One of the first lessons you learn when you do shelter work is that women’s pain and trauma manifests differently from individual to individual. Women are incredibly resilient, but experiencing male violence can lead to months of intense emotional instability or deep depression. Some never recover.
Sometimes victims make decisions you wouldn’t recommend. Sometimes they can be difficult to work with, which can be frustrating. Sometimes they do or say things that you wouldn’t say or do. That is ok. When trying to grapple with the pain and trauma that comes from male violence, it is not your role as a front line worker to prioritize your own feelings and assumptions. You have to understand that it’s not about you, that women will find their own ways to cope, and that the best you can do is to support victims in finding ways to survive, escape, and recover from male violence.
Understanding the impact of male violence on women also means understanding that there is no perfect victim, and that sometimes women speak out or fight back in imperfect ways.
Last month, Rose McGowan’s reading at Barnes and Noble was hijacked by Andi Dier, who identifies as a transwoman and has been accused by multiple women of being a sexual predator. Dier undermined not only McGowan’s experiences of assault and harassment under patriarchy, but the experiences of all women, suggesting that transwomen face more danger than women. Going even further, Dier claimed that that women like McGowan were complicit in committing “genocide” against trans-identified people.
In the aftermath, mainstream media coverage and commentary online not only distorted the reality of what happened, but reinforced the myth that there can be such a thing as a perfect rape victim — that there are some victims of male violence who deserve our compassion, and others who do not.
Variety described the incident as “a verbal altercation” and a “heated dispute,” as though McGowan had been walking down the street and got into an argument with a stranger. In truth, Dier admitted to deliberately planning to confront McGowan at her book launch. The media referred to McGowan as “bizarre” and “a white feminist.” Headlines said she “had a meltdown” and described her as “problematic.” Almost every article read as dog whistling, invoking tropes of the “hysteric,” “emotional,” “crazy” woman. The Huffington Post stooped so low as to ask Harvey Weinstein, McGowan’s rapist, for comment on the incident with Dier. Weinstein’s lawyer took the opportunity to reprimand McGowan for “choosing to marginalize a community.”
But how should McGowan have responded? The only appropriate response, according to many, would have been for her to not speak at all and to cede the floor to Dier.
There is something about McGowan standing her ground that is deeply unsettling to many people.
Too many people online have responded by centering what what they want from McGowan — as a woman, an activist, a victim, and a survivor. “I want her to be a good ally,” says one twitter user. She is “undeserving” of people’s support, argues another.
We seem to have decided that society is ready for women to be “brave enough to be angry” and that, thanks to the Weinstein scandal, “fury is no longer a cause for shame” in women. But what this incident demonstrates is that, as always, Dier’s fury is justified and coddled while McGowan’s anger becomes a useful alibi for society to ostracize her.
McGowan’s anger has been represented not only as less valid than Dier’s, but as simply wrong. If society truly cared about victims of violence, we wouldn’t impose our expectations on them. And we would understand that a woman like McGowan has every right to be angry at someone who came to her book launch specifically to interrupt and silence her while she is recounting her story of trauma and recovery. Why shouldn’t she be upset?
The subtext of media coverage of the incident reveals that people assume and demand that McGowan should behave in “a proper way.” She went off script, in other words; and commentary shows that people believe that if McGowan changed, she would be worthy, or more deserving of people’s sympathy and support.
Society may have been forced to reckon the ubiquity of male violence, but it is by no means ready to confront the reality of women’s pain and trauma.
There appears to be something more sinister at play, as well. In the backlash against McGowan, I see many people breathing a sigh of relief, as if they are finally able to say, “See, it’s not that we didn’t like her because she was loud and vocal and angry and uncontrollable; the real problem is that she is a TERF/a transphobe/a bad ally.”
It’s the perfect cover for people who prefer their rape victims docile and quiet in their empowerment. In a patriarchy, it is far easier to read about men’s sexual abuse of women when we know the story has a happy ending. It’s easier to digest women’s pain when we learn that it all ended up working out well for her because now she is married and has kids — when we’re told that she got over it and is all better now.
Rose McGowan shatters that “perfect victim” narrative. Not only is she not “over it,” but she refuses to hide or control her anger. She encourages all women to be angry and to use that anger to challenge the system that enables the kind of abuse perpetrated against her.
What happened at McGowan’s book event is not an indictment of her, it’s an expose of people who present themselves as allies to and supporters of victims of male violence, but who will jump at the chance to tear that same woman down for “acting out of order.” As if there is order in trauma…
What the Barnes and Noble incident reveals is that there are an awful lot of people who were waiting for an opportunity to pounce on women like McGowan and put them back in their place. When the allegations against Harvey Weinstein came out, back in October, McGowan was among the first few actresses to stick her neck out and tell her story of abuse. It is deeply unfair that so many people celebrate superficial demonstrations of empowerment, like wearing white roses or black dresses on the red carpet at award ceremonies (and only once the tide had turned), yet women like McGowan who put everything on the line by speaking out when they were lone voices are sidelined…
We may be ready for women’s anger when it comes in the form of an inspiring Oprah speech at a glamorous awards ceremony, but not in the form of a victim of male violence whose pain is very much still raw and palpable, and who wants people to bear witness to that.
McGowan is not unaware that her honesty is unsettling to many people. On Twitter, she wrote:
“I am unusual, that IS the point. I do not care for formats or traditional thought. Every interview of mine is different, just like a mood. A lot of you are meeting me for the first time. Don’t compare me to what you would do or be. Be free.”
It is not up to the media or the online armchair commentariat to decide whether McGowan “deserves” our support. If your support for victims and survivors of male violence depends on them behaving in a way you consider acceptable, you care more about yourself and your “social justice” persona than about women’s genuine well-being. Women who have been abused by men and dare to speak out deserve better than that.
There is a patriarchy-approved way for women to deal with the trauma of male violence and Rose McGowan is doing it wrong.
More power to her.