When Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis in 1993, the incident turned into a worldwide punch line.
The Late Show With David Letterman made top-ten lists about it. Andrew Dice Clay, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg built stand-up routines around it. On Saturday Night Live, Adam Sandler’s Opera Man sang a song about it featuring the lyrics, “¿Dónde es el shlongo?”
But the story of the Bobbitts is not a laughing matter. It is and was a complicated, very public saga involving domestic abuse, gender politics, ethnic stereotypes, the lure of fame and money, and the rise of sensational journalism. Lorena, a new Amazon docuseries directed by Joshua Rofé and executive produced by Jordan Peele, dives into the story from all of those perspectives, reminding us how Americans initially responded to it and the degree to which a patriarchal culture framed the conversation around it.
If you were alive and cognizant of current events in the early 1990s, then the basics of what happened between the Bobbitts — which are recounted in the first of Lorena’s four, roughly hour-long episodes — are still seared into your brain. Nevertheless, to recap: On June 23, 1993, in the apartment that the Bobbitts shared in Manassas, Virginia, Lorena got out of bed, went to the kitchen for a glass of water, returned to the bedroom with a knife, and sliced off her husband’s penis. She then left the apartment, knife and penis still in hand, and drove away, eventually tossing the severed body part out of her car window into a field, and later throwing the knife into a trash can near the nail salon where she worked.
With some guidance from Lorena, who called 9-1-1, police were able to retrieve the penis and surgeons successfully reattached it to John. In the aftermath of the event, Lorena said she did what she did after suffering from long-term emotional and physical abuse from her husband, who she said raped her that night and on more than one occasion. John countered that he had never abused his wife, and that she had snapped on that June night because she was upset that he wanted a divorce.
Both Bobbitts went on trial in the months that followed, he for marital sexual assault and she for malicious wounding. The docuseries covers both of those trials, but the latter — which turned into a five-ring media circus that turned into must-see, pre-O.J. Simpson Court TV — gets the bulk of the attention, along with the aftermath of the trials and the implications of seeing both Bobbitts become national symbols of the disproportionate power dynamic between men and women.
Rofé relies on recent interviews with key figures — both of the Bobbitts, their attorneys, jurors, and journalists — as well as extensive media footage from the 1990s to paint this multifaceted picture. It’s not surprising that so much of the public response at the time focused on the horror of a man losing his penis. But it’s still jarring to go back and look at moments like John Wayne Bobbitt’s appearance on The Jenny Jones Show, where he was accompanied by his two brothers. “If I would have seen her, I would have killed her,” Todd Biro, John’s brother, says of Lorena, adding, “She took away the thing that means the most to a man.” The ferocity with which some men in the Jenny Jones audience begin to applaud at the mere mention of murdering Lorena has a real “lock her up” vibe to it. And if that sounds like a stretch, I’ll just note that in part four, when the docuseries shows us more of John’s current life in Las Vegas, it includes a clear shot of the vanity license plate on his car: DJTRUMP.
It’s equally maddening to be reminded of the role Howard Stern played in elevating the male Bobbitt into a hero of sorts, by regularly hosting him on his radio show and also raising $190,000 for him during a New Year’s Eve telethon featuring a huge, rising penis that marked the number of donations. While Lorena Bobbitt’s trial was in progress, John appeared on Stern’s radio show and listened, along with the audience, as the shock jock said, “I don’t even buy the whole story that he was raping her. She’s not that great looking.”
Bobbitt contended that he never did rape or assault his wife, and still contends that. During Lorena’s trial, he says during cross-examination that he never hit her, but sometimes pushed or restrained her to prevent her from hitting him. “I told her it’s not ladylike to strike out,” he says. If the dictionary wants a photo of a man to place next to its definition of toxic American masculinity, there are a lot of options out there. But John Wayne Bobbitt ranks pretty high.
Lorena makes it clear that men weren’t the only ones reacting to this story with great vengeance and furious anger. A lot of women believed Lorena’s assertions that she was pushed to the brink by her husband, and they didn’t buy into the narrative, perpetuated by some media outlets, that the Ecuadorian native was simply a “Latina hothead” who went crazy over the prospect of losing her spouse. “It was almost shocking, the degree to which women were excited,” says journalist Kim Masters, who wrote about and interviewed Lorena Bobbitt for Vanity Fair.
Or, as Whoopi Goldberg puts it in her stand-up act, “It’s 1994 and shit is hitting the fan. Women are pissed!”
A lot of women were pissed, and they saw Lorena Bobbitt as the face of so many abused women who aren’t believed or taken seriously. In ways both direct and indirect, the docuseries cannily demonstrates that, despite all the shit that hit the fan in 1994 and the remainder of the 1990s, things haven’t changed all that much. A few moments after that Goldberg clip, Rofé includes another of The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt explaining to Charlie Rose (!) that women have been abused for centuries and that “the tables are turned a little bit.” Rose, whose record of sexual harassment wouldn’t become public knowledge for another two-plus decades, doesn’t look the least bit concerned while listening to Pollitt speak.
While Lorena recounts much of this story objectively, there’s no question that it skews toward depicting Lorena Bobbitt as the hero. Looking back at the evidence from her trial, not to mention the track record John Wayne Bobbitt established for himself after the court cases were all over — in addition to exploiting his notoriety by appearing in porno movies, he was charged with assaulting and harassing other women — Lorena, who now lives in Northern Virginia with her long-term partner and daughter, hardly seems like the unstable one. The series doesn’t totally go easy on her, though, nor does it sidestep the reasons why John may have turned out the way he did. In the last episode, he discusses the abuse experienced by his mother and by himself as a young boy, which doesn’t excuse his own behavior, but provides some relevant context into what may have shaped him into the man he became.
Lorena does overlook some less flattering details about its namesake protagonist, like a 1997 assault charge she faced after hitting her mother (she was later acquitted), and the fact that she and John appeared together on The Insider in 2009. The end of the docuseries implies that John has repeatedly tried to stay in contact with Lorena, mainly because he wants to continue milking their fame for money, something his ex-wife says does not interest her. That may be true in the grand scheme of things, but it’s odd that Lorena neglects to mention that the two actually have been in each other’s presence on national television within the past decade.
When most people think of the Bobbitt case, they think of it as something sordid, a sneak preview of the tabloid journalism that would infiltrate actual journalism in the years to come. To be clear, there is definitely sordid stuff in Lorena, including more than one rather graphic image of John Wayne Bobbitt’s lopped-off penis and the site of the injury itself. But what still makes this story so fascinating is not its shock value nor what it tells us about the two people at its center, but what it says about all of us who shake our heads with incredulity at everything that transpired between this couple because there’s something sadly recognizable in the dysfunctional he-said, she-said nature of their relationship.
In the last episode, called “The Cycle of Abuse,” Kim Gandy, who was the executive vice-president of the National Organization for Women in the 1990s and later became its president, says that the domestic abuse side of the Bobbitt story didn’t get the attention it should have at the time because the news editors shaping the coverage were men. “There are a lot of women reporters that tried to write stories and they would say, ‘I tried to write this and my editor said, Nobody cares about that,’” she recalled.
It’s clear now that people do care about that. But as tempting as it is to say that was then, and this is the #MeToo now, Masters offers this reminder: “There’s progress for feminism, and then there’s this other current moving in the opposite direction. You wonder, are we really making a change, or are we just having a moment and everybody just goes back to how it was before?”
Lorena is compelling not because it’s a well-done look at a wild and notorious true-crime case. It’s compelling because, in a way, watching it involves an examination of our past as well as our present.