At some point during my viewing of FX’s critically acclaimed show The People v. O.J. Simpson, Marcia Clark became my hero. For those of you who somehow missed the O.J. Simpson Trial as well as both award-winning shows that came out in 2016, the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America and FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, Marcia Clark is the kick-ass prosecutor who went after Simpson in the Trial of the Century.
I was a child (of an undisclosed age) when the Simpson trial happened, so my opinions of Marcia Clark do not come from the trial itself. My opinions are almost solely based on Sarah Paulson’s award-winning portrayal of Clark on The People v. O.J. Simpson. I didn’t know much about Marcia Clark during the actual trial. At the time, the white Bronco chase was a way more interesting story to my [redacted] year-old mind. Marcia Clark was barely a blip on my radar. So now as I find myself voraciously consuming articles and interviews with Clark following my second viewing of the FX show, I want to examine the Marcia Clark the show has created in contemporary minds, the character of Marcia Clark as a “perfect” icon of white feminism.
To get an idea of how important Clark’s image is to the show, I want to look at a particular episode. Coming halfway through the show’s run, the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” episode is important because the entire episode is thematically centered around Marcia Clark’s struggles during the trial as a female prosecutor. Although all of these issues happened and different times during the actual trial, all of Marcia’s public scrutiny is compacted into this one episode in order to have the most impact on the audience. In this episode, we get the news story where Marcia Clark’s clothing and hair are callously picked apart. This leads to her haircut, which Judge Ito jokes about in the middle of court, a comment that is embellished in the fictional retelling to further emphasize Clark as a victim of misogyny.
Later in the episode, nude photos of Clark are released to the press, and a radio show puts out a request for people to call in with their answer to the question, “Is Marcia Clark a bitch or a babe?” Rather than sticking up for his colleague, co-prosecutor Christopher Darden calls in and says, “I vote babe.” Darden’s move, which is completely fabricated for the show, points out what little support and understanding Clark gets even from the people who work for her.
As if things couldn’t get worse for Clark in this episode, she gets her period. While the song “Sour Times” by Portishead plays over the loudspeakers, Clark buys a box of Tampax tampons at a drugstore, where a whole stack of various tabloid covers featuring her face await her in the checkout line. The checkout clerk smirks, and holding up the tampons, says to Clark, “Uh oh, I guess the defense is up for one hell of a week, huh?” Marcia Clark cannot catch a break, not even during that time of the month.
Of course, Clark is in tears or close to tears for the majority of the episode as well. If the audience did not feel sympathetic towards Clark going into this episode, the creators of The People v. OJ Simpson were sure to load in enough material into their sixth episode to keep viewers rooting for Clark for the remainder of the series.
The reason I point this out is to examine why we root for Clark in this show at all. Yes, I mentioned earlier that the real life Clark is a kick-ass prosecutor, but we don’t love show Marcia Clark because of any power she exerts in the courtroom. We are drawn to her because of her passivity, her victimhood. We feel sorry for her. We want to stand up for her because she is being treated unfairly.
The passive victimized woman is a precarious place for the creators of The People v. O.J. Simpson to place their heroine. On the one hand, yes, we absolutely should be conscious of how women in power are treated and work to change that. Marcia Clark is an example of that, and sadly, the way the media treats women in powerful positions hasn’t changed much since the 90’s.
On the other hand, this place of victimhood is often one anti-feminists see as a mark against the feminist movement. “I don’t need feminism because I’m not a victim,” is a common line of argument. Commenting on patriarchal systems by showing women like Marcia Clark as victims also ignores the way minority women experience the world. Women of color don’t historically have the luxury of being seen as feminine and fragile in the same way white women are because they are not traditionally direct beneficiaries of white men. It’s interesting to me that the show creates Clark as a victim in a trial that she lost because she herself ignored black women.
Marcia Clark directly misunderstands the feelings of a large part of the black female community when she assumes they will side with a white woman over a black man. During the jury selection process in Episode 4, “100% Not Guilty,” Marcia Clark asserts, “[Black women] will sympathize with Nicole. I have handled case after case of battered African American women. I have heard their stories. They’ll be able to make the connection. OJ’s abuse led to murder.”
Because of her confidence that she understands the feelings of black women, Marcia Clark repeatedly refuses outside help on the case, and when she is forced to get outside help, the camera pulls up close to her frowning face, showing her discomfort and displeasure with the way the trial is being handled, feeling out of control. The television show outlines the ways in which Clark’s overconfidence in her understanding of black women might have cost her the trial, but it does so while keeping the audience closely in her perspective, always clueing the audience into Clark’s feelings and thoughts so that we can more closely sympathize with her over others involved with the trial.
I was reminded of the issue of white women and the O.J. Simpson trial again today when I watched Aziz Ansari’s brilliant Netflix show Master of None. On the Thanksgiving episode of Season 2, we see a flashback of Dev visiting his black friend Denise’s home for Thanksgiving when he was a kid. Of course, in the early 90’s, they were talking about the trial, as I remember everyone doing around our Thanksgiving table at that time. “If Nicole was black,” Denise’s mother says, “we wouldn’t even be talking about this.” Aunt Joyce agrees: “Honey, they’re always trying to take down our black icons. Look at Michael. I still don’t believe he touched those kids.” The O.J. Simpson trial asked black women to choose between their womanhood and their race. As traditional femininity is often coded as “white woman” behavior, of course many black women believed in O.J. Simpson’s innocence rather than standing up for the white woman who took Simpson away from the community.
By assuming that black women would stand behind the battered white woman, Clark and the prosecution also assumed that domestic violence for black women is the same as it is for white women; however, studies show this is not the case. The ways in which institutions handle domestic violence cases is a concrete example of what Adrienne Rich refers to as “white solipsism,” which is the mistaken assumption that white experience is representative of all races’ experiences. For instance, most of the traditional intervention tactics for domestic violence cases are “ineffective in meeting the needs of black women” because when creating these systems, the concerns of black women were wholly ignored. The black community as a whole has a complicated relationship with the justice system due to issues of systemic racism, which can hinder the effectiveness of interventions sanctioned by these same systems.
In addition, because black women are affected by systemic racism along with sexism within their community, black battered women often feel more trapped in violent relationships because of “hostility or ostracization” from their families should they speak out against their husbands and/or go against their community. In 1998, black women were “victims of domestic killings at a rate of 4.5 per 100,000, compared with 1.75 per 100,000 for white women." And yet most of the institutions set up to help women escape from these situations were constructed with white victims in mind. All of these factors of difference play into the reasons black women are less likely to sympathize with a battered white woman over an incarcerated black man.
What happened to Nicole Brown Simpson is a tragedy. As Paulson’s Clark points out in The People v. O.J. Simpson, “the system failed her.” However, Clark failed her too by not being able to connect to African Americans during the trial. Those of us who consider ourselves feminists need to remember and/or remind others that we can’t truly be feminists if we’re not working towards intersectional feminism. I still think Marcia Clark is a kick-ass woman, and I’m glad that this show allowed me to “rediscover” Clark now that I’m an adult; however, I do question The People v. O.J. Simpson’s portrayal of Clark as victim. More specifically, I believe this simplified portrayal doesn’t address the mistakes the prosecution, specifically Clark, made when faced with the very real concerns of black men and women who were looking at police brutality and a justice system that is historically prejudiced against black people in America.
With all of that being said, I think The People v. OJ Simpson is an excellent show, and if you haven't watched it yet, it's currently available on Netflix. Get at it.
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.