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The Unfortunate, Still-Resonant Lessons of Marcia Clark’s Hair

The O.J. Simpson trial—and Marcia Clark’s coif—mesmerized the American public in the mid-’90s. Two decades on, women continue to get unfairly scrutinized.

Rachel Shukert
March 11, 2016
POO/AFP/Getty Images
Deputy district attorney Marcia Clark gestures as she addresses the jury with the prosecutions opening statements in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Los Angeles, California, January 24, 1995.POO/AFP/Getty Images
POO/AFP/Getty Images
Deputy district attorney Marcia Clark gestures as she addresses the jury with the prosecutions opening statements in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Los Angeles, California, January 24, 1995.POO/AFP/Getty Images

Did you know that Marcia Clark, the Los Angeles County Prosecutor most famous for a) her hair b) failing to secure a double homicide conviction against O.J. Simpson, and c) her hair, is Jewish? I didn’t, until I started frantically Googling her after this week’s installment of American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, in which she is searingly portrayed by a bewigged and brilliant Sarah Paulson. When I learned of her Jewish heritage and I got so excited, because it meant I could write about her here! It’s like I say: every time a Jewish woman is publicly lauded or publicly humiliated, I get to breathe a tiny sigh of relief.

The O.J. Simpson case, such an inescapable part of growing up in the ‘90s, was and remains a tragedy on many levels: the young and promising lives cut short; the children grievously deprived of a loving parent; the failure of the LAPD to adequately protect a woman who had been repeatedly abused; the systemic and brutal racist reputation of the LAPD finally coming home to roost in the least apropos way (in this context, is there anything more ironic than not convicting O.J.?). Until ACS came along, however, it hadn’t occurred to me that the tragedy was also Marcia Clark’s.

I was a 14-year-old latchkey kid during the O.J. trial. Almost every afternoon, when I got home from school, I’d turn on Court TV for half an hour or so, just to see if anything really important was happening in the trial, before I started my homework (or more realistically, watched something different on TV for the next four hours. We were so much less supervised in the good ‘ol days.) I read all the cover stories in People, marveled at the fierce alliterative rhetoric of Johnnie Cochran, and even remember writing a comedy sketch about the proceedings that I planned to submit to Saturday Night Live. (I was pretty sure the show would be willing to hire a high school freshman once they got a whiff of my brilliance and erudition. I don’t remember much about it, except that it was somehow a parody of Othello.)

But Marcia Clark didn’t really register for me, except, of course, the manner in which she was regularly ridiculed in the press for her frizzy perm, her frumpy clothes, the way her voice sounded strident or “shrill” and how people thought that she seemed like a bitch. It says a great deal about the tenor of the times that this didn’t strike the adolescent me as particularly strange or unfair.

We look at a show like Mad Men and goggle at its anachronistic misogyny—women weren’t allowed to have their own credit cards or their own confidential relationships with the doctors who cared for them—but the ‘90’s had its own compulsory gauntlet of sexism that women in the public eye were forced to face down. You could graduate from law school or be elected to public office—you were free, more or less, to achieve—but the price you paid was that your clothes, your body, your sexual history, your voice, and your choices of words, would be relentlessly and cruelly mocked, not just by troglodytes like Rush Limbaugh (who was around even then) but by progressive people who were supposed to be your allies. We saw Hillary Clinton get ripped apart in the press by Democratic surrogates for other campaigns; Anita Hill dismissed and receive condescension from none other than our own, dearly beloved Joe Biden (who, to be fair, has evolved admirably over the years). We were just two years away from watching Monica Lewinsky (another mouthy and imperfect Jewish broad) be utterly destroyed in the press by putative feminists like Erica Jong and Maureen Dowd, whose veil of professed sisterhood, thankfully, has slipped considerably in the ensuing decades.

That was the cost of admission for women in the public sphere as I was becoming one. What you gained in professional or public renown, you made up for with the loss of your dignity. When I watched Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark arrive in court with the new hairdo she’d been bullied into getting, only to see her eyes fill with tears when she realizes that it too will be perceived as a desperate disaster, it felt like I was dying a little inside.

I don’t know how we fix that. Two decades on, Hillary Clinton is still being tarred in the press with gendered language and held to a standard few, if any, of her male peers (if, she in fact, has any) could survive. Accomplished creative women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer have their bodies scrutinized. We’re still talking about Marcia Clark’s hair. The only hope I see is that women are no longer accepting the narrative. Listening to Larry King insult you and dealing with the indignity of a former husband selling intimate photos of you to the National Enquirer is par for the course for a woman trying the most high-profile legal case of the century. Women have been more resilient than men for centuries. I only hope the next generation of girls won’t have to be.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.