Depp vs Heard: The Rebirth Of ‘Body Language Science’ As Amber Heard Takes The Stand
Each frown or casual shake of the head from the ex-spouses draws millions of opinions. As for their meanings, it depends on whose side you’re on
Around a couple weeks after the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation case began, a peculiar theory surfaced online, pointed out in YouTube shorts, think pieces, and most commonly, in Twitter threads.
What I’m referring to here is the widely shared accusation that Amber Heard was ‘mimicking’ Depp’s outfits, in an attempt to psychologically intimidate or mock him. Sure, this did seem a bit over the top initially but here’s one documented instance, where Heard was accused of copying Johnny’s ‘dark outfit’.
Here’s another one with Amber now copying Johnny’s style of brooch. Too much of a coincidence? Maybe.
Dr Curry has finished off what was left of Amber Heard’s credibility. People with BPD copy how others dress… hmmm suits, glasses, ties, pins … AH has done herself no favours during this trial. #JohnnyDeppVsAmberHeard pic.twitter.com/PkHEu4h8MP— Shield Maiden🛡⚔️ (@QueenOfLockdown) April 26, 2022
The point here is that in a broadcasted case with two major celebrities, and the generally murky allegations of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), the general public remains satisfied with barely-informed opinions and sensationalised content across various social platforms.
With the trial spawning more armchair attorneys than the bar could possibly count, it’s fair to say that forming a concrete opinion here – far from the actual social lives of both defendant and plaintiff – is next to impossible. The human appetite for gossip and curiosity isn’t limited, resulting in thousands upon thousands of inferences from the court broadcasts, which generally keeps at least one of the actors on screen at all times.
Each frown or casual shake of the head draws millions of opinions in real-time, and each smile doubly so. As for their meanings, it largely depends on whose side you’re on.
Observing Both Sides
In Amber’s case, let’s take a look at what ally Maureen Callahan of the New York Post had to say after the actress’ recent testimony, in which she dived into graphic details of abuse:
While Callahan, who has already written a scathing opinion piece on Depp, was quickly shot down on Twitter, there’s a claim in this piece that’s fairly significant — that Depp’s immediate reaction to being accused of pretty egregious sexual violence was a ‘smirk.’
So let’s examine this claim ourselves that was published on the website of New York City’s most-read tabloid (about a quarter-million readership in print — no mean feat in 2022).
Let’s take a quick look at the quote Callahan has highlighted, which features in this clip from Law&Crime Network’s Youtube channel:
As Amber describes her version of the events that unfolded, Depp’s countenance is actually surprisingly stiff: he wipes his nose, and continues to look downwards into his monitor, without any clear emotions.
The only moment that we can ascribe to Callahan’s accusation of ‘smirking’ comes up at 8:42, pictured above. However, rather than a smirk, Johnny seems to raise his eyebrows and possibly shares a word with his legal counsel — an acceptable response considering his claim of never having physically assaulted Amber.
The problem here is perhaps less systematic than some Twitter doomsayers suggest. Again with Callahan’s previous article on Johnny, she reminds us of the actor’s irresponsible drug use, abusive language, and other shortcomings, insinuating that his audience-pleasing ‘performance’ should not be taken too seriously.
I agree with all these points, especially that of the trial’s performative nature. While the current body of evidence is overwhelmingly in his favour, it doesn’t mean that we ought to ignore some of the deeply caustic and problematic things that Johnny has associated with over the years.
That said, this is an all-too-clear example of bias against Johnny Depp. So let’s even the tables and take a look at some opinions about Amber… of which there’s absolutely no shortage. Just looking at the comments under the video above, we have a few choice examples:
“Here’s the thing, her team of lawyers failed her to tell her to not address the jury the entire time you’re giving testimony. It looks planned, it will look staged and it will definitely show that you are not telling the truth if you were only addressing them.” – Mariana C.
“The way she’s talking and twisting her face. It makes me uncomfortable because it’s fake. I don’t feel any empathy for her story. And I truly believe if she was telling the truth I’d be crying with her. It’s all quite disturbing.” – SavSHINee
“She’s too animated in her responses. She wasn’t afraid of him.. her accounts are very matter of fact and lack any emotion. During her small bits of “crying” she couldn’t pinch out a tear and then bounced back to being bubbly by the next question. As a DV survivor, I call bs.” – Angie Van Ness
While individual opinions such as these aren’t taken too seriously, they certainly have drawn a wave of sympathy for Depp and vitriol for Heard, especially with several alleged abuse survivors calling out the latter’s ‘hypocrisy.’
The Rise of Body-Language Experts
The study of body language as an effective means of both broadcasting and inferring information between humans is incredibly old, even showing up in Ancient Roman texts, where certain poses and mannerisms were encouraged to appear dominant and confident to others.
