In many ways, it's almost inevitable that Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers, which premiered last night on NBC, will be compared to last year's FX hit, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.
In fact, I'm pretty sure that comparison is what Dick Wolfe was banking on when he pitched the spinoff of his popular L&O franchise. It makes sense: both murders took place within five years of each other in Los Angeles; both trials, which actually ran almost simultaneously, were heavily covered by the media, capturing a burgeoning true crime TV frenzy; and both involved ambitious, curly-haired female lawyers.
It's easy to understand the appeal of comparing Leslie Abramson — who defended Erik Menendez on the charge that he and his brother Lyle murdered their parents, Kitty and Jose, on August 20, 1989 — and Marcia Clark, responsible for prosecuting O.J. Simpson for the alleged murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Clark, as was emphasized in the FX drama, was subjected to humiliating debates about her appearance, with talk shows scrutinizing her clothes and her haircut ("CURLS OF HORROR"). Her private life was dissected for entertainment, and her job performance aired out to dry in the heat of public opinion. She was called "hysterical" by defense attorney Johnny Cochran in the courtroom, and was labeled shrill when she tried to defend herself. She simply could not catch a break. In a final act of degradation, topless pictures of her were leaked to the National Enquirer.
What's more, all of this was done with a derisive familiar tone, as if the men in the courtroom commanded a different level of respect. "It is ‘F. Lee Bailey’ and ‘Johnny Cochran’ and ‘Robert Shapiro,’ But for the state’s lead lawyer, it is ‘Marcia,’” Susan Reimer pointed out in The Baltimore Sun in 1995. “As in: ‘Did you see Marcia’s hair is different?’”
As Abramson, Edie Falco follows in the footsteps of Sarah Paulson in portraying a woman wronged by her time, subjected to early 1990s sexism as she tried to forge a successful career. She was called "strident" and abrasive," both code words that our society uses to describe women who don't speak at a demure whisper, who dare to stand up and demand to be heard. And yes, she also got comments about her hair, which was described as a "frizzy yellow mess" by The Washington Post in 1996.
Neither of the two emerged from their respective trials unscathed. Clark, embarassed by such a monumental and public failure to get a conviction, resigned from the District Attorney's office and gave up trial law. Abramson, on the other hand, spent the next three years fighting an inquiry into accusations that she had interfered with evidence.
But we should resist the urge to compare these two women. First, because they are not the same: Clark was a prosecutor; Abramson was a defense attorney. Clark struggled as a single mother; Abramson was, and still is, married to Los Angeles Times reporter Tim Rutten. Clarke retired from a career in law, while Abramson, once cleared of wrongdoing, went on to defend Phil Spector, who was charged with the fatal shooting of actress Lana Clarkson.
But the real reason we should refrain from comparing these women is because to do so is to reinforce the system which made life so difficult for them in the first place. And they both deserve so much better than that.