Until “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, the sociopolitical context of the O.J. trial depicted in American Crime Story had mostly concerned racial issues, and rightfully so. Instances of potential jurors describing Marcia as a “bitch” and Nicole as a “gold digger” reminded us that issues of gender can never be avoided; but, thanks to the background of the Rodney King riots, Mark Fuhrman’s past behavior and Johnnie Cochran’s insistence on the role of race in the case, racism had taken center. But from the opening close-up on Marcia’s face, and the zoom out which follows, it’s clear that “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” takes gender as its primary focus.
She’s trying to get more child support from her ex-husband, Gordon, whose lawyer argues that he shouldn’t have to pay her when she’ll only pass the money on to babysitters. The implication, of course, is that she only should get child support if she cuts down her working hours to spend more time with the children, thereby arguing that she should be a mother first and a lawyer second. Regardless of the intentions of Gordon and his lawyer, they suggest that women like Marcia have no role in the workplace when their real obligations lie elsewhere. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” succeeds in part due to its willingness to explore sexism in a variety of forms and contexts, and the opener introduces one of the toxic forces restricting Marcia due to her gender.
Johnnie, meanwhile, couldn’t be less concerned with any structural discrimination she faces. He’s too busy trying to prove that Mark plants the evidence, and that the other white detectives had to have been influenced by racism in order to even suspect O.J. in the first place. Johnnie knows that the untrustworthiness of the cops very well may have nothing to do with whether or not his client committed murder, but he’s too concerned with “the story” to care about its actual implications for O.J.’s guilt. The trial goes far beyond the question of who killed Nicole and Ron, as Johnnie knows, and he aims to use the not-so-sublimated subtext as much as he can.
Of course, Johnnie can sometimes be too eager, and he reveals his own blindspots in the process. His willingness to use a racial epithet against Chris in “The Race Card” calls attention to his hypocrisy, and his mockery of Marcia’s “further child care crisis” only reveals his inner contradictions more. He’s happy to use women when he thinks they’ll help “Mister Johnnie,” as he does in calling housekeeper Rosa Lopez to the stand. Yet when it comes to the treatment of his ex-wife, Johnnie only cares about bribing her to keep her from drawing attention to allegations of domestic violence against him.
But enough about Johnnie Cochran. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” more than earns its title, as the episode is a powerful look into the titular character’s hardships. Sarah Paulson has been outstanding all season, but her character’s righteous convictions and underlying sadness have never come through stronger. The wide-ranging emotional spectrum of Marcia’s frustrations is on display in the scene with Gil, as she angrily describes Judge Ito as a “media whore,” then gets mansplained over her fixation with the media’s representation of the case. Even though Gil expresses sympathy for her plight, he doesn’t care enough to keep from suggesting her seeking a “media consultant” and framing it as part of her responsibility to her job.
As much oppression as Marcia faces, she’s far from a helpless punching bag for misogyny, and “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” feels particularly well-rounded due to its willingness to depict her struggles as well as her happiness. In spite of the horror of her nude photos being leaked and period jokes from grocery store clerks, she still takes joy in her son’s hugs. Even in a series as packed with star power, showy filmmaking and shocking images as American Crime Story, her late-night dance with Christopher manages to be among the most memorable and moving images of the season to date. Despite the despicable rebuke of Marcia’s “Rick James” haircut, she’s too happy with her own satisfaction with it and Chris’s approval to be too concerned with others’ hatred.
As tempting as it’d be to focus solely on the sexism in the trial, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” ultimately works best as an episode due to its unwillingness to forget about race. Powerful forces like racism and misogyny are omnipresent, and the show makes sure we remember that when Lee shouts the N-word repeatedly. It’s an ugly moment, but one which only uses its ugliness to register the emotional violence of what’s being shown. The O.J. trial highlighted hideous and despicable sentiments amongst Americans at the time, and no small part of American Crime Story’s success comes from its refusal to back down from any of them.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.