading Edgar Allen Poe by age 4 or 6 but didn’t learn to tie her shoes until age 9. However, she has also recounted feeling physically unsafe. “From about [age] 3, every room I go into,” she told BuzzFeed in 2015, “I immediately look for what I would kill somebody with if I had to defend myself."
Children of God is most infamous today for its doctrine that children are sexual beings and that in order to raise children naturally, adults should have sex with them. (The version of the organization that still exists today has officially disavowed that doctrine.) But McGowan says that she herself was not molested during her time in the cult. Her father was a cartoonist who drew tracts for the movement, she says, and when cult leadership began asking him to draw pamphlets advocating for child molestation, he took his children and one of his wives (who was not McGowan’s mother) and ran.
“I remember running through a cornfield in thunder and lightning, holding my dad’s hand and running as fast as I could to keep up with him,” McGowan recalled to People. “We hid in an old stone house and had to boil pots of hot water to take baths. [The cult] sent people to find us. I remember a man trying to break in with a hammer.” She was 9 years old.
McGowan’s mother eventually escaped from the cult as well, and McGowan went to live with her, but due to what she tersely describes as “a mean stepdad” situation, she ran away at age 13 to live on the streets for a year before reuniting with her father and his other wife. “It was not an easy assimilation,” she says.
The story of McGowan’s childhood as she tells it is a story of living in a system that explicitly treats women as sexual objects, that teaches women that their greatest purpose in life — the best way for them to serve God — is to serve men sexually. It’s a system that demands physical perfection and purity but dictates strict rules about how to obtain that perfection, and harshly punishes any deviations from those rules. McGowan’s childhood, in other words, was fantastic training for existing within and fighting against the great Hollywood machine.
McGowan’s acting career has been marked by her struggles with an industry that wanted to make her into a sex object
McGowan’s acting career began in earnest in 1995, when she was 22 and starred in The Doom Generation. In interviews, McGowan describes the experience with fondness, but she also describes a culture of sexual harassment on set: being told to lie down on top of an actor with an erection during her audition, and an instance after production had begun in which another actor tried to penetrate her with a water bottle. (Director Gregg Araki disputes McGowan’s allegations.)
McGowan would spend much of her film career playing sexy dark bad girls, an experience she describes with ambivalence. "I just don't like being treated as less-than," she told BuzzFeed. "I don't like being treated as basically a couch that talks — and as important. I don't like being humiliated, or somebody trying to make you humiliated."
In an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, Brave (which is set to come out in February), McGowan says she spent much of her film and television career struggling with her self-image as she worked to embody a certain physical ideal. She developed an eating disorder. She grew out her short hair, she says, because “I was literally told I had to have long hair because otherwise the men doing the hiring in Hollywood wouldn't want to fuck me and if they didn't want to fuck me, they wouldn't hire me.”
“I had been turned into the ultimate fantasy fuck toy by the Hollywood machine,” she concludes.
But her career was hobbled in 2007, when McGowan was in a car crash and one of the lenses of her glasses shattered over her eye. She underwent reconstructive surgery as a result — and the gossip press had a field day.
“By the looks of things, it appears as though she kept the doctor on speed dial,” the New York Daily News snarked in 2009, adding that McGowan’s “taut, puffy face” was “barely recognizable.”
“She was once known for her sex appeal, but thanks to the surgeon's knife she looks [sic] now appear nothing more than a memory,” said the Daily Telegraph.
Plastic surgery in Hollywood has long served the same function that makeup served among the Children of God: You are supposed to be physically perfect, but you are supposed to achieve that perfection naturally. If you rely on outside help to achieve the physical ideal you’ve been taught to strive for — help like cosmetics or plastic surgery — you become a figure to be mocked and ridiculed.
McGowan rarely addresses the outcry over her plastic surgery in public, but in 2016, she wrote a blistering open letter to a film critic after he decried Renée Zellweger’s plastic surgery. “I refuse and reject this bullshit on behalf of those who feel they can't speak,” McGowan wrote:
I am someone who was forced by a studio to go on Howard Stern, where he asked me to show him my labia while my grinning male and female publicists stood to the side and did nothing to protect me. I am someone who has withstood death threats from fan boys, had fat sites devoted to me. I've withstood harassment on a level you can’t comprehend, Owen [Gleiberman, the critic in question]. I was so confused by the heaping tons of abuse, I actually forgot what I looked like. Which is awesome because I rose up from some serious ashes to finally have my say.
For McGowan, rising up from the ashes has involved rejecting the ideals she internalized as a young actress about the ideal Hollywood image. That’s why, in 2015, she shaved off her iconic dark hair live on Instagram, calling the act “a battle cry.”
But for years, McGowan has heavily implied that she’s not only rejecting the insidious internalized misogyny she learned from Hollywood. She’s also rejecting the culture that physically assaulted her.
Because at some point in her career, McGowan has heavily implied, she was raped by Harvey Weinstein.
With the Weinstein scandal, McGowan refuses to stay quiet
According to the New York Times, Weinstein reached a $100,000 settlement with McGowan in 1997, following an “episode” at a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival.
