Some cultural events seep into the public consciousness, even if the vast majority of people didn’t experience the situation as it happened. Thanks to television and documentaries, I know quite a bit about the OJ Simpson case, yet very little about the cases of John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt that happened shortly before. Sure, I’ve heard Lorena cut her husband’s penis off and threw it out her car window, but why? Like Princess Weekes notes in her piece for The Mary Sue, perhaps she did it because he cheated on her, or because she was “crazy.” I never really looked into it, and it seems so long ago now.
I’ve been on a documentary kick lately, watching The Inventor (which Susan wrote about here), then The Case Against Adnan Sayed, then Beware the Slenderman, and of course all the Scientology docs I can get my hands on. After running out of HBO docs on Hulu, I bopped over to Amazon Prime and stumbled upon Lorena, a new doc produced by horror-master Jordan Peele and produced by Amazon Studios. The four part series rehashes the media circus surrounding the Bobbitt cases and features interviews with both Lorena and John Wayne (which, while we’re here, who names their kid JOHN WAYNE?! That is the least bananas part of this case, but still).
Nothing I thought about the case was true. Lorena immigrated to the US as a young woman and married John Bobbitt after meeting him at a hangout for Marines. After being married for four years, Lorena cut off John’s penis one night, then fled their home, throwing the penis out of her car window and into a grassy field across from a 7-11. The nation expressed outrage that a woman would do such a thing, and Lorena became the butt of jokes in the media for months. But what didn’t get covered--and the documentary does a good job of explaining--is that Lorena suffered an extreme amount of abuse at the hands of John throughout their marriage; he raped her, beat her, and made her fear for her life. Still, she became the criminal sensationalized in the news.
The documentary goes to great lengths to show that Lorena had reasons for committing her crime, and in a post-#MeToo era her story sounds all too familiar. What’s the most shocking throughout the documentary is John’s insistence that he didn’t do anything too wrong, despite the fact that he was tried and found guilty for abusing his later wives, even spending about a year in jail. In the interview, John sits on a comfy couch with an oversized Parker’s travel mug. At the beginning of the doc, he asks, “Is this cup okay? I can get another one.” Even now, he seems concerned with appearances more than the truth.
And really, that’s the point of the entire documentary. After covering the trial in detail--complete with long stretches of Lorena’s testimony, her wracking sobs on the stand--the documentary moves on to talk about what happened to John and Lorena after they were both found innocent. Lorena was sent to a mental hospital for a mandatory forty-five day stay, which she describes as terrifying, and John walked free with no repercussions. He went on to star in pornography, appear on the Howard Stern show many, many times, and steal from clothing stores after declaring bankruptcy. Oh, and also all that stuff about him getting remarried and abusing those wives, too. The juxtaposition between Lorena’s punishment and John’s is astonishing, and it’s wild to watch it play out in the documentary. Lorena managed to keep a relatively low profile, only offering interviews much later, and even then in the name of promoting awareness of domestic abuse and marital rape.
My main takeaway, in so many words, is that sexism is alive and well, and it always has been. Towards the end of the documentary, in the last episode, a group of experts discuss the trial and what it might look like today, after Harvey Weinstein, after a bigger awareness of sexual harassment and abuse. They speculated that the incident might look the same today, with Fox News stepping in for Howard Stern in John’s defense. SNL would still make sketches mocking Lorena, the news would still focus on the horror of a man getting his penis cut off and not the slow burn abuse a woman endured for years before she grabbed the knife. We aren’t as woke as we think we are, and we never were.
It’s frustrating to say that women are still abused like Lorena was, and it’s frustrating to say that we, as Americans still haven’t learned any lessons from the suffering of so many women who have been victims of domestic violence. I don’t know what the solution to the problem is (if I did, trust me, I’d be screaming it from the rooftops), but I do know that documentaries like Lorena help raise the public awareness of issues, especially when they receive ample promotion and big name-status from people like Jordan Peele. I hope that people watch Lorena and not only find newfound sympathy for what she went through, but rethink how sexism factors into daily life, even now, even in 2019.