Lorena: Amazon documentary about the notorious Bobbitt case is a 1990s time capsule

The trial of a woman who cut off her husband’s penis was sensational at the time, but Get Out director Jordan Peele’s series shows just how much it changed

With great relish, Whoopi Goldberg gees up the audience at the televised Comic Relief VI with some timely observations about Lorena Bobbitt, and how this one woman evened up the odds by cutting off her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis.

“It’s 1994 and the shit is hitting the fan,” Goldberg declares. “Women are pissed!”

Lorena, the four-part docuseries produced by Jordan “Get Out” Peele that debuted on Amazon Prime in early 2019, is a harrowing tale of domestic violence. But it also has a secondary focus on the cultural impact of the case. In that sense, it’s a very 90s time capsule and fascinating for it.

By the time of Lorena’s trial in Virginia in 1994, the trope of the rape victim fighting back had long been depicted in cinema to titillating effect: I Spit on Your Grave, Extremities, Sudden Impact, Lipstick … with the exception of Thelma & Louise, they veered into the territory of erotic thrillers, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the grim reality of the Bobbitts’ case was spruced up with sensationalism.

The horrific details of anal rape, beatings and police call-outs, as recounted with sensitivity in this documentary, were sidelined by the media in favour of lurid accounts of John Wayne’s emasculation. Up until this trial, it wasn’t polite to even commit the word “penis” to print, but early media references to John Wayne’s “organ” were soon replaced by the correct anatomical word – a moment that was, in itself, a cultural watershed.

Both Lorena and John Wayne – who was acquitted of the charge of rape on the night of the attack and denies the allegations against him – are interviewed in this thoughtful documentary that has the benefit of not needing to compete with the headlines of the day. The director, Joshua Rofé, also revisits former neighbours and police officers, who back up Lorena’s claims of abuse, as well as journalists of the era and the surgeons who operated on John Wayne. The picture painted of John Wayne Bobbitt – who went on to be convicted of three further charges of assault or harassment against women – is almost universally damning.

Lorena’s trial was televised, with an estimated 15 satellite trucks and 200 reporters attending the first day. The 24-year-old Ecuadorian naif who was fascinated by US soap operas found herself in one. Tabloid TV shows, blurring the lines of news and entertainment, turned the Bobbitts into tropes: the vengeful, hot-blooded Latina chasing the American dream and the ex-marine stud (it was noted in court that John Wayne used to sign himself into his gym as Jean-Claude Van Damme).

Comedians lined up to take their shots, including Weird Al Yankovic in the song Headline News, and Robin Williams at the same Comic Relief event at which Goldberg had appeared. There were many more. As the LA Times reported back then: “Comic Relief Sets Record but Overdoses on Bobbitt Humor”.

Before the trial even began, Lorena had been advised to hire a publicist, who set up a glamorous shoot and interview in Vanity Fair. She was courted by countless talkshows; Geraldo Rivero, of Geraldo, would send her signed photographs, fruitlessly trying to persuade her to appear as a guest.

Lorena Gallo
Lorena Gallo, formerly Lorena Bobbitt, at the premiere of Lorena at the 2019 Sundance film festival. Photograph: Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP

For his part, John Wayne became a regular fixture on The Howard Stern Show. The shock jock’s many comments about Lorena included: “I don’t even buy that he was raping her ... She’s not that great looking” and, during his televised New Year’s Rotten Eve pageant in 1994, Stern held a fundraiser for John Wayne’s medical and legal bills (with progress measured by a giant phallus meter). John Wayne had T-shirts made up for a promotional tour and was pictured with celebrities including David Hasselhoff. Having had successful surgery, and then a penis enlargement, he appeared in a spate of porn films, including Frankenpenis.

Lorena found new purpose in giving talks at domestic violence shelters, and later founded the Red Wagon foundation, now the Lorena Gallo Foundation. But few shelters existed when she herself was diagnosed with battered woman syndrome, and the Violence Against Women Act wasn’t passed until 1994, the year of her trial. Police often had no recourse but to treat call-outs as quarrels, and there was no national helpline. The documentary prominently displays the number for the National Domestic Violence Helpline at its conclusion. Undoubtedly, the publicity surrounding Lorena’s case contributed to such progress.

“I look at the media as a double-edged sword,” Lorena told the documentary crew of her appearance on talkshows including The Steve Harvey Morning Show, in which she smiled politely through the inevitable slew of quips. “I knew that the jokes are going to be there. But as long as I shine a light on the issue of domestic violence, how bad it is, it’s worth it.”

The media circus eventually left town to follow Tonya Harding’s attack on a fellow figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan, which in turn prompted a new wealth of comedy material. But as Goldberg told the Lorena documentary crew, the Bobbitt case had made its impact beyond the cultural sphere.

“It seemed to shift things,” she says. “It didn’t TOTALLY shift things, but she made her point.”

• Lorena is streaming in Australia on Amazon Prime


Jenny Valentish

The GuardianTramp

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