“I’m not a public personality,” Marcia Clark sobs in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the sixth and arguably best episode of FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. “This isn’t what I do,” she says. “I don’t know how to do this… I just can’t take it.”
“This” is not the task Marcia has been assigned, and rigorously prepared for: not the actual prosecution of O.J. Simpson; not, in other words, her job. “This” is the endless scrutiny she is now under, and the experience of finding herself at the center of a press free-for-all in which everything from her ongoing divorce to her hairstyle to her menstrual cycle to a nude photograph of her that her ex-husband sells to the tabloids has become fair game.
If The People v. O.J. Simpson had an emotional and moral center, it was Marcia Clark. The same was true for the actual trial, but far fewer people seemed to notice it at the time. But for the viewers who made FX’s new series a hit, revisiting the case meant bearing witness to just how much Marcia Clark—played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson, who finds Clark’s deepest fragility and conviction in every scene—suffered throughout the case.
The series’ nuanced portrayal of Clark also allowed viewers to ask new questions about other stories from the tabloid archives, stories they had always imagined they understood. In the past, we have been all too ready to assume that, if the media pillories a woman for being bad, trashy, pushy, slutty, greedy, greedy, crazy, or just—the most evergreen dismissal of all—a bitch, they must be right. Now, more than ever, we are beginning to wonder: How many times has a woman been made to suffer not because of anything she has said or done, but simply because she was the only girl in the room?
We have entered an age of reparation, and not a moment too soon. This month, fans of The People v. O.J. Simpson who found themselves craving another deep dive into ‘90s scandal found it in HBO’s Confirmation, a reexamination of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the “scandal” it engendered. “Scandal,” viewers who tuned in for Confirmation may be starting to realize, is a word we frequently attach to stories in which a woman is victimized, usually by a powerful man, and then re-victimized by the media. “Scandal” is a word that makes the woman in question seem responsible for the story she has found herself at the center of, even if it results in her being ruthlessly pilloried, as Anita Hill was in 1991.
Anita Hill’s crime was accusing her former employer, Clarence Thomas—who had recently been nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice—of sexual harassment. Thomas was sworn in despite Anita Hill’s testimony, and Anita Hill became a national joke. The headlines that didn’t approach her story with obvious vitriol were, often as not, simply dismissive: “SEX AND THE BOSS,” announced People Magazine cover story on the hearings, as if that had anything to do with Anita Hill. (The following month, the magazine boasted another cover featuring Clarence and Virginia Thomas locked in a blissful, marital embrace, promising to tell the story of “HOW WE SURVIVED”).
In 1991, it was still acceptable for American mass media to conflate “sex” with “sexual harassment.” Today, American media is battling a host of new problems, but a false sense of unanimity isn’t one of them. Social media and online publications have allowed people from all walks of life to lend their views on national stories; one of the niche voices our current media landscape empowers is the “minority” otherwise known as women. Sometimes this new opportunity for empowerment allows previously maligned and voiceless women to tell their own stories, as Monica Lewinsky did in a game-changing Vanity Fair article in 2014. Sometimes it allows women who grew up with a different host of media narratives—and a different sense of justice—to excavate other women from the overly simplistic stories they have been shackled to, as actor Margot Robbie may soon do for Tonya Harding. In every case, it allows a new generation of girls to become just a little more suspicious of the simple assumptions that are fed to them as truth.
The media frenzies that once surrounded Marcia Clark and Monica Lewinsky and Tonya Harding and Anita Hill—and countless other women we have yet to reexamine—all have a pleasant sheen of ‘90s nostalgia about them. (Who would have imagined that the words “Hard Copy” could conjure not disgust, but wistfulness?) Yet their most meaningful lessons remain timeless, as do their most enduring questions—chief among them the mystery of why we are so able, so often, not just to happily watch the story of an abused and marginalized woman unfold in real time, but to see her powerlessness as wicked, shameless strength.
Marcia Clark wasn’t the only woman to watch in despair as the media gleefully released private images of her. When Tonya Harding arrived in Lillehammer, Norway to compete in the 1994 Olympics, she was greeted with the news that her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had sold a sex tape of the couple to the tabloid news show “A Current Affair.” The tape itself, which Penthouse would sell later that year for $29.99 a pop, is grainy and amateurish, which probably has something to do with Tonya’s claim that she didn’t know the camera was on for at least part of it. Regardless of what Tonya did or didn’t know—then or later, the question of What Tonya knew being one that endlessly captivated Americans, until suddenly it didn’t—the video clearly wasn’t made with the public in mind, even if countless viewers imagined, as they did about so much else, that Tonya had orchestrated the whole thing.
