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Under the Hollywood Gaslight

Rose McGowan suffered from the worst of the Hollywood machine and reclaimed her body and her narrative. But her all-for-one methods have alienated fellow activists.

Soraya Roberts is a writer in Toronto who has contributed to Harper’s, Vanity...

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Rose McGowan, an actress who monopolized all the best lines as a post-apocalyptic semi-goth in Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation and found fame as a tart-tongued vixen-slash-victim in the horror film Scream, confirmed her own death as January 1997, during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. She was twenty-three. “[M]y body might be alive, but who I was is dead,” she writes in her 2018 memoir, Brave. “I’m now a live body carrying a deadened spirit around.”

Rose McGowan was betrayed by her body, though at first, she didn’t have one. As a child, she has said she was a mind alone. In the cult in Italy in which she was raised, she remembers no mirrors. Then America showed her her reflection. Now, she was a body alone. Men saw her tits, saw her ass, saw her lips, so she saw her tits, saw her ass, saw her lips. She was trapped. And when her body, reduced to sex, was taken, so was she. “That’s murder,” she said. “You’re killing somebody.”

Rape was a theme in her life, but also in her films—The Doom Generation, Scream, Jawbreaker, Planet Terror. So, she found a new life, with new work, work in which she could distill her mind—directing a film, Dawn, writing a bookBrave, producing a series, “Citizen Rose,” recording an albumPlanet 9—assembling an “army of thought” to disrupt male dominance. It was a disembodied roar and it was messy. Siphoned through respected institutions—The New York Times, The New Yorker—and bolstered by others, it became fit for public consumption. In Vanity Fair this year, reflecting on her relationships with powerful men, McGowan said, “as brutal as it was, it was all gathering data. Unfortunately, I am the data. It was a sacrifice.”

Identifying as an outsider from genesis, growing up on the fringes, it makes sense that she might experience the #MeToo movement solipsistically. But the sacrifice is not hers alone. This is where she and feminism disconnect. Rose McGowan may be a martyr, but her cause, it often seems, is herself.

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Rose McGowan was born to a couple of religious American hippies in the Italian countryside in 1973. She grew up in a polygamous Christian cult called the Children of God, which proselytized free love. It was an odd commune, one in which the children were cut off from their parents and education was unregulated. At one point, McGowan could handle Poe, but not her own shoelaces. She has claimed that she did not get a birth certificate until the mid-’80s. McGowan was never told she was “smart, or beautiful,” but the cult preached perfection. “I told myself if I were just perfect enough, I’d be okay,” she writes. “If I were just perfect enough, I’d be left alone and no one would want to hurt me.”

Whether or not they were physically perfect was, practically, difficult for the cult members to determine. “I don’t remember ever seeing any mirrors,” McGowan told BuzzFeed in 2015. “So I grew up without actually registering that I was a girl or a boy. Or registering that I was anything but a mind.” She was cast as a boy in her father’s artwork and in Vogue Bambini. As late as 2007, she told Arena magazine that she saw herself as “a man with really great boobs.” She told the The Advocate five years later, “I have an intense amount of jealousy that I’m not a man.” But, alas, she was a girl. And in a cult, she knew what that meant. “I remember looking at the women on their knees. Then my father on his throne,” she writes in Brave. “I’ll never be like those women, I thought. Never.”

When he realized the cult was advocating child sex abuse, her father ran away with McGowan and her siblings. For the next few years, she floated across western America between two dysfunctional households—her mother’s, which came with a string of abusive boyfriends, and her father’s, which came with even more abuse (“I would later come to understand that my father was most likely manic-depressive,” McGowan writes). After her mother had her sectioned for taking a hit of acid, she ran away at thirteen. When she was living on the streets, she witnessed a friend’s possible rape. “I think I was left alone because I looked like a boy,” McGowan writes in Brave. “I remember feeling saved because I didn’t have breasts yet.”

One of the most troubling chapters in her book, “Brutality,” describes her dad’s verbal and physical abuse when she returned in her mid-teens to live with him. “His excuse for his rage, for every failure, was women,” McGowan writes. “All women were to blame. Therefore, I was to blame.” She recounts a “home” with no silverware, no bed and a constant barrage of humiliation: “He called me a whore almost daily.” It got so bad that McGowan planned a “Death Monologue” to read over her father’s body before she beat him to death with a meat mallet.

