In 1995, O.J. Simpson case lead prosecutor Marcia Clark was fighting a battle against anger. Not the one roiling outside the courtroom, where years of police brutality turned the trial into a referendum on race.
The one inside the courtroom where Clark’s performance was increasingly judged as over-emotional.
“Clark seems made of adrenaline,”wrote the Washington Post during the trial. “Her hands are frantic. She hits the lectern more than anyone else… She objects at times when sitting back might look more generous. Her face betrays every vibration of anger or frustration.” These are all mistakes that, according to the article, Simpson defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran would never make.
“Back then I was portrayed by the press as this cartoon storming into court with steam coming out of my ears,” says Clark, now a criminal trial lawyer and best-selling author. “If I raised my voice, they would say I was being shrill and hysterical. It’s a courtroom. It’s war. What was I supposed to do, whisper and curtsy?”
So no one was more surprised than Clark when a television miniseries based on the trial portrayed her as competent, compassionate and even likable.
If I raised my voice, they would say I was being shrill and hysterical. It’s a courtroom. It’s war. What was I supposed to do, whisper and curtsy?
“I was shocked,” says Clark of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” “Initially I was miserable when I heard they were making the miniseries. But it turned out that they got a lot of the really big issues right, and they were sympathetic – or as I like to say, realistic – about the all the sexism. It blew my mind.”
More important, the show became a key part of a powerful wave of original series, talk shows and made-for-TV films in which a woman’s anger is portrayed as reasonable, warranted and central to the story line.
For years, television shied away from any depiction of female anger that wasn’t a victim’s rage or simple hysteria. And as anger is at the core of nearly every powerful drama, female lead roles were hard to come by.
Aided by social media, however, a new generation of women have no qualms about expressing their anger — over rape on campus, domestic violence, police brutality, even the sexist attacks against the female cast of the new “Ghostbusters.”
Now, as Steinem says, society is listening to the reason for the anger rather than judging the tone, and that shift is reflected on television. Where women were once forced to control their emotions until they could find a BFF to unload on or, more commonly, a safe place to cry, female characters such as Sarah Lancashire’s detective in “Happy Valley” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character in “Veep” regularly unleash rage, righteous and otherwise.
On Netflix, “Jessica Jones” has a superpower often triggered by her anger, and the first season pushed her to accept both as a part of her own valuable self.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has recently become a pride of angry women; the Mother of Dragons is literally flaming anyone who thinks a woman cannot be queen.
“When any group is truly treated with great injustice, then their anger is feared because they have something to be angry at,” says Steinem. “The angry woman -- she definitely has something to be angry at.”
Clark is not the only female lawyer whom television recently reinterpreted; Anita Hill, a law professor once discredited for testifying against then Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, has made a comeback as a fearless example of truth and conviction in HBO’s “Confirmation” starring Kerry Washington.
Narrow definitions are also being challenged by the wonderfully flawed and messy characters in critically acclaimed series such as HBO’s recently canceled “Getting On” and Netflix comedy “Orange Is the New Black.”
Uzo Aduba, who plays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on “Orange Is the New Black” had one of the most complex, anger-motivated scenes of any major character on TV this year, but for the actress, provoking conversation is the whole point.
“Whatever [viewers] thought of a woman expressing herself before, they now have to rethink that,” she says. “What [show creator] Jenji [Kohan] does in the writing is give us the space, which I think is what’s been absent for so long in roles for women.”
No one is more determined to tear down the angry-equals-mad-equals-crazy stereotype than Samantha Bee. In a late night talk show landscape dominated by men, the host of TBS’ “Full Frontal” regularly chooses “tone it up” over “tone it down.”
Following the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Bee rejected the traditional role of a calming influence.
“After a massacre,” she said matter of factly on her show, “the standard operating procedure is that you stand on stage and deliver some well-meaning words about how we will get through this together. How love wins, how love conquers hate. And that is great, that is beautiful. But you know what? I am too angry for that… Is it OK if instead of making jokes I just scream for seven minutes?”
As the endless retweets and commentary proved, it was more than OK. It was a scream that spoke for millions.