When the Bobbitts made headlines in 1993, I was nine years old. My parents shielded me from the scandalous details of he said/she said. Still, it was impossible not to pick up snippets from news reports and comedy specials on which this case was a recurring story and regular punchline. I knew Lorena Bobbitt had dismembered her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis with a kitchen knife and thrown it out her car window. Some said she was crazy, and others said he had it coming. 25 years later, I’m a grown woman who turned to the four-part mini-series Lorena to finally learn the details of this notorious case. And among a jaw-dropping string of shocking reveals, the most alarming is how little has changed. As someone who closely follows gender politics and our cultural conversation about rape culture, I was rattled to my core to see how Lorena’s story speaks to today, from Me Too to Trump’s “locker room talk” to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
Executive produced by Get Out’s Jordan Peele and directed by Joshua Rofé, Lorena begins with the night that grabbed the attention of newscasters, tabloids, talk show hosts, and comics across the country. In Virginia, a 24-year-old woman fled her home after amputating the penis of her sleeping husband. Despite the violence of this crime, it’s still fascinating and funny to us. And Lorena’s first episode leans into this with interviews with police, medical professionals, and reporters who decades later still squirm and titter nervously when saying “penis” or discussing the grisly details of this severing. One cop recalls how his boss refused to touch the organ, because, “he was religious.” An unfazed urologist chuckles while detailing how the cops insisted on wearing rubber gloves to touch it, recounting, “It was ceremoniously carried from a (nearby) 7/11 on ice, in a hot dog baggie of all things!”
Even John makes jokes, some in ’90s talk show appearances where he charms the audience by recalling how his drinking buddy didn’t understand the severity of the situation, and “he went to brush his teeth” before driving him to the hospital. In his interview with Lorena’s makers, John makes a joke that compares his ex-wife to cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and another referencing missing person ads on milk cartons. These punchlines are dated, but he smiles expectingly, assuming they still play. It’s an early sign that John’s narrative has not aged well.
While the mini-series will refer back to comedians and talk show gags to capture how the case was being tried in the court of public opinion, Rofé shrewdly burns through the jocularity and shifts focus to the culture war that was brewing in gender politics. There was Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, the rape trial against William Kennedy Smith, and more news stories of alleged abuses against women where the accused were innocent until proven guilty while the accusers were seen as liars until proved otherwise. Into all this, Lorena Bobbitt stumbled with a 7-inch kitchen knife and a severed penis.
The battle lines were drawn, largely along gender lines. John said she wanted revenge because he leaving her. Lorena said she attacked him after years of abuse and rape at his hands, including the night of this emasculating maiming. Men across America decried her as a “crazy bitch” and a “hot-blooded Latina” who attacked a good guy. Her advocates—including women’s rights groups—argued Lorena was a folk hero who fought back against a merciless abuser who profited from a patriarchy happy to overlook his offenses. It’s a story that’s infuriatingly evergreen. Thankfully, Rofé won’t play into the “both sides deserve equal time” trap. Journalists and activists note how the coverage of this case was alarmingly slanted. By castrating her husband, Lorena Bobbitt had grabbed the world’s attention. But all the media wanted to talk about was that dick. Her harrowing story of abuse garnered nowhere near as many headlines. Now, Lorena aims to reset the scales and make you rethink what you think you know about the Bobbitts. And it explores what their story has to say about the domestic violence epidemic that still plagues our nation.
Episode one moves from that night to John’s trial, in which he faced a charge for “marital rape,” a crime whose specifications are alarmingly narrow and on which the evidence hinged on a pair of panties that were ripped but not ripped convincingly, according to the male juror interviewed. Episode two moves onto the trial against Lorena, which includes a thorough exploration of the abuse she endured from John. Lorena exposes the double standards in the trial’s rules and coverage, noting that John’s was off-limits to TV crews because his alleged crime was of a sexual nature. But Lorena’s—despite being about sexual mutilation—was deemed perfectly acceptable for TV audiences. In fact, it was moved from December to January to assure networks better ratings! The upside to this crass fascination with her trial is that Rofé has archival footage of witness after witness who confirms Lorena’s accounts of abuse. Not only are her female friends and colleagues presented, but also John’s male buddies, then and now. Here the battle against domestic abuse seems less gendered and less hopeless. One of John’s friends explains he testified in support of Lorena because his mother had also been a victim of domestic abuse. Another tears up remembering what he witnessed. To see these macho men display such vulnerability and compassion is soothing after so much John Wayne Bobbitt bravado. Still, you may need to take rage breaks between episodes. I did.
Episode 3 delves into the psychological trauma that Lorena suffered as a result of John’s battery and repeated rapes. Experts, friends, and witnesses weigh in during her trial. Outside of the courtroom, her mental health was threatened by a ravenous news media who stalked her, including Geraldo Rivera who sent her autographed photos, chased her home, and pointed cameras into her windows in an attempt to bully her into an interview. Note: reporters did this knowing full well that Lorena may be a victim of violence and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder! Meanwhile, John became a tabloid star and tawdry sideshow, repeatedly appearing on talk shows and Howard Stern’s radio show. There the shock jock declared he believed John was innocent of Lorena’s rape accusations, because “she’s not that great looking.”
Angry? Episode 4 won’t ease your outrage. There, Lorena dives into what happened to both of the Bobbitts after her trial. And John’s story only gets grosser, involving his short-lived career as a porn star, his petty attempts at regaining the spotlight, and the victims of abuse who came after Lorena. There’s a sneering schadenfreude in seeing how this bad man made his very existence a sick joke through a pornographic biopic and a horrific follow-up that included real footage of an experimental penis enlargement surgery. Then how his hubris led him down a path of financial ruin, public shaming, and prison. Still, it’s sickening to try to stomach his smile and the lies that court documents, photographs, and witness testimony repeatedly refute. But the reason to soldier through the nauseating turns of John’s story is to understand the full magnitude of Lorena’s.
Lorena is much more than a story of a domestic dispute turned tabloid sensation. It is an inspirational story of a remarkable survivor. Lorena was an immigrant who faced down her abusive husband, a broken justice system, and a news media that gleefully spun out sexist and racist headlines that painted her as a hysterical and hot-tempered psycho-bitch. But Lorena came out the other side and not only thrived but also dedicated herself speaking out to help other victims of abuse. That’s the final focus of Lorena, because the battle of the sexes rages on when we discuss toxic masculinity, sexual misconduct, and domestic violence, which has become a notorious precursor crime for mass shooters.
This 4-episode miniseries doesn’t allow you the gleeful schadenfreude of FYRE or Fyre Fraud. And it won’t be nearly as shocking beat for beat as Abducted in Plain Sight. Nonetheless, Lorena is essential infuriating viewing. It thoughtfully unfurls the long-ignored narrative that sat at the core of this national sensation. And through this, the doc aims to reassert the domestic violence conversation that keeps getting shoved aside by flashier headlines and conservative politicians. It aims to make you mad, and it needs to, because for too long we’ve been complacent to look the other way from the bruises, cries, and abuses. And for too long, we’ve treated Lorena Bobbitt as a punchline.
Lorena launches on Amazon Prime Video on February 15.
Header Image Source: Amazon Prime Video