Rose McGowan has had a troubled journey. She’s largely the face of the #MeToo movement, recounting sexual abuse in Hollywood and lending her considerable voice to trying to combat the predatory behavior of powerful men. On the other hand, she recently had a very public breakdown (full video available here) when trans activist Andi Dier confronted her over remarks McGowan made on RuPaul’s podcast, “What’s the Tee?” The incident devolved into a shouting match where, frankly, McGowan came off as extremely transphobic and accused Dier of not doing anything for women.
I don’t want to take anything away from McGowan, whose decision to speak out on rape culture was as undeniably brave as it was hard. She’s still one of my favorite people in Hollywood. However…
She’s also an indication of a problem we have in America. We make celebrities activists when we should be making activists celebrities. We cede the responsibility of change to those who are not necessarily qualified to be doing that.
One could argue that fame and fortune comes with certain social obligations toward good works — the same as any high amount of privilege. That’s lovely. McGowan herself spends her time and money with Boston Terrier rescue programs, and for that I will always admire her. Likewise, she was obviously in a position to personally speak on sexual assault in the film industry. These things are in her wheelhouse.
But after #MeToo we started thinking of McGowan not as an actress who had some political things to say but as a Voice with a capital “V.” She wasn’t just a star, but an activist, and as an activist she gets held to a higher standard than most of the rest of us. The question is, “why are we asking Rose McGowan, beloved Planet Terror actress, to do the work of activism in the first place when there are people out there already doing that?” Answer: because they’re famous, and we’re lazy.
By way of an example, how many of you knew the name of the person confronting McGowan was Andi Weir? It took me a lot of Google and at least four think pieces before I found that out. Did you know she was a political canvasser for the Working Families Party and the founder of Transgender Advocates for Revolution? Or that she confronted Bernie Sanders on trans issues in the same way during the Democratic primaries? Yet her name is continuously left out of news coverage in favor of focusing on McGowan’s fall from activist grace. I bet most of you didn’t even notice I messed up DIER’s name earlier in this paragraph. She’s just “some trans woman” as far as the news is concerned.
This isn’t an exclusively left issue either. It could very much be said that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is the ultimate expression of this concept. An entire half of the political spectrum allowed a man with no particular qualifications to become the arbiter of everything from taxes, to war, to immigration, simply because he was the most famous person agreeing with them. Whether he had actually put in the hours learning about what he was talking about was insignificant compared to the fact that he was someone we all knew.
Susan Sarandon turned out the same way. I mean, not president, but as this sort of appointed voice status that rather clearly went to her head and ate whatever part of the brain is responsible for common sense. For most of my life Sarandon has been both a very good actress and this archetype for the Hollywood political activist. Then, as the Democratic primaries of 2016 went on it was clear she was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs on a lot of subjects. Now I can’t watch Illuminata without feeling sad.
There’s a concept called the Monkeysphere (technically it’s called Dunbar’s number, but in keeping with the theme we’re going with pop culture over science). Basically, it breaks down that humans have only so much ability to conceptualize other people as real people at a given time. You can only care about so many individuals before the rest of the planet disappears into a vague other.
When that person on your Facebook page starts wailing about people caring more about a celebrity’s death than dead troops or people of color shot by the police, it’s because of the Monkeysphere. You may not personally know Keanu Reeves, but he’s probably in your Monkeysphere. The second you hear his name or see his picture he emerges from the vague other to “that guy you know about.” The Monkeysphere is why you care when Rose McGowan speaks up about Hollywood sexual assault or why the accusation of Harvey Weinstein is national news.
Look, I’d rather re-watch Death Proof for the millionth time rather than seek out the hard work of activism buried on websites that make Angelfire look like something that was still a thing, too. I get it. I’m glad that McGowan uses her position to try and do some good in the world. I’d buy her ice cream if I knew her flavor.
But maybe instead of heaping the weight of progress and change on actors we should instead be turning off the TV to learn about people like Dier. Maybe Dier wouldn’t have to confront people like McGowan if we weren’t abdicating social issues on random celebrities who maybe just want to talk about their personal tragedies and not have symbol status thrust on them. Activism is hard. It requires a lot of work, and I dearly wish that doing so was a more lucrative and respected profession. We have got to stop shunting that work to people we’ve elevated and start elevating people already doing the work.