Case Study 2: Lorena Bobbitt and Thelma and Louise.

Lorena Bobbitt

The case of Lorena Bobbitt's castration of her allegedly abusive husband John, created national shock waves. The amount of media attention garnered by this case was astounding. The New Yorker magazine ran several cartoons on the case (such as three blind mice together, one saying, "She cut off his what with a carving knife?"); the David Letterman show claimed the number of jokes related to the Bobbitt case exceeded those for Joey Buttafucco; and the trial was nationally televised. Yet women are genitally mutilated by intimate partners every day, and these cases do not seem to make national news. In the spirit of examining the question of gender and the use of violence, consider some readings on the Bobbitt case. Our discussion is not to be read as an endorsement of women using violence in such a way.

Please study the readings below before participating in the discussion of case study 2.

[NOTE: The readings below are required for Group A participants]

Clarence Page, "Bobbitt Tale Needs Happy Ending After the Bobbitt Salute," Chicago Tribune, January 19, 1994.

I hear reporters covering the Lorena Bobbitt trial are placing side bets on whether the two will get back together again after all the fuss has died down.

Stranger things have happened. Beaten wives have taken their husbands back. Cuckolded husbands have taken their wives back. Raped dates have dated their rapists again. It doesn't make the original charge any less valid. It just shows there's no underestimating human ability to love and forgive-or deny.

This is why police officers learn early not to get between couples in a domestic quarrel. Grab the husband who is beating up on his wife and the wife might very well turn on you, too.

Besides, it will make a much better movie, won't it? Everyone speculates on how much money the two can make selling their stories to the networks. But unless they sell two different "he-said-she-said" versions to two different networks, like the three different Amy Fisher stories what wound up on TV last year, they would be better off with a happy ending.

And what better ending for the story of an allegedly abused wife who cuts off her husband's penis, drives it out to the country, throws it out the window, tells police about it and doctors sew it back on and she goes on trial than to have the two kiss and make up in the end? Hollywood loves a happy ending.

Otherwise, you have to wonder whether the saga of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt makes good made-for-TV material. We know the
story from CNN and the Court Channel. We just can't get enough of those Bobbitts or their butcher knife.

When CNN interrupted live Bobbitt trial coverage to pick up live coverage of President Clinton's European trip, which decided nothing more significant than how to avoid the end of the world as we know it in a thermonuclear war, CNN's switchboard was inundated with telephone calls from angry viewers, all demanding their Bobbitts.

It was left to a level-headed CNN anchor to assure viewers in tones that could only be described as apologetic that coverage of the fate of the Ukraine's SS-19 nuclear silos would not prevent the network from broadcasting the Bobbitt trial "in its entirety." Every moment of The Trial had been videotaped and the network would not rest until all of it was aired.

There's no single explanation for why we are so obsessed with the Bobbitts, who the limelight portrays as a Ken and Barbie from hell.

Perhaps it is, as one friend suggested, the "reattachment" that captures our imagination. Somehow that makes things all right in a way that a permanent dismemberment would not.

I think the Bobbitt's marital perils, unlike Russia's former republics, offer us a story that has real meaning for our lives, largely because so many of us see our own miserable lives reflected in it, for better or worse.

When Lorena on the witness stand described their heated dispute over whether to have a plastic or a real Christmas tree (she preferred plastic because it reminded her of her Ecuadorian home, where evergreens are rare as penguin eggs) who, among us married types, was not reminded of some bitter dispute from our own lives, like whether the toilet seat should be left up or down?

But do disputes over a Christmas tree make good TV? A comedy, maybe. Comics already have had a field day. "Comic Relief VI," HBO's annual comic telethon for the homeless, would have had to close early without Bobbitt jokes to tell. Co-host Billy Crystal announced that for each one told "the guy who makes Ginsu knives will chip in $1,000."

Like the "he-said-she-said" contretemps of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, it is not the Bobbitt story but the meaning we attach to it that captivates us.

The Bobbitts have come to represent all that we might find right or wrong with modern relationships: A communications gap, male brutality, female victimization, abuse of power, the nature of "manhood," revenge of the meek, what constitutes just deserts and the touchy question of male backlash against uppity women who victimize men through reverse discrimination.