No one wrote much about the video itself when it was released, maybe because no one wanted to admit to watching it, in the same way that the highbrow media outlets who flocked to Tonya’s training sessions in Oregon’s Clackamas Town Center claimed that they weren’t covering the scandal itself—that would be beneath them—but other media outlets’ febrile coverage of it. If anyone did watch the tape, however, they must have noticed something that didn’t quite fit into their coverage of what some wags had dubbed “The Whack Heard ‘Round the World”: More than anything, the video is not tacky or shameless or even pornographic, but poignant. It captures what seem to have been some of the rare moments of sweetness in a difficult and often violent marriage, and witnessing that private tenderness seems almost a greater violation than watching the sex that made it such a lucrative property. Tonya strips and poses proudly for her husband, her powerful and endlessly-discussed body on display. “You are gorgeous,” Jeff says, and maybe, for one of the few times in her life so far, Tonya believes it.
During sex, the two are quiet, breathless, even teenagerish with each other—which makes sense, since they married when Tonya was only 19 years old. At the time, she later told her biographer Lydia Prouse, she was partly in love with Jeff and partly just desperate to get out of her mother’s house. She also told Prouse about how quickly her relationship with Jeff turned emotionally and physically abusive, how Jeff would punch her, kick her, and how, she said, “I would take it because I thought I deserved it.”
In 1994, it was no secret that Tonya Harding had filed multiple restraining orders against her ex-husband, or that she had grown up with a mother who beat her and emotionally abused her, or that her family had refused to press charges after her half-brother attempted to rape her when she was 15, or that she said she had taken so long to come forward because she was terrified of what Jeff might do to her. But somehow, every part of Tonya Harding’s life could still be passed off not as a story of violence inflicted on a woman, but of violence that woman had inflicted on the world.
This violence extended far beyond the Kerrigan assault itself, which Tonya Harding was only ever tenuously connected to. Instead, it had more to do with what Tad Friend, in a 1994 New York Magazine cover story titled “White Trash Nation,” called “galloping sleaze”: the “white trash” takeover of the nation, and perhaps even the world. “Even once-lofty venues,” Friend lamented, “have fallen—the Olympics, for instance, where Tonya Harding stole the show… She of the bleached, permed hair; the blank, cheap eyes; the rabbit-fur coat and the job working at Spud City.”
The blank, cheap eyes. What does this description even mean? What does it think it means? Does it amount—can it only amount—to looking at the thousand-yard stare of a broke, abused, and marginalized woman, and recreating her as a figure who is, somehow, in charge?
It’s easy, of course, to heap disdain on someone you see as more powerful than you. Often it’s not just easy but necessary: Think of how difficult it would be to follow our current presidential election if we couldn’t make endless, at times childish jokes about Donald Trump, because we are sure that he has all the marbles. About Trump, at least, and about many of the politicians who endure this kind of media free-for-all, we’re right. But the way the American public pilloried Tonya Harding, and many other women like her, is something altogether different. It amounts to assuming that the media attention a woman inspires is somehow, also, attention that she controls. It amounts to thinking that every Nielsen household and klieg light and tabloid headline contributed to a brand of power that Tonya Harding owned—that “stealing the show” resulted in a liquid asset. What this view fails to consider, and what we seem to be realizing now, is that the reality was in fact the opposite: that this kind of attention, when focused on a woman, would almost inevitably rob her of what power she had.
I wasn’t old enough to follow the Tonya Harding scandal when it broke. 1994 was the year I turned six, which also means that my sole memory of the entire O.J. Simpson trial is asking my mother if she thought O.J. did it. I remember her pausing briefly, then saying “Yes.”
“Well, I think he’s innocent,” I said. I don’t know why I said it, or why I asked that question to begin with, or how much I really knew about the murders O.J. Simpson was accused of, though I certainly hope I didn’t know much. I didn’t begin researching the O.J. Simpson trial until 20 years after it took place, and when I did I was astonished at the horror I had missed—not just at the time, but in the media’s passing, parodic references to the case over the years. I was sickened to learn how many times Nicole called the police during her marriage to O.J., by how severely he beat her, by how many times she cried for help and by the fact that no one ever seemed to listen. It was a fact that she seemed to grow almost resigned to, near the end of her life.
“Could you get somebody over here now?” Nicole asked a 911 dispatcher in October of 1993, as her ex-husband broke down her back door. “He’s back. Please.”
“Okay, what does he look like?” the dispatcher asked.
