Last week, Rose McGowan was confronted by a trans activist while on tour for her newly released book “Brave”. The activist asked Ms. McGowan about her advocacy, or lack thereof, on the behalf of trans women. Their interaction was reported on and transcribed by Variety. Ms. McGowan, seemingly oblivious of her power in the situation, did not treat the activist confronting with her any amount of grace or compassion.
Rather, she ranted about being labeled and said that the audience should be grateful for all that she’s done. It was quite the spectacle and seemed to disappoint many people online and beyond.
As I observed the reaction to Ms. McGowan’s handling of the controversy, I had one simple question, “Why would we expect her to do better?” Rose McGowan was an actress on Charmed, she was one of the first women to come forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and according to her new book she was raised in a cult. To me, this might make her an expert on acting, on living with the trauma of sexual assault, and on growing up in a cult.
However, I don’t think any of this makes her an expert on feminism, advocating for women’s rights, or on the social and political changes needed to shift power and prevent sexual violence. I believe that Ms. McGowan’s leadership in this space is a result of her platform as an actress, her platform is not the result of her leadership.
A notable contrast to this is another woman who spoke alongside Rose McGowan at the Woman’s March convention — Tarana Burke. Ms. Burke has worked with survivors of sexual assault and violence in marginalized communities for decades, she is a survivor of sexual violence herself, and is the founder of the #MeToo hashtag.
She became better known after Alyssa Milano used the #MeToo hashtag with it going viral and becoming the name of a movement against sexual violence and oppression. It was recently announced that Ms. Burke will be writing a memoir. In her case, she gained a larger platform and notoriety as a result of her knowledge and leadership on this issue.
To be sure, celebrities using their platforms to advocate for change is valuable and a positive use of their notoriety. However, when we expect those who are well-known to also be well-informed, we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment. In the era of social media, followers cannot be the only criteria for credibility.
I think we should all ask ourselves why we believe someone is qualified to speak on an issue — whether the result of lived experience, professional experience, or degrees/research. I believe that we should all be more willing to accept that the realm of what an individual may truly have expert knowledge on is rather limited.
In a similar vein, those with large platforms must be willing to acknowledge when they do not have the range to speak to an issue and be willing to listen. The most impressive thing to me about Ta-nehisi Coates is his unwillingness to speak on issues where he is not knowledgeable. When he takes questions after speaking at an event, he often answers by saying that he doesn’t know enough or doesn’t feel qualified to answer.
I think it is obvious from his tone that he is sorry not to be able to answer the question, but he is also steadfast in his unwillingness to hold himself out as a universal expert. Furthermore, by admitting that he doesn’t know enough to comment, he creates space for other people’s voices. He also makes it clear that being well-known does not mean that he is inherently knowledgeable.
There are, of course, groups of people who are socialized to question their own credibility. I am part of several communities where I see societal questioning of our expertise internalized — women, people of color, and people with disabilities. If we asked ourselves what are we an expert or resource on and why, many of us might be surprised at the range of things that we can speak authoritatively on.
Still, there are others in our society, whether due to celebrity or socialization, who think that they are an expert on everything. I believe this is where the notion of “mansplaining” comes from. The fact that Coates is a man who admits when he doesn’t know something stood out in mind precisely because of the ubiquitousness of mansplaining.
I recognize and appreciate that celebrities, like McGowan, face an acute challenge in that people often look to them to be knowledgeable. I would encourage all of us to ask why we are asking folks to speak on an issue and why we think they can or should speak as an expert on an issue outside of their own experiences. Similarly, I would encourage more celebrities to practice listening instead of speaking and saying “I don’t know” when confronted with a question they don’t have the answer to.
We will all be better off for it.
The views expressed here represent the views of the author only. They do not represent the views of any organizations, people or employers with whom the author may be affiliated.