The ‘90s Were Not That Great for Women—Just Ask Lorena Bobbitt
Twenty-five years ago this Saturday, Virginia manicurist Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s penis and threw it out of a car window. (It was subsequently located and reattached.) The story became a news sensation focused almost exclusively on that act: Newsweek called it “the handiwork of a bedroom vigilante,” and it was repurposed as endless comedy fodder. “Every guy in America is sleeping on his stomach now,” late night host Jay Leno cracked. Later, outside Bobbitt’s trial, vendors sold “Love Hurts” tees, cocktail weenies, penis-shaped chocolates, and Slice soda. A popular joke at the time was, “How does Lorena feel after sex? She gets a little snippy.”
In addition to mocking the incident, the news coverage centered John Wayne Bobbitt. Reports called the crime “revenge,” and one anchor said the man had suffered “vengeance of a high-voltage nature.” Psychologists claimed that, in the wake of the story, men in troubled marriages were newly fearful of their wives. Meanwhile, John Wayne posed for People magazine looking like a playboy (beside an inset of Lorena in handcuffs) and appeared on Howard Stern’s show to assure America that his wound had healed. Lorena was not invited on a press tour. National Lampoon satirized her on television in “He Never Gave Me Orgasm: The Lenora Babbitt Story,” about a “crazy, sexually frigid hysteric.” (Julie Brown, the actress who portrayed Bobbitt, was criticized for not getting enough laughs.)
It seems like an auspicious time for women like Bobbitt who made headlines during the ‘90s. Roseanne Barr returned this year to record ratings (until she flamed out). A Murphy Brown revival debuts this fall. Cynthia Nixon—once Sex and the City’s Miranda—is running for real-life governor of New York. Films about Tonya Harding, Anita Hill, and Marcia Clark have found an eager audience, and acclaim. Bobbitt’s story, too, will be retold in a forthcoming four-part docu-series executive produced by buzz machine Jordan Peele. We are awash in ‘90s nostalgia, specifically looking back at the women of the time: their clothes and hair, yes, but also their successes and scandals. But, we need to look more closely.
The “cut heard round the world” became the story of male victims, female perpetrators, and a take-sides kind of battle of the sexes, rather than what it was actually about—domestic violence, trauma, and abuse. Lorena said she suffered years of battery and rape at the hands of her husband. She claimed he had raped her earlier that very night. (He was later tried for marital assault and acquitted.) Lorena’s landlord and her boss corroborated her accounts of abuse. Police had visited the Bobbitt home multiple times on domestic violence calls. But a tale of domestic abuse and victim-blaming wasn’t the story that took hold. Instead, the media cast John Wayne as a victim and anti-hero, and Lorena as a vengeful perpetrator. Though she was also found not guilty in court, this is the narrative a generation internalized, and the version of the story most remember today.
As someone who spent four years researching and writing a book about ‘90s feminism and sexism—90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, out this week—I worry that our ‘90s nostalgia is really ‘90s amnesia. We’re romanticizing a decade that was an incredibly complex time, especially when it came to women.
I aged from eight to 18 during the '90s, and am part of the generation of women who were shaped by that time. When I began looking back to that decade, I did so with warm memories of my ‘90s childhood—I loved TLC and The Spice Girls—but bad tastes came up, too. I remembered hating Brenda from 90210, who was cast as the “blue chip bitch” of the show for speaking her mind, a reputation that actress Shannen Doherty didn’t entirely escape. Courtney Love was toxic for daring to have had a husband that so many people loved, or not mourning him in exactly the right way, or having a career and a life she continued to tend after his loss. The women of the hit show Living Single were called “booty-shaking sugar mamas” and “man-crazed fly girls.”
I internalized these depictions and did not question them. Chauvinism colored the media narrative, and convinced me and countless others that women’s characters were problematic. We thought something was wrong with each of them, and then with each of us. This thinking helped shape my speech, my choices, the way I moved in the world, and the kind of woman I thought it was possible to become. What I discovered returning to this time as a journalist years later was shocking, upsetting, and illuminating: During the ‘90s, any woman who had power, who wanted power; or who was in popular culture, entertainment, politics, or the news, was bitchified. Women were systematically undermined, objectified, and dismissed by the media, Hollywood, and Washington. This was done using the word “bitch” and its corollaries in news coverage, entertainment, and ultimately what became the societal narrative.
That "bitchification" not only explains why I had negative memories of so many women from the 1990s, but it reveals that women in the news were not “bitches” at all, but victims of sexism. This hidden campaign to discredit any and every public woman impacted private women, too. That special brand of ‘90s misogyny poisoned girlhood for a generation of kids and teens. We fail to see this when we romanticize the ‘90s as a gentler, simpler time before the saturation of the internet—full of tiny backpacks, music with instruments, and phones that hung from walls.
The modern celebration of ‘90s trends like Girl Power, DGAF characters like Daria (whom MTV is also reviving), calling back to Clueless, and the return of halter tops and brown lipstick are all fun. However, let’s not forget that ‘90s marketers repackaged and sold young women Girl Power as if it were actual feminism. Companies inveigled young women into believing that power came from purchases, diets, and fitting in. And bitchifying any woman who dared show up in public without any real consequences was just the way things were.
It is also a fact that feminism made important strides in those days. The Riot Grrrl movement fought for equality and pioneered the normalization of female anger through music and political activism. They protested against domestic abuse, rape, and rigorous standards of female beauty, and for abortion rights and equal pay. Girl-made zines, websites, literature, and films flourished. Legislation like VAWA, actions by the United Nations, and even the OJ Simpson trial (another trauma made into tabloid entertainment) improved domestic-violence awareness and bolstered resources for victims.
Today, we see these gains in the fact that women comprise 20% of the United States Congress and are better represented in Hollywood, on college campuses, and in the workforce. But sexism is still present, even if it acts differently. It’s obvious in the gender pay gap, in corporate cultures of pregnancy discrimination, and the occurrence of crimes like sexual harassment and rape.
It’s impossible to say how Lorena Bobbitt’s story would have been handled had it occurred today, but at the very least we owe her, and all women dismissed, attacked for their sex, and reduced to their sexual function by ‘90s media narratives an honest look back at how they were done so wrong. Our obsession with ‘90s culture cannot begin and end with chokers, halter tops, and singing Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” at karaoke. We must also work to craft a more accurate and balanced history.
The stories about women that gripped us back then are being resurfaced and retold. Today’s versions are integrating women’s voices and additional context like never before. The beloved film I, Tonya was based on hours of interviews with the skater herself. Because she had a hand in telling her story this time, we are now beginning to understand that the “little barracuda” from the wrong side of town was tormented by emotional and physical abuse, not to mention rampant prejudice by the classist skating world. We are beginning to see how an intern smeared as a “slut” by powerful politicians and the country’s premier news organizations was in fact the victim of gross abuses of power. (She nods to this in her TED talk and through her work as an anti-bullying activist.) Such revisions to ‘90s history are progress, but there’s more work to do.
Let’s also be clear that redeeming one Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, or Lorena Bobbitt misses the point. In order to fight sexism, abuse, and inequality, we must understand what happened 20 years ago. It's how we got where we are today. Then, we can put our nostalgia to good use, and maybe we can get the story right this time.