One of the first things we learn from “Citizen Rose,” the two-hour documentary special featuring the personal journey of Rose McGowan, is that an MTV video crew was following her the day she was assaulted in 1997, filming a “Day in the Life of Rose” special.
Footage from that moment is used briefly in an early sequence — a young McGowan as ’90s kids might remember her, looking happily into the camera as she enters a hotel room for her first meeting with “The Monster.” “And I said ‘I think my life is finally getting easier…’ and that haunted me,” she says in the present day, before collapsing into tears.
The red carpet and archival footage used in “Citizen Rose” has real impact, reminding us of her long-ago public image, one which did in fact leave an impression of “commodifying” her as the “bad girl” star of movies like “Scream” and “Jawbreaker.” Those flashbacks, in contrast to the McGowan we see today, are a profound reminder of just how much she’s reclaimed her identity in the years since, making her immediately sympathetic.
“Citizen Rose,” a precursor to the upcoming reality series airing later this spring on E!, is a defiantly raw and personal portrait of a very intense time in Rose McGowan’s life, as the artist/activist last fall watched the world catch up with her reality: Harvey Weinstein assaulted her at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, as he did countless other women.
“Citizen Rose” features a great deal of McGowan’s personal art (video, music, and writing) as well as candid direct-to-camera insight into her life and her journey as a self-described victim who has fought hard to learn to be brave. There’s plenty revealed over the course of these two hours, as such a personal narrative is understandably infused with both the profound and the appropriately everyday (for example, McGowan cuddling her mother’s dogs, getting silly and sentimental at Thanksgiving, and casually vaping while signing autograph inserts for her book).
There are also raw moments from the last few months that unfold in front of our eyes, such as McGowan discovering that Weinstein (and/or his associates) were interested in getting a copy of her book before it was published — and they were apparently successful in getting the first 125 pages so that they might, in McGowan’s words, “discredit and destroy my voice.”
However, it’s a pretty powerful voice, one that McGowan has been refining along the way to releasing her book “Brave” this week, which also tells her story in a different medium. There are phrases and concepts that echo between the book, the show, and her recent press appearances, such as at the Television Critics Association press tour, where she described trademarking the name #RoseArmy and beginning to build its social media empire three years ago.
#RoseArmy isn’t technically a reference to her own name, McGowan says in “Citizen Rose.” Instead, she says that it comes from her memories of seeing roses growing in the cracks of a sidewalk, and how it reminded her of the ways in which the disenfranchised have to fight to make their voices heard.
At the TCA press tour, she defined #RoseArmy as “it’s literally just, ‘Do you think like me?’ ‘You think like me?’ ‘Cool.’ It’s really that simple. But what it can do is eventually grow to exert force and pressure as kind of this invisible lobbying group to affect legislation, which is my hope and goal.”
“Citizen Rose,” like “Brave,” makes much note of the fact that McGowan was literally born into a cult: She and her family lived with a group called the Children of God in Italy for several years (which they later left after concerns about the group’s sexual practices).
In becoming an actor, as McGowan notes over footage of the Hollywood sign, “my life has taken me from one cult to another,” a town that “is paved on women’s bodies.” It’s one she’s chosen to escape — for #RoseArmy.
The #RoseArmy symbol appears repeatedly, with key phrases from McGowan’s own tweets reminding us of her strength, how she’s no longer afraid to raise hell. “They built a motherfucking beast and a motherfucking problem — and I am that problem,” she says directly into the camera, one of many moments of on-camera introspection.
By the end of these two hours, making a profound statement about who she is as a person, and the love and attention she’s gotten as a result of putting herself out there. And this is where “Citizen Rose” gets uncomfortable.
At several points in “Citizen Rose,” we see McGowan reacting to her own press, truly touched by the impact she now sees that she’s making — as overjoyed by a photo published of herself backlit at the Detroit Women’s Convention as she is at encountering strangers on the street who recognize her and ask for a hug or a selfie.
There’s an odd scene, late into the special, in which actor and filmmaker Amber Tamblyn comes over for dinner with McGowan. The two of them appear to have a nice evening — the scene seems to establish that McGowan has friends who love her a lot (she’s introduced on screen as “Actress, Supporter”).
That is, until the end, when (after admitting to a degree of paranoia that kept her from opening the door for a flower delivery) McGowan hugs Tamblyn goodbye, whispering that people are trying to kill her, and that Tamblyn has to keep her work going if anything happens to her. “Everything I’m doing has a purpose,” she says.
Even more emotional is McGowan’s conversation with director Asia Argento, another woman who revealed that she was assaulted by Weinstein several years ago. The two of them debate the word “victim,” with Argento rejecting the term: “I am not a victim! I am victorious!”
But McGowan claims it, saying that she can be many things at once. “I actually dislike not being allowed to be a victim,” she says. “I can be many things all at once. I think that part of me will always be a victim. The dead part. But the rest of me is victorious.”
Moments like this are genuinely inspiring, and speak to McGowan’s mission to make the world better, in defiance of the Hollywood establishment. But they come without any counterpoints or acknowledgment of other voices fueling the battles against the patriarchy. McGowan’s anger at Meryl Streep, for example, is presented in a clip flashing back to the Golden Globes acceptance speech when Streep referred to Weinstein as “God,” though there’s no context offered for that speech, no establishment of the backstory. It doesn’t matter what the story is — what matters is how McGowan felt about it.
A similar moment occurs when McGowan talks about her very vocal reaction to women choosing to wear all black to the 2018 Golden Globes, something she considered “stunt-ish and really craven” because it didn’t fully address the Hollywood power structure that put women like her in danger for decades. “I’m sure a lot of these women are well-meaning but it’s a PR machine stunt. It’s not just dresses. It’s a lie,” she says.
Her tweets on the topic are illustrated on screen to help make her point. No other point of view is represented. That befits the basic nature of what “Citizen Rose” actually is — not perhaps a true portrait of an artist, but instead a personal statement.
McGowan has become a powerful voice for victims, and “Citizen Rose” is only one of the ways she’s recently chosen to speak out, all part of an ongoing campaign to transform #RoseArmy from a hashtag into a crusade. Into a community…
…and yes, because McGowan talks about “cults” a lot, that word comes to mind too. It’s a term that comes with a lot of negative associations, especially as it often gets applied to those creating communities and systems of worship outside of the mainstream. But much like one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one woman’s cult is another woman’s movement.
So maybe McGowan has the best strategy here. Perhaps creating your own cult is the best way to fight back against the cults which you’ve escaped.