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THE BOBBITT CASE : Classic Example of ‘the Cult of the Average Person’ : The case drew enormous attention, in part, because of the unique notion that in America, anyone can become anything--good or bad, experts say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Jarriel of ABC’s “20/20" offered an exclusive interview with Her--in prime time. Nancy Glass of the nationally syndicated “American Journal” offered an exclusive interview with Him--in two parts! Together, Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt made the cover of People magazine. Vanity Fair devoted 10 pages to her story. Court TV covered her trial. When she was found not guilty of “malicious wounding"--as he earlier had been found not guilty of rape--the verdict made front pages coast to coast.

Why?

What is it about the Bobbitts that so fascinates Americans--and so preoccupies the American media?

At first glance, the answer seems simple: Nothing arouses public interest like sex and violence. What could be juicier than a story about a woman who cut off her husband’s penis with a kitchen knife?

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But Barry Glassner, chairman of the sociology department at USC, says there’s another factor, what he calls “the uniquely American phenomenon of ‘the cult of the average person.’ ”

“Why do people watch Phil Donahue and Geraldo and all those other talk and tabloid programs?” he asks. “A big part of it is that the people on those shows are portrayed as average except for the one special thing that got them on TV. People identify with that.

“Look at Heidi Fleiss,” he says. “She’s an average girl, not gorgeous, who drops out of high school--and becomes the (alleged) madam to the stars. Anyone could do this--you or your daughter or your neighbor.”

Those who have studied the news media in other cultures suggest that if, say, a woman cut off her husband’s penis in almost any other country, the case would be perceived--and covered--as bizarre, inconceivable.

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In Europe, Glassner says, a Lorena Bobbitt would be covered as a “super freak, completely off the charts of human behavior.” But news media coverage in this country has reflected the prevailing sense here that “this could be you, this could happen to you,” Glassner says.

“Nothing is more fundamental to the American mythology than the concept that anyone can be anything,” Glassner says.

You can grow up to be President of the United States . . . or you can grow up and get your penis chopped off.

As Maury Povich, the syndicated talk show host, said in an interview, “Every man’s hand goes to his crotch” at the mere mention of what Lorena Bobbitt did. Narda Zacchino, associate editor of the Los Angeles Times, says that the Bobbitt case triggered a “moment of recognition” for many women--" 'Click . . . I have been there; I would love to have done this in my fantasy. . . .’ ”

Thus, Pat Oliphant’s nationally syndicated cartoon on the Lorena Bobbitt jury, published in the Los Angeles Times last month, showed all the women grinning and all the men covering their groins. The case touched such a vital nerve in this country that the New Yorker ran three cartoons on it in one issue last November.

But there’s more to the Bobbitt phenomenon than the Everyman and Everywoman syndrome.

It’s no coincidence that the common thread connecting most of the major personality stories in this country in recent years involve sex: the Bobbitts, Fleiss, Michael Jackson, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuocco, Erik and Lyle Menendez, even Bill Clinton and Gary Hart.

The Puritans who founded the United States and the Victorians who strongly influenced its mores a century later left an enduring legacy; Americans seem more uncomfortable talking about sex and, paradoxically, more voyeuristically interested in it than are people of many other nations.

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But sexual inhibitions have diminished in recent decades, and editors and news directors are uncertain about what is and isn’t appropriate to print and broadcast. We’re more open about sex--some of us, sometimes--but we’re still not sure where to draw the line. Condom ads on television? Photos of full frontal nudity? Details of rape and sexual mutilation cases?

“Much of the so-called legitimate news media . . . run things that they wouldn’t have run years ago just because peoples’ standards have changed and the level of acceptability is different than it was in 1955,” says Peter Prichard, editor of USA Today. “It’s far more acceptable to talk about things that people didn’t talk about before.”

Forty years ago, Prichard says, the Bobbitt case probably wouldn’t have been covered in the media because it would have been perceived as distasteful. The mere mention of the word penis was uncommon, in the media and in polite society alike. But today, says Matthew Storin, editor of the Boston Globe, “you’ve got vaginas (and) penises left and right.”

USA Today has put the Bobbitts on Page 1 six times. After her acquittal, Lorena Bobbitt, having been interviewed on both “20/20" and “Good Morning, America,” is said to have received three movie offers--and requests for interviews from 105 news organizations.

The transmogrification of the Bobbitts, from unhappy--and unknown--couple to nationwide pseudo-celebrities, the butt of jokes in newspaper columns and on late-night talk shows and T-shirts, may derive in part from the rise of feminism.

Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC’S “World News Tonight,” thinks American feminists used the Bobbitt case to “advance their own agenda.” The news media helped out by using the “sociological twist” of feminism to justify their interest “so we are not just seen to be prurient,” he says.

That “solemn kind of . . . ‘Let’s make a universal issue out of it (approach)’ would not have been done in France or in Italy,” says Jordan Bonfonte, Time magazine bureau chief in Los Angeles and former chief of the magazine’s bureaus in Paris and Rome.

But that is not an uncommon tack for the American media on inherently sensational stories, and Zacchino agrees that the Bobbitt case has had “the resonance that it has today . . . because of the influence of the feminist movement.” Like many women, she thinks the issues of rape and wife beating had long been neglected in our society.

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The Bobbitt case “took on much greater proportions than just a story of a woman who had mutilated her husband,” Zacchino says. The case came to represent “all oppressed women in marriages where their husbands were abusive to them and . . . this fantasy of women to get even with these men.”

Page 1 Coverage

When Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis, the story and their trials made Page 1 news throughout the country. One reason: Sexual matters that were once taboo are now openly discussed. Another: Longstanding complaints about rape and wife-beating gave the story special resonance, especially in the United States.


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