Re-examining Monica, Marcia, Tonya and Anita, the ‘scandalous’ women of the ’90s


“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.”

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