Rose McGowan: The Agitator
On Seeing Yourself Through the Eyes of a World of Men, Feeling Like Prey, Being Called Fat at Home Depot, and Being Grateful for Having a Mind that Can Want More for People and the Planet
Actor, director, activist, and feminist Rose McGowan’s uncompromising spirit, which first captured us with her unforgettable performance in The Doom Generation, bloomed into a career with iconic roles in films like Scream and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Her directorial debut film, Dawn, was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Activist and filmmaker Laura Dawn sat down with Rose in New York City last summer, discussing art, street harassment, and the trouble with being a feminist in Hollywood—nothing was off limits in this fierce and funny conversation.
We don’t have the anger yet and that’s usually what shifts and moves things.
Laura Dawn: So, I noticed that you and Julia Stiles almost made the film version of The Bell Jar together?
Rose McGowan: It would have been amazing.
LD: I’m a crazy Plath-Head. A bit of a fanatic. And I have to say, that really would have been amazing.
RM: It’s quite sad that it never got funding. You never know what goes on behind the scenes, but . . .
LD: I’m gonna take a wild leap and posit that the reason it didn’t get made is because Hollywood has been so afraid of telling women’s stories. I mean, you and Julia Stiles in a film version of one of the best selling, most iconic books of all time would kind of seem like a no-brainer and yet that didn’t get funded?
RM: It’s incredibly shortsighted, it’s just sad, and it renders a large sector of the population voiceless and under-represented. It’s interesting how we have a lot of people banging the drum for equality, which is all fucking awesome, but it’s different when people are bitching about the lack of real roles for women versus getting angry about it. We don’t have the anger yet and that’s usually what shifts and moves things. People get so burned out on hearing about sexism, but you know what? I would love to burn out on it. I would love to never talk about that again, but until we’re all equal I shall have to fight, and remain fighting.
LD: And I’m so happy that you are! I imagine, as a former child model, you have a lifelong perspective on this, yes?
RM: Of sorts. You know, I was a boy in the ads I did as a child. My sister was the girl, and I was the boy. I had short hair and I was in overalls and I was giving flowers to my sister Daisy, who fit their model of what a girl was supposed to look like. She had blonde ringlets and big blue eyes and so I was relegated to being the boy and all the pictures are of me looking quite surly.
LD: That’s interesting.
RM: Yeah, it was quite funny.
LD: And now you’re renowned for your beauty. At what point did you start getting noticed for your looks? Is that something that happened later or was it early?
RM: Well, I moved from Italy to Oregon in the ’80s—sort of like moving to the middle of a “Duck Dynasty” episode, which was massive culture shock to say the least.
I kind of grew breasts overnight and then the world got really loud.
RM: I’d never even seen orange cheese. I mean, who decided to make that orange? And so there was something different about me that they wanted to crush. I don’t think it had anything to do with my physicality, but every
single day in school it was, “You’re the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.” Instead of just thinking, “Oh, this person’s from another culture, what’s different, what can we learn about this new person?” It was just, “Stamp it out! Stamp it out
immediately!” And because I’m a girl, the surest way to do that is through, “You’re ugly.”
LD: Wow. That’s such a hard experience at that age.
RM: And I’d kind of look at myself in the mirror and think, “I’m not sure, but I think they might be wrong. My features seem normal, what is it that they find so off-putting?” So I didn’t take to heart what they said, and I was just puzzled. And then I would go to another state where my photographer father was living and there I’d be revered for what I looked like. What it did was cancel both out, and that served me really quite well. I kind of grew breasts overnight and then the world got really loud. I went from being just a kid to all of a sudden not being able to walk a block without a man waggling his tongue through his fingers, which is disgusting. I mean, I was 13 and suddenly I’m trying to see myself through the eyes of men, trying to figure out why I’m getting this reaction from them versus just
being able to walk through the world whole.
LD: When I was younger I felt like prey, that’s the only word I can use.
RM: I was prey.
LD: And I’d try to figure out a way to dress that wouldn’t invite it. So some days you would have a ponytail and sweats on and that’s the day you’d get . . .