At fifteen, most individuals are finding their identity, establishing their autonomy. McGowan would have been attempting to do the same in the face of near-incessant reminders of her worthlessness. “I remember the exact moment, walking down Tenth Street in Seattle, when I started to see myself through men’s eyes. Horns started honking and I heard men yelling,” she writes. “I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like I was leading men on just by existing, just by having these appendages.” She recently revealed that at this time she was raped by a “prominent” Hollywood player. McGowan’s self, her mind, her body, her femaleness were, from the start, imbued with violence, with fear, with regret.

Rose McGowan started acting at fourteen. Her father wanted rent and the teen film Class of 1999 was looking for extras for $35 a day. Perfect. McGowan, goth-y with short black curly hair and a ghostly complexion, played a student in the background. Neither co-producer Eugene Mazzola nor director Mark L. Lester remembers her. “No dialogue.no recollection,” the latter says via email. But McGowan certainly recalls. In Brave, she describes being molested by a friendly older guy from the set who invited her to hang out with a bunch of other extras. “It all happened so fast,” she writes. “Of course, it was me who felt dirty and ashamed.” At eighteen, she got her first speaking role on the big screen. In Encino Man she says “Oh my God” twice in the presence of a defrosted caveman. By this point she had long straight hair, as per her agent’s instructions, “so men in this town would want to fuck me and hire me.” It worked. At twenty, “discovered” outside a gym in Los Angeles, she landed her first lead.

“Fuck.” Her mouth comes first, then her body. In The Doom Generation, McGowan plays out a black-bobbed red-pouted teen fever dream, like a grown up post-Léon Mathilda. As Amy Blue, she says fuck and then puts her money maker where her mouth is—“Go ahead and stick it inside!” the virgin berates her equally virginal boyfriend. Her mom is a heroin addict Scientologist, her dad tried to molest her and she is crazed on crystal meth. Amy wears tiny rompers, bares her breasts—“[The director] didn’t think there was any difference in me taking my shirt off than for a guy,” McGowan told UK’s Deluxe magazine in 1998. “I think there’s a difference”—and fucks even the guy she claims to hate. It’s an indie arcade game full of blood and guts and a sex symbol with all the great lines, but there are words and there are images and it’s clear which was stronger: Amy fucking, Amy naked, Amy raped. As she herself says of sex, “I think it’s more powerful than we like it to be.” The Doom Generation inaugurated Rose McGowan as a dark sassy bitch, but, more importantly, a fuckable one.

Nominated for Best Debut Performance at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in 1996 (she lost to Justin Pierce in Kids), McGowan has claimed Amy was based on her at fifteen, “minus the sex stuff.” “She’s just that girl!” costume designer Cathy Cooper told Dazed Digital. “I don’t know how else to say it, she essentially played herself.” McGowan called the scripted version of Amy Blue “sexist” and claimed to have added complexity to the character by turning her into a fragile kid with a brittle coat of armour. “The script for it was kind of written like these two guys have their thumb over her,” she told BuzzFeed, “and I was like, oh no, that’s not going to happen.”

This bravado struck Lisa Beach when she first met McGowan. The casting director on Scream (and later Jawbreaker) thought McGowan “embodied” Tatum Riley, the big-breasted blonde who subverts her own stereotype. “Brilliant, tough, no-bullshit—that’s what we were looking for,” she says. Tatum runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door and could be construed as the slutty bimbo—she’s sleeping with her boyfriend, she’s seen Tom Cruise’s penis, she buys the Richard Gere gerbil story—but she also cuts through that cliché with a mordant wit (“That is so sexist,” she says when the town killer is presumed to be a guy. “The killer could easily be female—Basic Instinct?”) and protects her friend (“Billy and his penis don’t deserve you”) all the while wearing miniskirts and nipply tops. Audiences loved it. Scream made $173 million at the international box office on a $14 million budget. And, as Ty Burr wrote in Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, by the ‘90s, “How you opened was who you were.” Rose McGowan was officially bankable, though she didn’t act like it. During the Scream shoot, in an interview on set, she and the rest of the cast were asked which films scared them most. Their answers were mostly generic. Neve Campbell picked The Shining and Courteney Cox Rosemary’s Baby, but McGowan’s choice was more unexpected. “Gaslight,” McGowan said, naming George Cukor’s 1944 classic in which a woman’s husband convinces her she is going insane.

