For men, it dominates the shape of the case. John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis—severed with a kitchen knife and tossed in a field near Manassas, Va., on the night of June 23, 1993—becomes “the urgent matter at hand,” the embodiment of “this man’s dignity,” to be salvaged or sacrificed. It becomes “the appendage,” from which squeamish sergeants and squirming officers keep their distance, as if it might catch. It becomes the object of men’s worst fear, a fate worse than death. And then there is Lorena, the severer herself—Ecuadoran immigrant, battered wife, cause célèbre—covering her mouth to stifle a shocked chuckle at the mental image of a volunteer firefighter picking the penis from the grass and brushing it off before transporting it to the hospital in a hot dog box. In Lorena, Joshua Rofé’s involving new docuseries, there’s no more dancing around the scandal’s tragicomic implications: Twenty-five years after Lorena Bobbitt’s trial began, the time for euphemism is over.
“The p-word,” to quote John Wayne Bobbitt’s urologist (of all people), is a microcosm of the case, itself a microcosm of its cultural moment. The discomfort journalists, police officers, attorneys, and, yes, doctors evince in the series, faced with the very word “penis,” anatomizes the political atmosphere in which the Bobbitts grabbed hold of the American imagination—and, indeed, our own. By the midpoint of the first episode, Lorena laces together patriarchal mores, the media circus, and the limits of the law into a damning portrait of a nation so ill-equipped to deal with the substance of the case that it turned instead to the adolescent humor of Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, and Robin Williams. In an archival clip from Jenny Jones, John Wayne’s brother, Todd Biro, claims that he’d have killed Lorena if he’d had the chance, and the camera captures a man in the audience, applauding vigorously, as the woman seated directly in front of him stares into the distance, bemused. Cut to: Surgeon General C. Everett Koop calling violence against women “an overwhelming moral, economic, and public health burden.” Cut to: Anita Hill testifying against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Cut to: the acquittal of political scion William Kennedy Smith in a highly publicized Palm Beach rape case, and, around the same time, the explosion of the Tailhook scandal, in which more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps officers were accused of committing sexual assaults during a four-day conference in Las Vegas. Down to multiple on-camera interviews, with the Bobbitts’ neighbors and others, in which the subjects describe their personal encounters with domestic violence, Lorena picks at the scab of “sensational” stories and finds a raw and bloody scourge.
In this, Lorena exemplifies one of the signal features of the present moment, which is its thoroughgoing reconsideration of the 1990s. On podcasts (Slow Burn), in movies (I, Tonya), and especially on television—American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace; made-for-TV movie Confirmation; 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold; and docuseries The Clinton Affair and O.J.: Made in America, the last cited as a model by Lorena EP Jordan Peele—the years Generation X author Douglas Coupland once described as “The Good Decade” emerge instead as an abortive reckoning with the problems of race, class, gender and sexuality in American life, dredging up generations’ worth of injustice only to deem the topic radioactive. In a sense, our exhumation of these and other tabloid scandals is the obverse of the recent nostalgia boom, which has given us remakes and reboots of Disney classics and broadcast sitcoms: Though our pop culture features its fair share of cheap ‘90s knockoffs, Lorena and its ilk transform that decade’s pulp into rich social histories.
The point isn’t that we’ve “solved” the problems of the 1990s. It’s that the problems of the present are inextricable from those of the 1990s, left to fester for a quarter century more or less unaddressed. No “national conversation” reduced racist policing after the Rodney King trial, so Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s 2016 dramatization of the Simpson case can be read in the context of to Black Lives Matter. No “emergency declaration” raised wages and stabilized housing and health care costs for working families after the introduction of NAFTA, so Tonya Harding’s rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan still seems a clash of upwardly mobile dreams and bitter reality. No amount of poise saved Anita Hill from being tarred and feathered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and even her rightful treatment as a heroine of the women’s rights movement in Confirmation failed to prevent the same from happening to Christine Blasey Ford.
Lorena simply draws this point on a more prosaic scale, underlining the omnipresence of misogyny and racism in American culture. There’s Gay Talese, for instance, describing the Bobbitt case—in which Lorena accused John Wayne of raping her repeatedly—as “a marriage gone amok,” 22 years before being duped by a Peeping Tom motel owner. Or Howard Stern saying he doesn’t believe Lorena’s allegations because she’s not attractive enough to be raped, 23 years before the New York Times’ blockbuster Weinstein report. Or the “obnoxious” Geraldo Rivera trailing Lorena for a one-on-one interview 24 years before defending Matt Lauer. Or cable news pundits and op-ed columnists describing Lorena as a “hot-blooded Latina” and “angry immigrant” 25 years before President Trump threw his current tantrum about “The Wall.” (Among its other merits, Lorena is a razor-sharp indictment of letting the same shitty media men shape the discourse on issues of gender, sex, and power for decades.) As with The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which explicitly confronted the dismissal of queer stories, Lorena turns the fact that the Bobbitts became fodder for stand-up comedy, daytime talk, and late-night variety to its advantage: Its subject is the assumptions brought to the case, then and now, as much as the case itself.
Reinterpretation is a central feature of historical scholarship, and such changes in our understanding of one or another period often bleed into popular culture. Still, the fact remains that our images of World War II, the counterculture, the Vietnam War, and Reagan-era corporate raiders have long since crystallized. By contrast, the scandals of the 1990s, left unfinished and thus undefined, remain open to fresh perspectives, including the desire to work through our anxieties in the prism of the past. Both as a function of timing—call it the duration of hindsight—and the real-life re-litigation of the 1990s in the 2016 presidential campaign and its chaotic aftermath, it’s no surprise that the decade should come in for reappraisal. But as the parallels pile up—as testimony frames John Wayne’s discussion of forced sex as “guy talk”; as magazine and newspaper editors ignore the broader problem of domestic violence to focus instead on the sensational angle; as Lorena’s own misdemeanors, such as shoplifting from a Nordstrom, are used to discredit her—it’s the ordinariness of the story related in Lorena, with the exception of that unutterable it, which lends the series its remarkable weight. The Bobbitt case, absent hearings before Congress, a beloved football star, the Olympic Games, or the President of the United States, seems an essential part of our return to—our exorcism of—the “good” decade that’s since soured, closer kin to the innumerable cases of domestic violence that didn’t—don’t—leap from police blotter and metro desks to the nightly news. Indeed, it’s this collision of past and present tense that shadows Lorena, and that emphasizes the long, dreadful arm of the 1990s: As Whoopi Goldberg says in footage from her stand-up routine, one of the rare acts in which a comedian defends Lorena, “It’s 1994, and the shit is hitting the fan.”
It’s 2019, and it still is.
Lorena is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.