Meryl Streep and Rose McGowan just proved the transformative power of a real apology

Setting a high standard.
Setting a high standard.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Agostini
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A number of Hollywood actresses are planning to wear black dresses to the Academy Awards and SAG Awards to show solidarity with women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted. Meryl Streep is one of these actresses. And that seriously pissed off Rose McGowan, actress, activist, and one of the first and most vocal women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

Streep worked with the alleged sexual predator Weinstein—whose history of misdeeds reinvigorated the Me Too movement—on high-profile films including August: Osage County and The Iron Lady. She says she did not know Weinstein personally, and never knew about or personally experienced the abusive behavior that so many women have now described. Four days after the New York Times published its expose on Weinstein in October, Streep called his actions “disgraceful,” “inexcusable,” and an “abuse of power,” describing the women who have spoken out against him “heroes.”

Streep’s plan to wear a black dress to the SAG Awards can be seen as a part of her campaign to achieve gender-parity in Hollywood production companies by 2020. “Right now I’m getting together with bunch of actresses—actresses you all know very well—and we’re going to make a set of non-negotiable demands,” she told an audience of 11,000 women Dec. 7 at the Massachusetts Conference for Women. She said the actresses will target sex and race-based discrimination in entertainment.

The Streep-McGowan exchange shows how sincere words of apology can bring light to a dark, potentially divisive debate, and highlight the unity of purpose shared by those who aim to upend the oppression that has fostered sexual misconduct.

What Rose McGowan found inauthentic

To McGowan, Streep’s symbolic protest seemed phony. She expressed her disapproval on Dec. 16, via tweets she published then deleted. ”Actresses, like Meryl Streep, who happily worked for The Pig Monster, are wearing black @GoldenGlobes in a silent protest,” she tweeted. “YOUR SILENCE is THE problem. You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly & affect no real change. I despise your hypocrisy. Maybe you should all wear Marchesa.” Marchesa is the clothing brand designed by Weinstein’s wife, Georgina Chapman, who separated from him following the New York Times and New Yorker reports on him in October.

Following McGowan’s digs, actresses including Amber Tamblyn, a vocal feminist advocate, came to Streep’s defense. Tamblyn tweeted: “Rose McGowan is a friend and while I support her kind of movement, I do not support any woman (or man) shaming or taunting the movements of other women who are trying to create change. Telling us to all wear Marchesa? This is beneath you, Rose.” Then Streep defended herself, in an extensive written statement (read full statement here) that empathizes with McGowan, honors her bravery, and shuts down the notion that Streep herself condones any form of sexual harassment:

“HW was not a filmmaker; he was often a producer, primarily a marketer of films made by other people- some of them great, some not great. But not every actor, actress, and director who made films that HW distributed knew he abused women, or that he raped Rose in the ’90s, other women before and others after, until they told us. We did not know that women’s silence was purchased by him and his enablers. HW needed us not to know this, because our association with him bought him credibility, an ability to lure young, aspiring women into circumstances where they would be hurt,” Streep explained.

“Rose assumed and broadcast something untrue about me, and I wanted to let her know the truth. Through friends who know her, I got my home phone number to her the minute I read the headlines. I sat by that phone all day yesterday [Saturday Dec 16] and this morning, hoping to express both my deep respect for her and others’ bravery in exposing the monsters among us, and my sympathy for the untold, ongoing pain she suffers,” she continued.

“I am truly sorry she sees me as an adversary, because we are both, together with all the women in our business, standing in defiance of the same implacable foe: a status quo that wants so badly to return to the bad old days, the old ways where women were used, abused and refused entry into the decision-making, top levels of the industry. That’s where the cover-ups convene. Those rooms must be disinfected, and integrated, before anything even begins to change.”

As powerful men continue to be ousted as sexual predators, such public sparring is becoming equally prevalent. However, more often than not, these Twitter feuds end in a stalemate, with one or all parties becoming defensive and self-absorbed. Case in point: Actor Matt Damon responding to women criticizing his perspective on sexual harassment with the moronic defense that we’re not talking enough about all the men in Hollywood who aren’t sexual predators.

In contrast, McGowan genuinely listened to Tamblyn and Streep’s counterargument, reevaluated her perspective, and issued a succinct apology that everyone—especially men accused of sexual harassment—can learn from.

“The Marchesa line was beneath me and I’m sorry for that,” McGowan tweeted yesterday (Dec. 18). “Seeing that picture of Alyssa Milano with GC has ignited something in me that I can’t quite articulate. There is no map for this road I’m on, I will fuck up. Peace be with you, go with Goddess.” (Milano, an actress who has publicly denounced Weinstein’s behavior, plays a complicated role in the Weinstein scandal.)

What Rose McGowan gets right

First and foremost, unlike many of the men recently accused of sexual harassment, McGowan—whose actions are in no way comparable or equivalent to sexual harassment, but whose apology was similarly public—takes full responsibility for her actions. She admits the dig about Weinstein’s wife’s clothing line was catty and “beneath her,” avoiding the justifications and self-defense so many men have indulged in their apologies.

Equally important, McGowan clearly states the words “I’m sorry”—an essential apology element that too many people forget to include (as epitomized by Louis CK’s sorry-less remorse). Including “I’m sorry”— without any justification—in the first line of your apology ensures you set an honest, straightforward tone.

Then, while McGowan doesn’t use the picture of Milano with Chapman, Weinstein’s wife, and Milano’s close friend, to justify her insults of Streep, she does acknowledge that her aggression toward Streep was partially misdirected, and stems from a deeper emotional turmoil. This raw reality is difficult to admit, but often at the root of misdirected anger.

Finally, McGowan avoids acting holier than thou or turning her apology into a back-handed compliment by admitting that she does not know all the answers. Her acknowledgement that “There is no map for this road I’m on, I will fuck up,” could and should apply to any human’s life or work.

We are all just doing our best, we will all make mistakes, and we all owe it to the world to admit our failures and learn from any missteps. We can internalize this reality as troublesome and scary, or we can accept our flaws, work to be better, and apologize peacefully.

“Go with Goddess,” as McGowan would say.