Female Detachment From One’s Body Required By the Male Gaze: Rose McGowan’s Hollywood Ride Through Hell in BRAVE
Before the domino effect takedown of powerful men in Hollywood spurred by the outing of Harvey Weinstein by multiple news outlets in October of 2017 (though, of course, Ronan Farrow got the bulk of the credit for his piece in The New Yorker), Rose McGowan was already working on the memoir that would become BRAVE. Though the actress–or rather accidental and former actress, as she mentions–was yet to publicly come out about the man she will only call the Monster (sometimes also called the Pig Monster), she would ultimately become one of the first and perhaps most vocal amid the women terrorized by systemic misogyny in the film industry and therefore a false belief in the right to use the female body for a man’s own arbitrary pleasure. McGowan and so many others who were subjected to the caprices of the penis eventually also shared their stories of assault in TIME‘s Person of the Year issue featuring the Silence Breakers on the cover–a landmark selection for the publication, especially when considering Donald Trump made its cover the year prior and was the runner-up for the 2017 issue. And, speaking of issues, it was ultimately McGowan’s peak of stardom–making it on the cover of Rolling Stone with Rosario Dawson in promotion of Grindhouse–that prompted her to turn her back on Hollywood and all of its lies for good (to add insult to injury, her ex-boyfriend’s [Marilyn Manson] name had to join her falsified appearance on the cover as well). That was 2007, ten years after the “meeting” she had in Weinstein’s hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival. At the time, McGowan had two films to promote, Going All the Way and Phantoms, the latter, appropriately, produced by Weinstein. Seeing a screening of the former film during which McGowan has a topless scene, her manager at the time, as McGowan tells it, turned to Weinstein and appeared to share some sort of knowing glance with him. The manager, Jill Messick, whose suicide was uncannily made known to me while reading the very passage in which McGowan touts her complicity in the arranged meeting at the hotel room, soon after told McGowan that she would be powwowing with Weinstein the following day to discuss her “career.” McGowan, still naive to the many wolves barely disguised in sheep’s clothing in Hollywood, went along with it in spite of reservations about the necessity of meeting with him. And yet, “…I figured with Jill the manager at my side, I’d be able to pull it off. I have thought a lot about the day my life got hijacked by evil. There was an MTV camera crew following me around that day. ‘A Day in the Life of Rose McGowan’ was the theme. The MTV crew was to wait outside the front of the hotel until I returned from my meeting. I’ve kicked myself through the years because before I went to this fateful ‘meeting,’ I turned to the MTV camera and, with a big genuine smile, said, ‘I think my life is finally getting easier.'”
That day would signify a greater division of the self than McGowan first knew years earlier as a runaway in the Pacific Northwest, when she had the epiphany that her adolescent body was a source of danger. This revelation of having to feel shame about developing breasts and a figure because it meant that, now, she was a source of temptation–bait–for men who “simply can’t control themselves” was crystallized by a vintage store owner in Seattle who cornered her in the dressing room while her shirt was off and thrust his penis between her cleavage to make himself cum. The wife caught the end of the show and screamed at McGowan for being the evil temptress of a whore that “taunted” him into engaging in such behavior. This concept of a woman being conditioned to feel shame for her body and its “tantalizations,” an entity she can’t control, is what often prompts an unwitting detachment of the mind from the corporeal self–which can be quite helpful to girl, coping-wise, when she’s being sexually assaulted. As she will be. Because boys will be rapists–er, boys.
This dissociation is precisely what happened to McGowan while being led into the Weinstein modus operandi known as the infamous hot tub room. In BRAVE, McGowan recounts how she finally just went along with it as he disrobed her and guided her toward the water, imagining the scene in When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm and then did the same herself, so it would be over faster. The emotional fallout was treacherous needless to say: “During the immediate period afterward, I couldn’t stop crying. One of my calls was to my manager. It was so fucked up, she counseled me to see it as something that would help my career in the long run. I threw up. I felt like I was in a fun house and all the mirrors were reflecting my horrors. And my manager’s instinct was to squash everything, which just freaked me out more. How could she not have known? And if she did, how could the woman I trusted my life with set me up? I was terrified. I had fallen into backward, fucked-up world.”
But McGowan’s time spent struggling to find food and shelter during her homeless stint had ingrained within her an immutable fear of having to starve again–so she persisted, continuing in the “backward, fucked-up world” of Hollywood in spite of Weinstein blacklisting her after giving her a $100,000 settlement for the assault. The perpetual cover-up over the decades that made everyone complicit in the sexual violation of hundreds of women by one man alone was never more apparent to McGowan in the months that followed as she tried to expose Weinstein. But there was nothing to expose to a town that was already well-aware of his antics and very much in on the secret. McGowan states, “I called my management agency. The man who answered was a player. A powerful guy in town at the time. I told him what happened to me. And he said: ‘Goddamn it, I just had an exposé about him killed in the LA Times; he owes it to me not to do this.'”
It was then that McGowan’s splitness was forced to stick. For if she was going to survive and make money in a town that thrived on the objectification of the female body both on and off the screen, continued dissociation was, to use a rival studio name, paramount. Ironically, that McGowan was born in Italy, where, as she says, she found herself in her first cult, Children of God, which her father ran a chapter of before abandoning McGowan’s mother for a younger wife, automatically infers a greater, more sexless understanding of her own body. To be in America, however, means that everything to do with the showing of skin–particularly a female’s–is to be treated as a scandal. But McGowan was still viewing the U.S. with more open-mindedness than perhaps she ought to have when she donned that notorious see-through “frock” while accompanying Manson to the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards.
