Marcia Clark Is Redeemed

Photo: POOL/AFP/Getty Images

It had been nearly 20 years since the trial when Marcia Clark heard the news: The television network FX was going to produce a mini-series called The People v. O.J. Simpson.

“I just thought, Oh my God, no. No, no, no. Noooo. Not again.

Clark had every reason to feel dread. As the lead prosecutor on the 1995 case against O.J. Simpson for the double murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, Clark had come in for perhaps more public disparagement than any of the trial’s other players. She was mocked relentlessly in the press for her clothes and her hairstyles; tabloids published topless photos of her and reported breathlessly on her ongoing custody fight over her two sons, tsk-tsk-ing her for her alimony requests to pay for childcare she needed for her long hours working on the trial. Johnnie Cochran, a member of O.J.’s “Dream Team” defense, referred to her as “hysterical,” and Judge Lance Ito advised the jury not to be distracted by counsel’s clothes, in reference to Clark’s short skirts.

Of course, people called her a bitch. Worse than that, they called her incompetent. Legal analysts have laid much of the blame for the not-guilty verdict at the feet of Clark and her co-counsel, Christopher Darden. Just last year, Tina Fey eviscerated Clark in a parody performance of her ineptitude in the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Even when Clark published her own tell-all about the case in 1997, for which she earned a reported $4.2 million, she was unable to change the story line. Much of the reception was like this, from London’s Independent: “While Marcia had a tough row to hoe, somehow it was and is hard to feel sorry for her. She undoubtedly suffered in the trial … but she was not likable. The immediate comparison is with Hillary Clinton, a leading woman lawyer whose hairstyles also seemed to change with her mood.” 

So Clark had every reason to expect another drubbing in the FX show. Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, on which the mini-series is based, was hard on her, portraying her as having bungled a case that began with an enormous pile of evidence. She knew nothing else about the show. “I was so apprehensive,” she told me. “I can’t tell you the PTSD that came over me. It was physical, so painful.”

Then, as shooting wound down, Sarah Paulson, who was portraying Clark, said she wanted to meet. Over dinner, Paulson told Clark that the show was going to present a fresh take on Clark’s role — a sharply feminist reexamination of her treatment in the courtroom and in the media.

Recalling the moment later, over lunch in New York days before the premiere of the series, Clark’s eyes widened again with disbelief. “I was like … Seriously? Somebody actually did that?”

Yes, Paulson assured her, someone did that.

The director of the series, Ryan Murphy, had been interested in examining not just the racial dynamics of the trial but also the gendered aspects. The result is a far less judgmental portrait of Clark than ever before, culminating with the show’s sixth installment, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” That episode details the relentless scrutiny of Clark’s appearance, the custody battles waged by her ex-husband in the tabloid press, the dismissal with which the judge and defense counsel spoke to her in front of both the jury and the rapt national audience who followed the trial on television every day for a year. Watching the episode, one can’t help but feel a sense of empathy, and guilt.

“It was the last thing I expected,” said Clark, who has seen the first six episodes of the show. “It was not only a visionary thing for Murphy to do but also very brave. Very fucking brave.” Clark shook her head and looked at me for a beat, to make sure I understood. “Because the sexism—” she cut herself off. “The S-word. Nobody wanted to talk about that.”

Marcia Clark’s crucible came smack in the middle of the 1990s, when it is indeed fair to say that very few people wanted to talk about sexism. It is being revived for the screen today, during a period when lots of people want to talk about sexism and perhaps especially want to talk about the sexism of the 1990s.

In 2013, filmmakers examined the egregious treatment of Anita Hill — she who accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment — at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the documentary Anita, and another film about the hearings, Confirmation, will be aired on HBO later this year. This election cycle has seen a contemporary reconsideration of Bill Clinton’s sexual misdeeds, beginning with Monica Lewinsky’s 2014 Vanity Fair essay reflecting on what she felt to be a lack of support from feminists, and extending to more recent pieces by political columnists about reexamining the charges leveled at the former president by Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick. And now there is The People v. O.J. Simpson, which reopens a chapter in America’s judicial (and entertainment) history that highlighted a laundry list of America’s systemic weaknesses: racism, domestic abuse, the special treatment of celebrity, the dismal treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement and the press. And, yes, sexism, too.

