The most publicised trial in recent history has come to an end. A US jury has ruled in actor Johnny Depp’s favour in a defamation suit against his ex-wife, Amber Heard, for a 2018 op-ed in which Heard called herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse” — without naming Depp.
The jury found Heard had acted with “malice” against Depp, but also found Depp’s team defamed her when describing her account of abuse as “a hoax”. Heard was awarded US$2 million and Depp US$15 million, US$10 million in compensatory damages and US$5 million in punitive damages. The punitive damages amount was later reduced to US$350,000 by the judge, Virginia’s caps on damage amounts.
Millions tuned in to the seven-week trial — Discovery+ even had ads prompting viewers to stream “Johnny versus Amber” on its website — offering commentary and satire, picking apart the most minuscule details for entertainment. It’s been parodied on Saturday Night Live and by comedians, with comedian Chris Rock saying in a routine: “Believe all women … except Amber Heard”.
With so many watching, the trial is wrongly being used as a test case for the Me Too movement.
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The court heard allegations of abuse committed by both Depp and Heard. Earlier, in 2020, Depp lost a defamation case in the UK against a newspaper that called him a “wife-beater”. A court upheld 12 of the 14 allegations of abuse by Heard, including vile and abusive messages. In this trial, recordings showed Heard admitting to hitting Depp, with allegations she severed his finger after throwing a glass bottle at him.
In the court of public opinion, Depp has come out on top. Fans waited for him outside the courthouse, offering gifts and flowers; cyber bots spread rhetoric favourable to Depp and hashtags labelling Heard a “psychopath” trended.
But a case with allegations of brutal sexual violence and violent abuse from both sides is not something to be mocked and made into memes. The way the public has reacted to the trial, turning it into entertainment, does the entire movement a disservice. The trial is being used to support a litany of narratives — perhaps most worryingly for men’s rights activists.
Scores of them have offered live commentary on the trial, using it to push their narrative that women hate men and pretend to be victims for social and economic gain and that society is always on their side. The case is being used to discredit women and Depp has become a hero in the manosphere.
Women too have played into this narrative — victim-survivors have been comparing their own experiences with Heard’s to discredit her, focusing on claims Heard picked fights, stopped Depp from walking away from her, and once showed up at his accommodation after being granted a restraining order from him.
This too is damaging. A major flaw in the Me Too movement has been its focus on white victims’ experiences, when in reality women of colour and women from lower socio-economic backgrounds experience abuse at higher rates all over the world. These women have turned on Heard (pretty, rich, white) for being an imperfect victim. Her narrative and reactions were too hard to understand and her story didn’t stack up.
As Depp’s team alleged, if Heard did lie about the physical abuse she endured, it’s right for victim-survivors to be angry at her for discrediting the movement. But mocking her and comparing one person’s abuse with another’s is fundamentally flawed, and plays into the narrative that only victims with textbook-perfect examples of abuse are to be believed.
The fact of the matter is this: abuse is messy. It often happens behind closed doors, committed by intimate partners — making it difficult to prosecute. Victims often struggle to leave an abusive relationship due to family ties, a lack of resources or fear of punishment. Those who have been sexually abused often struggle with guilt and stigma, and it can take a long time to understand that abuse has occurred. But false allegations of sexual abuse are incredibly rare. And in most cases, men are the perpetrators and women are the victims.
As long as we have celebrities and litigious societies, there will always be high-profile defamation cases. Pinning the success or failure of the movement based on the outcome of a single case is a mistake, and no lines should be drawn under the Me Too movement based on the testimony of either.