The penis, after all, is not just a matter of sex. In today's discussions, it is a representation of power that restrains women in historical and traditional, institutional habits of mind.

There would be no Bobbitt jokes had John cut off some part of Lorena. It's not because of a feminist conspiracy, as some wags have suggested. It simply wouldn't be funny. Humor depends on irony which depends on the unusual and unexpected and, let's face it, there's nothing unusual or unexpected about women being abused by men.

So the Bobbitt story offers women, in particular, a vision of revenge and men, in particular, a vision of our worst nightmare, although John, the subject of his own witty T-shirt concession and of a Howard Stern fund-raising telethon, is making the best of it.

How satisfying it must be for feminists, who demonstrating recently in San Francisco, to raise the "Bobbitt salute," two fingers in a "V" turned sideways to snip like scissors. How satisfying it must be for girls in District of Columbia public schools who, I am told, threaten boys with "I'm gonna Bobbitt you" when they get out of line.

What this story needs is a happy ending. Maybe the Bobbitts will get back together. From what I've heard in court testimony, they probably deserve each other.

Richard Leiby, "Bobbitt: A Slice of America; As Lorena's Trial Begins, Debate Rages Over a Powerful Symbol," The Washington Post, January 11, 1994.

"If Lorena is acquitted it will be a license for women to do it," (Richard Siegel of Greenbelt) said. "I want to see a guilty verdict and strong punishment."

More than any other spouse-abuse case, this one has allowed men and women to take predictable sides - at least initially. Men felt for John, in a very urgent, personal way. And women could understand Lorena's rage on an equally primal level. To some degree, every women lives in fear of rape; castration, in fantasy, anyway, represents one final solution. (Bobbitt himself may never recover full sexual function.)

But of course the debate is far more nuanced. John Bobbitt was acquitted of marital rape - by a jury of nine women and three men. Even women who believe him to be a drunken, macho lout who humiliated and intimidated his wife don't necessarily condone her form of retribution.

Naturally, the sociological-media pundits are weighing in. The amputation was "strictly punitive," says neofeminist author Naomi Wolf. "I've worked in battered-women's shelters, and I applaud women who do what they have to do to escape their assailant. There are absolutely situations where a woman has to kill her partner to escape or save her children." But Lorena Bobbitt, Wolf says, seemed to be in no imminent danger of her life that night.

"If she wanted to be safe [from her husband], she could have kneecapped him," says Wolf. "The mutilation itself seems to be so clearly a sadistic act."

Such a high-profile case with a woman in the role as an aggressor isn't categorically a bad thing, though. "Women have to take responsibility for the fact that we too have a dark side, that sexual hatred isn't just a thing men are capable of," says Wolf, whose latest book is titled "Fire With Fire." "We are both angelic and demonic."

Given the horrific nature of Lorena's retribution, the common wisdom goes, John must have been doing something terribly bad in that marriage. To some female observers, it doesn't particularly matter that Bobbitt was found not guilty of marital rape. They hark back to Clarence Thomas: Yes, he was confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court, but they still believe Anita Hill.

Lorena Bobbitt's attorneys spoke yesterday of a "reign of terror," of a woman driven to desperation by a controlling, intimidating husband. "She's a typical Latin American woman - very submissive," said Ecuadorean TV journalist Maria Gomez, covering the trial for a Quito station. "Sometimes women have to take the law into their own hands. What she did was brave."

To sociologist Evan Stark, one of the nation's leading researchers on domestic violence, it makes perfect sense that a woman in that situation would strike out against the organ that personifies manhood.

"The penis is an extraordinary symbol of power and domination in a relationship," says Stark. "There are many men, especially batterers, for whom the penis is an extension of their psychological selves - it is a weapon. So hurting the penis is a way of attacking the guy's power."

Evelyn Smith, the Prince George's County woman who shot her husband, agreed: "I have friends who say she should have killed him. But if she had just killed him, it wouldn't have attracted as much attention."

