CW: Discussions of abuse and sexual assault.
I did my best to avoid hearing about the defamation suits between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Quite simply, I was not interested. I do not have enough investment in either of their personal lives to care if one was slandering the other. However, despite my apathy, I found it hard to escape content on social media about the case — the funny moments, the shocking revelations, the accusations flung at either party. Overwhelmingly, this content — TikTok fan edits, Twitter memes, Instagram updates — favoured Depp. Even before the American ruling in his favour made on 2 June, the court of public opinion had absolved him of any potential wrongdoing.
That absolutely terrifies me.
This case was not, as I had initially convinced myself, simply about an interpersonal dispute between two people who were worried about their image and future income. Or at least, it was not taken as such. This case became a microcosm of #MeToo, a synecdochic representation of the world that misogynists dog-whistle about. Amber Heard, in the eyes of the public and, in a way, the law, lied. She seemingly misused a movement that came to her defence. And for some reason, people are happy about it.
I remember being sixteen, sitting by a pool, talking with schoolmates about the allegations Heard levelled against Depp at the peak of the #MeToo movement in 2016. I remember saying that I did not know enough about the case to know for sure who was telling the truth, but that, as in every other case of sexual violence being brought before the media, I was inclined to believe the victim. To this day, I do not regret that inclination — in this case or any other.
Sexual crimes are tragically underreported, and only around 5% of sexual assault accusations are false. Speaking up about assault is not easy to do — you face judgement, mockery, and threats — and it is not a risk many are willing to take even when they know they have been assaulted. The idea that #MeToo could easily be weaponised to ‘take down’ powerful men is ludicrous and insulting. Even within the recent history of the movement, which has brought sexual misconduct in Hollywood out from the rug it was swept under, the most salient cases have resulted in underwhelming punishments.
Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood executive faced with a plethora of assault and harassment accusations from almost 90 women, was only convicted on one count of sexual assault and one of sexual harassment. Kevin Spacey, an actor accused of sexual assault, pled not guilty before all charges (and the complainaint’s civil suit) were dropped. He has since resumed making films. Women who speak out have nothing to gain, and the men they accuse are rarely held to the standard of accountability that the justice system ought to provide.
Back at the poolside, I distinctly remember the girl I was talking to pouting, furrowing her brow, and saying, “but like… Captain Jack Sparrow.” She, and many other people, did not want to believe Depp was abusive. He was too charismatic, too handsome, and played too many loveable characters. Not only was it hard to reconcile this image with someone violent and cruel enough to hurt another human being, but him being an abuser would mean that we could no longer look at him the same way. It would mean we could not watch Pirates of the Caribbean with the same glee as before, could not drool over him in Nightmare on Elm Street, would not be able to watch a single Tim Burton film again — or at least, not without guilt. And for a lot of people, despite their intuitive support for #MeToo and the survivors it champions, it is really hard to completely renege every positive association they have with those who are revealed to be assailants. This makes sense. In the limited capacity that we have as onlookers observing a carefully constructed image, of course we could not have known that Weinstein, Spacey, or even Johnny Depp were abusive. It makes no sense to include something as evil or taboo as that in their public image. But a public image is not a whole person, nor a defence of assault or abuse.
That is why, I think, such a collective sigh of relief was breathed when Depp sued Heard for defamation. He was not an abuser; Heard had just lied. The charismatic, handsome guy was good all along. Order was restored. Fans no longer had to feel guilty for not believing that he could be a bad person. Never mind the verdict reached by a UK court in 2020 that found 12 of 14 alleged instances of abuse to be proven; Heard was a liar, wasn’t she? Worst still, had she abused Depp?
