In some ways, E!‘s documentary series Citizen Rose would have been better if Rose McGowan was just the subject, not the subject, narrator and executive producer – if we could see the story of the woman who cracked open #metoo without feeling like we’re living in her video diary. It would have felt cleaner, more reliable, much more digestible. But it would have missed the point entirely.
McGowan didn’t have a voice for almost 20 years, since, she says, Harvey Weinstein raped her. She’s been trying to share her story all along and advocating for other survivors, but nobody listened until a couple of months ago. Now, in a five-part series that premieres this Tuesday with a two-hour special, she’s loud and unstoppable. This special – which follows McGowan through the Women’s Convention, a survivor support group and being selected as one of Time‘s People of the Year – is McGowan’s chance to tell her side of the story. And she pushes it as far as she can. She brings the viewer deep into not only what happened to her but what it’s like to live under the weight of the trauma that was inflicted on her; the years of being disbelieved; and this sudden and intense spotlight at the center of an explosive cultural shift.
She’s rewriting the narrative that’s been told about her and doing it truly on her own terms – not as a rebranding by yet another executive, and that seems more important than whether the series plays like an airtight documentary.
The series exists in a strange in-between place, using the intimate day-in-the-life tropes we’ve come to expect from the Kardashians to cover a subject that would be more naturally suited to Dateline. Because the special is covering serious stories that have been in the news – following the development of Weinstein’s downfall and the avalanche of powerful men that tumbled after him – McGowan’s monologues about victimhood and revenge can feel like a distraction, but maybe those moments of a long-silenced woman reveling in her now-amplified voice are the parts that matter most.
While McGowan’s proclamations challenge the power structure we live in, the format of the series challenges our ideas of who deserves to be taken seriously. McGowan spent her early childhood in a cult. Her father led the Italian chapter of the Children of God, an evangelical Christian group whose abuses were later well-documented. She describes him several times in the special as a cult leader, a man who needed to be worshiped and someone who thought of himself as a god. Ironically, there’s an undercurrent of a similar narcissism in the film itself. McGowan claims that the Rose Army, the subset of the #metoo movement that she started, is not named after her, but after the flower with thorns. But it’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the leader of Rose Army just happens to also be named Rose. McGowan states repeatedly that this cultural moment is not about her, but then most of the shots in the film are of her face – her talking to the camera as she fills in her stark black eyebrows, her dancing rhythmically in a fishnet bodysuit while being photographed, her signing thousands of title pages for her forthcoming book, her crying. So many shots of her crying.
The constant self-adulation can be off-putting, even while the message underneath is noble. The film, and McGowan in it, are alternately inspiring and unlikeable, and often both at once. But she doesn’t have to be likeable. It’s clear that this is the version of Rose McGowan that Rose McGowan wanted us to see, an antidote to the sex-pot, bad-girl image of her that was created, she says, by the “PR machine” of the “cult of Hollywood.” She’s taking back control of the narrative, telling her story her way, and making herself a real human being – complete with flaws, bias and an overbearing personality. She tells viewers what they’re in for in the opening shot of the film, which is a close-up of her face rubbing something onto her pronounced cheekbones and saying, “Do I make you uncomfortable? Good.”
A few outside voices come in to provide a little balance and keep the whole thing from feeling too much like McGowan’s own fever dream. But she often interrupts and talks over them in the frantic and grandiose manner of someone trying to work through deep trauma. The most successful of these outside voices is Ronan Farrow’s. There’s a scene of Farrow hanging out with McGowan in her bathroom – a huge room with a couch – while she puts on makeup. They discuss the reporting he did for The New Yorker, in which he confirmed McGowan’s claims that Weinstein had deployed spies to follow, intimidate and silence her, as well as other women who might speak out against him. They speak specifically about “Diana Phillip,” a former Israeli intelligence agent who, at Weinstein’s behest, posed as a women’s rights activist in order to get close to McGowan.
Farrow adds credibility to McGowan’s claims that she was being pursued by international spies, which, they both admit, would sound “crazy” if they hadn’t been confirmed by rigorous fact checking. The scene is a grounding moment that reminds the viewer that, imperfect presentation or not, we’re watching an incredible moment in a damaged life; we’re witnessing a woman who has been ground down by immeasurable pressure rise up and fight.
She says Weinstein dehumanized her, and in this film, McGowan turns the tables on him, referring to him only as “the monster.” The few times that images of him are used, there’s a black bar over his eyes. In images of news coverage that show him name printed, it’s pixelated and obscured, and in clips where someone speaks his name, it’s distorted to sound something like “Neesneow.” A representative of E! confirms that this was McGowan’s decision. It had nothing to do with legal issues, but was purely a statement, an act of taking back power. As McGowan puts it in the special, addressing her “monster” directly, “You’re below humanity. You don’t even get a name. Loser.” This editing choice encapsulates the feeling of the whole film: A little heavy-handed, but also vindicating and necessary.