Looking back on what she thought was merely just another “punk as fuck” moment in her life, McGowan asserts, “For years, I was the actress who wore the dress. Regardless, it took some serious bravery to do that. I was scared, but I just did it anyway. Punk as fuck. At least I know when I’m eighty, looking back on my history, I certainly won’t identify as a scared person who didn’t live. I’m from Europe, I’m not a freak about my body. American puritanical society shames you for daring to show any part of yourself, especially when it’s done in a nonsexual manner. When a woman owns her body, she gets vilified. I was vilified for making people uncomfortable. Ever since then I’ve had to deal with the slut-shaming that came with that dress. I regretted it at times, and other times I just thought, Fuck off.”
The italicization of that “Fuck off” has taken years for McGowan to perfect, and it’s evident that this strength of will was with her over the decades of normalized abuse, getting her through not just Weinstein and other men’s assaults (assaults that she would, for sanity’s sake, write off as just another “sexual experience”), but also her most volatile romantic and professional relationship yet: the one she shared with then married director Robert Rodriguez. Their initial meeting at the Cannes Film Festival quickly escalated to an affair followed by a working rapport that resulted in Planet Terror, the film for which Rodriguez stole the name McGowan confided she wanted to name her daughter, Cherry Darling. Evidently, Rodriguez told her the film would serve as their child, christening McGowan’s stripper character with the moniker instead, and that way she could never have a baby with another man. Oh and this was of course in addition to saying other creepy shit, like he had her at her “ripest.”
McGowan, rather than spewing out a series of incoherent expletives over this treatment as any woman would have a right to, instead warns to her readers, “Please take heed: when someone tries to insert himself into your life very quickly and rushes to tell you he loves you, that should be a warning sign. And as much as you want to hear it, as much as you’re hungry to be seen with a capital S, as much as you’ve been lonely and just waiting for this, understand that very often these are the men who will turn on you.”
And Rodriguez did betray her most blatantly of all by selling the Grindhouse feature to “[her] monster,” knowing full well of the assault that took place in the hotel room. And, subsequently, her monster was who she would have to publicly play nice with for the sake of her career while what was left of her original self screamed inside. McGowan’s enduring of Rodriguez’s erratic behavior, including placing a doll version of himself in her bed to surprise her so she wouldn’t even think about cheating on him in his absence and causing her permanent nerve damage during the filming of Planet Terror (it smacks of what Tarantino did to Uma Thurman for Kill Bill: Vol. 2), prompts her to conclude, “By the time RR revealed his true identity, I was so deeply in love that I couldn’t adjust to what was going on. He was so amazing to me at the beginning, such a gentleman, that I figured it must have been my fault, that I must have done something wrong, for him to turn cruel, to stop respecting me. No. It was his plan all along, conscious or subconscious.”
But it wasn’t love anymore. The man McGowan thought would do right by her and be her strongest advocate soon grew to be the person she despised the most for intensifying the caricature she had become. She reflects, “I’ve found that when someone tells you they love you too fast and overwhelms you and wants to move in right away, it’s a trap. Know a man like that most likely wants to own you and control you in order to make himself feel powerful.” And powerful both Rodriguez and Tarantino felt during this era. In one chapter, McGowan tells of how she jokingly started laying on the obsequious charm thick while riding in the car with them, telling them how lucky she was to be working with them and how godlike they were as directors. Rather than balking and saying, “Shut the fuck up, Rose,” these men lapped it up. The way all men in power–in Hollywood and beyond–do. It’s all they’ve ever known. They’re set on a pedestal they refuse to see themselves knocked off of from the day they’re born. And that’s why their denial about the sea change afoot is so intense–they still feel they’re entitled to this centuries-long indoctrinated self-importance, “superiority.”
Women, conversely, are taught not to do anything that could lead the man to be wounded in his pride, not to overly excite him with the presentation of her body and, therefore, “ask for it.” McGowan notes, “I think politeness is a particular curse for girls and women… We send them out into this world with politeness as the strap that keeps our hands tied behind our backs. Then we meet wolves. It kills us.” Or, more specifically, it kills our faith in humanity and good. It kills the person we were before we were jaded as fuck by violation, both mental and physical.
From the time a girl is born, she’s told that essentially her strongest point of value is her appearance. This fact augments tenfold when a girl becomes an actress, for “when you’re a girl or a woman, you’re told that your greatest reward is being recognized for your beauty, and being desired. You’re supposed to play it up every time you’re in the public eye, but then downplay it offscreen, in your private life, because you don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable and you don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.” McGowan and others whose careers had to unfortunately coincide with the predatory field day of Weinstein and his ilk received the wrong kind of attention nonetheless. Because women have so long allowed themselves to be split in two: the self that is the body for the man’s taking and the self that is her own internal, crying out for help mind, suppressed for all these decades of systemic chauvinism that, by and by, is being refused further tolerance. BRAVE is a memoir key to the gushing flow of this broken dam of abuse. Women will no longer serve as the accommodating levee to male “needs.” Because our needs are just as valid, and, unlike most men’s, not harmful to other human beings.
BRAVE is published through the HarperOne imprint and can be purchased here.
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