Because the 1990s were a lousy time, but were also well videotaped, the era has become a useful source of content for documentary films or series that retell its low points. Events that people experienced as passing sensations left a permanent record, from which future generations could try to reconstruct the past, to capture What It Was Like. The decade never goes away.
It doesn’t always come back the same way it was, though. This is a selling point for the documentaries, and the documentary-adjacent coverage, such as the New York Times profile, by Amy Chozick, of the woman formerly known as Lorena Bobbitt, whose story is soon to be retold on Amazon Prime Video. The headline was delivered in an extremely 2010s online format, as a declarative sentence and a declarative fragment, each with its own period: “You Know the Lorena Bobbitt Story. But Not All of It.”
People were wrong about almost everything back in the ’90s . Society has improved on any number of levels. But—what did people get wrong about the Lorena Bobbitt story? Chozick’s piece deployed the first-person plural to argue that the public—“we”—ignored or forgot the details of how and why the relationship between John Wayne Bobbitt and Lorena Bobbitt ended up with her using a kitchen knife to cut off her husband’s penis:
Lorena is correct, of course, that most people forget that before she was tried for what she did, John was charged with marital sexual assault. (He was acquitted.) At the time, marital rape only recently had been made a crime in all 50 states and was nearly impossible to prove in Virginia. Many in the media, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Gay Talese on assignment for The New Yorker, questioned whether it was an oxymoron. (“Wife Rape? Who Really Gets Screwed?” an earlier column in Penthouse read.) Al Franken, as the character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, implored Lorena to apologize to John’s penis. And, she is correct, that people forget that a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. We forget about the string of witnesses at her trial who testified that they had seen bruises on her arms and neck and that she had called 911 repeatedly and that John had bragged to friends about forcing his wife to have sex.
Penthouse? Penthouse is supposed to be where the consensus on the gender discourse was found in the early ’90s? As for Stuart Smalley: Stuart Smalley was not a journalist; he was a sketch-comedy character, who was supposed to be a nitwit, doing a bit. And it’s certainly true that jokes contain layers of underexamined assumptions and agendas, but it’s also true that in that Stuart Smalley sketch, the first words spoken by the Lorena Bobbitt character, after she introduces herself, are “He forced me to have sex”—exactly the thing that Chozick argued that people overlooked.
Lorena Bobbitt was not treated well in the culture, at the time. A story of brutality and desperation played out as a national joke. Chozick’s piece gave the woman who now goes by Lorena Gallo a chance to emerge as a real person, with a life that extends beyond the one terrible incident, and allowed her to describe what it was like inside the joke.
Yet by selling her story as a hidden secret, the piece flattened it out and made it ring false. New times and new standards have allowed the present-day Monica Lewinsky to challenge the old public view of her, and of Bill Clinton, and of how power and gender shaped it all. Critical perspective and distance have changed the way people discuss O.J. Simpson and the O.J. Simpson jury.
To call Lorena Bobbitt misunderstood, though, is to overlook the fact that she was found not guilty, at the time, by a jury of her peers. Chozick described how society and the law barely recognized marital rape, and quoted experts discussing how that had changed in the ’90s. “So,” Chozick wrote, “even though most portrayals of Lorena made her seem like, in her words, ‘this crazy, jealous lady,’ the Bobbitt trial did play a part in the laws changing.”
Why wouldn’t it have played a part? The original Times story about the verdict, which Chozick linked to, opens by saying it “highlighted the plight and rights of abused women.” This was the present condescending to the past, not illuminating it. Lorena Bobbitt told her story, and people heard it, and it made a difference.
The revisionist-revisionist story is that Lorena Bobbett’s side of the matter was ignored in favor of John Wayne Bobbitt’s, which is not at all the way it seemed at the time. Men may have flinched and covered their groins on hearing about his injury, but John Wayne Bobbitt got all three names, like a serial killer, to set him apart from the rest of society. He was generally understood to be a brute and a creep. The Times account of the verdict noted that “the prosecution’s own experts concluded that he had abused and raped his wife.”
The new version doesn’t work as criminal history, or as cultural history. Anyone who thinks a man who got his penis cut off was received as a sympathetic figure—let alone cast as the protagonist of the story—is, if anything, underestimating, not overestimating, the malignancy of masculinity. But this new framing of the story wasn’t really meant to advance a feminist understanding of what happened a quarter-century ago. It was meant to market itself in the here and now.