Now in its fourth week, the ongoing multi-million-dollar defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has reached a fever pitch, and is pretty much inescapable on any public forum on the internet.
While most celebrity court cases stay planted on news headlines and the occasional tweet, this is a rare and unprecedented exception — an explosion of hashtags, amateur ‘detective’ work, several spinoff TikTok videos, Instagram Reels, and even ‘Sigma Male’ stylised motivational posts surrounding Depp’s admittedly amusing quips while on oath.
The foundation of the case is simple enough. After a whirlwind relationship and marriage in the mid 2010s, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed in 2018 for The Washington Post, in which she claimed to be a ‘public figure representing domestic abuse.’ This was followed by accusations of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse during their marriage. Depp turned the tables, suggesting that Heard was the real abuser, before losing a 2020 London case where a judge found ‘overwhelming’ evidence that Depp had assaulted Heard.
Two years later, the feud between both parties has escalated in the wake of several key #MeToo moments—a schism against abusers that has now collided face-first with a growing community of abused men that society and law have traditionally taken less seriously.
The result is that long before the trial has even reached its half-way point, an enormous wave of public sympathy has washed all over Johnny Depp’s past allegations, and launched a wave of hate towards Heard and her sympathizers.
Why has the court of public opinion sided so strongly with Depp, even before Heard has taken the stand? While it’s simple to attribute this to the mountain of serious evidence against Heard, it’s certainly unusual and warrants a closer look.
To start with, there’s the thousands of reels matching the trial’s footage to popular music tracks, ranging from Nintendo Wii Menu Music to the ‘Sigma Grindset’ audio cue, all pushing colorful titles such as ‘Ultimate Sigma Male’ in a cut clip of Depp deploying a well-timed joke against Heard’s lawyers, or the 4-part ‘anthology’ of ‘Johnny Depp Being Hilarious in Court’; we fully expect to see more of this as the case proceeds.
While there’s nothing particularly harmful about being entertained by an actor using his personality and wit to outfox legal opposition, it’s the sheer lack of context that perhaps requires attention, especially in a well-publicized abuse case.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually classify and track data surrounding what’s termed as ‘Intimate Partner Violence’—a category that puts physical, sexual, emotional, and even economic abuse under a single roof. The statistics paint an alarming picture – 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have suffered from some form of intimate partner violence in their lives, the exact issues that Depp and Heard’s lawyers have been feuding about for years.
“I think for people to automatically say, ‘he was the real victim here,’ and ‘she was the real perpetrator,’ is premature because we haven’t heard from her,” says Kellie Lynch, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas.
An expert at studying cases of intimate partner violence, Lynch admits that while Depp may very well be the victim that he claims he is, “what we’re seeing is too quick of a judgement. Both could have been victims and victimizing each other.”
‘He’s f**king Johnny Depp!’ is a good enough point to start with, all things considered.
John Christopher Depp II is easily one of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors. Dubbed ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’, he’s developed a strong reputation for picking unusual and even gender-atypical roles since the 1990s, developing a fanbase of millions across over 30 years.
Depp also has a well-documented history of charitable work and being generous to friends and colleagues, as well as a solid reputation for effortlessly navigating interviews and public interactions.
The point here is obvious. While several well-meaning fans have showered Depp with praise and support in the last few weeks, there’s certainly a powerful psychological effect at play here—one that discards the facts of the case and panders to fans’ understanding of Depp as a charming, charismatic ‘good guy’.
(I mean, there’s at least a few hundred people around the world with ‘Captain Jack Sparrow’ tattoos. Google Search it, I’m telling you.)
Heard, on the other hand, has had less than half the screen presence and film credits Depp boasts, and is on flimsy ground when it comes to general likeability and popularity compared to her ex-husband. While Heard may be ‘more’ guilty than Depp as we may or may not see once the trial concludes, the events play out something like this in front of millions of abused women:
Heard releases an op-ed about Depp’s abuse
Depp loses a libel suit in London over being called a ‘wife beater’
Heard’s reputation gets publicly dismantled in the wake of 2022’s trial.
