Rose McGowan: “I’m not scared of my power”

The actress-activist-artist on internalised misogyny, being a femmebot and staying sane when fighting a global media war.

Rose McGowan’s father was a fine artist, one sister works at Hauser & Wirth and another runs a gallery in Denver, so her move from Hollywood and #MeToo activism (she’s always credited Tarana Burke for the phrase) through to the art world shouldn’t come as a total shock. Her performance in Tonia Arapovic’s Indecision IV film is part of She Persists, an all-female show currently running at the Palazzo Benzon (the site of 18th Century salons held by Venetian salonnière Marina Querini Benzon who hosted Lord Byron and Antonio Casanova) to coincide with the 58th Venice Biennale.

Whilst three women took home the Golden Lion for Lithuania for Best Pavilion, Heist Gallery’s founder Mashael Al-Rushaid insists that an all-female show is still interesting and necessary: “As a gallerist and a Saudi woman, I felt a sense of responsibility to use this platform to spotlight a rich diversity of global artists’ perspectives.” She Persists includes powerful work by Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago and Lynda Benglis, but Rose McGowan’s involvement is a draw all unto itself, considering how monumental her role in fighting for women’s rights has been. Who better to be involved in this group show of “multimedia works exploring empowered female identities through acts of celebration, resilience and rebellion” than Rose?

Judy Chicago, Women & Smoke Series, 1971-72. Courtesy of Through the Flower and Salon 94, New York

How did this project come about?

I’d met Mashael, the curator, and she invited me to an art exhibit. I went and I was crying when I came in. I said, “I just found out so-and-so [Harvey Weinstein] is indicted” and she invited me to be part of this show. It was as simple as that. Art allows me to express myself in a way that I couldn’t with words, which is really powerful because the body retains memory. Seeing his [Harvey Weinstein’s] face all the time and all that is very triggering. My body has a lot of memories and strong reactive response to it, so to use my body in a way that was for me and to express what I was feeling was really profound.

You said that you’d built up tons of tension in your body from the stress of everything…

I was hunched over most of the time and because of the spasms and muscle swelling, physically I looked so weathered.

Where was it filmed?

In a church in Soho in London. There’s something about the residual prayers of people in churches. I don’t go to church but when I do go, I like going in off-hours when no man is telling me I’m going to burn in hell, cos that’s always better! But you can feel the collective energy.

The film is all movement and the interaction of you and the other dancer. Did you train?

Yes, I did. I trained as a ballerina when I was young and then I was a runaway. At 13 I was taken in by two amazing trans women, they taught me how to dance even differently and I would dance on gay nightclub stages.

Amazing. It’s interesting that there’s this power struggle but the man is a ballet dancer because it’s quite…

…feminine in a way.

Yeah, in a way it’s seen as one of the least masculine of the male roles.

Definitely. And our interaction was quite poignant in a way that I thought he was a little scared of me. And that’s, I think, often how men react to women in power.

Yes, in the film you seem like the dominant character.

I tend to do that [laughs]. The evil cackle!

So you’re working on your own film?

I’ve been working on my upcoming project for the last three years and that’s premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. That’s really what I used to stay sane the last couple of years through the hardships of fighting a global media war. And it was women that really came for me more than anything.

You were talking earlier about how a lot of misogyny is not just from men, but also women who need to change this dynamic...

Definitely. Internalised misogyny is devastating, toxic and damaging and I see it play out with women every single day. Not only do they not realise their power, they’re also scared of that power. ’m not scared of my power. I was for a long time, but I think I knew what I was going to do. I was working towards that goal, so I had to preserve my power. And then it came out. My girlfriend calls me fire because I shoot fireballs when I’m upset, or mad or raging at injustice. What was great about Indecision IV was just that it was a quiet power.

Tell us more about the film coming out at Fringe…

So people hacked into my computer and released nude videos of me to slut shame me, to take my power away, have people disparage me and not listen to me. So I took the two videos that were everywhere – PornHub and things like that – and I projected them against a wall side-by-side, one of me with a woman, and one with a man. Then I filmed it and that’s what will be premiering at Fringe. They’re nude videos, but I slowed them down and there it is. I needed to take that power back and I am not ashamed. Not in any way, shape, or form. And there’s no reason I should be. Everybody does it. Fuck off.

