The most striking thing I read this week was a profile, of sorts, of Lorena Bobbitt. I say “of sorts” because it both is and is not trying to do the things we usually associated with profiles. In it, Amy Chozick employs many of the tropes of the traditional profile (looks, mannerisms, habits, family arrangements) but every aspect is placed in contrast, implicitly and explicitly, with what we’d internalized for decades about her subject. See, for example, the passage below:
It has been 26 years since Lorena Bobbitt, a 24-year-old wounded bird of a woman with dark, wiry hair and sad, penetrating eyes became so enshrined in the annals of popular culture that she makes a cameo in both a Philip Roth novel and Eminem lyrics. Today, Lorena is shy, a petite 117 pounds in a black blazer, tasteful black stilettos, diamond hoop earrings and a Louis Vuitton handbag. (She told me her weight because she had weighed 95 pounds in 1993, when John said she had assaulted him.) Even though she has physically transformed, now the picture of an upwardly mobile 49-year-old suburban mom with wispy blond hair, she has the same, sad, dark, orb-like eyes.
Or take a lede of the piece: “Lorena is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing.” The paragraph goes on to describe the way she gestures to the hospital where doctors reconnected her ex-husband’s penis, which she famously cut off in 1993. Usually, a writer has to describe something before she’s allowed to all it “the whole thing.” She needs an antecedent. But a profile of Lorena Bobbitt arrives with its own antecedent.
Granted, most profiles of famous people do. You know the outlines of a person’s life and their importance — the whole reason you’re reading the profile in the first place — as soon as you read the headline. But a profile like this, in which a subject is so defined by a singular, profoundly shaping event, is different. Lorena has remarried and taken a new last name: Gallo. But as she tells Chozick, “I know I am still Lorena Bobbitt,” she said. “That name you know, it’s very important here.”
Lorena became defined not by what she did, however, so much as how it was interpreted — how it became a seminal cultural event of the early ‘90s, flattened into unfunny jokes about phallic anxiety. That’s what happens when someone’s messy, complex, contradictory life becomes the latest skirmish in the culture war: it’s hollowed out and shaped to either assuage or inflame the anxieties of a given moment, regardless of what actually happened and why.
Bobbitt — much like Tonya Harding and Monica Lewinsky after her — became a symbol of uncontained female desire (for sexual fulfillment, for advancement). But that was always subtext. The overt text was much simpler: they were monstrous. Sluts. Villains. Because as complex as societal anxieties actually are at any given moment, the narratives that emerge out of them are generally simple: there are good guys and bad girls, heroes and victims. Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt become stock figures in a movie that’s meant to both distract and reinforce what we already believe — about sex, about immigrants, about abuse and power.
Over the last few years, we’ve reached enough distance from both the ‘80s and ‘90s to reconsider the ideologies — manifest in both film and the way various cultural events were mediated — that were normalized during the time. ‘80s movies. Sixteen Candles. R. Kelly. Anita Hill. OJ Simpson. Most recently, in the wake of the Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook pictures: Soul Man.
Some of the recuperation and recontextualization is done by the subjects themselves (see Monica Lewinsky’s extensive writing in Vanity Fair). Some is done through a combination of filmmaking and press (see: I, Tonya and Taffy’s seminal profile). For Lorena Gallo, it’s a combination of extensive contextualization (achieved through Lorena, the mini-series that debuts on Amazon on February 15th), profiles like Chozick’s, and the overwhelming sense, as articulated in the tweet screenshotted above, that whatever messages you internalized from pop culture about basically any public figure were fucked up in some way.
When I say “fucked up,” I mostly mean filtered through noxious yet normalized understandings of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The OJ documentary, Made in America, does a superlative job of breaking down exactly what those understandings were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, both leading up to and during OJ’s trial. And although I’ve only seen the first two episodes of Lorena, it’s already doing that work in terms of gender, sex, and race.
At root of the treatment of Lewinsky, Harding, Hill, and Bobbitt is good old fashioned misogyny, inflected with complicated mixes of racism, exoticism, puritanism, and classism. But that’s also the history of treatment for basically anyone in America. What distinguishes their treatment is its intersection with postfeminism: the idea that began to take hold in the late ‘80s, enduring through the mid ‘00s, that we, as a society, were “beyond” the need for feminism. Feminism had done its work, in other words — Women could have credit cards! There was Cosmopolitan! Women were in the workplace! — and was no longer necessary. In place of feminism, there was “girl power” (think Spice Girls) and “commodity feminism,” e.g. the idea that one’s ability to buy things was tantamount to liberation (see: Pretty Woman).
As this ideology took hold, it wasn’t as if actual feminists disappeared altogether. Indeed, the very idea that feminism had achieved its goals effectively erases the actual goals of third-wave feminism, which had started working (and continued to work through the ‘90s, and continues to work today) towards equality that didn’t simply focus on the needs of middle-class, straight, cis-gendered white women. At the time, feminists rallied around Anita Hill. But feminists, at least the prominent ones associated with NOW, also failed to decry Bill Clinton. (If you wonder why America lacks a detectable left, check out the list of erstwhile progressives who, at some point during Mr. Clinton's first term, dined at the White House,” Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in a 1997 Times editorial. “To regain their moral consistency, feminists and progressives will have to end their co-dependence on Mr. Clinton.”)