McGowan has never commented explicitly on this settlement in public, presumably because its terms included a nondisclosure agreement. Supporting that presumption, the Daily Beast has reported that McGowan is the unnamed actress in Ronan Farrow’s recent Weinstein exposé for the New Yorker who, Farrow writes, “initially spoke to me on the record [but] later asked that her allegation be removed” because “‘the legal angle is coming at me and I have no recourse.’”
However, on multiple occasions dating back to at least 2015, McGowan has publicly hinted — often vehemently so — that Weinstein assaulted her. It was in 2015 that she gave an interview to BuzzFeed on the specter of sexual assault in the entertainment industry, saying, “It alters the course of your life; it's altered the course of my life." The interviewer mentions “a rumored serial predator in the entertainment industry, a powerful figure who is often whispered about but never exposed” (who’s been widely interpreted to be Weinstein), and McGowan responds, “There's a lot of people that don't deserve to be alive — put it that way.”
And in 2016, McGowan tweeted that “my ex sold our movie to my rapist for distribution,” alerting anyone who cared to do the math that her alleged rapist was almost certainly Weinstein. (The Weinstein Company distributed the 2007 film Grindhouse; McGowan had a supporting role in Grindhouse, which her then-boyfriend Robert Rodriguez directed.)
As the Weinstein scandal has continued to develop, McGowan has continued to heavily imply that Weinstein assaulted her, often narrowly toeing the line between implication and outright assertion.
“This is the movie I was filming when it happened,” she tweeted on Monday, along with a still from 1998’s Phantoms. (Phantoms was produced by Miramax, the production company Weinstein ran at the time.)
“I told the head of your studio that HW raped me,” she tweeted to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on October 12. (Technically this might not violate a nondisclosure agreement — she’s not saying he raped her, she’s saying she said he raped her — but it’s a pretty fine point.)
And she has continued to speak out sharply against those who she argues helped Weinstein flourish with impunity.
“Bob Weinstein is a POS,” she tweeted after he made a statement saying he had no idea what his brother was up to. “They allllll knew.” (Bob Weinstein has since also been accused of harassment.)
“You helped kill the Roy Price exposé,” she tweeted at the Hollywood Reporter’s editorial director Matthew Belloni. “I know what you did. You and your ‘paper’ are a huge part of cesspool Hollywood.” (Price recently resigned from his role as the head of Amazon Studios after he was suspended in response to sexual harassment allegations published this month in the Hollywood Reporter. However, the first exposé on Price was originally written for the outlet in the spring of 2016. When THR opted not to publish it, it was published by the subscription-based website the Information. Belloni has denied allegations that the Hollywood Reporter passed on the story due to outside pressure.)
McGowan is following the money and naming names. She is out to destroy the systemic misogyny of Hollywood, and she is not being nice about it.
Your fave is problematic: Rose McGowan edition
None of this means that McGowan is completely immune to criticism. In particular, her feminist activism sometimes erases women who are not white, straight, and cis.
In 2015, McGowan faced accusations of transphobia after she slammed Caitlyn Jenner for joking that the hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear. “You want to be a woman and stand with us,” McGowan wrote on Facebook, “well learn us.” (McGowan later apologized and said she was not transphobic.)
And just last week, McGowan objected to a questionable set of Weinstein jokes from James Corden by tweeting, “Replace the word ‘women’ w/ the ‘N’ word. How does it feel?”
“She, essentially, went full white feminist,” wrote Clarkisha Kent at the Root. McGowan deleted the tweet and apologized, but Kent argued that her apology was inadequate and poorly considered.
McGowan also scolded Ellen DeGeneres for speaking out for gay and trans people in Mississippi. “Speak for women as well plz,” she tweeted, a sentiment that seemed to ignore the fact that many gay and trans people are women.
McGowan is loud and unapologetic, and is also prone to making straight, white, cis feminism her default, erasing the experiences of other women. She messes up sometimes, and she’s usually loud about it, because she’s loud about everything. That makes her a formidable foe for someone like Harvey Weinstein, but it has its downsides too.
McGowan is no longer very interested in acting. That gives her a lot of freedom to be as outspoken as she likes.
In the current phase of her career, McGowan is not particularly interested in acting any more. (“I kind of always hated acting!” she told BuzzFeed in 2015.) She’s interested in pursuing directing, and in the meantime, most of her income appears to come from her investments. (She holds stakes in a number of businesses, including Drybar.)
That means she can be loud and she can name names and she can refuse to be nice, and she doesn’t have to worry as much about potential consequences. She’s got a book coming out about standing up to systemic oppression, and she doesn’t have to think about whether she’ll ever be offered the opportunity to act again, because she doesn’t really want to act. That position grants her a certain level of freedom.
I am a Witch. And I will hunt wrongdoers. In Hollywood, in government, in business. Stop hurting us or there will be consequence. #ROSEARMY— rose mcgowan (@rosemcgowan) October 16, 2017
McGowan is now using that freedom to speak out against the systemic misogyny of Hollywood and against everyone who is complicit in holding it up. And according to the story she tells about her life, that’s what everything she’s experienced has been building up to.