It’s tough to know what exactly is motivating our collective need to go back and sift through the sexist sins of that crucial decade. Perhaps it’s that women (and men) of a certain age who have lived to see a new generation of feminist engagement need to process what transpired in an era when feminism was largely on pause. Perhaps it’s some kind of collective guilt about a time that is still within the scope of many memories but is now distant enough to dissect more coolly.

Toobin, who also wrote a book about Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, offered this theory: “Suddenly the mid-’90s seem like a long time ago, and one reason I think they do is that the media environment is almost unrecognizably different from 1994 and 1995. There was no internet, no Fox News, no MSNBC, no social media. So you had a kind of crude, broad focus without the compensations of alternative voices on Twitter and Facebook. So when the National Enquirer decided to make fun of Marcia Clark’s hairdo, there was no article in Slate or Salon or posts on Twitter saying ‘Stop this sexist bullshit.’”

Maybe, though of course it’s not as if the swift judgments of social media have banished sexist bullshit from the land. In fact, I suspect that it’s an unconscious awareness of our contemporary hang-ups that prompts us to chew on the past. The comparison of Marcia Clark to Hillary Clinton remains apt, though the difference is that while Clark can be safely examined from a distance of 20 years, Hillary cannot. The conversation about the double standards and biases she faces remains contemporary, and therefore practically impossible. With less present-day figure like Clark, we can more easily pick apart the threads of bias; we can take a hard look at the limits we put on female self-presentation and the higher bars we set for women, and acknowledge them as unfair without making Clark — and others who have failed to easily clear them — into perfect martyrs. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that when we look back at the O.J. case and Clark’s treatment during it, some of the misogyny is so flagrant by our slightly improved contemporary standards — topless photos? “hysterical?” short skirts? her hair? — that we can pat ourselves on the back for having come such a long way.

When Brown Simpson and Goldman were murdered, Clark was in the midst of her second divorce, with two sons whom she describes now as having “been in diapers.” (The eldest was in fact 5.) The series shows her struggle to manage not only the case but also her childcare, hitting a crescendo when she must explain in court that she cannot stay for a later hearing because she must pick up her boys. But then she is chided by her boss, D.A. Gil Garcetti, and winds up staying late at the D.A.’s office anyway, asking her estranged husband to get the kids. The husband calls the press to expose her as having begged out of a trial but not attended to the children. The scene is a knife to the heart of any working parent — or really any working mother, caught so inexorably between expectations of perfect child-rearing and uncompromised professionalism. There were women who objected to Clark’s treatment on this score even as it was happening. Mostly, though, a pre–Sheryl Sandberg America was in the midst of an ugly adjustment to the idea of career-minded motherhood and was heaping scorn on its high-powered First Lady and her empty cookie trays. The notion of a mother who prioritized a trial — even if it was the “trial of the century,” especially because it was the trial of the century, and therefore a path to fame — over her children was deeply unsettling.

Then there was the hair. Clark famously wore her hair in a tight black perm and dressed not atypically for a working woman in the mid-1990s: in prim, unflashy, and what the press called “dowdy” suits. She says now she didn’t really like her hairdo (though who, really, can look back at a picture from the ’90s and say they did?). “It was wash-and-wear hair! It was easy. I had two boys in diapers and I didn’t want to be bothered. That’s why I had the perm.”

She got her mercilessly mocked short haircut midway through the trial for similarly practical reasons, not as an attempt at a made-for-TV makeover. “I did the hair because I had no choice,” she said. “I mean, my perm grew out. That’s why I cut the hair. I didn’t have time to get it permed again, and, by the way, my hairdresser wouldn’t do it anyway. He hated it.”

Clark said she was made very aware of how her appearance affected her reception in the courtroom. A jury consultant had found that people were likely to find her “shrill” and to think she was “a bitch” and advised her, Clark said, to “talk softer, wear pastels.” In the retelling, Clark offers a deadly smile. “Oh, okay, that’ll wipe out 200 years of social injustice. Why didn’t I think of that?” The attempts at softening, she said, were destined to backfire anyway. “That kind of shit is a lose-lose proposition,” she said. “So I come in in a pinafore, and they say I’m a cream puff and I can’t handle a murder case like this.”    