“He’s O.J. Simpson,” Nicole said. “I think you know his record. Could you just send somebody over here?” There is terror in her voice, but there is something else, something even more heartbreaking: weariness. She has made this call before. She has made this call so, so many times before, and it has never made a difference.
I first learned about the O.J. Simpson trial the same way that I learned about Tonya Harding and Amy Fisher and Lorena Bobbitt and Paula Jones and Jessica Hahn and so many other stories that had an abused woman at their center: through Saturday Night Live. Even now, no media artifact quite so successfully encapsulates the feeling that seemed to dominate viewers’ responses to these crimes, and the scandals into which they quickly metastasized: that everything was happening all at once, and happening at them. In the flat landscape of Saturday Night Live, tragedy turns to comedy overnight. If you can do it with the O.J. Simpson trial, you can do it with anything—and Saturday Night Live did.
My favorite sketch from this era shows John Wayne Bobbitt delivering testimony against his wife, Lorena, who went to trial, you might have heard, for her 1993 “malicious wounding” of John, in which she cut off his penis while he slept, then threw it out the window of her car. In the Saturday Night Live sketch, John’s testimony is interrupted when Tonya Harding suddenly runs into the courtroom and begins beating his crotch with a nightstick. The sketch cuts away to a reporter, who announces, “Court TV’s coverage of the Lorena Bobbitt malicious wounding trial will continue after our coverage of the trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez, who have changed their plea and now claim that their parents were savagely beaten by figure skater Tonya Harding.”
The Menendez trial was another media fixation of the early ‘90s, and another crime that hinged on what legal analysts were then, somewhat wearily, calling “the abuse excuse.” In this case, brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez claimed that they had murdered their affluent parents, José and Kitty, not because they were impatient to get their hands on their inheritances—as the media would later imply—but because their parents had abused them.
The Menendez brothers’ allegations were the kind the media often calls “horrifying, if true”—i.e., it would be awful to contemplate, if it did happen, but it probably didn’t, so luckily we don’t have to. By knitting together the Menendez and Bobbitt trials and the brewing Tonya Harding scandal, Saturday Night Live and the other media outlets who saw these stories as cut from the same cloth—people are violent, people are greedy, people are crazy, so it goes—let American viewers off the hook in an irresistibly simple way. If one abuse claim was laughable then they all were; if people seemed to be committing lurid and disturbing crimes in droves, it was not because something was rotten in Denmark, but because those people were nuts.
If you know about the story of John and Lorena Bobbitt, then you might also know about the exhaustive search and rescue mission that followed Lorena’s “malicious wounding” of John, and led to the victorious retrieval and reattachment of John’s penis. You may even know one of the limericks that proliferated in the crime’s aftermath (my favorite: “A surgeon was filled with great tension/ Trying to sew on a thing we can’t mention/ He stitched and he sewed/ Used all the skills that he knowed/ But the wee thing won’t stand at attention”). What you might not know is just how horrifying Lorena Bobbitt’s allegations of abuse were: of the beatings and rape she had endured at her husband’s hands, and of the utter helplessness she felt at the moment of the crime. The public came to know everything about the Lorena Bobbitt “scandal” except for who Lorena Bobbitt was and how much she had suffered. The question onlookers asked was what kind of woman could commit such a crime; what no one bothered wondering was what kind of abuse could have driven her to it.
As with Tonya Harding, this had nothing to do with such information being unavailable, and everything to do with it being far more comforting for viewers to believe that Lorena Bobbitt had severed her husband’s penis not because she was an abused woman, but a crazy bitch.
So Lorena Bobbitt became a crazy bitch, as did Tonya Harding—and so the private sex tape sold to the media by the man who had abused her became yet another way to shame the skater. An abused woman deserved to be treated with care, but a shameless, attention-guzzling, power-hungry bimbo certainly didn’t. The crush of insults and indignities that Tonya felt settling on her shoulders as she took the ice for her free skate at the 1994 Olympics, and as the world watched and waited for her to fail, became yet another way for the public to see just what would be enough to destroy her shamelessness, what would be enough to make the crazy bitch break. What did not occur to anyone was that she was already broken.
