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‘Citizen Rose’ and the First Wave of #MeToo Documentaries

Two new docu-series from Rose McGowan and PBS demonstrate that we are still learning how to talk about the cultural movement—but that there are merits in trying

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Last Tuesday, E! aired the feature-length premiere of Citizen Rose, an autobiopic of sorts that examines the events of the past four months from the vantage point of the actress Rose McGowan. And on Friday, PBS inaugurated the month-long run of #MeToo, Now What?, a collection of interviews and conversations hosted by Iraqi-American women’s advocate Zainab Salbi.

The two series are polar opposite in their approach, but Citizen Rose and #MeToo, Now What? share a start date—October 5, 2017, when The New York Times published a deeply sourced report detailing decades’ worth of sexual harassment allegations against power producer Harvey Weinstein. They also share a utilitarian purpose. In the four months that have followed the Weinstein accusations (McGowan’s among them), the exposure of a single predator has grown into a full-scale #MeToo phenomenon that now includes further revelations about powerful individuals, sectors of public life well beyond Hollywood, an action group with a legal defense fund, protests on and off red carpets, public debate over tactics, and inevitably, a backlash. A news cycle this relentless cries out to be interpreted for a bewildered public—even if that interpretation automatically disqualifies itself from becoming a definitive account, because the chain reaction it documents is still ongoing.

The similarities between Citizen Rose and #MeToo, Now What? begin and end with their potential to satisfy that demand, and their mutual struggle to satisfy their far-reaching ambition. These series are hardly alone in that respect; for every report, op-ed, and demonstration that adds to the ongoing conversation, there’s an additional round of debate about how each individual building block adds to or hinders the movement-that-isn’t-a-movement’s greater momentum. Such was the case for the black-dress show of solidarity that dominated the Golden Globes, or a little-known website’s account of a young woman’s troubling encounter with Aziz Ansari, or most recently, Maureen Dowd’s account of Uma Thurman’s professional experiences with both Weinstein and Quentin Tarantino. There is no agreed-upon vocabulary for how to talk about sex, power, and trauma on the scale that we currently are, which means there are shortcomings and blind spots to be found in every contribution, McGowan’s and Salbi’s included.

Yet held up against one another, Citizen Rose and #MeToo, Now What? form a dialogue as instructive as it is inadvertent. The former is proudly subjective, the latter studiously neutral; the former hinges on a singular perspective, the latter on a multiplicity of voices; the former risks shutting out the world outside the personal experience at its center, the latter spreading itself too thin. Together, the two docu-series demonstrate a truism that’s nonetheless worthwhile to watch acted out in real time: There’s no one way to process, encapsulate, or take part in such a widespread social reckoning. By watching others try, however, it’s possible for viewers to inch closer to figuring #MeToo out for themselves.

Citizen Rose’s greatest strength is also its Achilles’ heel. McGowan, as star and executive producer, makes no bones about what she wants her show to be: an unfiltered expression of how she views her life, her trauma, and her role in what’s happened since her trauma came to light. That link between documentary and subject accounts for the bulk of Citizen Rose’s emotional heft. It also directly leads to the project’s significant flaws.

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” McGowan intones in her opening voiceover. “Good.” In this latest phase of her two-plus decades in public life, McGowan has made a signature out of causing discomfort, for reasons both worthwhile and counterproductive. Since identifying herself as one of Weinstein’s victims, McGowan has conducted herself with an unapologetic anger, coining the hashtag #rosearmy and memorably telling Ben Affleck to fuck off via Twitter. When the New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow reported that Weinstein and his legal team had enlisted a private intelligence firm run by former Mossad agents to track McGowan and even befriend her under false pretenses, he exposed an uncomfortable truth indeed: that the fury and paranoia McGowan displayed were far from baseless.