The mini-series captures a lot of this, teasing out the complexities of the racial and gendered politics at play. For instance, no one seemed to understand how African-American women would react on the jury. Clark is shown as having the feeling that, based on her prior experiences prosecuting domestic-violence cases, she had a special rapport with African-American women and thus wanted them on the jury; at the same time, it shows Johnnie Cochran feeling that African-American women would be a risk to the defense, since they might resent O.J. for having married a white woman. Both lawyers were wrong. African-American women turned out to be some of the most zealous defenders of O.J. Simpson — and did not respond warmly to either of the white women at the center of the case: Clark or Nicole Brown Simpson. Murphy is also smart and compassionate about the positions of Chris Darden — the black male prosecutor who understood that his role was, in part, to make the prosecution more palatable to a jury rightfully distrustful of the Los Angeles Police Department, especially after Rodney King — and Johnnie Cochran, the defense attorney whose career had been driven by a civil-rights passion but who was now representing a client who had actively distanced himself from his own blackness. It all simmers here, with no easy answers onscreen, as there were none in life.

Clark said it was painful for her to watch the show. “I can’t enjoy it. Because for me, I lived it. It was a real thing, it was a nightmare, and to watch it happen all over again — especially since I know how it turns out …”

Seeing Paulson play her, Clark said, “was a little out of body.” But she said the actress captured details with tremendous sensitivity. “She delivered the feelings on the inside so beautifully, with so much nuance. You get the feeling of futility … in the courtroom, in the media, the constant uphill battle.”

Clark said that in retrospect, that feeling of futility was a feature of the trial experience nearly from the beginning. Because the worst of the sexism she experienced wasn’t the stuff about the clothes or the hair or even the kids. It was the way that Lance Ito spoke to her in the courtroom. “I remember him interrupting me, upbraiding me in front of the jury during opening statements — and you never interrupt a lawyer during opening statements unless it’s something really egregious.” Clark said that she was “appalled on a daily basis by his behavior. On every level.”

So was Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, who drafted a series of complaints about Ito’s treatment of Clark and other women during the trial and presented it to the judge. Bruce’s points included the fact that Ito had made a comment about the length of Clark’s skirt and his threat to hold Clark in contempt of court after the use of profanity in her opening statement — despite his failure to censure defense attorney Robert Shapiro for the same offense at other points in the trial. Bruce also noted the judge’s failure to reprimand defense attorneys who had described Clark as “whining” and “overly emotional.”

“These situations in any courtroom during any case would be a problem,” Bruce wrote to Ito in her complaint. “And yet we are all dealing with a trial which focuses on women, and their treatment. It just exacerbates the problem with the image of women in general during a trial that the world is watching.”

Bruce, Clark recalled, put together a bunch of video clips that she played for Ito, showing him speaking to her in demeaning ways. “He saw that and said, ‘Oh, wow,’ not because he really gave a shit but because he knew he looked bad. And for a few weeks after that, he did change. He became better. The difference was amazing. I remember thinking, Wow, this is what it’s like to be treated like a person.” After a few weeks, Clark said, the good behavior ended.

NOW’s involvement aside, it’s difficult to overstate how frozen feminism felt during periods of the 1980s and 1990s. The backlash to the women’s movement of the 1970s was so intense that many of the very women who had become pioneers thanks to its advances wouldn’t even describe themselves as feminists, so demonized had the label become.

Clark graduated from law school in 1979. She worked in private criminal defense before joining the D.A.’s office and becoming the only woman, alongside four older men, in the elite Special Trials Unit. “When I joined the office, I was frequently the only woman in the room and very often the only woman in court.” She said that as she was coming up in the law, her gender “was something to overcome.”

Yet even now, when I asked her if she’s a feminist, she looked briefly stricken. “I have always thought of myself as someone for equal rights,” she said tentatively. “I don’t mind being called a feminist, and I get really upset when female celebrities resist the title as if it’s a bad thing, because it’s a very good thing.” I told her that I write from a feminist perspective. She looked at me carefully and then smiled. “Yes, I am,” she said. “I am a feminist.” Then she added hurriedly: “And I don’t think of that as being anti-men, I think about it as equal rights for women.”

