Rose McGowan on the power of female anger

We premiere the activist and filmmaker’s piece Woman’s Womb, discuss the politicised threat against women and chart her own journey to creative and personal freedom

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Photography Fabia Mendoza

Rose McGowan is not a celebrity – “it’s not the right word to describe me,” she says. On her own terms, she’s an activist, and at a push, a notable figure. Next week, her short experimental film, Woman’s Womb, is being shown at New York’s Untitled Space Gallery during the group exhibition Uprise / Angry Women. We’re on Facetime, chatting candidly about the film and also her upcoming memoir, religion and cults, moving away from the U.S, blistering debates we’ve had with sexist men, our love for Berlin, and the hulking oppression of Hollywood she escaped.

The exhibition is populated by artists responding to the current political shitshow that saw Donald Trump elected – it also marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v Wade and women’s right to choose, yet the U.S administration is hellbent on the destruction of Planned Parenthood, an institution that gave women their body autonomy back. Congress fight over legislation meant to combat college campus rape, pushing women and their right safety and education further and further down their agenda.

The Dawn director and former actor, with past roles in Doom Generation and Jawbreaker, firmly shut the door on Hollywood and the suffocating, misogynistic industry it houses last year with a damning open letter. It’s been a long road for McGowan, but she’s chosen to use her platform and share her journey towards self-care, independence, and control of her artistic work so that others can do the same in these tough times.  

“Even in the freest minds and the most active fighters, the darkness can still threaten us. You are pure and clean, it is them who are dirty. You’ll hopefully get it quicker than me,” she says. The filmmaker also tells me some details of her upcoming ‘memoir-manifesto’, titled Brave. She says it’s “pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz of Hollywood. It's not a tell-all, but a 'tell it how it is'”.

She adds: “People think it's weird that you grew up in a cult and I'm like, ‘What do you think you're in?’ If you're in any kind of religion, if you've watched The Kardashians, if you voted for Trump – guess what, you're in a cult. I got out of one.”

Premiering Woman’s Womb right here on Dazed, McGowan illustrates the heartbreaking injustice done to Purvi Patel in the U.S, convicted for inducing her own abortion. Below, she discusses art’s responsibility to challenge the threat against women, her own journey to freedom, the power of female anger and why it’s good to feel uncomfortable sometimes.

Tell me about the story behind Woman’s Womb.

Rose McGowan: It’s my first in the video art series I've been doing. Woman's Womb is based on this woman, Purvi Patel, an Indian immigrant woman in Indiana. She was locked up for 20 years recently for having a miscarriage. She went to the hospital for help, they misused a law and jailed her.

For Woman's Womb, I actually used some of my own blood, put hydrogen peroxide in it, bubbled it up, filmed it and then had a lovely Indian model in something that looks womb-like work her way out of it. The black bars on the side of the frame represent how society squeezes women, squeezes their rights. In almost all of my work, including my movie Dawn that I directed, I work with a lot of layers. Everything has a specific point.

Women’s body autonomy seems to be at the heart of a lot of your work.

Rose McGowan: Very much so, it always has been. I've been working on Planned Parenthood since I was 15-years-old – I begged them for help, and I always vowed if I could ever do anything for them, if I ever made any money, I would give back – and I did. They only charged me like $15 for my visit. I had no healthcare because it's the United States, with our current massive global disaster of government. This is one of the reasons I'm moving.

My aunt recently said, ‘You just need to suck it up’ and I kind of realised… no actually, I don't. I think it might be an extinction level event, but if it's not, I don't wanna have to suffer. I've lived, as many women have since birth, under the tyranny of men in power. And I'm tired of it. Angry Women is the perfect title for this show. If you're not angry then there's some problem with you. There's a lot to be angry about.

What was the technical aspect of working with your blood?

Rose McGowan: I used my menstrual blood and I mixed it with hydrogen peroxide so it bubbled, and laid it out on a slide and magnified it on film. I thought it would look like what people would imagine a miscarriage to look like. I used a microscope from my brother, who's a doctor, and deliberately kept the brackets on the side of the screen, for that sense of physically being boxed in.

And there’s this singular voice, narrating what seems like a birth. 

Rose McGowan: I use my voice a lot in my work. When I was just acting, I altered my voice for every role I did, but I was usually playing somebody who had a sexual vibe. Nobody ever asked me about how I approached my work, so thank you. I like to make people uncomfortable with it. Because for me, life has been uncomfortable. People are so scared of ruffling feathers and making life uncomfortable, but why? You can be uncomfortable, it'll get comfortable again, don't worry about it. Discomfort is necessary for growth. Remember when you're little, your legs hurt when you're growing taller.

The words in the film are really beautiful, and it's optimistic despite the horrific story.

Rose McGowan: It is optimistic, it is uplifting – 'And there she was, bursting forth into the world'. And that's what we do as girls when we're born, we burst forth and a lot of times, our light is taken from us. I want to give that back.

