Forget the Bobbitts -- they symbolize only their own misery

January 17, 1994|By Caryl Rivers

WHY have the Bobbitts become America's new fun couple -- pushing Chuck and Di and Loni and Burt right off the news pages?

And how come, when every 18 minutes or so in this country, a woman is garroted, shot, knifed, mutilated, those stories either don't appear in the press or vanish quickly, unremembered? Yet when one man gets, as they say, sexually mutilated, the story will not die?

The Bobbitt story does have its bizarre aspects -- police out searching for a piece of another man's anatomy is not the standard fare on "Top Cops" -- and we in the press love the bizarre.

But I think that a lot of male fears are helping to fuel the coverage on this one. The idea of the dreaded, lethal female has its roots deep in history and myth, whether it's Medusa, who turned men to stone with a glance, or the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, whose weeping could be silenced only by feeding her beating human hearts, or the sirens whose songs were so beautiful they lured sailors to watery graves.

The Bobbitt story is one in which symbolism can't be avoided. The penis has long been thought of as a symbol of male power, and we are in an era in which many men see their power slipping away, on many fronts. Not so long ago, men didn't have to compete with women at work. Women were there to type letters, get coffee, answer phones. As for minorities, they were out of men's sight as well -- except to cook lunches, deliver packages or make up their beds when they traveled for business. Men not only have to compete with an armada of new people, they face a shrinking economy in which the good jobs at good wages grow harder and harder to find.

This might not be so difficult if many of us didn't remember growing up in a time when the United States was the envy of the world and the economy was booming. We feel entitled to be rewarded if we have worked hard and played by the rules, and many men feel the rules have suddenly changed.

The Bobbitts, of course, are a rather peculiar couple. Mr. Bobbitt seems oddly emotionless, talking about his experience rather the way he would talk about losing his wallet. Mrs. Bobbitt hardly seems a model of stability. Whatever the case, the story's persistence is about more than just this unhappy couple.

I'd suggest that the Bobbitt saga should, in fact, be reassuring -- despite male discomfort at some of the malevolent chuckles they have heard from some women. Remember, we are talking

symbols here; it's power that's being considered, not necessarily the actual member.

Other women do not chop off the sexual apparatus of their husbands and lovers, no matter how angry they get. They may use other weapons -- contempt, scorn, withdrawal -- which can be painful, but it's not the same thing as picking up a knife. The RTC reasons the Bobbitts are a story is that they are an aberration -- man bites dog. The very fact that they are so newsworthy should give men cause to breathe easy.

In fact, the battling Bobbitts are not the model of American men and women today. Studies show that while the divorce rate is high, marital satisfaction is also much higher than it was 30 years ago. People no longer stay in marriages that aren't working, but those that do survive are happier. Men and women may be more frazzled today, but they are also more truly partners. We tend to think that men were all wonderfully happy back in the 1950s, but if you read the social critics of that era, there were loud wails that men were nothing but moneymaking machines, slaves to their families, their bosses.

While the Bobbitts may symbolize a mythical war between the sexes, in real life, men and women are forming partnerships that benefit both. Would Bill be president without Hillary? I think of people I know -- the musician whose career is being made possible by his banker wife, the laid-off mid-level executive whose kids didn't have to drop out of college thanks to his wife's teaching salary, the editor who was able to leave the high-paying job he hated for a less lucrative one that he loved because his wife was there to take up the slack. The real story isn't warfare, it's cooperation. And when war does break out, it's not usually the woman who goes for the knife -- or the gun.

So let us forget the unhappy Bobbitts and their saga. They really don't symbolize anything but their own misery. Skirmishes between the sexes will go on, as they always have. The overall condition between the sexes, however, is not warfare, but engagement and peace.

Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, is the author of "Indecent Behavior."

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