But Citizen Rose arrives at a time when McGowan’s public appearances are provoking a more acute kind of unease, even among those who are sympathetic to McGowan and her cause. The debut telecast of Citizen Rose—the remaining four episodes have yet to be scheduled, though they’re meant to air sometime later this spring—was timed to coincide with the release of McGowan’s memoir Brave; at her first book-signing event in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble, McGowan got into a verbal confrontation, exclaiming “What I do for the fucking world … you should be fucking grateful” at a trans audience member who took issue with previous comments McGowan had made on a podcast. McGowan subsequently cancelled her remaining promotional events, accused the audience member of being a Weinstein plant, and insisted Barnes & Noble owed her an apology. Previously, McGowan had been a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where she told a cryptic anecdote about what she called “Courage Street.” One doesn’t have to make a definitive judgment of McGowan’s behavior to say that she makes for an imperfect figurehead for the fight against sexual violence.

Citizen Rose is a compelling portrait of McGowan as a lifelong survivor enjoying her long-overdue vindication. McGowan spent much of her childhood as a member of the Children of God cult, which her family left once the leadership began encouraging sex with children. The actress isn’t subtle in drawing parallels between male-dominated institutions that enable systematic abuse: “My life has taken me from one cult to another,” she says of her transition into Hollywood. But McGowan’s conviction helps make her insider account of the destructive myth of the sex symbol one of the most searing critiques of the film industry’s image factory I’ve ever seen. “It’s been really hard having the mind of an artist and being in a town that sells you as a commodity,” she says, recounting “the selling of me as a bad girl” over fresh-faced footage from the ’90s. “I was so lost, so invisible; nobody could see who I was. I couldn’t see who I was.” Weinstein is never mentioned by name in Citizen Rose. In the series’ most distinctive stylistic choice, he is referred to exclusively as “The Monster”; whenever his name shows up in a news clipping, it’s garbled into an unintelligible blur. The gesture may be small, but it still makes for a striking assertion of agency by a woman against her abuser. McGowan’s new-found ability to shape her own narrative comes through as a belated corrective to a lifetime of having others speak for her.

Where Citizen Rose falters is when McGowan’s advocacy for herself gets conflated with advocacy on behalf of others. In just 90 minutes, the premiere covers a period from the publication of the first Weinstein report to events as recent as the Golden Globes. Some of this progression is grounded in developments in McGowan’s own life—turning herself in for a drug possession charge, or spending a strained Thanksgiving with her mother in New Mexico. Sometimes, however, both Citizen Rose and McGowan try to address the rapid spread of #MeToo into a more general call to action. Clippings of news reports about the likes of Charlie Rose and Danny Masterson feel awkwardly inserted into a narrative that otherwise roots itself in McGowan’s biography; at one point, McGowan attends a “Rose Army Retreat,” but it’s unclear what she’s planning there. (The Rose Army website is a stripped-down Squarespace page with a YouTube video of her speech at last year’s Women’s Convention, images of the Brave cover, and links to McGowan’s social media profiles.) At one point, McGowan declares that “I’m just trying to get people to stop raping and killing us.” After a harrowing life in and out of the limelight, McGowan doesn’t owe the public anything, including turning herself into a crusader-spokesperson for all womankind. But Citizen Rose often strikes a triumphantly defiant tone that tries to position her as one without offering much evidence to back that branding up.

In just its first episode, Citizen Rose seems to have said most of what there is to say about McGowan herself, unless it plans to wait another four full months between installments to replenish its well of real-time developments. If and when they make it to air, future episodes seem obligated to turn their gaze outward—but in the process, Citizen Rose risks losing the messy, magnetic core that affords it the intensity of one woman’s conviction. McGowan may not be qualified to speak on behalf of every victim, but it’s riveting to watch her seize the chance to finally speak for herself.

