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‘Lorena’ — Revisiting the Bobbitts in the #MeToo Movement

Joshua Rofe and Jordan Peele take a deeper look at sensationalized storytelling in their new docuseries

<p>In a moment emblematic of respect for abuse victims, the docuseries shows the National Domestic Violence Hotline, bold in simple white on a black background. &nbsp;</p>

In a moment emblematic of respect for abuse victims, the docuseries shows the National Domestic Violence Hotline, bold in simple white on a black background.  

On June 23, 1993 in Manassas, Va., Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis and the world quite simply lost its mind. Almost 26 years later, Jordan Peele produced “Lorena,” a documentary series which originally aired at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 29 and was later made available on Amazon Prime on Feb. 15. The four-part documentary starts out with a scene as startling as it is harmless — Steve Harvey laughing during an interview with Lorena Bobbitt. “What made you take it though?” said Harvey. “I mean, you cut it off. Why you leave with it? … Now we got to go find it. We’re out here, it got grass on it.” 

“It did,” Bobbitt said. Then, she laughed.  

This opening scene immediately tackles one of the largest sources of tension in the series. The fact is, the idea of a wife cutting off her husband’s penis when he goes a step too far is funny, in a terrible kind of way — it’s funny to comedians, to Lorena Bobbitt, to John Bobbitt, to their friends, their doctors and to the media at large. Director Joshua Rofé does not shy away from this morbid humor or the unease it creates in its viewers. The documentary is constantly aware of how easy it is to make a joke about the act itself and rather than further sensationalizing the history of Lorena’s abuse to make another penis joke — as summarizes the majority of coverage in the 90s regarding this topic — the series seeks to complicate that tendency.

Both sides are fairly represented in the production — the first and second episodes focus primarily on John and portrays his perspective as a victim of both physical assault and bodily harm at the hands of his wife. It is not until later that his insistence of his own innocence is paired with images and corroborated accounts of Lorena’s long history of marital rape and abuse. The effect is a well-rounded story whose intent is a true portrayal of every aspect of the two criminal cases involving the Bobbitts, rather than a simpler re-hashing of Lorena’s trial. 

Integral to that more comprehensive portrayal is the broader societal implications of the two cases. At the heart of the documentary — as was at the heart of the original coverage in 1993 — is a disconnect between how men and women interpreted Lorena’s actions. Debra Parrish, a nurse from John’s reattachment operation, described that the deciding factor in whether someone thought Lorena was in the wrong was their gender.

“Being a woman it wasn’t as big a deal for us, you know, we were thinking ‘god, you know, what did he do to make her, you know, do something like that?’” Parrish said. In contrast, many of the men interviewed seemed visibly shaken by the act itself, even more so than the history of rape that produced such action. This “battle of the sexes” is further highlighted by Melissa Jeltsen, a journalist from The Huffington Post. 

“Every man was imagining what would this be like if this happened to me,” said Jeltsen. “Every woman was wondering what it would take to do something like that, and for many of them they knew.” 

The media’s portrayal of the Bobbitt controversy was problematic in that it focused primarily on the act and its humor rather than focusing on what women “knew” would justify Lorena’s action — a long history of marital abuse and a lack of response by the state law enforcement that was supposed to protect her.

The media landscape in the 1990s was facing monumental structural changes, with greater emphasis on tabloid-style stories that grabbed attention rather than complicated issues of national merit. The result is that while the Bobbitt case was groundbreaking in that it introduced several new media norms — cases involving sexual assault for the first time published names of those involved, the word “penis” was actually available in print, etc. — it was thoroughly conventional in its lack of conversation about domestic abuse and the need for legislative change.

Kim Gandy, the CEO and president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, argues this same point in the series. Lorena’s case had the potential to open up the doors for a national conversation about spousal abuse, but the media’s sensationalized coverage of the act itself redirected the conversation to less serious matters.

“In some ways, I think that Lorena was a symbol for what other battered women were going through,” Gandy said. “But it was really hard to get to that point because there was so little coverage of her actual abuse and so much coverage of how she made sure that he wouldn’t do it again.” 

This avoidance of a national discourse on what exactly Lorena went through is what makes the Bobbitt cases so tragic. It’s the discussion of her abuse and its implications for Virginia marital rape laws that makes “Lorena” such a poignant and salient documentary in the midst of the #MeToo era. At the time of the trials, an individual could only be charged with marital rape if they caused significant bodily harm and if the spouses were separated and living apart. Thus, it was nearly impossible for John to be charged with marital sex abuse, and he ended up being charged with malicious sexual assault, a lesser crime. Now, Virginia law defines rape as “sexual intercourse with a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse.” 

This is not a simple docuseries, not a concrete vilification of John or a tabloid-style recounting of Lorena’s crime and trial. This is a complicated and confusing story to tell, and the documentary doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers — but it does elevate the lives of John and Lorena so that their stories are more than a punchline. And perhaps most importantly, it does not gloss over the issue at the heart of Lorena’s story, for once focusing not on what she did, but why she did it. The moment that is most emblematic of this respect for abuse victims comes at the very end, when the National Domestic Violence Hotline appears boldly in simple white on a black background. 1-800-799-SAFE.