The People vs. Marcia Clark: How Scandals and Sexism Sabotaged O.J.’s Prosecutor

Tonight, the FX series turns to the beleaguered O.J. prosecutor, finally doing justice to the woman the world loved to pick apart.

This week’s installment of The People vs. O.J. Simpson will be remembered as the episode that finally focuses on beleaguered prosecutor Marcia Clark. If there’s any justice in the world, it should also be celebrated as the one that finally wins the excellent Sarah Paulson an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and hell, all the other awards we can throw at her.

Paulson’s already been putting in work as Clark, with weekly displays of resigned contempt in the face of rampant sexism—in the courtroom, in the media, and even in her own nasty divorce proceedings—that give audiences new appreciation for the woman the world loved to pick apart.

Even the title of Episode 6, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” is a stroke of bittersweet brilliance, an ode to the achievers who never quite got over with the popular kids no matter how hard they tried. This is the episode in which, caving to outside pressures and the condescension of the cruel and catty fashion police, Clark undergoes a “Marcia Makeover” to soften her look and straighten those corkscrew tresses. (The irony: Those curls were deliberate to begin with, since the naturally straight-haired prosecutor opted for a “wash ’n’ wear” perm to suit her totally ’90s working-woman lifestyle.)

In American Crime Story, we get the broad strokes of the case we remember and the charged environment of post-Rodney King, post-L.A. riots racial tension: the Bronco chase, the Dream Team, the bumbling cops, the n-word, and all the soulless opportunists who came out of the woodwork to cash in on tragedy. But it’s these character arcs that paint the picture of intersecting race and gender conflicts that were slowly progressing, yet still utterly entrenched in every facet of the Simpson case.

It’s a neat trick keeping audiences riveted to their screens devouring the soapy retelling of events they already know the outcome to. FX’s miniseries also brilliantly deep-dives into the backstories of major figures like Johnnie Cochran (the great Courtney B. Vance), for example, whose racial profiling by a white cop in front of his little girls underscored a deeply personal understanding of the race card he’d later play to get his client acquitted.

We’ve seen flashes of similar racial conflict on the other side of the courtroom, raging inside assistant D.A. Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) as he silently wonders if he’s been given the chair next to Clark only because the color of his skin adds a much-needed splash of diversity to the People’s bench. And then there’s the abject horror of a young Kim and Khloe discovering that the outside world has never heard the name ”Kardashian,” let alone understands how to pronounce it—a waking nightmare, we can imagine.

The series imitates real life by taking notes from Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, adding dashes of sensational verisimilitude (hello, Faye Resnick). “Dear God, I thought, do we ever look like morons,” Clark wrote in her 1997 memoir Without a Doubt, recalling the facepalm moment when the D.A.’s office learned that their prime suspect was on the run. Paulson pretty much repeats that line on the show with a brutal exasperation that illuminates Clark’s underdog status, up against not only the craftiest defense team millions of dollars could buy but also the ineptitude of the LAPD and her own shaky witnesses.

The Clark-focused sixth episode, scripted by D.V. DeVincentis, takes a few delicious turns of artistic license—most notably in a tipsy afterhours office flirtation between Clark and Darden, whose friendship deepens as Clark is subjected to some truly awful moments of gendered scrutiny and objectification. It also opens on a sequence that says everything about why history owes Marcia Clark some slack.

The camera zooms out of her face as she sits in a courtroom, vexed. But she’s not facing down Cochran and Judge Ito; she’s in family court, battling her ex-husband. Here, as in Ito’s court, her irritation only lands her in hot water. She apologizes for the first of five times in the span of the first two minutes as one case makes her late for the other, leaving her literally apologizing across town before her workday even begins. Each “I’m sorry” burns more, adding insult upon insult.

Say what you will of Clark’s efficacy trying the Simpson case, but the burden of proof wasn’t the only weight on her shoulders during that trial. She’d tried to kick off her law career defending criminals but found that prosecuting them suited her better. She worked her way up to her first high-profile murder case in 1991, sending the obsessed stalker who killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer to prison for life.

By her own admission, Clark was a hungry workaholic who buried herself in her career as a distraction from the failings waiting for her at home. On June 10, 1994, she filed for divorce from her second husband, Gordon Clark, initiating a bitter battle over their two young sons. Three days later, her phone rang with a double murder in tony Brentwood that would change her life.

Women still apologize all the time, just for being women who dare to even try to have it all. Imagine attempting to do it while under a microscope that’s broadcasting every glance, remark, outfit, or bad day to the world. On the show, it’s infuriating to watch Paulson as Clark, brushing off the blatant sexism that rains down on her in her work life, and immensely satisfying when she unloads a sardonic retort on the men around her. Yet the outrage builds in the bits and pieces of her own telling. “While he always spoke respectfully to the defense, referring to them as ‘Mr. Cochran’ and ‘Mr. Shapiro,’ I was usually ‘Marcia,’” Clark wrote. “I felt that I had to draw the line early and break him of the habit of condescending to me…”

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Monday morning quarterbacks blamed Clark’s courtroom persona for being too off-putting to jurors, but the idea never occurred to her that her appearance would be a factor against Simpson. When L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti assigned her to the Simpson case, she had a track record on cases involving DNA evidence, known for working hard and putting in extra hours. But her outspokenness rankled some figures higher up the food chain.