Today, following physics, cosmology, and several other fields, body language too has become something of a victim of the ‘pop-scientification’ that we’ve observed in recent decades. A quick Youtube search for ‘body language analysis’ reveals several thousand results. Here’s what the top 10 are about:
1 Result: A WIRED video explainer on reading body language, led by an ex-CIA agent.
3 Results: Scenes from Peaky Blinders, analyzed. (Quite an entertaining watch here!)
6 Results: Take a guess.
With over half the top ten results for this search driving directly back to Depp v. Heard, it’s clear that the trial has been something of a goldmine for content creators with experience in picking apart the mannerisms and telltale signs that can separate honesty from lying.
While we’re certain that the skill levels of these individuals vary wildly, let’s play it safe and pick the top result — a video with 667k views, uploaded by The Behavior Panel.
The video under question was uploaded six days ago and is quite long, at nearly 90 minutes, so watch it at your leisure.
The four panelists on display are the self-proclaimed ‘world’s top four body language and behaviour experts’ — Chase Hughes, Greg Hartley, Mark Bowden, and Scott Rouse. You can judge from their website as to how legit they are (or aren’t), but with multiple published books and millions of views on their videos, it’s safe to assume that they can understand body language better than the average Twitter user.
So what do they have to say?
“His movement and uncertainty about her approach was relevant to him,” opines Hughes. “He shows body narration here, the same way he shows disgust on his face.” Regarding Depp’s retelling of an incident where Amber allegedly threw bottles and severed Depp’s finger, Hughes continues, “He orients himself spatially before recalling the movement of the bottle. This is a perfect example of truth telling, according to me.”
“A story would have details that Depp didn’t witness,” continues Hughes. “He’s recalling the bottle smashing behind him — not the third-person view like a movie camera.” Hughes also noted a consistency between the gestures made when Johnny mimes the bottle-throwing, and suggests that it supports his case.
Meanwhile, Hartley brings up Johnny’s explanation of his infamous severed finger injury, focusing on the fact that the actor’s talent plays into his testimony massively.
“I think he’s one of the most talented actors of my lifetime,” he admits. “He’s doing a ‘Marlon Brando’ here with his speech pattern, and the storytelling — going through the right bullets, the right details. Not saying that it’s a lie by any means; just that his story delivery is good and powerful.”
“He edits as he speaks. With Heard, her internal monologue seems to be, ‘Uh-oh, what’s next?’”
The problem here is that none of us really know what really happened here, and are far from qualified to guess. While I’m certain that most of these commenters are people who hope to see justice prevail, their analysis of Amber Heard definitely comes with implicit biases and unconscious ideas of what an abuser and a victim must act like, based on their own personal experiences.
To elucidate this better, here’s an excerpt from Popular Science’s article on the subject, written by Ramin Skibba:
‘Dawn Sweet, a University of Idaho communication researcher, agrees. “There’s not likely to be a single behavior diagnostic ever to be found” for someone lying or acting aggressively, she says.
Sweet and her fellow researchers often look at a person’s body language and spoken words together, since they’re usually communicating the same things. The researchers also examine the context of a person’s behavior and learn more about the speaker, since it matters if the behavior is typical for them or a deviation.
Sweet cites an earlier analysis of dozens of studies involving more than 1,300 estimates of 158 possible signs of deception. These studies focused on body language cues that people sometimes associate with lying, like fidgeting or avoiding eye contact. The studies found that cues like these have either no links or only weak links to lying.
No one has a giveaway like Pinocchio and his nose.’
So, is there a way to add a bit of fact into everyone’s personal semi-fictions — or will the trial continue to feed into our collective desire for cheap thrills and manufactured opinions?
The answer could be as disturbing or as wholesome as you might imagine.
Some may feel that the whole thing is a monument to 21st century voyeurism — a public
broadcast trial that feeds into a collective fetish for the lives of the rich and famous. While, on the other hand, our desire to opine, discuss, and peer inside the courtroom mimics the way we gossip and chat in everyday life; on some level, it humanizes the world of celebrity culture. At the end of the day, both Amber Heard and Johnny Depp are two flawed human beings — poles apart from the characters they play, both in court and on camera.
What’s for sure is that the verdict will come out soon enough, leaving us to deal with the aftermath of our opinions. What’s important is that once the next big internet debate begins, we learn to separate our personal analyses from the collective chaos of the Internet, while keeping an open mind and clear lens over the next field of internet experts — body language or otherwise.
Who analyses the body language analysts, though? Maybe we’ll answer that some other day.
(Featured Image Credits: Law&Crime Channel)