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A month after Scream’s release, in January 1997, McGowan attended the Sundance Film Festival. That’s where she remembers dying. In Brave, she describes her assault in forensic detail: the hotel suite, the thirty-minute chat, the almost-exit, the Jacuzzi, the rape. “My life has been rerouted,” she writes. “I just got hijacked.”

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Rose McGowan was a big reason her next film got made. Writer-director Darren Stein had loved her in The Doom Generation—“She was such a sharp-tongued little vixen: porcelain skin, big eyes,” he told Broadly—and studio execs agreed to make his Heathers knock off, the equally low-budget Jawbreaker, if they could get someone like McGowan. It wasn’t hard. The role of Courtney, the bitchy leader of a mean-girls pack that juggles murder and makeovers (they are most wanted in both senses), was made for her. “She just had that kind of haughty confidence,” says producer Lisa Tornell. “Haughty not h-o-t-t-y.” (Though the best femmes fatales have both.) Tornell admits they “could have been criticized for being too on the nose,” considering McGowan projected such a similar persona off screen. She describes the actress as friendly and professional, but says, “she was not someone I would call warm and fuzzy.” The producer thinks McGowan’s distant behaviour is understandable in retrospect, considering her allegations against Weinstein. “I think she had a very strong sense of wanting to keep her distance from people unless they were really in her inner circle.” 

It was a circle that now included fellow “Satan in heels” Marilyn Manson, who makes a cameo (minus the makeup) in Jawbreaker. “I ran away with the circus,” McGowan told People of their relationship. “That’s what I needed for three-and-a-half years. I just needed to not be responsible, to have fun.” At the end of the Jawbreaker shoot, she wore a now-infamous sparkly beaded dress to the MTV Video Music Awards. “In light of everything that’s come out,” Tornell says, “there was obviously a struggle between trying to provoke in that way and then also playing into precisely the thing that she’s against.”

But on the red carpet, her breasts and behind on full display, McGowan looked entirely in control. Instead of covering up, she pushed her hair back, smiled and raised up her arms—ta-da! “It was a reclamation of my own body after my assault,” she writes in Brave. This is the woman Bebe chose as its celebrity face in 1998. Founder Manny Mashouf, who says each ad campaign at the time was based on a theme, considered a number of women before settling on McGowan to play a sultry performer in a New York nightclub for its 1998-1999 season. “The Bebe woman was a woman that was in charge of her life and she was vivacious and she was very sexy,” he says. McGowan was her avatar. In the ads she is at her most vamp, skin blown out by light, lips red, hair a dark halo, chest heaving above and below the word “bebe.” Though Mashouf rarely fraternized with celebrities he employed, McGowan was so genial that he continued to invite her to events long after they had worked together.

The year McGowan broke up with Manson was the year she picked up with television. Charmed casting director Leslee Dennis says the actress was not open to the medium for a long time, then that suddenly changed (McGowan alleges that Weinstein blacklisted her in the film industry and that she had no other options). So, when Shannen Doherty left the series about three sister witches, McGowan was the favoured replacement. It was an odd fit. The cheesy WB show was devoid of cussing, fucking, anything extreme. McGowan enters the scene as half-sister Paige Matthews, her edges now curves (“I wanted to look as soft and approachable as possible,” she writes in Brave of the weight she gained for the role). “I like an element of danger,” Paige says in her first episode, which is the sort of thing a real femme fatale never would. But McGowan was similar in size and hair colour to the other two actresses—Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs—and Aaron Spelling liked to match. And Dennis liked McGowan. “She had a spunk to her,” she says. The casting director recalls, for instance, discussions of a high profile male celebrity being brought in to star opposite McGowan and the actress deadpanning, “Leslee, I’m not going to do this with the member of a boy band.” She lasted five seasons.

