Marcia Clark and the Ideal Woman

Will there ever in my lifetime  be a trial with more media coverage than The People Vs. OJ Simpson?

I was in middle/high school at the time. I didn’t read newspapers. The Internet was for Star Trek debates and Simpsons trivia. I caught snippets of the evening news if my parents were home to watch it. Yet just from that limited exposure I can tell you the names of the lead attorneys from both prosecution and defense, investigating officers, key witnesses, and even the judge. I can name them off the top of my head based off my limited media exposure from over twenty years ago. Has there been a case before or since that made celebrities of everyone involved?

And what do I remember about Marcia Clark, the District Attorney? My lasting impression from a teenager with limited knowledge of the media circus was that she was aggressive to the point of seeming angry. And the hair. that unforgettable hair.

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Apparently I wasn’t the only one that remembered that ‘do, since Tina Fey incorporated it into her impression of Clark nearly two decades later:

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So for me, the story ended there until I watched the meticulously researched and obsessively detailed miniseries The People Vs. OJ Simpson. Yes it is a dramatization and I’m sure that it’s not 100% accurate. But the events that I am focusing on here are undisputed and verified by living witnesses.

Marcia Clark is my favorite character in the series. Yeah, I know, you’re not surprised. But it’s not just because she’s the hero of the story. In fact, I’m not sure she is. She’s a key figure, sure but this isn’t a story about winners and losers, or good and evil. It’s an exploration of the people that most of us knew only from headlines and sound bytes.

The show’s main appeal to me was two fold: Clark’s struggle for media appeal as well as jury approval. She was constantly being told to soften her image, to dress more feminine, to smile more, to exude more warmth.

Focus groups were arranged, and asked to rate her based on tapes of her courtroom performance. She was called a bitch. She scored a 4 out of 10. Clark was sure she could win them over as a champion of battered women, but was ultimately outfoxed by the defense team, whom jurors found more appealing, and therefore, more sympathetic.

And then there was the media, who mercilessly criticized her image. With that combination of criticism on all sides, Clark, who previously had shoulder length curls,   went in for a new hairdo. In the show, her hairdresser promised her she would do for her what he did for Farrah Fawcett. The look on Clark’s face is heartbreaking because she looks so hopeful and vulnerable.

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Yet anyone who remembers the torment she went under afterwards, know what is coming, and that her hopeful bliss will be short lived, as snide comments and dirty looks abounded. Oh and the tabloids.

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It wasn’t enough that this woman broke through glass ceiling after glass ceiling to become the top prosecutor for the nation’s second largest city. It wasn’t enough that she was smart and effective and tough and assertive, and a mother to boot. Because she wasn’t feminine enough for either the court or the nation, she became an object of scorn, mockery and derision. Because she was good at her job by taking on characteristics that are considered masculine, she became a punchline. Apparently women are only allowed to succeed as long as they remind us of our wives, girlfriends or mothers.

But this was twenty years ago, right? Surely we’ve become more enlightened in the past generation?

Except for the people who mocked every one of Hillary Clinton’s outfits. Even her supporters on late night talk shows picked on her for fashion choices. And what about the portion of the country that would rather see Sarah Palin as president, simply because despite being massively unqualified, has a more traditional image of a woman?

So until Marcia Clark is be able to walk into a courtroom sporting a mohawk and eyebrow piercing, or a bald head and a Star Trek onesie, or anything else she damn well pleases without having to worry about losing jurors or public opinion, we still have progress to make.

Now of course not all critiques of image are sexist in nature. And I’m a big proponent for free speech so I’m not trying to shout down anyone who says anything negative about anyone’s appearance. But I ask that we consider the subtext to such critiques, and if they are discriminatory in nature, I hope we can question whether we want to consume whatever media such criticisms are coming from. It’s hard to empathize with strangers or images of people we will never meet, but we will be more well rounded humans for our efforts.

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