The trial of Lorena Bobbitt still holds a special place in pop culture. Lorena was an abused wife who retaliated against her husband by cutting off his penis and throwing it into a nearby field. Her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, stood trial for sexual assault, while she went to trial for malicious wounding. Both trials were covered heavily by the media. As a result of this, both Lorena and John entered into the cultural lexicon. Amazon Prime’s new documentary “Lorena” re-examines the case, particularly the significance of it during this period of increased awareness of domestic violence in the early/mid 90s. The documentary series, executive produced by Jordan Peele, makes many interesting, astute points. However, it also suffers from structural issues that sometimes obfuscate what it’s trying to say about the case.
The documentary’s greatest strength comes from the openness of Lorena Bobbitt. Footage from her testimony during the trial brings to life the horrors of what her marriage to John was like. What’s persisted about her story has mainly been punchlines in various shows and late night segments. However, she reminds the audience of the grave issues and absolute low points of her story. Additionally, Lorena makes herself available for interview in the present day, giving us a full picture of how she has reshaped her life following the media circus.
One of the most insightful parts of the documentary involves the cultural moment rape and sexual assault was having. Between the Anita Hill trial and the Tailhook Convention case, Lorena Bobbitt’s case came about during a moment where sexual misconduct was on trial. Even as domestic violence was entering the common vernacular, there still was no formal process for how police were to handle these cases. People who found themselves in a situation of domestic violence had little to no resources. Kim Gandis, the executive vice-president of the National Organization for Women, was one of the more terrific interviews for the documentary. The documentary is best when it is contextualizing the Bobbitt case with the public sentiments about domestic abuse in 1994.
There’s a tighter version of this story that is a standalone 2-hour film documentary. Especially in the first three episodes, there’s an incredible amount of repetition of points and details of the case that were established in previous episodes. Director Joshua Rofé definitely knows a great deal about the case and how it played in the media. Yet, the documentary feels poorly assembled. Episodes feel like more of the same rather than digging deeper into the story they set up. This changes late in the third episode and throughout the fourth as we get more of Lorena’s testimony. However, it’s timely points sometime get lost in the noise as the documentary pings between its different missions and tones.
It makes the very correct point that treating Lorena as a punchline ignores the gravity of domestic violence. Yet, it frequently follows that up with jokes about John Wayne Bobbitt losing his penis. It wants to have its cake and eat it too in ways that feel particularly unseemly. We get scene after scene of Howard Stern puffing up John. Stern even proclaims John couldn’t have raped Lorena because “she wasn’t even that pretty.” Rarely do these moments move the story or points along. Perhaps the best use of celebrity and media in the documentary was from a standup special with Whoopi Goldberg. “It’s 1994 and shit is hitting the fan. Women are pissed!” she exclaims. This is the central point of the documentary that it often shies away from as it gets off topic.
The documentary further clouds its message with its handling of John Wayne Bobbitt. The first episode of the documentary begins from his point of view. It takes us through the running joke of Bobbitt as the man whose penis is cut off by a scornful wife. The documentary even interviews him before Lorena, the titular role. It recounts details on the T-shirts he helped sell and the way he stoked the media before it talks about abuse. If it weren’t for later episodes chronicling to great extent his history of abuse, one might think the project is amused with him.
The documentary attempts to suggest some sort of absolution or understanding of John as it ties up its overall thesis. A victim of an abusive household himself, John hurts others because he experienced hurt himself. He exists in this culture of violence that has plagued our world since the beginning of time. Yes, it’s important to understand that violence begets more violence and we have a systemic problem on our hands. However, the documentary wastes time on superfluous details or John’s porn career when it should be concentrating on its central mission. The documentary wants to shed light on Lorena’s domestic abuse case and the prevalence of domestic violence. It accomplishes this, but muddies its impact through poor story structure that frequently loses focus.