Scarlett Harris

Women of The People vs OJ Simpson

Simpson

Approx Reading Time-14With the conclusion of American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, the biggest crime was the treatment of women involved in the case.

 

When Connie Britton, American Crime Story showrunner Ryan Murphy’s muse of sorts, professed her interest in being cast in the first season of the show, centred on the 1996 OJ Simpson trial that concluded last night on Ten, Murphy told her that apart from Marcia Clark, there was really only one other small female role: that of Faye Resnick, murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson’s best friend.

Despite their dismal roles, Brown Simpson and Resnick, along with Clark, drove the narrative of the trial and its fictionalisation.

Although the crux of American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson and, indeed, the trial, was the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman murders, Brown Simpson was never once glimpsed in the show, dead or alive. An effective stylistic choice, it speaks to the erasure of Brown Simpson and her also murdered alleged friend/lover/random waiter returning her mother’s glasses, Ron Goldman, in the trial at large. American Crime Story excels at once at avoiding sensationalising the double murder at a time when gendered violence and killing are rife, and at portraying the events that followed the murder: OJ Simpson’s arrest, and the trial that very much did sensationalise the death of the most famous sportsperson in America’s pretty, estranged, white wife.

The racial implications of the show make a topic for another writer to do justice (and, several, have) but the gendered aspects of the trial are plain to see in the show. The trial of the century wrote the book on excusing athletes for their transgressions and blaming the women they assault and murder because their abusers play sportsball good. The fact that OJ’s lawyer Johnnie Cochran was an alleged domestic abuser himself adds a whole new layer to his defence.

By extension, men at large receive the OJ treatment, with their actions excused as we ask what their victims did to provoke or deserve it. In Australia, in particular, the domestic violence epidemic is front and centre as politicians, commentators and the general public ask what they can do to prevent the spate of women murdered in gendered attacks (79 women in 2015, 25 this year at the time of writing). But it’s the language we use to talk and write about these lives lost which minimises the behaviour of these apparently “good men,” while erasing their victims from view – and memory – much like Nicole Brown Simpson.

To return to Resnick, though she only features in a handful of scenes she certainly packs a punch, particularly when the fast-tracked publication of her tell-all book about her friendship with Brown Simpson stopped the trial as both the prosecution and the defence had to examine whether the contents therein could influence the case.

Resnick’s revelations proved to be futile and the case proceeded without her, but her presence in the quintessential Hollywood scandal reverberates today in her roles on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Ahh, the Kardashians. If there’s one group of women to come out of the horror of this trial better for it, it’s them. While their surname was just an unpronounceable ethnic one at the time their father Robert was representing his best friend OJ Simpson, they’ve since come to embody much of what the trial stood for: fame, money and white (or at least those who present as and pass for white) women “stealing” black men.

The inclusion of Kris Jenner and the Kardashian children could be grating at times, but it made sense for a show that examines just how little has changed in America since the events it portrays, to feature the people that benefited the most from it.

Speaking of people who’ve benefited from American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, who would’ve thought that the reviled Marcia Clark would come out looking the best?! Due in part to Sarah Paulson’s empathetic portrayal of the prosecutor, Clark has experienced a renaissance of sorts as her sexist treatment during the trial becomes uncomfortably apparent.

For example, in Marcia, Marcia, Marcia, the episode that most closely follows Clark, she is ridiculed for her appearance, admonished and scoffed at for requesting to leave work early to care for her children and humiliated as nude photos of her are leaked to the tabloids, calling to mind the way professional women are still treated today.

While the men she works with, and against, in the trial – Chris Darden, Johnny Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian, F Lee Bailey – all have wives to look after their children (when their home lives are portrayed at all), Clark is vilified for trying to juggle childcare with the demands of the case. When she changes her hairstyle, it draws more ire from the press and her colleagues, with Judge Ito making a snide comment as the Dream Team snickers.

And when Clark purchases sanitary products, the clerk at the register snidely remarks that the rest of the court is in for a hell of a week.

Make no mistake, women still face similarly sexist treatment at work today but when it happens there’s more of an outcry, a fact that screenwriter DV DeVincentis touches on in this interview. In fact, there are definite parallels between Clark’s dehumanising treatment and that of women in the current US presidential race.

Hillary Clinton has long been ridiculed for the method she uses to pull her hair back and those pantsuits. Conversely to Clark’s parental issues, Clinton was often seen as not being maternal enough, wanting to be involved in policy instead of “bak[ing] cookies and hav[ing] teas” as the First Lady. And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s comments about Fox anchor Megyn Kelly menstruating when she challenged him at a Republican debate.

Judge Lance Ito – yet another character who is portrayed with more nuance than he seemed to possess in real life – makes direct reference to this is episode nine, Manna from Heaven, when his own wife is dragged into proceedings. “Women who work in male-dominated professions, I think, are tougher than most,” he says. “And if they are successful they are almost always targets for this kind of treatment.”

Despite its declining ratings in Australia (like other “ethnic”-themed shows that have seen success in the US but have failed here – which is, again, is another story for another time), American Crime Story is an important examination of the gendered, racial and classist injustices of the trial and how they’re mirrored in society today; Brown Simpson and Resnick were reviled for deigning to reach beyond the lines set for them, the former as a white woman married to a black man and the latter as a junkie hungry to extend her five minutes of fame; as if the trial wasn’t a prototype for reality TV the likes of which Resnick and the Kardashians inhabit today.

Clark, though exceeding expectations for women in a different way, was brought back down to earth through the criticism of her looks and parenting: the only things women should concern themselves with, right? American Crime Story, full of compromised men, aims to grant women the self-actualisation we denied them the first time around.

 

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