Without the amputated organ, this trial would have no media currency: Just another case of lower-middle-class Americans cutting each other. Forget symbolism. Forget talk of cautionary gender tales. Forget "Ginsumania!" as Lorena Bobbitt's No. 1 Excuse on the Letterman Top 10 List.

But what's unfolding in this courthouse and rising up through all those media transmission towers is more potent than Howard Stern, Jay Leno and David Letterman - it's a new myth in a canon of female retribution fantasy as recent as "Thelma & Louise" and as ancient as Greek mythology. Put in another pop culture context: "Touch her again and you're dead," sings Juliana Hatfield, whose current hit album is part of the wave of aggressive young female performers decrying violence against women. The song, "DameWith a Rod," envisions a gun-toting heroine rescuing an endangered woman from a date-rape scenario.

Somewhere, a young woman is writing a song about Lorena Bobbitt.

Thelma and Louise.

Excerpt from: Elizabeth V. Spelman and Martha Minow, "Outlaw Women: An Essay on Thelma & Louise," 26 New Eng. L. Rev. 1281 (1992) Footnotes omitted.

Unlike many movies, Thelma & Louise provoked widespread and intense public debates. The film gives us an occasion to explore not only what it means in our society for women to be outlaws, but also: (1) how different kinds of viewers might perceive and judge outlaw women; (2) how class and race, along with gender, may influence viewer understandings of outlaw figures; and (3) what the world and moral reasoning might look like from the perspectives of the women characters cast as outlaws.

* * *

Thelma & Louise combines the genres of buddy films and on-the-road stories; it is an outlaw film with the twist that the outlaws are two women. They are outlaws on their own. Unlike male outlaws’ "molls," they break the law without men. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis play Louise, a waitress, and Thelma, a housewife, who leave a boyfriend and a husband for a weekend of fishing. But instead of fun, the meet crisis. Picked up at a dance bar by a man who makes aggressive and ultimately violent sexual advances, Thelma is saved when Louise brandishes a gun. But when Harlan, the assaulter, is unrepentant, Louise shoots and kills him.

At that moment, Louise and Thelma become outlaws, and they hit the road. As state police and FBI agents search for them, Thelma and Louise head for Mexico, trying to deal with the men they left and the men they encounter. On their way, they encounter a truck driver who ogles them, a hitchhiker who seduces Thelma and then steals Louise’s money. Thelma sticks up a convenience store to make up for leaving the hitchhiker alone to steal Louise’s money. A police officer stops them for speeding, but Thelma and Louise lock him in the trunk of his squad car. They make telephone contact with the detective who seems to know about a prior experience with sexual assault Louise endured in Texas.

Reaching ever more spectacular southwestern vistas on their route to Mexico, Thelma and Louise speculate about their crimes, their pasts, their friendship, and their lives. They also undertake a kind of fantasy revenge against the trucker who has harassed them on the road. A chase scene complete with hoards of police and FBI agents includes moments of escape and moments that make capture seem inevitable. But at the close, the two women choose to drive off into the Grand Canyon rather than face death through a shoot out, or worse, capture and a criminal trial. The film does not leave the viewer with this suicide scene, however. Instead, it quickly returns to earlier images of hope, excitement, and pleasure on the faces of the two women.

* * *

The mass media played up … differences [in interpretation of the film] often framing them as male versus female reactions. For example, The Boston Globe ran under the heading, The Great Debate over Thelma and Louise, two opposing columns, one by a woman defending the film and one by a man attacking it. The man, John Robinson, wrote: "Male-bashing, once the sport of hairy women in denim jackets and combat boots, has flushed like toxic waste into the culture mainstream with the vengeance fantasy ‘Thelma and Louise.’" Reading the movie against a backdrop of feminist cultural and political activities, he found that "’Thelma and Louise’ is the last straw." He objected to the absence of enough sympathetic male characters who are strong but not obnoxious. He acknowledged that more tyrants and abusers are found among men then among women, yet he asserted, "’Thelma and Louise’ would have the world believe that a good man is an exception, and that a bad women is an oxymoron." He also objected to the entrance into mainstream culture of the kinds of feminist messages that previously had been reserved more elite artistic expression.