RM: That actually gets you more harassment weirdly enough!
LD: I know, right? Why is that? Maybe you look vulnerable or younger.
RM: You’re not scary to them because you’re not wearing lipstick. Ooooh, that’s scary!
LD: So, when you add fame on top, does that give you a layer of protection from that kind of harassment or make it worse?
RM: Well, both. With fame, all of a sudden you’re seeing yourself through the eyes of a world of men, and that’s . . . Look, it’s very weird to have part and parcel of a job to feel like you’re a lure for men to come into the theater. Some people do have a very innate sexuality to them. I may or may not have it, but it makes people see you in a certain light that has nothing to do with me. Recently I was at Home Depot, of all things, and some guy that works there walks past me and he’s pushing cartons of something and he says, “Hey, you’re much fatter in real life.”
RM: I was like, “What?” It snapped me out of my . . . I mean, I was looking for light bulbs.
LD: First of all, that is not true . . .
RM: I was like, “Well how thin am I supposed to be, jerk?”
RM: And I just felt like, “Why would you discuss my body as if it’s an object?” People will come up and say things like, “Are your breasts real?” I mean, people will come up and discuss my body as if I’m not human. It went from men looking at me in a predatory way, or in an appreciative way, depending, to “And there’s the animal in its natural habitat.” Like I’m an oddity, or a strange creature that doesn’t quite exist, ergo, you can say anything you want and it doesn’t hurt me, right?
LD: It sounds like street harassment on steroids. There’s a whole street harassmentsubculture of men who get off in some way by saying demeaning things to women, right?
RM: Oh, yes.
LD: I have a friend who claims her favorite comeback to that is “You will never, ever get to fuck me.”
RM: Ever ever. Ever ever ever.
LD: I wish I had the guts to say something
RM: “How does it feel to be somebody that
will never fuck me? What’s that like?”
LD: “What’s that like?”
RM: “What’s that like, idiot?”
LD: But you know, the truth is I’m always afraid to say something like that. I’ve had enough scary things happen, so . . . the fear is that talking back, that engaging at all, is to open the door for god-knows-what.
RM: Because every woman knows that any man engaging in street harassment can switch to anger very quickly and that anger goes to rage and their rage is their masculinity being threatened. We’re scared for good reason. Look, I’ve been in some hairy situations. I was a homeless runaway.
If somebody said something racist around me, or you, or most people, you would correct it, you would stop it, but when they say things about women, so frequently no one says anything. That has to change.
LD: In Oregon?
RM: That was in Oregon. That was really fun to be homeless in one of the rainiest places in the country.
LD: How old were you at that time and how long were you on your own?
RM: I was 13. And on my own for about 10 months, but those were long months. My stepdad wanted me out of his hair and tried to put me in a home, a hospital kind of place for kids with drug problems, which I absolutely did not belong in. So I left that place and struck out on my own and banded together immediately with three trans girls
and a stripper named Tina. Tina had an apartment.
LD: Have you written about this?
RM: I have a lot to write. You have no idea.
LD: That sounds like an incredible novel, or film—something that you really need to share
with the world.
RM: There’s a lot, definitely. It was an adventure for sure. It was like Huckleberry Finn but in the gay club world. I would collect cans and then dress up like Charlie Chaplin from Goodwill suits, like men’s suits from the ’20s and the ’30s, then do like crazy checkerboard makeup. And you know, it was great in a way because it gave me somewhere to go. Heterosexual men terrified me. I found them to be dangerous. Not all of them, of course, but it took me some time to learn to be comfortable. And while I learned, I hid out largely in the gay community, and overall it kept me very safe. Since I didn’t grow up going to school dances, etc., I didn’t have the normal . . . I grew up in a very different way so a lot of the childish concerns or teenage concerns weren’t my concerns. My concerns were survival. The people that are the invisible ones, the marginalized, the quote-unquote weirdos, the people that get things thrown at them, the people that get harassed every day just for existing . . . I just still strongly align with them. This hetero–normative behavior and herd mentality is dangerous. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to stand out for whatever reason. Some people are just born that way and instead of trying to tear them down, learn something new. Be curious and open because maybe that’s a pathway out for you, too.
