We're Not All The Same: Rose McGowan's Feminism and the Myth of the Normal Woman
Well, Rose McGowan has done it again.
Again, the artist, actress and activist has centered herself, her own experience, as if she is the only woman in the world.
At a book signing in late January at Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, Rose McGowan ordered white, trans activist Andi Dier to “shut up” in response to a planned confrontation about a transphobic comment McGowan had made on RuPaul’s What’s The Tee podcast in July 2017. This public charge prompted McGowan to demand of Dier, “what have you done for women?” as if Dier herself wasn’t a woman at all.
For those who don’t know, artist, actress and activist Rose McGowan is one of the first celebrity figures to accuse film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. Due to her courageous choice to take her difficult experience with Weinstein public, McGowan inspired many other actresses to share their own testimonies against Weinstein. Though the movement #MeToo was started by non-profit founder Tarana Burke in 2006, the hashtag went viral after Alyssa Milano used it to support McGowan. As #MeToo began to gain more publicity online, Rose McGowan stepped into an activist role and became known by many as a prominent leader of the movement.
When the video of McGowan in the bookshop appeared on my Twitter feed, in curiosity, I played it, and I found myself shaking with anger. My heart was racing, opening me up to the realization that I felt quite vulnerable. McGowan’s rage-filled charges hit me like a punch in the gut. I don’t know what it is like to be Dier, but I’ve heard something similar to McGowan’s accusation towards Dier cross my own body: “What does your issue have to do with women?”
Though the moment felt very familiar to me, I remain keenly aware of my own differences from Dier. I am a cisgender woman. She is trans. I’m black. Dier is white. I’ve never been told explicitly that I am not a woman in the way that so many trans women are told. But, I couldn’t shake off the familiarity of this moment. I hesitated through the rest of the video, which ended with a raucous applause from Rose’s faithful audience, and I felt in that moment the shame and loneliness of cheers and celebrations that I haven’t been able to take part in through much of my life, whether in school, public events or in church. I continue to feel this inability to fully participate with the women’s movements that are currently breaking into the mainstream. Yet, when I mention why I am unable to bring my full enthusiasm into a “women’s” space, I’m often chided as being a killjoy, as someone who isn’t willing to celebrate what appears to be a good thing for “all” women.
"McGowaning" is so prevalent in mainstream feminist and women’s movements because of a fear that if there isn’t a universal basis for womanhood, then feminist movements will not be effective.
“We are the same.” Rose repeated this before the accusation, cutting off Dier as she recounted to McGowan the ways that she had been sexually harassed. “We are the same” rolls off Rose’s mouth in such a way that comes across to me as disingenuous, the beginning of a minimization.
It’s this minimizing of different women’s experiences that doesn’t excite me about efforts like the Women’s March or the Time’s Up movement, the latter movement resulting from the snowball McGowan’s Weinstein accusations started. These mainstream movements often claim to be about “all” women, as if all women are the same to begin with. Yet, how and why women are vulnerable to sexual assault or gender discrimination can vary because of other factors or identity markers, such as occupation, class, location, race, and sexuality. As a black woman, I’m vulnerable to sexual assault in a way that is different from white women, but I don’t typically get the sense that our society cares, as our assault stories are seldom covered.
In Dier’s confrontation with Rose, Dier uses the opportunity to tell Rose about the unique threat of sexual assault that trans women experience when they are incarcerated and how trans women are vulnerable to this threat precisely because they are trans. Dier’s history of activism has taken the form of highlighting the ways that trans women’s issues fit into current national conversations. This has included work in raising trans women’s visibility as victims of mass incarceration during the Bernie Sanders 2016 election campaign.
Though Rose stated to Dier that they are the same, she quickly contradicts this, by telling Dier that she isn’t a woman in both implicit and explicit ways. Centering her own experience as a woman who is cisgender, white, and who has had experiences being followed causes her to miss that Dier is also a victim of sexual assault and stalking. Many cisgender women might interpret Dier’s reaction as a detraction to McGowan’s work, but given the ways that various women’s experiences, including trans women’s, are left disproportionality underreported, this disruption feels necessary- necessary during a time in which white feminist and women’s movements continue to expect non-white and trans women to show up for their causes in droves but are very reluctant to show up for us when we need their support.
