Every major news story has its subtext, and the Lorena Bobbitt case was no different. On June 23, 1993, Bobbitt (who now goes by her maiden name, Gallo) took a kitchen knife to her husband John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis, setting off a media maelstrom that touched on everything from gender inequality to domestic violence to immigration to medical miracles (police found Bobbitt’s severed organ and it was successfully reattached following a nine-hour procedure). The press had a field day with the incident and subsequent trial, which pitted Gallo against Bobbitt in a he-said, she-said trial for the ages. And the headlines about Lorena Bobbitt in 1993 were far from kind, understanding, or sensitive.
John Bobbitt, a former Marine, was initially portrayed as the victim, a husband who was unwittingly on the receiving end of his wife’s violent vitriol late one night. His all-American good looks and feigned innocence, however, eventually gave way to inconsistent testimony and a slew of witnesses who claimed that he had beaten Gallo and abused her emotionally throughout the course of their marriage. Headlines turned from “Man Denies Rape Of Wife Before She Mutilated Him” to “Wife Tells Jury of Love Story, Then ‘Torture,’” accordingly.
Gallo, meanwhile, was portrayed simultaneously as a naive, broken woman who was battered by her then-husband, pushed to her breaking point, and as a jealous, vindictive wife who was angry about the couple’s impending divorce. Particularly cruel headlines called her a “HOT BLOODED LATINA” and a “jealous wife” who lashed out when she realized her American dream had been shattered. (Gallo was born in Ecuador in 1969, raised in Venezuela, and came to the United States in 1987 on a student visa).
Perhaps what was most telling of the times, and what continues to be a point of discussion about the case today, is that most of the headlines sensationalized the actual act of cutting off the penis—but not the alleged abuse and violence that likely caused it. Headlines like “I Felt a Tug” and “It Hurt Real Bad” pointed the media’s lens toward the almost Shakespearean tragicomedy unfolding in newspapers and on TV, playing on the public’s intrigue in the grotesque nature of the crime itself. Other headlines punched up the inevitable penis puns: “She wanted a divorce. He got a separation!”; “Indecent disposal”; and “Surefire Way to Get a Man’s Attention” were just a few.
And for some time, the narrative of the vengeful wife stuck. The Chicago Tribune ran a massive piece (written by English professor Regina Barreca) assuming that Gallo sliced off her husband’s penis as a form of revenge, glossing over any evidence of abuse. A controversial social critic, Camille Paglia, also questioned the abuse allegations, warning that the “cruel and barbarous” act could spark copycat behavior amongst women similarly seeking a revolutionary thrill.
As the eight-day trial wore on, however, and details of the couple’s clearly ill-fated marriage began to surface, the headlines took a different approach, addressing the then-taboo topic of spousal abuse and the growing divide between how men and women saw the case. The Doylestown Intelligencer’s 1993 headline, “Latest wedge between sexes is also the sharpest,” seemed to cut right to the chase — with a not-so-subtle pun to boot.
It’s important to note that the Bobbitts’ case happened at a particular time in American history: one year after Amy Fisher, or the Long Island Lolita, shot her lover’s wife, and one year before the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, thrust O.J. Simpson back into the spotlight. As such, the public was primed to crave sensational journalism — as opposed to serious discussions about domestic abuse — an instinct that has and hasn’t changed over the last two-and-a-half decades.
Today, in the era of the #MeToo movement, Gallo is heralded as a feminist hero, someone who brought domestic abuse into the spotlight and who continues to champion women’s rights. Had she decided to cut Bobbitt in more contemporary times, who’s to know how different the headlines would be?
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.