Domestic and sexual violence are, overwhelmingly, issues that impact women. That does not mean that men cannot be abused, but it does mean that, in dominant narratives within the #MeToo movement, men tend to fall into the role of perpetrator, and women the role of survivor. It is devastating that this leads to underrepresentation and delegitimisation of the violence men suffer. We ought not dismiss the experiences and trauma of a person because of their or their assailant’s gender. I have seen criticisms of Heard’s supposed role in entrenching the narrative that men cannot be abused, culminating in the damning recording of her daring Depp to tell the world a woman was abusing him with confidence that he would not be believed.
This criticism is legitimate and important. But, at least in the discourse I have seen in my own exposure to the US trial’s coverage on social media, this is not the most common criticism lobbied against Heard. I have seen criticisms of her demeanour, of her relationship with her lawyer, and speculation about alleged improper conduct like posing for a photo or sniffing cocaine. I have seen her mocked for her appearance and her voice. I have seen her presumed guilty by the court of public opinion with no chance of being proven innocent.
I do not know if Heard abused Depp — I have never been privy to their relationship. I also do not know if Depp abused Heard. The US ruling did not convict Heard on criminal charges, nor did it absolve Depp of any. That was not the point of the trial. The point was to determine whether an article that Heard had written was a fair and accurate description of Depp. The jury ruled that it was not. The court found that some claims that Heard had made were inaccurate. It’s also worth noting, however, that the court found claims by Depp’s representation inaccurate too. There was evidence presented to the court that Depp did not disprove — evidence that he had written messages to Heard in his own blood, that he had threatened to hurt her and himself. It is not lost on me that this trial has received much greater media attention than the 2020 UK trial which ruled in Heard’s favour, and that, even in the course of these proceedings, evidence that damned Depp did not occupy the limelight as much as that which damned Heard. The only thing that seems clear to me is that the relationship the two had was toxic, and traumatic, and that both are likely better off out of it. It was clearly distressing for all parties involved, and I understand why it was distressing for many to hear the details of the case. What disturbs me the most, however, is not any of the evidence that was presented in court.
A Streetcar Named Desire is one of my favourite films; I find the nuance with which it explores domestic abuse and female characters impressive even by today’s standards, and it was made in 1951. The first time I watched it was with my English class. Stanley, played by Marlon Brando, is a vile character. He is cruel, and conniving, and violent. But in one scene right before the end, after his child has been born, he celebrates becoming a father with a sense of carefree glee. I recall watching that scene in class, with one of my classmates remarking, “oh, he’s actually quite cute!” That moment, I think, revealed the brilliance of casting Brando — someone much younger and more attractive than the Stanley from the script — in such an awful role.
We, like Stanley’s wife Stella, forgive charming men. We forgive men like Depp who roll their eyes at a lawyer’s silly questions or share lollies with the people at the bench next to them. We forgive men who we have had childhood crushes on. We forgive them because we never truly believed they were evil in the first place. Evil is a sweaty man in a trench coat in an alleyway at night. Evil doesn’t dress nicely or visit children’s hospitals or deliver performances that make you laugh and cry. We are so much more comfortable with believing that nice young men are just that that we are happy to mock and demean the women that condemn them the second we feel it is socially acceptable.
It does not matter if Depp won the suit. He may well have never been abusive; his behaviour speaks for no one but himself. But as fans lined up to shower him with support as he arrived to court, or made video edits of his “court highlights” to post on Twitter, or laughed at Heard as she gave testimony about the suffering she alleges, their behaviour speaks to something greater. This narrative, that being charming absolves abusers of potential guilt, is the narrative that made #MeToo necessary in the first place. It is the narrative that forces the majority of sexual assaults to go unreported because women do not feel they will be believed. It is the narrative that convinces people — especially women — to stay with the partner who hurts them, because he’s actually quite cute, right? This narrative forces people into silence. It traps them in silos of their own trauma. It kills people.
Do not confuse the alleged actions of one woman with the beating heart of an entire movement. Demand justice for male survivors of violence without it coming at the cost of believing women. Know that as you repost a meme that mocks Amber’s tears, the women in your life who are already ashamed of their trauma only bury that trauma deeper.
Keep believing women.