Behind the Bobbitt, we review THAT Lorena documentary
I knew of the Lorena Bobbitt story because it made it to South Africa’s magazines. It’s been 25 years since it happened, but I remember an article. I’m fairly sure it was in YOU magazine because I recall the tone: scandalous and gore-loving, classic 90s-YOU.
Basically, the story went: a crazy American woman chopped off her sleeping husband’s penis with a kitchen knife, tossed it out of her car window, and then claimed insanity.
This type of discussion of the case was by no means unique to YOU: everyone from Robin Williams to CNN to Saturday Night Live to Newsweek to Whoopi Goldberg covered Lorena Bobbitt.
The story of the woman who attacked her husband was not just news, it was entertainment, a show that had millions of viewers across the United States and the world entranced.
Lorena on Amazon Prime, directed by Joshua Rofé and produced by Jordan Peele, reexamines the Bobbitt debacle, the media circus surrounding it, and its after-effects. The docuseries consists of four hour-long episodes, composed of current-day interviews with Lorena Gallo, John Wayne Bobbitt and others, and archival court and TV footage.
The story seems to start on a summer’s night in 1993, in Manassas, Virginia, when the young, Hispanic Lorena Bobbitt amputates her sleeping husband’s penis. It is kind of funny in the beginning.
The police, giggling about how they struggled to convey over the radio what had happened because nobody said the word “penis” in the early 90s.
The story of how the fire brigade found “the organ” in the roadside vegetation and delivered it to the hospital in a styrofoam takeaway container.
The urologist, hyuk-hyukking about how, if they hadn’t been able to reattach the penis, John Wayne would have spent the rest of his life sitting down to pee, “like a woman!” – apparently the most humiliating fate of all.
Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy abuses girl
Of course, the story does not really start here, with the severed penis, and it’s not really funny (even though to this day Lorena is still the subject of comedy routines on shows such as Steve Harvey’s).
Rather, it starts a few years earlier when the Catholic, virginal Lorena marries handsome marine John Wayne. He then proceeds to spend the next few years beating her up, verbally abusing her, raping her, threatening to have her deported, and to kill her if she tries to leave him, until one night she picks up a kitchen knife and puts an end to the marriage.
The young Bobbitts were ordinary people, made extraordinary because of what they did to each other, and then what the media did to them.
They were pretty simple kids – both of them beautiful, but not worldly – and soon after the events of that night unfold they are sucked into the vortex of media managers and talk shows.
Lorena does an interview with Vanity Fair, whose photographer instantly convinces her to do a saucy swimwear shoot. John appears on a New Year’s Eve Howard Stern special, where Phone-A-Thon raises funds for him while a giant penis dial indicates how much money is coming in.
The media frenzy continues as the Bobbitts begin their two court cases (John stands accused of marital rape, and Lorena stands accused of grievous bodily harm), and as the testimony unfolds, the world argues: was Lorena a crazy, jealous, hot-blooded Latina, or did John have it coming?
The story draws lines straight from Lorena to thousands of other women. Firstly, to those other shamed women of the 90s, who the press so loved to gawk at.
The big trials of the 90s
“Skategate” breaks towards the end of Lorena’s trial, and we see shots of Tonya Harding – another allegedly battered woman – standing accused of breaking Nancy Kerrigan’s legs. We see a clip of Bill Clinton shaking hands on an arms deal that gets completely overshadowed by Bobbitt-mania, but we think, “Ah, Bill will be back soon: Monica Lewinsky is coming.” We hear Lorena talking about the press chasing her in a car as she leaves the court, and we think of Diana Spencer, who was also alternately worshipped and demonised. We draw lines to the women on our own doorstep.
As Lorena hyperventilated and cried on the witness stand, describing being anally raped, I thought of Fezekile Kuzwayo, forced to describe all of her sexual encounters in detail, at Jacob Zuma’s rape trial.
The final episode of the series looks at the aftermath of the trial. John remains a terrible, mixed-up person. He makes a bestselling porn movie but never sees any of the profits. He manages to get his own penis mangled even further in a botched attempt at an enlargement procedure. He gets a job as a kind of host at a brothel from which he is fired repeatedly, and whose owner describes him as a “complete asshole”.
He is arrested again numerous times for battery and is in and out of jail, and even in the recent interviews, he lays the blame for all of this at the feet of jealous women who are just after him for a green card.
Questions of sanity
He still sends Lorena endless love letters and dreams about getting back together with her. It’s ironic because Lorena was found not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity, but when we see the huge pile of letters John has sent her over the years we must ask ourselves if he ever was or ever will be sane.
Lorena goes on to settle down. She marries a nice guy, she has a baby, and she now seems happy and fulfilled. She seems to have made advocacy for abused women much of her life’s work, and really, she is a symbol for so many. Perhaps some of the most touching interviews in the series are with those who describe how Lorena’s experienced reminded them of their own. Men who saw their own mothers battered, women who were battered themselves, witnesses who wondered if they could have done more.
Nothing has changed since the Bobbitt incident
A major focus of this series is this problem that never goes away, this problem of men who assault women. Several activists for abused women speak on the show, and they are depressed and frustrated. Despite significant publicity and education and media coverage and even legislation, nothing much has changed for vulnerable women between the early 90s and now. There are waves of noise and attention, sure, and perhaps the media is finally more ready to look at women who speak up through a lens that takes them seriously, and not one that views them solely as tabloid fodder.
But really, how much has changed, and how much is lip service?
The documentary shows footage of women marching in support of the Violence Against Women Act in the early 90s, and the footage is similar to that of the Women’s March against Donald Trump in 2017. We see the Violence Against Women Act being signed by Bill Clinton, a man who may not have punched women, but hurt them in other ways.
John Wayne Bobbitt chokes up as he describes the abuse he witnessed and suffered as a child, and we know that we still aren’t adequately able to protect children from the cycle of violence that will perpetuate itself as they become adults.
We see archival footage of women crying and bleeding, their faces puffy and bruised, and we know that to this day, women are more likely to be killed by their intimate partner than anyone else, and that the time when they are most in danger is when they are trying to leave.
Lorena is not an easy series to watch, but it’s an important one.