Some feminists did rally behind Lorena Bobbitt: the Washington Post reported that she’d become a “feminist folk lore hero,” receiving hundreds of calls and letters of support, many of them from others who’d survived rape or abuse. Ms. Magazine encouraged readers to contact the Virginia chapter of NOW. Katie Roiphe described Bobbitt as a sort of symbol of “female rage”: “We need to understand the part of the women’s movement that yearns for a Lorena Bobbitt,” she wrote. “In the midst of our own political tempest, we need to say to ourselves as Prospero did about Caliban, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
There’s some truth to that characterization, but it’s also easily caricatured, delegitimized: don’t pay attention to those harpy feminists, they’re just so angry. And that anger is dangerous: “In the battle of the sexes, this was like stealing the other team's mascot," the executive director of a men's rights group told the Times. “This is the result of feminists teaching women that men are natural oppressors.”
Or, as William F. Powers put it in the Washington Post, feminism itself is dangerous, unfocused, unfair: “Feminism. Finding yourself a little confused lately about what it means? You have company,” he writes, before criticizing Ms.’s support of Bobbitt:
“Maybe Lorena Bobbitt was raped by her husband. Something pretty bad must have happened to her to prompt her to mutilate him. But Ms. cannot know that Lorena Bobbitt's story is true, and it insults its readers by suggesting that of the two warring Bobbitts, the woman inherently deserves their support, just because she is a woman. Is it too much to ask of a feminist magazine -- even the grandmama of all feminist magazines -- that it at least mention the other side of the story?
Both the quote from the “men’s right’s” advocate and Powers’ editorial could be published today: that’s just straight up, reactionary anti-feminism, overtly and implicitly invested in protecting the patriarchy.
What’s more striking — and, I think, indicative of the complexities of postfeminism — are pieces like “Let’s Not Make Lorena Bobbitt a Feminist Poster Child,” published in 1993 in the Los Angeles Times. “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.” The piece then goes on to suggest that the fixation on the Bobbitts allows us to keep blind to larger, global issues — in this case, female genital mutilation.
The overarching argument is similar to Powers’: Contemporary feminism is too confused to be of worth. In fact, it’s so confused as to be harmful. It’s unfocused. It’s hysterical. It’s too emotional. It’s unnecessary. It shouldn’t be wielded in public. If those criticisms sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same ones used against women in general, especially women advocating for themselves or others in public. But by the ‘90s, it was no longer acceptable to so those things about women. So instead you said it about feminism — what had become, for many women, their primary means of advocacy.
(It should be noted that there were myriad additional ways of characterizing feminism as unnecessary — the enduring legacy of the so-called porn-wars made it easy to characterize feminists as prudish and anti-pleasure, just as larger conversations about self-objectification and the male gaze contributed to the stereotype that to be a feminist meant not only burning your bra, but refusing makeup and just wearing burlap sacks all day).
When we reconsider Lorena — and Anita Hill, and Tonya Harding, and Monica Lewinsky — part of what we are reconsidering is postfeminism in general. I remember, when I first learned about postfeminism as a concept, feeling like it had unlocked so much of my youth: Oh, that’s why it wasn’t cool to be a feminist! That’s what’s going on in Pretty Woman! That’s why I never liked the Spice Girls but could never articulate why! That’s why Sex and the City is so ideologically confused! At the time, I only saw myself as its primary victim. I was so sad that feminism, and the solidarity and advocacy and pride it included, had been framed that way, had been made largely unavailable to me. That I had internalized the notion that the feminist part of me was abject, or otherwise undesirable.
I do think that millions of other teens (who, like me, never even what Sassy was, let alone that they should ask for a subscription for it) suffered without access to feminism. But there’s also the unique and poignant and enduring suffering of the women who become fodder for its formation and sustenance: postfeminism made them villains, and in so doing, made itself stronger.
I talk about this like postfeminism is a living entity, or a side in a war, with generals captaining it. Ideologies are never that coherent, that distinguishable, even if they do have people who benefit and profit from them. But there is no “outside” of ideology: We are all participants in a given ideology’s formation. Those who push against it can inadvertantly codify and reinforce its tenets. Those who ignore it nonetheless internalize it messages. The most effective and insidious of ideologies are those that make themselves invisible: it’s not a stance, it’s not political, it’s just the way things are.
Feminists in the academy first started writing about postfeminism in the early ‘90s. But it takes inflection points like this one — post-Trump, post-#MeToo — for its larger damage, and our generalized participation in it, to become visible. I read that profile of Lorena, and I watch the documentary, and I am in awe of her ability to endure — not withstand, but endure — the warping force of postfeminism. I feel the same when I hear Anita Hill speak, or read Monica Lewinsky.
There will be more survivors, for lack of a better word, of postfeminism for us to reflect on. Britney, just to start. The treatment of Serena Williams, for sure. But I fear what current cultural events, what treatment of cultural icons, will return to us in twenty years. Just because feminism is cool again doesn’t mean postfeminism is dead, or anti-feminism isn’t just alive, but thriving. I refuse to believe that we’ve always treated people unfairly, and will continue to. We might always get things wrong. But think, for a moment, about who we get the most wrong — and whose treatment, if revised, it’s to acknowledge that they were treated too well. And those people? They very rarely have anything in common with someone like Lorena Bobbitt.
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
Why so many book covers like this way right now
An exquisite piece on the history of black women and their furs
I finally got to see The Favourite and wanted to read every piece written on Queen Anne; this was my, uh, favorite
My favorite thing I’ve read on student debt
Some Super Bowl reading: The White Flight from Football
This week’s “just trust me”
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