LD: I agree, wholeheartedly. So I’m sure you’ve seen the annual Celluloid Ceiling report stats that found women accounted for about 16 percent of directors, writers, executive producers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.
RM: Oh yes.
LD: So, I want to touch on your recent, absolutely fucking glorious moment on social media where you publicly called out Hollywood misogynistic casting practices by tweeting out a casting call that “encouraged” form fitting clothes and a push-up bra. And I just want to say, on behalf of millions of women online who saw this: Thank you.
RM: Well, you’re welcome, but it’s funny, the first tweet that turned into this whole situation? I was just like, “This is just Tuesday,” you know? This shit happens every single day and we’re all just so used to it, and that is what’s not okay. To me the most egregious thing was the amount of people that probably saw that and in no way flagged it. It was just so gross and tired. I live a very international life, but when I come back to Hollywood, a town I love in
a lot of ways, I have to wonder, “What decade are you in? Like, seriously, what decade? It’s not this one.”
And it’s not the future. You have to be at the forefront of culture to create art, which they call “product,” and Hollywood is not. It’s this very old business model, which I think is dying in a lot of ways. It’s like the Mad Men era and they’re holding on for dear life. A guy friend I was speaking to last night said he was talking to a group of male producersand he was just shocked that they said, “But if we give women directors a job they’re going to
take jobs away from the men.” I almost fell out of my chair. But when I encounter this kind
of thing, what I try to do is give a chiropractic adjustment to the mind, quickly.
LD: Ha! I like that.
RM: Like, I have 30 seconds with you. I’m going to shape and slap the shit out of your brain so you can actually look at this and perceive it differently. Because if somebody said something racist around me, or you, or most people, you would correct it, you would stop it, but when they say things about women, so frequently no one says anything. That has to change. And I don’t mind being disliked—I will be the one to step up and say what needs to be said if it helps one woman who comes after me. And why are women still this underclass? If we all banded together . . .
LD: We’re a larger voting block than men and yet we don’t fully exercise that power.
LD: Ok, I am all fired up! But I have a few more questions. What keeps you up at night? I’ve been personally losing sleep over climate change these days.
RM: Oh god, so much . . . I think of the kids that live on top of garbage dumps, I think of the ways we could reach out to other countries, I think of certainly climate change. There’s so much. The nighttime is that time, is it not?
LD: Oh yes.
RM: I mean, short-sightedness is killing us. How do these people running corporations like Monsanto—how do they justify that paycheck? That destructive greed?
LD: And the oil and gas industry . . .
RM: What do you mean? I love BP. They’ve done a great job in the Gulf. Keep on keepin’ on!
LD: Could you imagine being their lawyers and having to lie to the public about how much of the
environment they’ve destroyed?
RM: How do they sleep at night?
LD: Since you’re such an incredibly intelligent and sensitive person, how do you combat the darkness? What are some tools that you use to beat it back?
RM: You know what? I don’t know how exactly but I’m maybe perverse in the sense that I like being disappointed in something on a daily basis. Because it means that I’m still not jaded.
LD: Oh, I love that. I love that perspective.
RM: When I get my feelings hurt, or when things scare me, or freak out my sensibilities, or when my feathers get ruffled, it takes me aback, of course, but then I think, I’m grateful that I have a mind that can want more for people and want more for the planet. It’s not that hard. It’s really quite simple. It just boils down to people perceiving each other as equal humans, and if we can achieve that we can achieve really anything. So that, more than anything, keeps me going. I see so much beauty in people and in the world and when I see ugliness I try to either expose it or fight but also remind myself that it’s mostly just people who can’t spell who say mean things.
It’s funny, honestly, by rights, with a lot of the stuff that’s happened to me I should be running down the street with my hair on fire, but instead I want to shape things, and I want to shake things up. There’s nothing wrong with being an agitator.
The invisible ones, the marginalized, the quote-unquote weirdos, the people that get things thrown at them, the people that get harassed every day just for existing . . . I just still strongly align with them.
photos: Janell Shirtcliff