A Severed Penis

As we approach the expiry date on the Lorena Bobbitt saga, two final questions remain. Why, exactly, did this become such a white-hot story in the first place? And given that it did, was the intensity of the coverage deserved?

After all, the Toronto media reported a near-identical case in 1992 without going berserk. A 48-year-old Mississauga woman was acquitted despite admitting that she had drugged her husband unconscious and chopped off his penis. The jury accepted her claim of self-defence following years of physical and emotional abuse. The penis itself was surgically reattached, although it wasn’t clear whether the husband would regain his sexual ability.

Not only was coverage of the case muted, but the Toronto media declined even to name the couple.

By contrast, the Bobbitt story was everywhere, from Hard Copy to Vanity Fair, from the National Enquirer to New Yorker cartoons (Wife to husband at the breakfast table: “Pass the cream or I’ll cut off your penis.”). CNN cleared its schedule to carry the Lorena Bobbitt trial live, seven hours a day.

Curiously, for all its wall-to-wall coverage, CNN made not the slightest effort to justify why the trial was so newsworthy. It was just there, day in, day out, as if the shock value were justification enough.

The obvious reason is that the case resonated powerfully with much larger concerns having to do with relations between the sexes – relations that lately have come to resemble trench warfare. It touched on women’s anger and men’s sullen backlash. It stirred a cauldron of spite and vindictiveness and moral confusion.

But that doesn’t explain why the Mississauga couple remain anonymous while the Bobbitts have joined the household-name-of-the-month club.

Crucially, the Bobbitt incident entered the maw of a very different media machine. The unvarnished facts – a severed penis tossed from a car window – made it a monster story in tiny Manassas, Va. The U.S. wire services caught on and flashed it around the country. (It is almost impossible, by the way, to write anything about the Bobbitts without stumbling into bad double entendres.) It could have been just a one-off oddball filler item, but the discovery of the penis and its subsequent reattachment kept the yarn alive for the next critical 48 hours.

Always on the lookout for anything that combines sex and violence – the more lurid the sex and the more grisly the violence, the better – A Current Affair and the other TV tabloids immediately recognized a ratings grabber and played the story full throttle. Suddenly the Bobbitts were being talked about in diners and at dinner parties, in beauty parlours and at poker evenings.

By the time Mrs. Bobbitt came to trial, a vicious circular logic was unassailable. The case merited blanket coverage because of intense public interest, but the public was intensely interested only because of the blanket media coverage. CNN’s decision to carry the trial live was all but pre-ordained.

As well, simply as television, the proceedings perfectly fit the mould of U.S. daytime programming, rolling the generic features of the usual fare into one hypnotic package.

Exactly like a soap opera, the trial unfolded at a glacial pace. Nothing much happened at any given moment, but it was in the relentless accumulation of moments that the narrative emerged. It also turned on the humdrum minutiae of the couple’s married life – arguments over matters as petty yet strangely appropriate as the purchase of satellite TV. In the typical soap opera the family is a battleground. In the Bobbitts’ case, it was a miasma of jealousy, lies and cruelty.

In other respects, the trial most closely resembled an agony-interview show in the vein of Geraldo and the rest. There were the obligatory victims: the mutilated husband and the brutalized wife. There were the mandatory psychotherapy experts. There were the mutual accusations and the dark, halting, intimate confessions of sexual transgression. And there we were, the audience, cast simultaneously as voyeurs and moralists.

In the wake of the Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith rape trials, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the case of Walter Hryciuk, the “kissing judge,” the Bobbitt saga was merely the latest installment in a new televisual genre. Call it The People’s Show Trial.

The fact that the tale played out so prominently in part because it made for good American-style daytime TV betrays an ethnocentrism inherent to the American media. Although CNN beamed the trial live around the world to Prague and Tokyo and Toronto, if the incident had actually occurred in Prague or Tokyo or Toronto, CNN wouldn’t have given it a second glance. It was big news only because it happened in the United States.

But the Canadian media, along with every other major news outlet in the West, subscribe to the U.S. wire services and take feeds from the U.S. networks. With the American media playing the story to the hilt, their foreign counterparts couldn’t help but be swept up in the frenzy. Such is the power of the U.S. media to set the new world news agenda.

For all that, did the story deserve its remarkable run?

There are those who say no. The coverage, they argue, was hysterical, gutter-minded, and actually worked to obscure the central issue, which was either the severity of the crime or the reality of spousal abuse, depending on one’s perspective.

Maybe so. But if you paid close attention to the trial itself – the way one might watch a soap opera – it was impossible not to confront both issues forthrightly.

Understanding the Bobbitt story meant trying to comprehend what would lead someone to such an act, and then trying to conceive of circumstances that would excuse it. That required imagining what it was like to be inside the Bobbitt marriage. And given the testimony, once that leap of imagination took place, one had entered a very scary theatre indeed.

There is a social utility to even the most admittedly sensational of news stories, and the Bobbitt case is only the latest example. It’s not that the media are always right; it’s that the fascination of the public is seldom wrong.eg

  • Globe and Mail January 18, 1994