Strange Justice’s Strange Sexual Politics

Do the makers of Strange Justice, Showtime’s dramatization of a 1994 book about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill episode, have secret Republican envy? The TV movie (which airs this Sunday at 8 p.m.) has already been criticized for its pro-Hill bias, as the book was. Like the book, the movie sides substantially with Hill. The book marshaled mountains of evidence to show that Hill was telling the truth when she said Thomas sexually harassed her and that Thomas was lying when he denied it. The movie leaves out the evidence but contrasts their behavior during the confirmation hearings. Hill is a thoughtful, self-searching, dignified, and reluctant witness. Thomas is a cipher, a man who lets himself be used as a pawn until he erupts in an unconvincing fit of rage before the Senate Confirmation Committee.

A triumph for Democrats and feminists everywhere? Not exactly. Consider the puzzling way the movie depicts the sexual lives of its characters. The anti-hero of the movie is Kenneth Duberstein (Mandy Patinkin), the Machiavellian strategist who shepherded the candidate through the nomination process. A charismatic if not particularly sympathetic man, he gets most of the screen time, along with Thomas (Delroy Lindo). Both he and Thomas spend a lot of time at their respective homes, where they enjoy the fruits of Republican-style marriages. Their wives are sweet, loving, and endlessly supportive. Duberstein’s wife gives him a pep talk in bed when he worries that Anita Hill might derail the nomination. Thomas’ wife cradles him in her arms when he collapses in their bathroom; she calls him a warrior for God. In addition, Duberstein has a beautiful blonde assistant who dutifully tracks poll ratings, digs up dirt on Thomas’ opponents, shakes her head at Hill’s incomprehensible charges, and beams in delight when Thomas is confirmed.

There are two intriguing cracks in this portrait of happy female subservience. During a visit the assistant, her boss, and Thomas make to Vernon Jordan, she is all but sexually harassed by the Democratic power broker–he kisses her as he takes his leave and calls her “sweetheart.” She is blank-faced, and no one says a word. Later, during Hill’s testimony, Mrs. Duberstein calls her husband to tell him that she can’t understand why Hill would have come forward if she weren’t telling the truth. He sighs. Once these moments pass, it is as if they never happened. The women never mention them again, nor do they break ranks with their boss or husband over Hill.

On the other side of the fence are Hill and her supporters, a coven of female law professors and senatorial aides. All of them seem to be single women (some of them may have husbands, but we never see them); all of them dress in power suits. None is shown at home. They congregate in Hill’s hotel room or maneuver behind the scenes of the confirmation hearing. They have neither cheery helpmeets, nor, as Duberstein points out, any idea how to win.

Which would you rather be–a powerful Republican with a lovely, caring spouse or a lonely Democratic loser, a feminist with no life? The writers and producers of Strange Justice seem to have made their preferences unwittingly clear.