“The responsibility of playing a real person is an enormous one,” Paulson said of her role, reading from a speech she had prepared in advance. “You want to get it right not for you but for them.”
The more I learned about the real Marcia Clark, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutout 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.
The camera panned to Clark, in the audience. She had tears in her eyes.
Paulson concluded her speech: “I’m proud to be able to stand here today in front of everyone and tell you I’m sorry.”
Clark nodded, slowly. Apology, seemingly, accepted. Everyone applauded.
Thus, another moment of redemption in a night that strove for it—redemption not (just) for Clark, but for Paulson and everyone else who played a part in the Mock-Marcia Industrial Complex of 20 years ago. The People v O.J. is a show that, as all such reboots of reality will, engages in a kind of localized time travel: It pits the doings of the past against the morals of the present, inviting a comparison that will, ideally, end in congratulation. The upshot, almost always, is a vindication of the present, and of Progress. Ugh, how sexist we were back then! Things would have been so different today! The People v O.J., another American Crime Story re-told for TV, may be a great piece of art; that’s why its performers so neatly swept the Emmys on Sunday. But much of the show’s emotional appeal lies in the easy reassurance it offers its viewers: that we have learned, that we have changed, that we will never again see fit to dismiss a highly competent woman as “hysterical.”
And so Marcia Clark has been reborn as a kind of feminist cause incarnate, as a woman who has borne the brunt of sexism and emerged stronger (or at least richer) for the trial. Her path—or, more specifically, the narrative the media has crafted on her behalf—is similar to the one taken by Monica Lewinsky, and by (another spectral presence at Sunday’s show) Anita Hill: treated shamefully in the ‘90s, re-appreciated today. Not only is Clark, in the new narrative that has emerged about her, no longer a victim of sexism’s sad assumptions; she is, indeed, a champion for the fight against them. “In retrospect,” Salon mused, “Marcia Clark is a feminist hero, standing up for the life of a woman who was unjustly abused by her husband.” Or, as Rebecca Traister declared in a recent cover story story for New York magazine: “Marcia Clark Is Redeemed.”
That redemption was the other ritual taking place at the Emmy ceremony on Sunday: apology performed, revisionism celebrated. Paulson had claimed earlier that the most Marcia-centric episode of The People v O.J.—aptly titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”—functioned as both “an incredibly harrowing thing” and “a wonderful gift to her.” With the episode, Paulson declared in another interview, and the series at large, “the world is going to get the Marcia Clark we deserved to know.” And, now, here was that promise made manifest: Here was the woman who had been on the receiving end of so many strains of textbook sexism, the woman who had claimed that the trial had ruined her life, stepping and repeating at a glittery awards show. Here she was, getting to be one half of what the L.A. Times called “the cutest couple on the carpet.” Here she was, tearfully nodding as the actor who portrayed her on television offered her a blanket, belated “I’m sorry.”