I’ve been asked to show up and support “women” by white women, but I’ve struggled to imagine that she is including me. In a pop culture where marginalized people are often addressed as “people of color OR women”, it is difficult to imagine that our dominant culture sees black women and other women of color as women, too. This might be why it is just so damn easy for Rose McGowan to retweet a reference to John Lennon’s song, “women are the nigger of the world”, as if black women- cis and trans, bi and straight, with or without disabilities- haven’t ever been called the slur.
The idea that sameness or likeness must precede solidarity is a myth that many feminists of color have been critical of for decades.
McGowan’s past and present actions in erasing or minimizing the experiences of women different from her suggest that that, despite the campaign’s origins as one birthed from black women and girl’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault, the place of women-led campaigns such as the #MeToo movement ought to center and privilege the experiences of one kind of woman: white cisgender women. The issues that concern other women might be considered… but only if they are seen as relatable to white cisgender women. And what so often happens is that white, cis women bolster their own agendas and erase the particularities of other women’s agendas. We see this happen over and over, not because white, cis women are bad, but because most white, cis women see themselves as the “normal”, or normative, woman. Because white cis women typically position themselves as “normal”, they get to define what issues are the ones that “have to do with women”.
I wonder if this self-centering and minimization of difference— this McGowaning— is so prevalent in mainstream feminist and women’s movements because of a fear that if there isn’t a universal basis for womanhood, then feminist movements will not be effective. Talking about difference is often dismissed as “divisive” by women who view their experiences as the normal one. However, in centering white cisgender womanhood as the universal or normal womanhood, people like me can’t help but wonder if white, cis women will ever see that these McGowan-ing acts are themselves the cause of division.
Identity and social differences can’t be antagonized or viewed as detracting from women’s issues, however. These identity-based struggles ARE women’s issues. So what is to be done about #MeToo and other movements which aim to be concerned with women’s oppressions, yet tend to see trans issues, race issues, etc, as having nothing to do with women? We could look at the ways that other women have responded to difference. We don’t even have to look far from the confrontation between Dier and McGowan to see another way beyond McGowan-ing.
When Dier was being chastised in the audience, two cisgender women of color came to Dier’s side to support her and comfort her. Dier recounts in her interview with them. that along with an exchange of hugs, the women exchanged histories about movements that affected them. “I showed them Sylvia Rivera's speech, as they educated me on a police bombing in Philly during the civil rights movement — we bombed black people (the group MOVE) for wanting to get out. This is what my own privilege has blinded me to. An entire city — of people — was literally burned down by our government. But it is those women that give me hope that the revolution is not lost. Our liberation is linked.” In this moment, Dier and the two women of color were able to exchange and validate experiences of oppression that they did not have in common. There was no minimization, and no McGowan-ing. Dier recognizes the responsibilities that she has as a white person, despite the ways she doesn’t experience particular hostilities because of her own whiteness (trans women of color exist, after all). This doesn’t take away from her oppression as a woman or as a trans person.
The survival and success of high-profile movements like #MeToo, the Women’s March, and #TimesUp are dependent on how well we can handle difference.
I don’t find it surprising that it was two women of color who found themselves moved to support Dier. The idea that sameness or likeness must precede solidarity is a myth that many feminists of color, such as Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga, have been critical of for decades. In her essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” (1980), feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde teaches us not to distrust our differences as women, but rather, to recognize the powers within recognizing those differences. In her essay “La Guera”, Chicana lesbian writer, Cherríe Moraga teaches us the importance of remembering and being emotionally attuned to our own histories of pain in order for us to forge meaningful relationships with people who experience marginalizations different from our own. McGowan’s reactions towards Dier and others who have accused her of racism, transphobia or other abuse of power were missed opportunities to form solidarities across difference. And there are very real consequences to ignoring these differences.
The survival and success of high-profile movements like #MeToo, the Women’s March, and #TimesUp are dependent on how well we can handle difference. These movements can choose to see these differences as threatening or irrelevant to their causes, or recognize that addressing these and rejecting the myth of white women’s normality will strengthen the movement against sexual abuse. Our times need white cis women to show up for trans women and women of color’s movements against gendered violence with the same enthusiasm that they’ve supported McGowan and other efforts where white, cis women take center stage.
After all, our liberation is linked.