It’s been 22 years since the nation dropped everything to watch the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which was broadcast instead of all daytime television and even sidelined the NBA Finals. It was dubbed the “Trial of the Century” for good reason: There was that spectacularly bizarre car chase, a Nazi-sympathizing cop, a courtroom heart attack, fame-hungry attorneys, colorful supporting characters — from Kato Kaelin to Faye Resnick to the Kardashians — and a central plotline of racial unrest that divided the country. FX’s new series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story doesn’t need to amp up the crazy of the events surrounding the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the arrest of O.J. Simpson, and the trial that followed. In this case, truth is better than any version of fiction. This was more than just a murder story involving rich and famous people. The case became about race — perhaps even more so than about the slayings. O.J. came to represent the whole of Black America — a community frustrated by police brutality and a criminal justice system that had consistently, systemically failed them (the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing riots occurred only two years prior). The prosecution was The Man. Everyone picked a side. But through the lens of lead prosecutor Marcia Clark (brilliantly played by Sarah Paulson, TV’s reigning chameleon), we see another inequity playing out: rampant sexism, and the world’s blind eye to it. (Mild spoilers ahead.) Over the course of the show’s first six episodes, Clark transforms from a hero of justice into a broken woman. It's a quick and painful journey filled with moments that leave you aghast and rushing to the internet to fact-check the events. When we first see Clark, she is yelling at her two young sons as they fail to get themselves ready for school — a frustration any parent of school-aged children feels on an almost daily basis. She’s tough with them, but also tender. They are her family, her priority, and the reason she works 70-hour weeks, even if that means a babysitter tucks them in most nights. That same morning, Clark takes a call about a double homicide in L.A.’s ritzy Brentwood neighborhood. When she learns that the victims are a young bartender and O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, she’s unfazed by the name-drop of one of the biggest sports stars in the world (she vaguely remembers him from the Naked Gun movies). She’s more focused on getting the perp. As she learns about O.J.’s history of battering Nicole — multiple 911 calls, broken bones, blackened eyes — she becomes a crusader for all of the victims of domestic violence and declares, “He got away with beating her, he's not going to get away with killing her.”
Once O.J. (portrayed as a spoiled celebrity brat by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is taken into custody, Clark digs in. The only woman on the prosecution team, she’s first chair on the biggest murder trial in history. Paulson shows Clark as curt but compassionate. After she snaps at her assistant for bringing up her ongoing divorce litigation, she quickly apologizes. When defense attorney Johnnie Cochran makes a crack in the courtroom about her “babysitting problems,” she slams him in a speech that should inspire all working mothers to cheer. She never shows nerves. She’s confident in the evidence, precise in her direction to her colleagues, and unrattled by big-wig lawyers Robert Shapiro (John Travolta at his weirdest) and Cochran (a spot-on Courtney B. Vance), who pull out every dirty trick in the book to get their guy off. Clark’s undoing begins when a juror expert is called in, purportedly to find out what kind of jury would convict the charming guy from the Hertz commercials. Instead, he quizzes them on their impressions of Clark. Their comments are cutting: “She’s a bitch.” “Overbearing.” “So uppity.” Watching through two-way glass, Clark responds with an eye roll. But when the juror expert suggests she “soften her appearance” and “try smiling more,” we see her weak spot. Her fixed stare is full of rage — and for the first time, self-doubt. Concurrently, Clark’s personal life is unraveling. She’s devoting every waking hour to the O.J. case, and her heart breaks every time she calls her kids and says she won’t be home that night. She’s also in the middle of a contentious divorce with her douchey ex-husband, who tries to skirt child support payments and jumps at the chance to trash her parenting in the press. As certain victory in the courtroom slips further out of her grasp, a new trial takes shape in the media, one intent on convicting Marcia Clark of being unpretty. Talk shows evaluate her “frumpy” wardrobe. Radio DJs ask callers, “Is Marcia Clark a bitch or a babe?” Her boss tries to console her by saying he thinks the press attacks are awful…but he’s happy to refer her to “some terrific media consultants.”
The most heartbreaking part of it all is that she gets the damn makeover. You’ll scream, “Noooo,” when she entrusts her shoulder-length ringlets to a stylist who gives her that infamous choppy bob. Clark doesn’t know whether it’s a good or bad haircut because she hasn’t paid much attention to how the public, the press, or her colleagues value her physical appearance. She hasn’t had to. Her career — one with a stellar record of 19 out of 20 convictions prior to O.J. — is all that has mattered. So when she walks into court post-haircut, she’s feeling confident. Then she starts hearing snickers — guards, bystanders, the defense team, the jurors, even Judge Ito makes a crack. Paulson’s face goes through a symphony of emotions, cascading from a self-assured smirk to wide-eyed alarm to bottled-up rage to tearful defeat. And then come the topless photos. Clark’s other douchey ex — her first husband — sold pictures from their honeymoon to the press. It’s her breaking point. The prosecution hasn’t even called catastrophic witness Det. Mark Fuhrman, watched O.J. struggle with trying on a shrunken glove, or debated the soles of Bruno Magli shoes. But it’s over for Clark. This strong-ass, top-of-her-game D.A., who's juggling all the Having It All things while giving zero fucks about sports legends, celebrities, and legal dream teams, is broken down because she's being bullied — ridiculed for being assertive, mocked for her single-mother struggles, and mean-girl attacked for not being pretty and blonde like poor, dead, slut-shamed Nicole Brown Simpson.
There’s a harsh hypocrisy here. While everyone was crying, “INJUSTICE!” about race relations, they thought nothing of being complicit in unabashed sexism — embodied in the treatment of Clark, who is — at least in this TV version — the only one who seemed to care about the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson was repeatedly brutalized by O.J. before he (allegedly) killed her. There will never be an instance when a man’s career and reputation are obliterated because of public opinion on his looks. This type of sensational ridicule of wardrobe and appearance is a media ringer still reserved exclusively for women. With every tense, teary stare, Paulson captures the external manifestation of the emotional insecurities every woman feels at some point — and often many points throughout her life. We're forced to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as men, and we’re still mostly judged on our appearances. The People v. O.J. Simpson positions Clark as an unsung feminist hero. But to me, she’s more of a fallen one. She represents the sometimes futile struggle for a woman to excel at her job, nurture her children, maintain a healthy relationship, and brush off the sexist system that makes all of these things that much harder. The media could only attack Nicole Brown Simpson so much — and they did, calling her a gold digger and a whore. But a live victim offers endless opportunities for humiliation. As tearing down Clark became part of the defense team’s strategy, the media took the bait — and succeeded. In the end, O.J. beat the system. Clark wasn’t so lucky.