Rose McGowan shifted gears from actor to filmmaker years ago, and while she has yet to make her first feature, she’s already one of the decade’s most audacious feminist voices. Her victimization at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, and a willingness to speak out about pervasive sexism throughout the the film industry, is at the heart of a massive reckoning. For McGowan, however, it’s business as usual. Her outspoken brand of radical feminism may have been marginalized a few weeks ago, but in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, her rage defines the zeitgeist.
On Thursday, Twitter temporarily pulled the plug on McGowan’s account as she ramped up her accusations against male Hollywood executives. The company claimed that she had shared a phone number of an accused predator, violating its terms of service. It didn’t matter: As anger with an oppressive system reached fever pitch, the decision quickly took on the symbolic power of persecution; #WomanBoycottTwitter took flight. The flurry of support showed how McGowan epitomized the frustrations felt by so many women and their advocates, whose complaints so often went unheard.
McGowan, whose 2014 short film “Dawn” is a powerful snapshot of sexual assault, didn’t get here overnight. To connect the dots of McGowan’s transformation from ‘90s It girl to today’s shaved-head anarchic rebel requires a bit of historical context. In 1986, at the age of 13, she escaped from the Children of God cult; by 1995, McGowan was the punk-rock lightning rod for Gregg Araki’s formally daring queer road movie “The Doom Generation.” A year later, she catapulted to Hollywood celebrity stature as an ill-fated teen in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher “Scream.”
Quickly pigeonholed as a mainstream actress at the center of innumerable formulaic movies, the machine gobbled her faster than she could have anticipated. McGowan has not responded to interview requests in recent weeks, but she has told her bumpy life story for a long time. “I had no intention of acting or dealing with Hollywood,” she said in a public conversation hosted by IndieWire last year, noting that she had only acted in “Doom Generation” at the urging of a friend. “My life had always been different from the girls in ‘Scream’…They were — what’s the word? Not dumber. Studio. Let’s go with that.”
McGowan’s pop-culture status solidified with The WB’s “Charmed,” in which she played an irrepressible young witch. The material smoothed out the rougher dimensions of her “Doom Generation” persona and channeled her edginess for a wider audience. In her movie roles, however, that edge all but vanished. She had the fleeting chance to command the screen as a zombie-killing go-go dancer with a machine gun for a leg in 2007’s “Planet Terror” (directed by her ex, Robert Rodriguez); by 2011, she tried to make the best of studio fare like “Conan the Barbarian.”
“I wound up in the most ridiculous movies and just decided to make it deep performance art on somebody else’s budget and somebody else’s time,” she said last year. “In ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ I introduced an Electra complex where I basically was trying to fuck my dad through the entire movie.” In the meantime, she was also cashing checks to put her many siblings through school.
It’s now clear that McGowan struggled with a much bigger problem: In 1997, according to multiple reports and her own recent social-media allegations, Harvey Weinstein raped her in a Sundance hotel room. That was only the most horrific example of the systematic abuse she perceived throughout the industry. “My life on the other side of the camera was very, very lonely and difficult,” she said. “For me, it wasn’t artistically rewarding, because I was working with a lot of misogynistic men who were nasty… I couldn’t understand the positive at this point, why I was leaving my own brain and body to become a one-dimensional character for their pleasure and for the abuse behind the scenes. It just became about not living an authentic life in any way.”
That changed when McGown began openly discussing her disinterest in acting, and decided what she really wanted to do was direct. McGowan has been slow to advance her filmmaking career, but so far she has shown herself to be pretty good at it. “Dawn,” her 17-minute short, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to appropriate raves. (Watch it below.)
Co-written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, the movie stars Tara Lynne Barr as a ‘50s-era teen who falls for a hunky classmate, only to find herself the victim of sexual violence in the shocking finale. McGowan co-opts the era’s vibrant, colorful atmosphere to show just how much America’s postwar myth obscures its darker side. It’s a startling missive against the more conservative narratives that confined her as an actress. A year later, she announced plans to direct “The Pines,” from a script by Alex Mar, about a mentally unstable woman. That hasn’t happened yet, but in the meantime she found her voice through another medium: social media.
In June 2015, McGowan made headlines when she rejected sexist instructions to show cleavage for a role in Adam Sandler’s Netflix movie “The Do Over,” sharing her ire over the casting note on Twitter. Her agent fired her the next day, and with nothing to lose, she shared that news online as well. A community of women in the entertainment industry offered their support, and suddenly she was on talk shows calling out “the systemic abuse of women in Hollywood.”
She began promoting the hashtag #RoseArmy across all her social channels, landed a book deal, and even sold t-shirts with her shaved head alongside the slogan like a feminized Uncle Sam (the proceeds went to the East Los Angeles Women’s Center). McGowan’s long-gestating second chapter had at last found its form. (Her memoir, “Brave,” will be published by HarperOne next February.)
Some dismissed McGowan’s new look, her combative tone, and provocative tweets as cries for attention, stunts reserved for actors past their prime. That reductive assumption only enhances the very nature of McGowan’s activism, which questions the parameters of an industry that forces women into a box if it doesn’t reject them outright.
Her furious tone may have seemed cartoonish or superficial when it first emerged, but now it’s clear she’s a visionary who created a template for the widespread outrage that erupted with the Weinstein scandal. She heard that time bomb ticking decades ago. The reverberations of the explosion won’t recede any time soon, and McGowan is just getting started.