In her capacity as the host of #MeToo, Now What?, Salbi is every bit the traditional correspondent McGowan defines herself against. Beginning with footage of Viola Davis speaking at the Los Angeles Women’s March in January, just 11 days before its premiere date, #MeToo, Now What? is constantly grappling with the unresolved and unfolding nature of its subject. (When I asked PBS for preview copies of future episodes, the network was unable to provide any because they’re still being put together.) The series positions itself less as a declarative statement than as a field report, weaving together clips from a panel discussion moderated by Salbi with one-on-one interviews previously recorded across the country, from a restaurant in Chicago to a college campus in Texas.

At just 26 minutes, the first chapter of #MeToo, Now What?, titled “The Reckoning,” is as brisk as Citizen Rose’s is sprawling. No topic, no matter how complex, gets more than a segment. The series summarizes the questions at hand, acknowledges their thorny, possibly unsolvable nature, and moves on. Salbi’s interlocutors are sharp, qualified, and thoughtfully selected, forming an all-female collective free of tokenization. The women account for a wide spectrum of age, background, and institutional affiliation: Nadine Strossen, the first female head of the ACLU (and, conspicuously, the only white woman present); Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based writer and editor; and Angela Rye, an NPR and CNN analyst. With their frequent disagreement in the face of monumental problems, like the role of racial and economic privilege in women’s ability to speak out against harassment, the women form a literal dialogue to reflect the figurative one happening offscreen.

Despite its ostensible purpose, “The Reckoning” achieves a breadth it’s nearly impossible for the audience to digest. The experiences vary widely: A chef describes being hit on by her employer at just 20 years old; a military veteran voices her frustrations with her superiors’ indifference to her sexual assault; in between, the panel debates whether it’s fair to be frustrated with women who did consensually sleep with their bosses, or if the standards for litigating sexual assault on college campuses put in place by the Obama Administration were too lax. It’s not quite fair to fault #MeToo, Now What? for a lack of focus, since Salbi strives to represent the many facets of #MeToo rather than voice her agreement with any particular side. But while there’s value in capturing the confusion (or at least agnosticism) so many women are feeling right now, it’s difficult to imagine #MeToo, Now What? helping viewers answer its namesake query.

Future episodes of #MeToo, Now What? will narrow their lens slightly from the premiere’s dizzying grand tour, or at least they seem poised to do so from the titles and synopses offered to press in advance. The episode “#MenToo” incorporates the perspectives of the men implicated by #MeToo as well as the women directly engaged in it—including, in a controversial move, the disgraced film blogger Devin Faraci. (Salbi separately interviewed both Faraci and his accuser; both conversations will be excerpted in the final episode.) “The Invisible” looks at vulnerable populations, like the working poor and the undocumented, who may be left out of #MeToo despite needing structural changes the most. “The Kardashian Effect” will examine the interplay between media representation of women and their lived realities; finally, “Beyond Anger” will pivot from the first half of #MeToo, Now What? to the second.

Even if Salbi manages to parse a reconsideration of the country’s professional, sexual, and political mores into a handful of slightly more legible component parts, #MeToo remains unfinished, which renders any attempts to channel it into a fixed object inherently incomplete. A reactive medium that can be produced quickly and flexibly, television provides a common-sense intermediary between the nonstop flurry of news items and the books and films that are doubtless on the way. But the interplay between Citizen Rose and #MeToo, Now What? shows that even tentative efforts at translating #MeToo have their pitfalls.

Still, to state that no single artifact can encompass an entire reckoning—even if, like #MeToo, Now What?, that quixotic goal is its explicitly stated project—is as much an expression of optimism as futility. Neither Citizen Rose nor #MeToo, Now What? will give the last word on harassment, whisper networks, criminal justice, or the patriarchy. Consequently, it’s possible to accept their gaps and inconsistencies as both features and bugs. Citizen Rose may overemphasize, even lionize, its protagonist; #MeToo, Now What? may prioritize range over clarity. If a single week can produce such complementary series, though, it’s easier to trust that future #MeToo chroniclers can pick up their predecessors’ slack. The less any single piece of nonfiction actually speaks for a grassroots conflagration that implicates people of every gender, class, orientation, and status, the less it has to answer for anything but itself.