Years, even decades, before I became a dad, I could not refrain from making dad jokes. If there is a groaningly obvious joke I am going to make it. I might pretend that I’m ironically making the dumbest, most obvious joke imaginable, but the truth is that I genuinely love making terrible jokes even if I am not only my best audience but also my only audience. In true dad joke fashion, I make these lame, hack zingers for my own sake rather than kids or spouses or friends more likely to roll their eyes and groan than guffaw at whatever lame wisecrack I feel compelled to make. Which brings me to Lorena Bobbitt.
When my wife and I — both true crime addicts — sat down to watch Lorena, the much-buzzed-about Lorena Bobbitt documentary mini-series on Amazon Prime my brain positively swam with all manner of castration-themed gags and goofs and wordplay and my wife braced herself for four long hours of dick jokes I would not be able to keep myself from making. Meanwhile, I braced myself for the vicarious pain, I was sure to experience by watching a four-hour documentary series about a dude getting his dick cut off. I flinch in sympathy pain when I see a character take a football to the groin in a comedy. Four hours of people talking about castration was going to be rough.
When men first hear about the Bobbitt case, their first instinct is to put themselves in John Wayne Bobbitt’s place and imagine the unimaginable: having your cock chopped off. How painful must that be? How do you come back from an injury like that? The Amazon series, however, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to John Wayne Bobbitt on any level. He is what is colloquially known as a real piece of shit, a dead-eyed slab of human garbage who is a sleazy idiot, sure, but also just a terrible, terrible, woman-beating monster.
About the nicest thing anyone can say about Bobbitt is that he’s too stupid to lie, and too much of an incompetent moron to be able to do much damage. But of course that isn’t true: you don’t have to be an evil genius to cause harm and Bobbitt clearly hurt, physically and emotionally, the women he physically, emotionally and sexually abused.
If John is impossible to relate to or empathize with, Lorena emerges as an extraordinarily sympathetic, relatable figure. She’s a consummate survivor who used her sordid tabloid fame to become an activist and essential voice for abused women. Where her ex-husband’s post-severing life resembles a boozy, desperate lurch to the bottom filled with arrests, abuse, and alcoholism, Lorena has made something of herself. Her life has dignity and meaning and one of the nice surprises of Lorena is that, as its title suggests, it’s not ultimately the sordid story of a dude who got his dick cut off so much as it is the story of a remarkable women who stood strong and proud through vicious abuse and being a national punchline for years. Where John Wayne is a dim bulb, the well-preserved, eloquent and passionate Lorena is a bright light.
Jokes are of course a part of the mini-series because they were such a fundamental component of the story itself. You can’t tell the story of John and Lorena Bobbitt without acknowledging what a boon the tabloid tragedy was for the always-thriving dick joke industry.
We get generous glimpses of “funny” archival headlines with screamingly obvious castration jokes not unlike the ones I was planning on tossing off liberally and enthusiastically but chose not to make out of deference to the seriousness of the situation and also to the fact that, to be honest, these jokes would have been terrible and I would been the only person who would have enjoyed them.
But we also get Howard Stern, who unwisely adopted John Wayne into his pack of misfits, oddballs, and human punchlines, telling John Wayne that he bet he never raped his ex-wife and that she’s just hungry for his cock.
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You can’t get angry at Howard Stern for behaving exactly like Howard Stern has always behaved but good lord, do these comments ever land wrong, wreaking of cruelty and vicious, not so casual misogyny. Howard is most assuredly not on the right side of history in this instance and, I would imagine, many others.
Late in the series, Bobbitt appears on Steve Harvey’s talk show in a “Where are they now?” segment. In an unsurprising turn of events, the dreadful comedian, talk show host and best-selling author can’t resist from making the same kind of lame jokes I intended to make before I realized that the tone of the series, and the times we live in, would make those jokes not just hack but also deeply insensitive, even cruel and misogynistic.
Harvey, needless to say, did not seem to have the same reservations. He most assuredly made all of the expected dick jokes, and he made them in Lorena Bobbitt’s presence, knowing there was nothing she could do but be a good sport.
Lorena handled the situation with grace and aplomb. She knows damn well that she’s in for some cheap dick jokes and suffers through Harvey’s lame shtick for the sake of being able to advocate for survivors of physical and sexual abuse on a big showcase like Harvey’s show.
A woman famous for cutting off a dude’s dick and a mogul whose wealth and multi-tiered success and vast wealth give him tremendous power within our culture were talking and the woman had all the dignity and self-restraint.
Seeing my own worst comedic instincts enthusiastically acted out by a hack like Harvey really drove home how dumb and cheap the jokes Lorena has had to endure have been, how little they’ve given the world comedically on top of everything else.
On its own, the impulse to make dumb castration jokes about Lorena Bobbitt might not seem that hurtful. They’re just jokes, right? Dumb gags. Tomfoolery. A little locker room banter the whole country can enjoy without feeling too guilty.
Collectively, however, the sheer volume and force of these glib, mean-spirited and crude jokes about a woman who lashed out against her rapist and abuser in the most direct and extreme manner have had a toxic cumulative impact. They attempt to strip Bobbitt of her dignity, her agency, her voice, to reduce a complicated human being with a soul and a noble mission to keep other women from suffering the way she did to the darkest moment of her life, to a cheap dick joke, a tacky pop culture reference from our vulgar collective past.
A woman’s need to be heard, seen, felt and understood is far more important than a man’s need to make jokes regardless of the context. Watching Lorena’s heroic struggle made me realize that my wife isn’t just annoyed when I make bad, obvious dad jokes because they’re not funny or good, although heaven knows that’s also part of it.
No, she gets justifiably annoyed with me because when I’m gearing up to fire off a painfully predictable dad joke I’m by definition not listening to her and we aren’t having an honest, healthy dialogue because, like Harvey in Bobbitt’s indulgent presence, I’m just waiting to do my dumb shtick.
In that respect, these bad, easy, obvious jokes aren’t so harmless at all. On a large scale, they can reduce a brave woman’s agony and resilience to a cheap, unfair dick joke. On a personal level, they can hinder communication and harm relationships if not curtailed or eliminated completely.
What happened to Lorena Bobbit was no joke, figuratively or, I’m pleased to say in the case of my unexpectedly silent, reverent viewing of the miniseries at least, literally as well.