In May 2005, Rose McGowan met Robert Rodriguez at Naomi Campbell’s Le Carnival D’Or party in Cannes. Photos from the event show the actress in red lace and the director, black cowboy hat, black suit, leaning towards her. They look like they are hatching a plan. Rodriguez had the beginning of a new story and McGowan was the perfect fit. In Planet Terror, she plays Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer-turned-gun-legged killing machine in a world full of zombies. “I need a dramatic change in my life,” she says, before trading in her tears for a sneer. The film’s bonus features show the actress flying through the air as she does her own stunts (in Brave, McGowan describes undergoing several surgeries after the shoot to repair nerve damage she sustained from an extreme back bend). “She was born to be an action hero,” co-star Marley Shelton said. Rodriguez, with whom McGowan had gotten involved off screen in another allegedly abusive relationship, concurred. “Some of her best lines and ideas, I’m like, ‘That’s Rose,’” he said. “That was Rose’s improvisation, that’s her. That’s her real personality in the character. Strap a machine-gun leg on that and it’s just taken from there.” According to McGowan’s memoir, during this time, the director would repeatedly say to her, “I got you at your ripest.”

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Rolling Stone opened Rose McGowan’s eyes. To promote Grindhouse, the Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof, she appeared on the cover of the April 19, 2007, issue with Rosario Dawson. The two actresses stand shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt, naked but for two strips of strategically placed ammo. “VERY BAD GIRLS,” the headline reads as the duo looks, sultry, at the camera, identical tousled brown tresses, arched brows, shiny lips and half-closed eyes. When McGowan saw that cover she felt she had disappeared. “All these years of being sexualized, it was crystalized in this one image,” she writes in Brave. “I had lost myself. But my self was desperately trying to wake me up.”

In a Bikini cover story from March 1997, just months after McGowan’s alleged rape, writer Jon Craven describes feeling “sexually violated” after a drunk stares particularly luridly at the starlet. “Basically, my life as a young woman is to be sexually harassed as much as possible,” she says. A few months later, in Detour, Dale Brasel asks McGowan what she gives “a shit about” and she responds, “I give a shit about rape, about anyone being violated.” In that same interview, he inquires, “What is it with you and your boobs in photos?” In UK magazine The Face, writer David Keeps brings up her nipples à propos of nothing. In an MTV Live interview, after she mentions a first kiss, host Carson Daly asks if she was slipped the tongue…then asks for it himself. On The Howard Stern Show in 2001, Stern openly salivates over her, changing his top, ogling her breasts, asking about her labia, annoucing that they all want to fuck her, referring to how an ex-boyfriend would “bang the Manson out of you” and asking if new beau Ahmet Zappa was good in bed. “I don’t like people too much,” McGowan says during the onslaught. “They frighten me. They like to grab me and touch me.”

She was presented as a thing to grab and touch. From the beginning, magazines barely varied their depictions of McGowan as a “wild rose” with “thorns” alongside hyper-sexualized portraits. In one of her earliest interviews, with Detour in 1995, McGowan poses with her Doom Generation co-stars, Johnathon Schaech’s hand on her thigh, James Duval between her legs, her finger in her mouth. On the cover of Interview she appears as the Virgin Mary, nude, her hair covering her breasts, her hands out in supplication. In print she is often in lace and satin negligées in various states of bed splay. She is presented as a force to be subdued. In another cover story for Interview, this one from 1997, she is fit to be tied, lying on her stomach, topless, her feet in intricately laced heels, her hands in front of her as though she is asking to be bound. And in a spread for Details with Billy Zane in 1998, she is a femme fatale fallen off a roof, a corpse clothed in latex.

The Boston Globe film critic and cultural columnist Ty Burr believes that McGowan was adhering to “a pretty consistent” dangerous-but-desirable persona when it came to her early publicity. “If you look at the photos, throughout the ‘90s they’re very provocative, they’re very sexualized, but they’re also very strong,” he says, adding, “she seems to be very much in charge.” In Brave, McGowan accedes that she was somewhat responsible for how she was presented in the press. “I had a hand in it,” she writes. “I didn’t say no, but like so many women in cults, I didn’t know I could.” But even back then she made it known that she considered fame something of a joke. Her public acknowledgment of the “bullshit” Hollywood game is a largely male tradition that dates back to Marlon Brando, says Burr: “Actresses tend not to do that.” For good reason. Femmes fatales—Theda Bara all the way down to Sean Young—are defined by unhappy endings. Conjuring the image of Cherry Darling’s machine-gun leg, Burr says: “At a certain point they go out on a limb and then the culture has to saw the limb off.”