Today, we can find Tonya Harding’s sisters in alleged shamelessness not in the supermarket tabloids and newsmagazine shows that made her story a national obsession, but in viral videos and memes. Usually, these are the kinds of stories that allow us to blissfully cringe at another “bad girl’s” exploits. Search for “Florida Woman” and you’ll see what I mean. There’s the story of the Florida woman arrested after riding a motorized cart through Walmart while eating chicken and drinking wine, the Florida woman who rampaged through a McDonald’s then “pause[d] to guzzle ice cream,” the Florida woman who whipped out a gun during a “crazy road rage fight.” The “road rage fight” is a new story, but we now know that the woman arrested in Walmart was on meth at the time, and that the woman in McDonald’s was undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder, and had almost no memory of her actions. In these headlines, a woman acting “shamelessly” is usually synonym for a woman going through something deeply painful. (These headlines also seem like evidence that the state of Florida is having a pretty bad time as well, but that’s another story.)
In “Your Friends and Rapists,” her searing 2013 article about date rape, “dick culture,” and being the only girl in the room, Sarah Nicole Prickett tells the reader:
I started writing this essay one night after I read a thing on Gawker that some cool guys I know thought was funny. The thing was: A woman had mistaken a hamburger for her sandal while getting out of a Dodge pickup truck in which she’d been seen having sex outside a Waffle House in Loganville, Georgia. Sure, except—the woman had stepped on the hamburger after being told several times by the cops to get dressed, and she had to be told all those times because she “simply sat in the passenger’s seat,” not responding. The man, meanwhile, “immediately put his pants on.”
According to the police report, the man blew a .154 on the breathalyzer; the woman blew a .216. So on Twitter I said two things: First, does anybody think maybe this woman was raped? And second, the Gawker post seems like a joke at the expense of the lower class.
Prickett didn’t get much of an answer, but her questions speak for themselves, as does what she describes as “the feeling that for every rape joke there is an even worse joke in which nobody even sees rape.”
America’s brief and blistering fixation with Tonya Harding was exactly this kind of joke. It was a story about a woman who had endured violent and devastating abuse as well as attempted rape—and this was just the part of her story that the public already knew about. More would emerge later, if anyone cared to pay attention, in Tonya’s memoir, The Tonya Tapes, which was released to almost zero fanfare in 2008. But in 1994, the public already had the information it needed to understand that Tonya Harding was not a manipulative vixen, but a vulnerable young woman running a public gauntlet that somehow conspired to be even crueler than the difficult life she had already survived.
Believing in the strong, shameless Tonya—the harpy, the mastermind, the “white trash” bimbo—was easy for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost, I think, because it absolved viewers from seeing Tonya’s as a story in which a young woman was victimized again and again, and never found any kind of safety or stability, no matter how hard she searched for it. Even if you believe that Tonya knew in advance about the hit on Nancy, or even called for its execution, it’s hard, given the context of her life to that point, to see such a decision as anything other than the desperate action of a confused young woman trying desperately to stay in the good graces of a sport that had always been the only thing that made her feel valuable, made her feel wanted, and perhaps even made her feel loved. Seeing Tonya as a victim would have meant seeing that someone should have helped her, and wondering why no one did. It was far easier to see her as a vicious mastermind—and so we did.
The women whose stories we are reconsidering now—Marcia Clark, Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, and others still on the horizon—have one thing in common: they indicted America. Of course we pushed them away. Marcia Clark’s role in The People v. O.J. Simpson reminded us that a national soap opera the public watched with popcorn in hand was actually about a forgotten woman’s private pain and horrific death—and about the system that had been unable or unwilling to help her. Tonya Harding showed us the results of abuse and poverty, and the dark side of a sport that was supposed to be about pretty princesses, but was fueled by sacrifice and pain. Monica Lewinsky exposed a powerful man’s weakness and immorality. So did Anita Hill. (Are you sensing a trend?) All these women confronted us with truths we did not want to consider, and so we terrorized them, mocked them, abused them, and rendered them finally voiceless. That was how terrified we were of listening to what they had to say.
The “scandals” we have yet to revisit—and whose stories we have yet to listen to—are legion. Looking at stories from about the same period as Marcia and Anita and Monica and Tonya’s, the names Jessica Hahn, Tawana Brawley, Patricia Bowman, Robin Givens, Desiree Washington, Amy Fisher, Paula Jones, and Anna Nicole Smith all come to mind. And there are many, many more where those came from. But as we reexamine these stories, the most crucial lesson we can learn will apply not to our shared history, but to our shared future. If we pay enough attention—not just to these women, but to our own snap responses to their stories, the ones that turned their tragedies to “scandals” and still tempt us to ignore the inconvenient truths those tragedies expose—we can learn how to act differently in the future. When the next woman comes along with a story that we do not want to hear, we will know how to listen to her.
Sarah Marshall’s writing on scandal, horror, and American law has appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She also co-hosts The Feelings Club, a podcast about the secret life of emotions.