NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

26 Years Later, 'Lorena' Revisits The Bobbitt Saga — And The Media Reaction

In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt made national headlines when she severed her husband's penis and threw it out a car window. She said her husband had been abusive.
Amazon Prime Video
In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt made national headlines when she severed her husband's penis and threw it out a car window. She said her husband had been abusive.

In 1993, a 24-year-old woman named Lorena Bobbitt reacted violently to what she said was a long-term pattern of marital abuse — sexual and otherwise — by severing the penis of her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, then driving away and tossing the remnant out her car window.

This unusual act made national headlines and resulted in a pair of high-profile trials: his for marital sexual assault, hers for malicious wounding. Now, a new four-part documentary series called Lorena(Amazon Prime Video) recounts the incident, the trials that followed and the national furor that resulted.

The show is directed by Joshua Rofé, who is also one of the program's executive producers. Another executive producer is Jordan Peele, the Get Out filmmaker and former co-star of the sketch comedy series Key & Peele .But Peele is nowhere to be seen in Lorena, and there's nothing funny at all about the subject or its approach.

Those too young to remember the particulars of the Bobbitt case may be morbidly curious about it. But if you were around and aware back in the '90s, you may well ask: Why revisit this infamous, and familiar, story? And why now?

I asked similar questions when ESPN announced a few years ago that it was presenting a multipart documentary series on O.J. Simpson, called O.J.: Made in America. But then I previewed the series and saw what those filmmakers were up to: With the passage and perspective of time, they were telling a larger, more involved and important story about fame, the media and race.

In Lorena, Rofé is just as fascinated by fame and the media. But instead of race, he focuses on gender and on the very different treatments of men and women in the courts and in the headlines. In the #MeToo era, this examination couldn't be more relevant.

The research and homework here are impressive. The program provides fresh interviews with both John and Lorena Bobbitt, as well as with many of the lawyers, jurors, character witnesses and journalists involved in the case.

It also does a deep dive into newspaper and television archives, showing just how the case was covered at the time. No headline was too tasteless, and norms were being challenged and changed.

As Carlos Sanchez, a reporter who was covering the trials for The Washington Post, recalls, newspapers were grappling with who could be identified in sexual assault cases. Meanwhile, Lorena Bobbitt says that after her name was released by the media, "Everyone wanted a piece of me."

Her use of the phrase "piece of me" is a little jarring in this context. But what's most jarring about this documentary and, perhaps most memorable, is the parade of TV hosts and comics who weighed in on the Bobbitt case at the time.

Some of them, like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Al Franken, have since been ensnared by their own high-profile scandals. Others, like Whoopi Goldberg, Howard Stern and David Letterman, can look back at the jokes they made and either be proud or cringe.

At least one high-profile celebrity was admirably ahead of her time. Speaking to her 20/20 co-host, Hugh Downs, Barbara Waltersframed the story — and the reaction to it — as something that was very, very different whether you were a man or a woman.

As you might guess from its title, Amazon's Lorenaultimately extends more sympathy to her than to her ex-husband. But since the documentary ends by following both of their actions in the decades since — including John Wayne Bobbitt's forays into porn films and other attempts to cash in on his so-called celebrity — that's a justifiable conclusion.

But the primary verdict delivered by the documentary is that the media were at fault, too — as were our society's attitudes about when to believe women who come forward with tales of abuse. Watch the TV show Lorena, then decide for yourself whether, in the 26 years since the Bobbitt case, our attitudes and our tabloid culture have changed that much — or changed enough.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.