Wombs are often used as a reason to impose authority on some women, but they can be a symbol of power too.

Rose McGowan: Incredible, yes. And anger can also be positive, it can also be channeled and it can also show beauty. We are beautiful beings, we just have to know our power.

Female anger tends to be audited or sneered at in the mainstream narrative.

Rose McGowan: It’s barely seen. If you see it in film and television, it’s represented usually by a woman in a fight with another woman over a man, or it’s something the man has done to her to get her angry. That extends to women of colour very much, as there’s the ‘angry black woman’ trope – that revolves around men too. Though it’s not one man in particular, it’s a systemic man.

I’m showing women that you can be angry, that it is okay to be angry, that it is our right and it's the only way we're gonna have the fire to push back and notice everything that is wrong. Because there are a lot of people benefiting off us being quiet.

Channeling that anger into creating art makes it tangible, and therefore more accessible for people to engage with, right?

Rose McGowan: I think that’s the perfect description of it. The thing is, I have bottled my rage for a very long time, as the only way I could survive what was going and what was happening to me in Hollywood. One day, I woke up to it. I woke up to the fact that it wasn’t me that was wrong, it was them. And a lot of women and girls do that too. The word ‘feminist’ was a caricature of this women with hairy legs and man-haters, and when people are like, ‘You hate men!’ I'm like, ‘Okay, so?’ I mean, alright, I hate men as an idea, absolutely, and as a power structure, yes. Individually, no.

Do you think it’s the creative world’s responsibility to challenge political and social systems?

Rose McGowan: I absolutely do, and I think anybody who fucks off from that responsibility is kind of an asshole and frankly. Nobody says anything in Hollywood, they deflect like this white, male mafia. They breed in fear, and how it’s done in Hollywood is how it’s done to the world, it’s America’s number one export.

Art is historically how society has survived its travails, had a release for its female problems, and also marked time. I don't understand why we mark time by world wars when instead we should be marking it by art periods.

And what is the message you hope Woman’s Womb has?

Rose McGowan: My piece honours Purvi Patel, because that breaks my heart. There is no stopping this train that we're on right now, as our congress represents a deep, deep problem for this country. I hope their souls don't sleep well. And America always says it's number one, but other than military might and entertainment I don't see what it's number one in.

(Restricting abortion) is a way to imprison and torture women mentally, physically, and it costs lives. Faux-morality, this idea of what we are supposed to be, kills. My movie Dawn was all about how we send girls out in the world to be polite and sweet, and what happens when you meet a predator. It all begins with subjugation. I was really proud of the women in Poland for bringing it.

“People are so scared of ruffling feathers and making life uncomfortable, but why? You can be uncomfortable, it’ll get comfortable again, don’t worry about it. Discomfort is necessary for growth. Remember when you’re little, your legs hurt when you’re growing taller” – Rose McGowan

What’s it like being involved in an exhibition championing the work of women with something to say?

Rose McGowan: It feels incredible because I operate kind of in a vacuum. I’m not allied with any group, my work is pretty solo unless there’s a big film crew around. But what I’m doing is really on my own, to be included with other female artists that have strong points of view is an incredible honour.

Are you going to do more behind the camera?

Rose McGowan: I sold a show to Amazon recently, an origin story of a cult, that I wrote and I’ll be directing the pilot of. So I’m definitely working in film, but I just go around all the assholes. I kind of woke up to the fact that I don't need to go through the dicks anymore, I can just skirt around them. I've learned the hard way. White men are the easiest people to scare on the planet, and I have to say, sometimes it's fun. I was 17 when I was discovered, but I've lived a very peripatetic existence before Hollywood, even. Having grown up in a cult, going to Hollywood was like going from one cult into another.

This year in particular, will see more of an attack on women, how are you feeling in the run up to the inauguration of a candidate with such an anti-women administration?

Rose McGowan: I think it’s gonna be a massive war on women that’s been sanctioned and approved by voters. With Hillary losing, nobody has really talked about how this affects women and girls worldwide. It’s like, ‘No, here's what you can't do, you really can’t break that glass ceiling. No matter how fucking hard you try, they will fucking steal it from you”. And I’ve certainly been going through a lot of emotions. The fact that we’re just supposed to feel the same way as if a liberal male who feels bummed that he lost the election... this white guy the other night said, ‘I know how you feel!’ And I said, ‘No you goddamn don't. You do not know.’ They don’t know the terror of what it's been like to be attacked for having this body from birth. We have lived with that stress, and now it's out in the open.

We know now what we can fight. A lot of women are going to very much suffer under this, poor people and people of colour. It's an atrocity, and we're being held hostage by fierce dedication to stupidity. I want to leave. I can no longer handle the stupidity in my life. I've met more people than most people will in 20 lifetimes, and I've just hit my limit with it.

Uprise / Angry Women opens 17 January – 28 January 2017 at The Untitled Space Gallery

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