DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today Amazon Prime Video presents a new four-part documentary series called "Lorena." It's about the infamous 1993 case in which John Wayne Bobbitt's wife Lorena violently reacted to what she claimed was a long-term pattern of marital abuse - sexual and otherwise - by severing his penis as he lay in bed then driving away and tossing the remnant out her car window. This unusual act made national headlines and resulted in a pair of high-profile trials - his for marital sexual assault, hers for malicious wounding. This new nonfiction miniseries called "Lorena" recounts both trials and the national furor surrounding them. And it does so without being lurid or exploitive, which could hardly be said of the media and pop culture at the time.
Those too young to remember the particulars of the Bobbitt case may be morbidly curious about it. But if you were around and aware back in the '90s, you may well ask, why revisit this infamous and familiar story. And why now? I asked similar questions when ESPN announced a few years ago that it was presenting a multipart documentary series on O.J. Simpson called "O.J.: Made In America." But then I previewed it and saw what those filmmakers were up to. With the passage and perspective of time, they were telling a larger more involved and important story about fame, the media and race.
In "Lorena," the director Joshua Rofe is just as fascinated by fame in the media. But instead of race, he focuses on gender and on the very different treatments of men and women in the courts and in the headlines. In the #MeToo era, this examination couldn't be more relevant. The research and homework here are impressive. The program provides fresh interviews with both John and Lorena Bobbitt and many of the lawyers, jurors, character witnesses and journalists involved in the case.
It also does a deep dive into newspaper and television archives, showing just how the case was covered at the time. No headline was too tasteless and norms were being challenged and changed, not only what graphic words could be used in the papers but also who could be identified in sexual assault cases. As one reporter covering the Bobbitt trials, Carlos Sanchez of The Washington Post recalls, followed by a current reaction from Lorena herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LORENA")
CARLOS SANCHEZ: Most newspapers had a practice that if you were the victim of a sex crime, you were never identified. And then I learned one day that Lorena had hired a public relations firm. And I called my editors and let them know of this development. And the editor said, OK. Well, if she's hired a publicist, then she knows that we're going to use her name. She wants her name used.
LORENA BOBBITT: When they learned about my name, it was a nightmare. Everybody wanted a piece of me.
BIANCULLI: Lorena Bobbitt using the phrase piece of me in this context is a little jarring. But what's most jarring about this documentary and perhaps most memorable is the parade of TV hosts and comics shown weighing in on the Bobbitt case back in the '90s. Some of them, like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Al Franken, have since been ensnared by their own high-profile scandals. Others, like Whoopi Goldberg, Howard Stern and David Letterman, can look back at the jokes they made then and either be proud or cringe. And at least one high-profile celebrity then - Barbara Walters, when talking to her co-host Hugh Downs on ABC's news magazine "20/20" - was admirably ahead of her time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")
BARBARA WALTERS: I do think that men and women see this very differently. And men see it as a man being mutilated, I think, in the most awful way a man can imagine. Many women see it as a woman abused to such a degree that she struck out at the area that was doing her the most harm.
HUGH DOWNS: You can still be very sensitive to the need to cut down on abuse of women and see this act as different from the act of many women who are abused who may kill their husbands.
WALTERS: If you're a man, you may.
WALTERS: And you are.
DOWNS: I guess I can't help looking at it that way - fascinating.
BIANCULLI: Fascinating, indeed - Amazon's "Lorena," as you might guess from its title, ultimately extends more sympathy to her than her ex-husband. But since the documentary ends by following both of their actions in the decades since, including John Wayne Bobbitt's forays into porn films and other attempts to cash in on his so-called celebrity, that's a justifiable conclusion. But the primary verdict delivered by "Lorena" the documentary is that the media were guilty of a lot, too, and so were our society's attitudes about when to believe women who come forward with tales of abuse. Watch the TV show "Lorena," then decide for yourself whether in the 26 years since the Bobbitt case, our attitudes and our tabloid culture have changed that much and changed enough.
After a break, we'll hear from Paul Schrader. His film "First Reformed," which he wrote and directed, is nominated for Best Original Screenplay. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.