The contrasting column by a women, reviewer Diane White, argued that "there wasn’t enough man-bashing in ‘Thelma and Louise.’" White wrote, "I wish they’d nailed that little weasel who ran off with all their money. And Thelma’s toad-like yupster husband deserved more than just an emotional shock." Reversing the familiar comment that feminists take things too seriously and lack a sense of humor, White continued, "It’s only a movie, and a comedy at that." Yet she herself reported on the strong positive reaction of women in her audience. "They cheered when Louise plugged the roadhouse cowboy who was trying to rape Thelma. And when the two characters blew up the rig of a leering, tongue-waggling trucker, they cheered even louder." She concluded that "[f]or some women ‘Thelma and Louise’ is a cathartic movie, a bit of wish fulfillment ….I know what it’s like to be so brutalized and humiliated by a man that you’d like to murder him. But I didn’t. Why? Because life isn’t a movie. Besides, unlike Louise, I didn’t have a gun handy."

* * *

Are Thelma and Louise noble outlaws, or is some other description of their law-breaking more apt? Insofar as "outlaw" suggests someone who self-consciously and consistently breaks the law, Thelma and Louise qualify as outlaws: they knowingly break a number of laws; they come to take pleasure in breaking them, especially as they become more skilled and capable of a kind of fastidiousness in doing so. Escaping the long arm of the law becomes central to their lives and indeed to their deaths. Law’s centrality does not mean its utility; Thelma and Louise never feel that they can try to use the law to accomplish their ends such as they emerge.

North American history and literature are filled with examples of daring figures who are presented as having to break the law in order to bring about a kind of justice the law or its agents cannot effect….The gratitude and admiration we feel towards lawbreakers depends on the observer’s sense of the lawbreaking activities. This in turn depends largely on whether the observer believes the victims of such actions deserve what happens to them. The observer’s conclusions are likely to rest not only on what the purported noble outlaws believe but on who they are.

* * *

Viewers of Thelma & Louise who are ready to regard the two women as noble outlaws have to be able to think about both the women and those affected by their actions in fairly specific ways. Thelma and Louise have to be seen as acting, preferably self-consciously, in accordance with a just principle or concern. The would-be rapist, Harlan, and others directly affected by the women’s actions have to be seen as in some sense deserving what they got, whether or not the law prohibits their being treated that way.

…The law has done little to protect women from the violence of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. In such a context, Thelma’s and Louise’s resistance to Harlan’s sense of entitlement, and to his assumption of immunity, invite sympathetic viewers to see the women as heroines. It is of course one thing to fight back, as Thelma does, and another to shoot Harlan dead as Louise does. But sympathetic viewers’ high regard for Thelma’s acts of self-defense – acts sanctioned by law – could flow easily into enthusiastic admiration for Louise’s murder of Harlan. The movie itself offers an explanation for that murder, but not thereby a justification. Such admiration arises, when it does, despite the fact – or maybe in part because of it – that the canonical list of noble outlaws (such as Robin Hood, Jesse James, and Bernhard Goetz) includes very few women. Such admiration arises, when it does, despite the fact that everyday violence against women has not been among the canonical evils to which outlaw behavior has been regarded as an appropriate response. Young black men who seem threatening to a white man on a subway [Goetz vigilante case] are one thing; an inebriated white fellow who has earned his right to sleep with a flirtatious, sexy and inebriated lady acquaintance is another. In short, the history of noble outlaws makes it difficult for women to qualify for inclusion, especially if what motivates them is something as apparently banal as everyday violence against "cock-teasing" women…


Group A Participants: Please think about and respond to the following questions. Post your answer here.

Group B Participants: If you would like to discuss these questions, please post your comments on the general discussion page.

Both the Lorena Bobbitt case and the release of the movie ‘Thelma and Louise’ caused quite a national stir. The public reaction was often described as sharply divided along gender lines. Do we take violence by women seriously? Is it the same language, or something different from males’ language of violence? Do women have a different language they use to communicate anger? How do we negotiate violence in our lives if men and women are not speaking the same language?

[Introduction] [History] [Scope] [Feminist Legal Theory] [Case Study Intro] [Case 1: Faulkner] [Case 3: Safe-T-Man]