The Lorena Bobbitt case encompasses a multitude of issues that are equally relevant today, 26 years later: the tyranny of the 24-hour news cycle; the fear and shame that keep women from reporting abuse; the dangerous allure of instant celebrity; and above it all, our endless, unhealthy appetite for tawdry tabloid scandals — especially when they involve sex and a woman scorned. As one observer notes in Lorena, Amazon’s intriguing but somewhat scattershot docuseries about the infamous severed-penis saga, “They can cut a million clits off in Africa and nobody hears a word — you cut one dick off and the whole f‑‑‑ing country stops.”
It’s a lot of cultural ground to cover — too much, it turns out, for four hourlong episodes. Lorena (premiering Feb. 15 on Amazon) is the latest project to re-evaluate a decades-old flashpoint moment — the O.J. Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky — through the lens of How We Live Now. And though the series, which features new interviews with both Bobbitts, offers some fresh insight into our changing views on domestic violence, it’s too often sidetracked by the sheer spectacle of “the incident” and its aftermath.
In 1993, 24-year-old Lorena Bobbitt — traumatized by years of alleged rape and abuse from her then-husband, John Wayne Bobbitt — took a knife from the kitchen and sliced off his organ as he slept. What followed became an all-consuming national obsession: Dueling trials — his for marital sexual assault, hers for malicious wounding — left the Bobbitts’ small town overrun with media trucks and souvenir hucksters. (Ten bucks for a T-shirt reading “Manassas, VA — a cut above the rest!”)
As the premiere episode of Lorena wisely reminds us, the early 1990s were not a peak era for believing women’s accusations: Ask Anita Hill, or the woman who filed rape charges against William Kennedy Smith, or the 83 female officers who were sexually assaulted at the Tailhook convention. “We were just used to nothing happening,” says Kim Gandy of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. That context is key to understanding how easy it was at the time for the media, the Virginia legal system, and ultimately the jurors in John’s case to focus on what Lorena did, as opposed to why she did it. After getting “sidetracked” by pictures of John’s severed member — and yes, viewer, you too will see these images without warning, several times — one juror in John’s trial admits, “We maybe lost sight of what he truly was on trial for.”
In a statement when Lorena was announced, executive producer Jordan Peele said he wanted to “engage in a critical conversation about gender dynamics [and] abuse” — and the series is at its best when it sticks to this mission. There’s a particularly moving sequence in episode 2 in which we see a montage of women —friends, co-workers, neighbors — testifying at Lorena’s trial about instances they witnessed of John physically and verbally abusing his wife. The Bobbitts’ elderly neighbor Ella Jones recalls giving Lorena informational pamphlets about rape and domestic violence. “I was an abused wife too,” she says matter-of-factly. Flash-forward to the current day, and an interview with Lorena’s former neighbor and friend Diana Fletcher: “Well, women hide stuff. That’s what we do,” she says. “I did for a while with my first [husband]… And I stayed because I thought my son needed a father.” It’s a powerful juxtaposition: a string of women speaking up at a time when silence was the norm, and a survivor today revealing her own past abuse without a hint of shame.
It’s disappointing, then, that Lorena primarily uses its interview with the titular subject to recap the case and its aftermath; at no time do we hear Lorena’s thoughts on why the issue of domestic violence was drowned out by the grotesque publicity circus known as Bobbitt-mania, or how she thinks the incident would have been covered today in the era of #MeToo. And there’s far less time spent on Lorena’s life now — she runs a foundation that helps educate and support survivors of domestic violence — than there is about John’s post-surgery escapades: his multiple appearances on Howard Stern, his failed attempt at a porn career, his botched penis-enlargement surgery, his brushes with the law, and his tumultuous stint as a “celebrity greeter” at the Bunny Ranch brothel in Nevada.
Interviewed today at his home in Las Vegas, John — graying and a little paunchy in his middle age — seems somewhat detached from his chaotic past, though he maintains to this day that he’s not a “violent person.” (After his marriage to Lorena, he served time for domestic battery charges related to his former fiancée, Kristina Elliott.) In the last 15 minutes of the final episode, John offers some surprisingly candid details about his troubled upbringing — details that surely could have provided deeper insight into his role in this domestic drama had they been explored further. As for his ex-wife, she is a woman at peace. Happily remarried, her mass of dark, wavy hair now blond and flat-iron straight, Lorena has transcended her status as the woman who launched a thousand dick jokes. If only the documentary named for her could do the same. B