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Let’s Not Make Lorena Bobbitt a Feminist Poster Child

Are we making too much of the Mother of All Marital Fights?

If you read the national press, peruse People, or spend any time watching the tabloid TV shows, you would have the strong impression that what Lorena Bobbitt did to her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, in the wee hours of June 23 in Manassas, Va., was the equivalent of the shot heard ‘round the world in the battle of the sexes and that we haven’t shut up about it since.

You would think that a vicious tug of war is going on in the national psyche, much like the tumult that ensued after Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her.

And you would think that: a) Lorena Bobbitt single-handedly avenged the sexual crimes that have been perpetrated against all women from the beginning of time, or b) the Bobbitts are twits. (Personally, I am going with Theory B.)

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In many media circles, Bobbitt has become another funny word like Buttafuoco , one of the best opportunities for a good comic riff since Prince Charles told Camilla Parker-Bowles that he fancied he could be her tampon.

The Bobbitts have become the butt of jokes from columnists pirouetting cleverly about unkindest cuts, to David Letterman’s Top Ten, to those blurry-from-copying office memos urging men to protect themselves from “Clip and Flip Syndrome.”

Experts at keeping the flames of controversy burning, the media have also rounded up their favorite contrarians on women’s issues: Camille Paglia, the unfeminist, compares the severing of Bobbitt’s penis to the Boston Tea Party: “It’s a wake-up call. . . . It has to send a chill through every man in the world.”

And Katie Roiphe, author of a controversial book about date rape, recently wrote that “Lorena Bobbitt has become a symbol of female rage. She has ardent supporters, people who consider her a heroine and a victim, people who will feel outraged and betrayed if she is convicted of malicious wounding, when her trial comes up in January.”

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To make Lorena Bobbitt into a symbol for anything other than a sick marriage between two immature, angry people is to compromise the legitimacy that has finally been conferred on battered women who strike back in self-defense.

In a world that prefers its symbols spotless, neither Bobbitt makes for a particularly savory one. Lorena, for her part, has admitted to a character-dimming string of petty crimes (embezzling money from her employer-best friend, shoplifting dresses from Nordstrom, and stealing $100 from the wallet of the friend who was staying with the couple on the night of the big fight). John, for his part, has a roving eye and has been named in a paternity suit.

Lorena did seem, at first, like the very image of a confused and battered wife.

In August, one Virginia women’s advocate was quoted as saying that what Lorena had done was “a critical event in the history of women.” But by November, the same advocate had changed her mind: “Her abuse of him was so barbaric that the fact that she was allegedly abused is hardly an issue.”

At John Bobbitt’s trial last month on charges of marital sexual assault, Lorena claimed that her husband had raped her, then fell asleep, and when she went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, she saw the knife and changed her plan.

Unfortunately, what Lorena Bobbitt put forth as her personal version of taking back the night just didn’t wash. Last month, a jury found her husband innocent.

Early next year, Lorena Bobbitt will be tried on charges of malicious wounding. She too faces a maximum penalty of 20 years. Her lawyer plans to claim she is not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

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There’s no denying the primal, gut-wrenching reaction to John Wayne Bobbitt’s wound. It’s a nearly unheard of crime, too horrible for most men to contemplate, fascinating and appalling to women. It’s understandably a major news story in a national media, which is (dare I say?) primarily controlled by men.

And yet, if I happen to mention that this kind of thing happens all the time to women in certain parts of the world, would it send the same kind of shiver down your spine?

An estimated 80 million women across a broad swath of the African continent have been subjected to the brutal genital mutilation that is often called female circumcision. Most are children when the ritual takes place. Some bleed to death, some die of infection. The rest are permanently injured in varying degrees.

So when I wonder whether the purveyors of news have made too much of what happened to John Wayne Bobbitt, I have to admit that I don’t think so.

It’s just that we don’t make enough, sometimes, of what women endure.


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