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Rose McGowan directed her first film, Dawn, in 2014. Set in the ‘60s, it follows a bobby socked teenager as she is seduced by a young gas station attendant who kills her just because he feels like it. “Dawn is really about what we do to young girls unwittingly, and how we send them out into the world completely unprotected, in a way that has, at times, really tragic consequences,” McGowan told Vogue. Actor Reiley McClendon won the role of the predatory shooter after auditioning, which already set McGowan’s filmmaking apart. “As far as production value goes,” he says, “she went way beyond what normal short films do.” When he went out for the part, McClendon was not aware of McGowan’s past, or how it might inform her work. “If there was some sort of personal connection to it, she didn’t let on,” he says. The shoot lasted three days and despite having to wear a boot on a twisted ankle, McGowan still strapped a heel on her other foot (“I can still look good,” she told McClendon) and ran her short like a feature. “She brought to the table something that I wish all directors did and that was she had a very clear vision,” McClendon says. “I never felt on her set that we didn’t know where we were going.”

In 2015, McGowan released an empowering space-pop tune called “RM486” (a reference to the abortion drug RU-486). In the video she appears as a hairless alien transforming through various iterations that reflect McGowan’s own milestones. “I just want people to take away freedom. That you can be free. You can do anything you want, you can create anything you want,” she told Rolling Stone. “The way I’m approaching it is, if I have songs to release or a video to put out, I will; if I have a movie to direct, I’ll do that; if I have something I’m writing, I’ll write it.” And she did. On January 30 of this year, she released her memoir, Brave. On the same day, she premiered her E! docuseries, “Citizen Rose.” Soon, she will launch an album, Planet 9.

The through-line is her activism. Rose McGowan became an outspoken feminist in 2015. That summer she tweeted the objectifying audition notes from an Adam Sandler script she had been sent, a post which went viral and got her fired by her acting agent. BuzzFeed featured her in a story entitled, “Rose McGowan Is Starting a Revolution.” She shaved her head. In 2016, she wrote a Hollywood Reporter column response to Owen Gleiberman’s gendered Variety take on Renée Zellweger’s looks, likened the red carpet to “visual rape” and took part in the #WhyWomenDontReport social media movement, tweeting, “because it’s been an open secret in Hollywood/Media & they shamed me while adulating my rapist.” In 2017, she was locked out of Twitter for twelve hours during a series of tweets about Weinstein, inspiring a boycott of the site. The social media site says they took action because she posted a private phone number. 

 “She was like this sort of butch,” says Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media. “She clearly was not the same person she had been.” In the preface to Brave, McGowan opens with her buzz cut. “My long hair had always made me uncomfortable. It made men look at me while the real me disappeared,” she writes. By shaving it, she explains, “I broke up with the Hollywood ideal, the one I had a part in playing.” In December 2016, she appeared on the cover of Bust magazine with her new un-‘do, red lips and black blazer, announcing: “I want to shatter the patriarchy.” She called out Hollywood and said things like, “[people’s] brains cannot comprehend the scale and level of my thought—the field that I play in is not available to them.” Zeisler remembers thinking, “People are going to talk about her like she’s fucking crazy.”

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On October 5, 2017, The New York Times published the first of a series of reports alleging that film producer Harvey Weinstein had spent decades abusing scores of women and establishing a small industry to cover it up. McGowan declined to comment, but the Times unearthed her $100,000 settlement with Weinstein following their 1997 meeting at Sundance. McGowan didn’t appear in the bombshell New Yorker story which was published five days later and had actresses including Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino and Asia Argento accusing Weinstein of assault. The two publications would trigger a Hollywood reckoning and, as Ronan Farrow, the journalist behind the New Yorker story, told an audience at New York City’s 92nd Street Y in February, McGowan was an “instrumental” force, having been an early source for these types of stories, who “empowered” others to speak. By November, it would emerge that Weinstein had hired a private security agency called Black Cube to go undercover to thwart McGowan.

