While watching the first installment in a series of five, I remembered how primed we are to not believe women.
I went into the first episode interested, but hesitant. I didn’t really know much about it, just that it was on E!. The only similar project that E! has done recently was I Am Cait, which skewed more documentary and less reality than any previous programming. Citizen Rose is a documentary, but it often elevates to an art piece. It’s non-linear at times, and broken up by short vignettes and multiple perspectives and angles.
I decided to watch it after watching the short clip, that’s since gone viral, of Rose getting into a verbal altercation with a trans woman at a book signing for Brave, McGowan’s new book. McGowan said that the trans activist had been a plant utilized to disrupt her, and she promptly canceled the tour. One of my favorite podcasts, Babe?, discussed both the incident and the documentary – I love their opinions, so I felt curious enough to watch it. The first installment is uploaded in full onto YouTube.
I want to preface this by saying that I am white, I am cisgender, and I am male. My privilege informs how I see the world, and while I try to educate myself and be mindful, I still have that lens built into my experience. If I say anything that’s uneducated, or misinformed, or wrong, I would love to be educated.
I think the biggest thing I took away from Citizen Rose was how deeply the instinct to not believe women is built into me.
I noticed it when Rose said that she was targeted by spies and was worried about being killed; I had this gut reaction to call her a liar, or crazy, or delusional. But then I realized that she had already been proven right.
In Ronan Farrow’s article, he described the lengths Harvey Weinstein went to discredit Rose. He used two different black ops spy units, one called Black Cube, to infiltrate Rose’s life – find out things that could be used against her, steal her then-unpublished book from her. This is, according to Farrow, proven. I had forgotten this actively, so when Rose said that the trans woman at her book signing was a plant used to attack her, I immediately dismissed her.
But I was more willing to believe a man that was fact-checking than the woman herself. I had this knee-jerk reaction to distrust Rose.
If Rose was right about the spies following her, then she might be right about the plant. The problem is that we don’t know, but we refuse to offer her the benefit of the doubt. And even if it’s not true, McGowan has existed in a world of constant gaslighting for the last twenty years. She was never believed, or heard, or acknowledged. She didn’t know who to trust. For twenty years, she must’ve felt like she was losing her mind.
This is part of the problem. We refuse to believe women. And I don’t think that this is an accident.
I thought back to the recently released Quentin Tarantino audio about Roman Polanski.
“He had sex with a minor,” Tarantino said in the recording. “That’s not rape. To me, when you use the word rape, you’re talking about violent, throwing them down – it’s like one of the most violent crimes in the world.” Though Tarantino later said that he was playing “devil’s advocate” in that interview, what does that say about how he views rape? And how does that translate into his work?
In one of her speeches, Rose talks about the cult of Hollywood that dictates how we perceive people.
“This is what you are as a woman…this is what you are as a man,” she says. “This is what you are as a boy, girl, gay, straight, transgender.” Then she leaned into the microphone, “But it’s all told through 96 percent males in the Director’s Guild of America; that statistic has not changed since 1946.”
Hollywood is often dismissed as shallow, vapid and fluffy. But perhaps that’s on purpose. Because if you don’t see it as substantial, then you don’t see it as a threat. Then you suck down the poison they give you without even thinking, without even realizing how it informs how you perceive the world. Representation matters not just for its own sake. It affects every part of you, how you see other people and how you see yourself. So if movies tell you that women are objects to be pursued, and that men must be dominant in their pursuits, you are being trained to not recognize rape and assault. You learn it through the rigid definition of what predators tell you it is.
But that’s not the truth, and that’s what Rose is trying to say. The things we’ve been given, the tools and the vocabulary, are built on an altar of maintaining the status quo. It’s meant to keep women quiet, docile and objects; it’s meant to keep men aggressive and unemotional and straight.
“Don’t rock the boat.” “Don’t be dramatic.” “Don’t worry.” “Don’t be a bitch.” “Don’t exaggerate.” “Don’t be crazy.”
At one point, Rose asks the viewer to recall everything they know about her. That’s she slutty; that she’s crazy; that she’s unwell. And she asks them, us, to think about who is telling that to us.
In many cases, it was people under the thumb of Harvey Weinstein. People like Weinstein used the cult of Hollywood to introduce and reinforce stereotypes and misinformation about women, queer people, people of color. And that immediately cripples any point to the contrary, because you will never, ever be believed.
Rose McGowan is not perfect; far from it. She’s messy and complex and complicated and says the wrong things sometimes. But that’s everybody; we are all imperfect. But think about why we insist that our leaders be completely without flaws – is it because we need to be led by perfect people, or is it meant to stop us from rallying behind someone? Is it meant to keep us rapid and frothing at each other, rather than at the people who deserve it?
It’s why we attack the actors, usually female, who star in Woody Allen’s movies but still give Woody Allen money for filmmaking. It’s why we attack Meryl Streep. It’s why we tear apart women when they step out of line, but offer second chances, and third and fourth and twenty, to men. Why we call grown men “boys” but slut-shame girls.
When Rose got off the stage after her speech, she saw that an article had already written up about it. And in a line that would normally be so quiet and such a throwaway, she said, “Wow. This is incredible. Someone listened to me.”
No one, ever, ever, listened to Rose, or Asia Argento or any of the other survivors. There were people who knew what was going on: who walked past the locked doors, who let up unsuspecting women to towering offices, who massaged away the truth: no one listened to people like Rose.
So when I was watching, I tried to suspend my disbelief, my societally-ingrained reflex to dismiss her as “crazy.” And once I did that, I listened.