Well before #MeToo and #TimesUp, Rose McGowan was an avatar of rage against the Hollywood establishment. It started with the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, where she wore a dress made entirely of beads and hiding nothing — her way, she says, of mocking the rule that women had to parade across red carpets, as sex objects, at award shows.
At the time, the joke didn’t quite land. But McGowan didn’t lose her savage sense of humor, and social media eventually gave her an unmediated place to share it. In 2015, she famously tweeted a casting note that instructed actresses to arrive in “a form-fitting tank that shows off cleavage” — and was dropped by her agent the next day. Around that time, she was giving cagey interviews about a powerful Hollywood power broker who had sexually assaulted her.
With The New York Times report on Harvey Weinstein, the power broker in question, Hollywood’s self-protective shell finally broke. Slime continues to ooze out, and a feminist movement has caught up with McGowan’s fury. But in her new memoir, “Brave,” McGowan stays one step ahead. The current aim of the social-media-driven mob — one on the right side of history, but a mob nonetheless — is to expose and shame the actors, directors, and public figures who have perpetrated or enabled abuse.
“Brave” has a different goal: not to pluck the bad players out of Hollywood, but to burn the whole thing down.
The central metaphor of the book, which McGowan had begun before the Weinstein scandal hit, is that Hollywood is a cult that manipulates the minds of producers and consumers alike. And McGowan knows how to spot a cult, she writes, since she lived in one herself: She was born in Italy to hippie American parents who had joined a group called the Children of God, a polygamist, fundamentalist organization dogged by child sexual-abuse allegations.
And so she holds fast to her theme. “In my past of being sold as a product, I have been a part of massaging your brain,” she writes. And, later, when she follows a Beverly Hills dentist’s suggestion to straighten her teeth: “it was an implanted idea and not one of my own. The [expletive] brainwashing had begun in earnest.”
Those are typical sentences in “Brave,” which is littered with the “f” word and rails bitterly against a range of people and things, from cultists in Italy to toxic boyfriends in America to the fact that her first meal, upon moving to the States as a girl, was at a Denny’s. In truth, the book doesn’t function well as a memoir: It’s rambling and nonlinear, maddeningly vague in places, and often requires the reader to consult Google or Wikipedia to figure out exactly what’s going on.
But “Brave” works beautifully as a manifesto. It’s a call to arms — not just against the specific men who mistreated McGowan and the men and women who enabled that mistreatment, but against an industry that, in her words, “creates a [expletive] up mirror for you to look in.”
How complicit McGowan has been in this system is already the subject of many comments sections in many publications. Can a woman who drafted off Hollywood’s beauty obsession credibly bite the hand that gave her a career and a platform? Can she complain about the misery on the set of “Planet Terror” when she was sleeping with the director? Can she rail against the commodification of beauty when she ends her book plugging a skin-care line?
Or is she especially suited to send this message — as someone who has experienced the system from within, fell into its many traps, and is now fighting back?
By sheer propulsion of her anger and frustration, McGowan makes the latter argument convincing. Yes, there are contradictions to her story — as there are with most women’s relationships with Hollywood, beauty standards, and their own sense of self-worth. A goth-punk kid who grew up partly on the streets, and emancipated herself from her irresponsible parents at 15, she still found herself trapped in lopsided relationships with rich and powerful men. A woman who claimed she did not seek out an acting career — though she writes that she somehow knew she would be famous — still believed the managers who told her, at 23, that a private meeting with Weinstein (whom she refers to as the “monster’’) would be a springboard for her career. And after the 1997 assault, chillingly detailed in the book (and denied by Weinstein), she believed those same managers and costars when they told her that nothing could be done. (That apparently includes a costar, widely reported to be Ben Affleck, who has denied knowing about Weinstein’s history even though McGowan says she confided in him before a press appearance minutes after the assault.)
It turns out that the Weinstein encounter was a springboard for McGowan, but it launched her on a different kind of platform, 20 years later. Now, McGowan has moved from acting to directing and rejected some of the trappings of beauty that first made her a star. The cover and introduction of “Brave” make a showing of her shaving her head in defiance of Hollywood norms. Here and everywhere else in her book and her public life, she responds to critics with an “I don’t give a [expletive].” It’s a good look and not a bad lesson.
By Rose McGowan
HarperOne, 272 pp., $27.99
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.comThe Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.