“I could see why he might worry about me,” Clark wrote. “I’m no one’s idea of a lapdog. It wasn’t that Gil couldn’t tolerate assertive women; in fact, he went out of his way to promote them. But I could see how he might look at me and think, ‘Loose cannon.’”

The media and the public tore apart her hair, her clothes, the length of her hemlines, her lipstick, the circles under her eyes from lack of sleep. You know, from working. Their lowest blow: a topless photo published by the National Enquirer mid-trial, taken several years and an entire marriage prior while Clark was on vacation with her first husband. Even the steeliest of confidences would be forgiven for breaking under such constant, unrelenting criticism from all sides.

But it was only when her appearance and demeanor seemed to be hurting the case against Simpson, the fight for justice for Brown and Goldman, that Clark caved to the pressures of the focus groups.

“[Jury consultant Donald] Vinson told Gil that the people he’d polled perceived me as ‘hard.’ I should speak more softly. I should get a softer hairdo. I should lose the business suits in favor of—get this—dresses,” Clark remembered in Without a Doubt. “Just think about the logic here. Vinson claimed that black middle-aged women were carrying a grudge against me. And so the way to defuse them was to gussy myself up like Vanna White?”

“Vinson’s line of reasoning was unapologetically sexist,” she continued. “It was demeaning to me personally. And in the end it was meaningless psychobabble. But we were spooked by a set of odds that were definitely not in our favor. So I got a goddamned haircut. It was not a makeover. The style I’d been wearing to date was frankly unflattering.”

She made several trips to a Studio City salon to get her new ’do. But the transformation in look and demeanor was instantly analyzed with great curiosity by news anchors, legal pundits, and even The New York Times.

“Ever since Ms. Clark first appeared on the scene, shortly after Mr. Simpson was charged with double murder and she was told to try him, she had appeared grim, humorless, even angry,” wrote Times reporter David Margolick in an article headlined “Remaking of the Simpson Prosecutor.” “But magically, her voice had warmed up. She smiled often, and incandescently. She laughed, even giggled, repeatedly. She rolled her eyes, cocked her head and shrugged her shoulders. And instead of terse comments, she spoke about her harried new life, her shopping trips, her children.”

Years later, Clark described the metamorphosis: “The experience produced in me that awful naked feeling of being a teenager changing her hairdo to please the popular crowd.”

“She was just the mother of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, going through a terrible divorce, who was a prosecutor for the County of Los Angeles, trying to put bad people away,” Paulson told The Daily Beast last year, sympathizing with Clark. “Then all of a sudden she’s being criticized for the length of her skirts, the style of her hair, how tired she was, the color of her lipstick. It was really rough from a female perspective to be judged and ridiculed that way.”

“She was completely unprepared for what was ahead of her,” mused Vance, talking to The Daily Beast about his uncanny turn as Clark’s courtroom nemesis. “She did not understand what she was stepping into. She thought it was about the facts. It wasn’t about the fact. It wasn’t about the search for the truth. It wasn’t about the truth… If you want to get out there in front and be the man or woman out there in front, you gotta know they’re coming after you. She was completely unprepared for that.”

After watching The People vs. O.J. Simpson’s premiere episode, Clark took to The View and applauded Paulson’s performance. She said that watching the show itself, however, is “reliving a nightmare.” “It’s just awful, every bit of it is awful and very hard for me,” she said. “So it’s a very painful experience and yet, I have to tell you, that’s kind of a measure of how good it is.”

She had her feminist defenders, including female columnists who fought in the war of the sexes over the Trial of the Century in the newspapers. It’s safe to say Clark’s getting the wave of belated public support she didn’t enjoy two decades ago.

“Funny—when the media likes you, they can take scraps that your friends toss out, and spin them into flattering fairy tales (but when they don’t like you, they take the scraps from ex-husbands),” Clark wrote in the memoirs she published two years after the Simpson verdict, after quitting her post as deputy DA. She would go on to serve as a legal commentator and columnist (including writing for The Daily Beast), in addition to publishing several crime novels.

Clark’s observations from that time, and the ignominies her male peers never had to suffer, resonate all the more in each flash of pain and resolve Paulson allows only the audience see. That’s the retrospective justice The People vs. O.J. Simpson offers for Marcia Clark. “God, don’t get me started,” she wrote in 1997. “I look at myself in the Globe and see a man-crazy lush. And then I look at Ladies’ Home Journal and see a serene professional woman at the top of her game. And I look and look and look and don’t see myself at all.”