How long were you in the Hollywood system and when would you say you left?

Since I was 14. And I was discovered, so I was never trying to be. I left about three years ago. And I kind of blew it up. I was literally like [makes bomb noise]! Press that TNT button!

It’s incredible just how many people’s lives your story has affected. It just feels so seismic the change that has come off the back of this.

Yes. There was a man in Germany who told me: “You’re the one who lays on barbed wire so others can walk on your back.” And that’s what it felt like for those two years. It felt like I had barbed wires stabbing into my back and pressing down on my mouth. But I wanted there to be a gateway for other people to have this conversation, and to reframe their ideas about it because it had been stagnant since I don’t know…the dawn of time!?

Guerrilla Girls Women Get Resentful, 2018. Courtesy of the artists

A friend of mine was talking about how they re-watched Police Academy recently, a film they’d love as a kid, but how they were shocked seeing it again now. It’s racist, it’s homophobic, it’s sexist, it's appalling and it was mass entertainment that everyone gobbled up.

When people watch film or TV, they sit there with their mind open. When you’re smoking a cigarette, you know it’s bad for you. When you eat McDonald’s, you know it’s bad for you. When you sit down and watch entertainment, your brain is like, “I'm just going to switch off and be in this chain.” And that’s how they implant these thoughts. And it’s given to you by 96% of men and the Directors Guild of America. That statistic hasn’t changed since 1946. That’s primarily a white male point of view – a straight white male point of view. And that gives you a completely skewed mirror to look into because it’s these nerds who are basically getting back at people they despised at high school. Now they’ve made it big, they’re just going to drag everybody into what they wondered and thought about them or fetishise them. But we just take their fetishes as entertainment. So we really have to watch what we do, like why is everyone in a cleaning commercial a woman? I know a lot of men that do laundry. Do you do laundry, Stuart?

Yeah, all the time. I love laundry! So now you’ve left Hollywood, do you feel like you’re in a new enjoyable phase?

I’m healing and I’m learning what it’s like to live life for myself because when you’re a performer or when you’re a very public person, there are things that I found quite unpleasant. But so many people gain pleasure from it, so you feel like you’re there in service to others and making them happy but not yourself. It’s a new life, a new day, a new dawn, as Nina Simone would say. And it’s figuring out what I want. And that counts for something.

It must feel good to see that you can totally exist way beyond the Hollywood system.

Yes, it does. You know my book Brave compares the cult I grew up in to the cult of Hollywood and how it affects your mind in ways you’re not aware. Hollywood is a cult-like structure. It operates in the same way as the cult I grew up in, which is male-dominated, and degrading to women, with skewed perspectives. There’s a 70% chance that if you’ve been in one cult, you will join another, and it took me a long time to wake up to the fact that I was in one again. It’s like all these loose illusory rules and ideas of what you have to be or how you look, and by the end of my Hollywood career, I looked like a femmebot. I knew there was something wrong, but I thought maybe it’s my shoes and maybe it’s my hair, and no, it’s actually all of it. It’s everything! And I needed to blow it up and tear it down. I shaved my head and I got free.

I loved that there was a huge range of women – from the US, UK, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East – in the show and that it explored how you share so much with each other beyond religion or borders.

Just as you do with men. But isn’t it interesting to get away from borders and get away from masculinity and femininity? And just to see each other in your shared humanity. That’s what we have to work towards. Let’s go to humans! Let’s go there because that’s where we find freedom.

Who do you see as your biggest allies?

People on the street. Women and men, girls, boys, trans, everybody. You know, I was in McDonald’s the other day and a 75-year-old woman came up to me crying. And a taxi driver who was about 80 in New York. Same thing. The elites and media like to look down on me, but the people on the street know that I’m the real deal and that I’m there for them. And they’re for me. And it’s beautiful.

She Persists, Heist Gallery is open until 10th June at Palazzo Benzon, Venice


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