Rose McGowan’s body is enveloped in a shiny mack that resembles glass, baring her teeth, her eyes trained on the camera, her hair cropped short. This is the new public face of the actress, on the cover of Flaunt magazine—artistic, fierce. Such are her appearances now: on the cover of The Fall, wearing a turtleneck spackled in coloured light, on the cover of Posture, staring out from a sea of crinoline. If she is going to offer up her body this time, it will be on her terms. So, in Posture, a queer-run arts and culture magazine, she sits topless in a bathtub, the image coded arty, not porny. “The whole thing with Hollywood and me now is that I don’t, literally, give a fuck if they accept me in any way shape or form,” McGowan tells the publication. “Why? Because I don’t accept them.”

There’s a lot she doesn’t accept. This is a message McGowan has repeated over and over the past few years—that she is untethered, that she is working outside the status quo, that she is disrupting it. But her words and her actions are often at odds. “I came to be a voice for all of us who’ve been told we are nothing,” she said at the Women’s Convention in Detroit in October, her first public appearance after the Weinstein story broke.

But she often is not. In response to a Weinstein joke, she tweeted, “REPLACE THE WORDWOMEN’ w/ the ‘N’ word. How does it feel?” to alienating effect. Likewise, she has accused the LGBT community of doing nothing for women. Last month, during the press tour for Brave, McGowan shouted at a transgender woman who criticized her. McGowan subsequently characterized the woman as a “paid plant” and canceled the rest of her appearances. Being right seems less of an impulse for McGowan than calling out what she deems to be wrong, making it difficult to be entirely supportive of her but at the same time to entirely dismiss her. “I look for ways to try to join worlds, to build that bridge to reframe status quo ideas and ideology,” she writes in Brave. “I don’t always get it right, but my intentions are pure.”

McGowan can’t be separated from the reality of an activism hierarchy, which privileges certain women over others. “If you’re someone like Meryl Streep or Oprah Winfrey or someone like that, you are in a really good place to speak out,” says Zeisler. McGowan, whose relevance was waning as far back as ten years ago, is not. Add to that her anarchistic approach to the #MeToo movement as a whole— attacking not only abusers but celebrity activists like Alyssa Milano and Streep who don’t fit her narrative—and she becomes a precarious voice. After McGowan called out Time’s Up activists for not supporting her memoir or her TV series, Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times, “in Hollywood, where product and cause are inextricable, it makes a kind of sense.”

Complicating McGowan’s position is her cyclothymia, which she discloses in Brave. This rare disorder, which it appears has afflicted the actress since at least her early twenties, causes patients to experience symptoms of hypomania—which can manifest in grandiosity, logorrhea and flightiness. A risk factor is first-degree relatives with bipolar disorder, which McGowan believes her father had. She is now on a mood stabilizer. “The depression really rocketed off after my assault and became something impossible to manage on my own,” she writes. Whether her actions are related to her condition or simply to a personality which skews narcissistic, it is impossible to say, but McGowan is increasingly viewed as, rather than a feminist warrior, a destructive force, most recently in the wake of her former manager’s suicide. Following Jill Messick’s death on February 7, her family released a statement which called out McGowan for her “slanderous statements” against Messick. Two days later, McGowan posted on Instagram an image of a blinding sun with the caption, “For Jill: May your family find some measure of solace during this pain. That one man could cause so much damage is astounding, but tragically true. The bad man did this to us both. May you find peace on the astral plane. May you find serenity with the stars.”

McGowan characterizes Brave as a memoir and manifesto, but the book, a reiteration of much of her rhetoric from the interview circuit, veers less towards empowering others, more towards the notion that her own personal empowerment might radiate to others. Without the barrier of the page, her documentary is even more self serving, focussing predominantly on McGowan’s own success as an activist and artist, showing the actress regularly steering conversations back to herself. One scene in particular has McGowan in a circle of survivors who are speaking about their own very personal experiences of abuse. In response, she says, “I really wish I didn’t get it, but I get it. Today it broke in the news someone that hurt me. It was in the news all over the world today.” Again, for Rose McGowan it is about Rose McGowan. The concern is not that McGowan might be profiting from her own past, to which, she has rightly argued, she is as entitled as everyone else. The concern is that she is presenting this product, herself, as a selfless service to others.

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