Everyone involved in the #MeToo movement, the trans community, and the vast swath of overlap between the two has probably heard about the Rose McGowan incident by now. For those who haven’t, the virally infamous incident is on YouTube for anyone to watch, and transcribed by Variety magazine for those who don’t want to endure several minutes of shouting. In summary, here’s what happened: transgender woman Andi Dier confronted cisgender feminist activist Rose McGowan at an event promoting McGowan’s recent memoir, Brave. Dier asked McGowan to comment on a number of transphobic remarks she had made previously. McGowan vehemently defended herself, voices were raised, and Dier was escorted out of the event by staff; McGowan proceeded to shout at the audience, snarling that she does not tolerate being labeled by other people (in reference to Dier accusing her of “white cis feminism”). Following this whole chain of events, McGowan canceled the remainder of her book tour.
As the saying goes, there’s a lot to unpack here. For one thing, as tempting as it is to see McGowan and Dier’s argument as representational of the struggle for trans representation in the cis-dominated sphere of conventional feminism, we need to acknowledge the broader context for both of them. McGowan, as the woman who began the rockslide of allegations towards Harvey Weinstein and thus indirectly launched the last few months’ tremendous backlash against sexual harassment and rape culture, has been under an almost inconceivable amount of pressure surrounding the release of her book. And Dier is no angel of morally flawless trans power -- as a matter of fact, she has been accused of sexual violence herself in the time since the incident with McGowan.
So, we know that Dier is a predator, and that McGowan is a long-suffering survivor. With this information, it would be easy to turn the tables and say that McGowan, after all, was in the right.
And therein lies the problem: it’s hard not to take sides in a shouting match.
There is layered, nuanced complication to modern feminism, and this scuffle hits upon several of them. Once her rant took off, McGowan spiraled into more and more troubling territory: “whether I’m white or I’m black or I’m yellow or I’m purple,” she shouted at one point as she complained about unsolicited labels, painting intra-feminist racism in a disturbingly trivial light. And as for transphobia, only the most uneducated cisgender people can deny the fact that her rant was positively laced with it. Yes, McGowan continued to correctly gender Dier, but transphobia manifests in many more harmful and insidious ways than simple denial of one’s correct pronouns. It would have been less frightening for me as a trans person to hear McGowan call Dier “he” than to hear her bellow “I don’t come from your planet, sister!”
McGowan reacted wrongly. Her furious speech revealed many underlying prejudices for which she needs to be held accountable. But, again, she is a woman on tour for the release of a memoir about sexual assault. She has been drenched in blinding amounts of limelight for the last few months. Are women like her a large part of the trans exclusionism that makes mainstream feminism so toxic? Yes. Absolutely. But they are part of that problem because of the position in which cisgender men have placed them. Without being burdened by the agony of a survivor, McGowan likely would not have lashed out at Dier in the way that she did. In this situation, Dier is a victim of McGowan, and McGowan is a victim, as well -- not of Dier, but of Weinstein, and the press, and all the men who have ever hurt her. The root of the problem lies with abusers, and the root of abuse lies in heteropatriarchal rape culture.
We are tearing ourselves apart. Right now, I can’t offer a solution. It broke my heart to see people cheering McGowan on as she told a concerned trans woman to “sit down,” “shut up,” and “fuck off.” And it hurt even more to know that McGowan thought her actions were justified due to her trauma. As tensions rise on the daily due to the waves of hate stemming from the Trump presidency, it is almost impossible not to take a militant approach to every disagreement. But the fact of the matter is that McGowan could have learned a lot from Dier, had she thought to listen rather than shout. It’s often said that trans-exclusionary feminism is not feminism at all, and that is absolutely true. But I don’t believe McGowan had any intention of being trans-exclusionary in the first place.
All of us have deep-rooted prejudices that we must acknowledge, analyze, and work to undo. We need to be able to learn from those over whom we hold privilege. All of us need to come together to fight the crushing force of the cis, white heteropatriarchy. And the explosion between McGowan and Dier showed me just how far we are from that essential solidarity.
Like I said, I have no instant solution to propose. I hope that we can learn from one another. I hope that we can listen, and that we can do better every day. I hope that mainstream feminism doesn’t become even more transphobic in the wake of this highly divisive incident. We need a world that embraces the power of women, trans and cis alike. I won’t say that violence begets violence, or that we should avoid aggressive confrontation entirely -- or even a bit, for that matter. This is a battle to be fought, after all. But I will say that anger begets anger. That the cis rejection of trans women is devastating and impeding to every single person who believes in true feminism.
Rose McGowan’s fury is righteous, but it is utterly misdirected. And I hope -- helplessly, without any plan, without faith in anything but our own intrinsic capacity for solidarity -- that trans women, cis women, and the rest of the trans and queer community, most importantly LGBT+ women of color, can come together to create a stronger definition of feminism. We need to learn. We need to fight. We need to do better.