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‘Lorena’ and the “What Were We Thinking?” Reappraisals of ’90s News

The Amazon docuseries revisits the headline-grabbing Bobbitt case—and finds, once again, that our culture got it all wrong

Amazon/Ringer illustration

Three-quarters of the way through Lorena, another bold-faced name is invoked. At this point in Amazon’s four-part documentary, the exploration of the Lorena Bobbitt case has started to zoom out from the notorious incident that made a young Virginia couple the center of a national media frenzy to its broader cultural implications. To that end, a Newsweek journalist outlines a planned cover story on the saga. But the cover never came to pass, because it was overshadowed by the next flashy ’90s scandal: that of Tonya Harding and her involvement in the assault of Nancy Kerrigan.

Back then, Bobbitt and Harding were connected by their shared experience of lurid, inescapable media scrutiny, fueled by brand-new forces like the rise of cable news as well as age-old ones like misogyny, classism, and in Bobbitt’s case, racism. Now, they’re tied together once more, this time as the subject of two public acts of repentance. Bobbitt’s namesake documentary arrives on streaming this Friday; I, Tonya hit theaters in late 2018, eventually earning Allison Janney an Academy Award for her portrayal of Harding’s abusive mother, LaVona. The mention of Harding in the middle of Bobbitt’s story, as told by director Joshua Rofé, is a jarring convergence. True crime can encourage the unfortunate tendency to flatten human beings into fictional characters. In that context, the juxtaposition of Bobbitt’s experience with Harding’s feels almost like a crossover episode, with human consequences we’re only just starting to grasp.

This cultural reexamination is, by now, a familiar pattern. It goes like this: Sometime in the 1990s, a woman endured public humiliation for her involvement in a salacious crime. She then spent several decades in relative obscurity. Twenty to 30 years later, her rehabilitation is commenced—often with a New York Times profile, though sometimes with a TED Talk. Such recent vindication is long overdue, and surely marks an improvement over the derision that preceded it. But it can’t make up for the trauma that preceded it, nor is it really meant to. In 2019 as in 1993, these women’s public image is less about them than it is about us.

Patient zero of this process, itself an outgrowth of the larger boom in true crime, is Marcia Clark. As recently as 2015, the O.J. Simpson prosecutor’s reputation as a bumbling incompetent who missed a slam dunk remained intact, comfortably invoked by entertainers like Tina Fey in the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But the next year, FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America jointly recast Clark, introducing her to a new generation as a principled advocate for abused women caught up in a firestorm outside her control. The two miniseries called on their audience to reflect on, and maybe even regret, their initial perception of her. In the episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” for which actress Sarah Paulson won an Emmy, People v. O.J. depicted the cruel tabloid coverage of Clark’s unflattering, mid-trial haircut as an occasion for shame rather than laughs.

Where Clark was an educated, accomplished professional who otherwise conformed to middle-class standards of propriety, Harding was punished as much for her class as her gender. The reckoning prompted by I, Tonya included the idea that part of Skate Gate’s irresistible appeal was the contrast between Kerrigan’s Disney-princess persona and Harding’s much less polished approach. At around the same time, #MeToo prompted yet another expansion of the public’s empathy: Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who conducted an affair with President Clinton, had been steadily reclaiming control of her narrative for years. But the sudden scrutiny of workplace power dynamics put the spotlight on a part of Lewinsky’s story that had previously been downplayed: At the time, Lewinsky was an intern in her early 20s, seduced by her extraordinarily powerful boss. And what People v. O.J. was to Clark or I, Tonya to Harding, last year’s The Clinton Affair became to Lewinsky: a concrete artifact to hasten, and make official, a once-gradual shift in the zeitgeist.

Lorena feels at once like an extension and a culmination of this trend. Twenty-five years of punch lines mean Bobbitt is now synonymous with a single act of desperation: cutting off the penis of her abusive husband, John Wayne. Despite Bobbitt’s trial and her devastating testimony being televised in full, her long-term legacy has amounted to little more than a single appendage. Lorena shows why, and how, this happens almost in real time—the SNL sketches, the David Letterman Top Five, the Andrew Dice Clay routine. It’s a lot easier to make a macabre version of a dick joke than it is to grapple with the years of rapes and beatings that built up to a headline-friendly climax. In an account that includes uncensored pictures of John Wayne’s bloody torso, extended excerpts of Bobbitt’s time on the stand are by far the hardest scenes to watch.

Rofé’s narrative follows a path that’s by now predictable, though no less enraging for it. Bobbitt’s story has a more reassuring ending than most; she was acquitted of malicious wounding and went on to enter a successful relationship, have a daughter, and rebuild her life. Remarkably, Lorena includes face-to-face interviews with both halves of the Bobbitt marriage. Decades after the fact, Bobbitt is impressively calm and collected, only allowing a trace of anger to slip into her voice when she reveals John Wayne still writes to her: “I mean, I cut his penis off. Leave me alone!” (John Wayne has fared far worse in the intervening decades; Lorena lets the karmic contrast of his subsequent publicity stunts, arrest, and incarceration speak for itself.) But before she could move past her ordeal, Bobbitt first had to navigate the same impossible obstacle course of cultural road blocks that would soon face her peers. The media was sophisticated enough to track her every move but not yet fractured enough to lessen its glare. Tropes of vengeful Madeas and hysterical harpies went unchallenged. A wider understanding of domestic violence was nascent to nonexistent.

Of all the women thus far to benefit from retroactive empathy, Bobbitt is the only one who isn’t white. Lorena is well aware of this, highlighting how the stereotype of the hot-blooded Latina was wielded against its subject, an Ecuadorian immigrant who was just 24 years old at the time, in the press. Rofé also outlines how fear of deportation added to the already daunting barriers preventing a battered wife from leaving her husband, an additional link to present-day concerns beyond a renewed interest in gender inequality. (A moving sequence recalls Hispanic demonstrators rallying in support of Lorena from across the metropolitan area, despite her Manassas hometown lying beyond the reach of public transportation.) Though it never invokes a buzzword as unwieldy as “intersectionality,” Lorena makes sure the viewer understands the deck was doubly stacked against Bobbitt when explaining her actions to an unforgiving audience.

Still, Lorena’s subtext remains the same as O.J.’s, and Tonya’s, and The Clinton Affair’s: What were we thinking? These films and series are the opposite of nostalgia, wielding hindsight to determine what’s worth keeping in the past instead of bringing back. In one sense, the effect is reassuring, demonstrating society has finally moved far enough past an event to properly process it. A flattering distance is placed between the viewer, who knows better, and the figures on-screen, who do not; there’s even a role reversal to taking on the perspective of an erstwhile laughingstock, looking down on those who once looked down on her. Lord knows it’s easier to sort through the sexism of the past than to dwell on the indignities of the present.

And yet these vilified women are also living reminders that history is a never-ending Ferris wheel, forever depositing us right back where we started. It’s no coincidence these atonements began in the shadow of Donald Trump, a living throwback whose open misogyny helped propel him to the nation’s highest office. One of Lorena’s main talking heads is journalist Kim Masters, who profiled Bobbitt when the case first made national news and more recently reported on powerful abusers in the wake of #MeToo. Her estimation of the progress made in between, if any, is grim. “It’s the same story,” she sighs. “We never got to the point of anything that’s truly equality.” Lorena Bobbitt’s had to live with this knowledge for a while. Others are just catching up.