The Female Gaze: Marcia Clark in ‘People v. O.J.’ faces sexism in the courts and in the media

In Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Film & TV
A just society prides itself in the way it ensures a fair trial for those accused of crimes. However, being scrutinized by the system is not only an experience for those criminals being tried, as the portrayal of Marcia Clark's experience in "The People v. O.J. Simpson." (Courtesy of FX)

It didn’t matter how many hours Marcia spent prepping for the O.J. Simpson case. As soon as she entered the courtroom, all eyes were on her hair. A compelling episode of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” untangled all the sexist judgment the lawyer was twisted up in.

A just society prides itself in the way it ensures a fair trial for those accused of crimes—at least that is what the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution aims to do. Being scrutinized before the court can be daunting. Even those outside the criminals on trial, such as lawyer Marcia Clark, are judged in their own way.

Sure there are laws to protect that individual–laws to bolster fair treatment–but they do not guarantee fair judgment. Kudos to the founding fathers for making laws that prohibit unfair scrutiny in the judicial system. However, unfair scrutiny is embedded in American culture, especially in its media.

People might be treated unfairly based on their gender, race, socioeconomic status, body shape and even hair texture. For instance, a woman can earn all sorts of credentials, but her reputation might be damaged if the general public doesn’t like her clothing or her hair, at least that was the case for Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, is the lead prosecutor in this notorious case. She is a confident and determined lawyer as well as a loving and dedicated single mother. But in an environment full of sexist colleagues, dreadful ex-husbands and an insensitive media, she has an arduous time keeping it together.

The season’s episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” conveys how sexist judgments take their toll on Clark’s personal and professional life. Leading the prosecution drives Clark, but it also becomes a burden. Instead of alleviating her hectic responsibilities, Clark’s ex-husband brings her hell. He triggers a child custody battle because he unfairly judges her ability to raise their two sons.  

It is evident that it pains Clark to leave her children during work, and she brings up her situation to the judge at one point. But instead of receiving empathy from her fellow lawyers, the defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, played by Courtney B. Vance, blatantly insults her.

“Your honor, I am offended by Mr. Cochran’s remarks as a woman and as a mother. Mr. Cochran may not know what it’s like to work a 70-hour work week and also take care of a family, but I do and many other people do too,” Clark said. “To belittle my childcare issues in your courtroom is unconscionable and totally out of line.”

Clark is bold enough to defend herself from sexist colleagues, but she does not have the power to tackle the media that criticizes her attire and hair. Instead, she is advised to soften her look, but that was a debacle. Her new curls drew more unwanted attention she could not escape from.

Media examined her looks the way a jury examines a defendant’s case, but the media also laid siege on her. Maneuvering herself during trials is her specialty, but maneuvering herself under the surveillance of the press is unprecedented for Marcia.

When tabloids released an inappropriate photograph of her from the past, that was the last straw. Her colleague Christopher Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, ends up finding a sobbing Marcia sitting on the floor alone and vanquished.

“I am not a public personality. This isn’t what I do. I don’t know how to do this,” Clark said to Darden. “Those other guys, they are flashy hotshots. They are used to it. But I just can’t take it.”

Sexist acquaintances and the media may not have the ability to determine verdicts like an impartial jury, but they do determine the experience of the women they scrutinize. The show takes place in the 1990s, but discriminatory judgments continue to be seen today in the media and in the workplace.

Sarah Paulson’s role as Clark earned an Emmy last year, and during her acceptance speech, she apologizes to the real Clark, whom she took to the award ceremony:

“The more I learned about the real Clark, not the two-dimensional cardboard cut out I saw on the news, but the complicated, whip-smart giant-hearted mother of two who woke up every day, put both feet on the floor and dedicated herself to righting an unconscionable wrong, the loss of two innocents—Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown—the more I had to recognize that I, along with the rest of the world, had been superficial and careless in my judgment. I’m glad to be able to stand here today in front of everyone and tell you, ‘I’m sorry,’” Paulson said to Clark.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” depicts more than the complexity of the case, it depicts the negative and unfair aspects present in American culture. Laws might not abolish the scrutiny of women, but recognizing the superficial factors that influence these judgments is the first step toward fair and equal treatment across all genders.

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