I assure her that no one is going to call her a man-hater, at least not with the vigor they might have 30 years ago. Relief and even more surprise seem to wash over her. It was like looking at someone frozen stiff by the era in which she came of professional age, still uncertain about the contemporary warmth of a reborn awareness. It happened again, later in the conversation, when I, as part of a larger question, said to her, “Look, you’re an ambitious woman,” and her eyes went wide with anxiety.

“Ambitious in what way?” she interrupted, and quickly clarified that she’s “ambitious in the sense that I want to do well in my job, but not that I want to be rich and famous … not that thing of chasing the dollar; it was never that.”

When I asked her about her skittishness on those counts, proposing that maybe it was born of internalized backlash of the 1980s and the 1990s, Clark nodded. “That is so right. I am a product of that era. I remember being called feminazi and all that. I’m so proud of these young women who are coming out and not afraid to say they are feminists.”

Of course, the irony is that the young women who have brought feminism back in vogue probably don’t have the faintest clue who Marcia Clark is. The trial that loomed so large for anyone who lived through it is ancient history for today’s young feminists. It would be difficult for them to fully comprehend how threatening a figure like Clark, the career-minded bogeywoman, could have been. Yet at the same time, it’s these women, recently chided in the context of the Democratic primary for their foreshortened sense of feminist history, who have created space for the kind of feminist redemption that Ryan Murphy offers Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson.

In her career as a prosecutor, Marcia Clark won 19 murder trials, including the murder of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and had lost only one before she tried the Simpson case.

She told me that she knew, practically from the start, that this was one she was going to lose. She felt the evidence disappearing from the first days that Simpson was allowed to return home. Watching his dramatic Bronco chase, she understood: “We [Los Angeles law enforcement] look like morons.” Seeing the video of Americans cheering him, she realized that public opinion was splitting along powerfully inscribed racial lines. The stories of Nicole Brown Simpson’s partying and drug use, published in tabloids and tell-all books by her friends, didn’t help.

“The only thing we could do was show them the evidence, to try to bring Ron and Nicole to life and show that they were real people,” she said. And they did. But so much of the evidence — from that gathered by Mark Fuhrman, the L.A. police officer with a gruesome reputation as a racist, to the glove that appeared not to fit O.J.’s hand easily — wound up working against the prosecution. 

And so Clark lost the trial of the century. Her ambitious career was defined by the most public kind of failure. “There was this huge pressure to admit what we did wrong,” she said. “And, yes, of course we made mistakes. Every lawyer does. There’s no such thing as a perfect performance. But it didn’t matter. We had the evidence. Had this been a white famous football player, had it been John Smith, a regular African-American man — the evidence was overwhelming … We weren’t perfect, but we were good enough.”

In Toobin’s estimation, “Individual will or skill mattered less than the larger gestalt of what was going on. I think there is something tragic about Marcia: She was trying to do the right thing, correctly saw the case as a domestic-violence homicide, but she didn’t appreciate the full political and racial context that she was operating in. Neither did I. Neither did most people.”

After the verdict, Clark walked out of the courtroom. She hasn’t seen District Attorney Gil Garcetti since. She and Darden, who were very close, have not seen each other in ages. She stopped working for a while. “I decided to have a life, to become, pardon the expression, a soccer mom,” Clark said. “I knew I wasn’t going to do it forever; I’m a career person, that’s what I do” — Clark paused here to add a careful caveat: “I’m a big supporter of women doing anything they want to do!” — “but I was so thrashed emotionally and physically that I wanted to be home with my kids.” Clark, 62, now works on court appointed criminal appeals for the state of California and writes mystery novels, including Blood Defense, which will be published in May. Her children are grown.

If you’d won the case, I asked, would you have quit your job as a prosecutor? She paused. “Probably not,” she said.

But she didn’t look like she was particularly plagued by regret, especially not right now.

“I just never, ever thought that I’d be sitting and talking to you about this,” Clark said, still marveling that she had somehow emerged, decades later, in a universe that wanted to tell her story in a more sympathetic light. Shaking her head at Ryan Murphy’s surprising gift, she said, “He’s got brass balls.” Then she rethought it. “I shouldn’t say that,” she said. “He’s got brass ovaries.”