While Heard may have several instances of verbal and physical abuse on her evidence sheet, the above pattern has sparked an anger against Heard different from that of Depp’s retribution-hungry fans.
Several social media posts accused Heard of diluting the experiences of other women who have suffered abuse, by allegedly lying about the facts of her own abusive behavior and simultaneously identifying as a victim, Heard’s hypocrisy combined with the massive public backlash skates over a very important part of the trial that’s instead been swamped with ‘Johnny Depp Owns Lawyers’ memes.
The result is that Johnny comes off as a ‘perfect victim’ in the eyes of the public many of whom are willing to discount the actor’s very real history of assault and battery cases, as well as lawsuits. While Heard’s team has spent the last few court sessions attempting to establish a link between Johnny Depp’s drug and alcohol abuse and Heard’s allegations, most of the public has reacted with sympathy and understanding.
We’re not saying that addicts shouldn’t be treated with sympathy, but how often is the average abuse victim treated this way? There’s definitely an inability of the general public to view Depp simply as a man alleging abuse and defamation, rather than his persona as an actor.
“There is so much sensationalism to it,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, to USA Today. “This whole idea that before we get the other side, because of who he is, people have already made up their minds, it’s probably the most bias I’ve ever seen, quite frankly.”
Glenn’s criticism of the trial’s larger-than-life media treatment also points at one of the most suspect omissions from the list of people called to take the stand in Virginia’s court halls, actual experts on domestic violence. Most of the abuse narrative so far has been supplicated by both teams of lawyers and the friends, family, and associates of Depp.
While everyone on Earth has some idea of what it means to abuse and be abused, a trial that draws millions of views definitely calls for a field expert to explain, elucidate, and confirm doubts for the jury.
Depp’s legal team, to give them credit, has called a forensic psychologist named Dr. Shannon Curry to explain Heard’s psychological ailments, which include ‘histrionic personality disorder’ and ‘borderline personality disorder.’ Dr. Curry also explained that after 12 hours of interviews with Heard as well as reviews of her mental health records, the conclusion was that Heard’s claims of suffering post-traumatic stress disorder are false.
That said, a self-hired psychologist isn’t the strongest way to pick apart the details of a ‘mutually abusive’ relationship—a buzzword that’s picked up steam as the trial proceeds.
Aforementioned Glenn claims that the word is somewhat invalid, claiming that “In every incident between two people, there’s a primary aggressor”. Another expert, psychologist Betsy Usher, seems on the fence, agreeing that ‘abusers may shift the blame to their victims’—exactly what Heard is being accused of as a part of this trial.
“We often want to find reasons because we don’t have any real data on why abusers do what they do,” Glenn said. The murky nature of Depp and Heard’s actual choices through the relationship remain obscured to most of us, and will continue to stay obscured and confusing for a jury that certainly needs a fair, unbiased, professional explanation of abuse to make their all-important decision.
Other than watching the news for any upcoming film signings for Johnny Depp, it’s important to remember that while we’re indeed watching the court proceedings take place in real time, not everything that we see in court is 100 percent black and white.
“I would urge people to just listen to the full case, and to understand that everybody’s behavior is going to be put on blast,” continued Lynch, cautioning us against taking both legal teams too seriously. “If anyone ripped apart your life, and cherry-picked your behavior and texts and emails, you could paint anybody in a bad light. That’s why they do it.”
It’s important to take the rose-colored celebrity glasses off for a moment here. “It’s an opportunity for us to talk about domestic violence and what that means,” Glenn said, “but we can’t do that until we listen to what Amber Heard has to say.”
Remember – while the case has one person claiming defamation, there are two sides flinging accusations of abuse. The case certainly deserves more nuance than it’s getting right now – although hopefully the public will begin to understand this once Heard finally goes on stand this week.
(Featured Image Credits: Law&Crime Network)