"My dog stepped on a bee...” These lines have become the inadvertent legacy of the infamous Johny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial that grabbed eyeballs and interests worldwide and launched a fresh discussion on domestic abuse. But while the US court found both Johny Depp and Amber Heard victims of defamation, the social media trial of Amber Heard had one clear winner - misogyny.
From its start, the defamation trial was painted as an attempt by a famous, wronged man seeking justice from his vengeful and abusive former wife who beat and bullied him and then lied about it. The $50 million defamation suit was filed by Depp with regard to a Washington Post article that Heard had written in 2018 following her split with the Pirates of the Carribean actor in 2016. In the article, Heard wrote about surviving an abusive marriage. (Though she did not name Depp by name).
Last week, the US courts ruled heavily in favour of Depp but also found Depp’s former attorney Adam Waldman guilty of defaming her. While Heard was awarded $2 million as compensatory damages, Depp was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Social media burst out with celebration and the verdict was hailed as a win for domestic abuse survivors. Depp thanked the courts for giving him his life back.
But what did the Depp-Heard trial really mean or do for domestic abuse survivors? From the trial, it is clear that BOTH Depp and Heard were abusive to each other through the course of their marriage. In addition, a UK court in November 2020 had ruled Depp to be an abuser in a similar libel case after Depp unsuccessfully sued the British tabloid ‘The Sun’ for publishing an article that accused him of being a ‘wife beater’. During that trial, Heard had testified that she could recall fourteen instances of Depp abusing her between 2013 and 2016.
Heard has also accused Depp of sexually assaulting her with a liquor bottle. Depp, on the other hand, has refuted the incident and said his finger was cut off when she threw a vodka bottle at him. Statements made by both parties revealed a deeply toxic relationship riddled with passive-aggressive retorts and physical violence. And yet, even as the jury deliberated on the serious accusations made by both parties, the parallelly running social media trial of Amber Heard was biased and based on personal attacks that were a combination of gaslighting and victim shaming. Her body language was not “convincing enough” as a victim for viewers, her testimony seemed like “bad acting”, and her words were not “coherent.” Her statements were torn apart and replayed as memes. Instagrammers made reels spoofing Heard in court.
As opposed to her, the trial deified Depp as the male domestic violence superhero who not only bore abuse from his wife for years but also had the guts to stand up to her and avenge the loss of his “manhood”. (Depp had become wildly unpopular after the domestic abuse accusations with Hollywood production houses like Walt Disney and Warner Bros reportedly dropping him from top film franchises such as Pirates or the Harry Potter series.) The victory was important for Depp and his highly experienced and minutely put together legal team made sure to get it for him. And kudos to him for that.
But the same group of people hailing Depp as a champion of domestic abuse survivors dismissed the UK court’s ruling of Depp as an abuser. Heard’s testimonies of Depp’s own abusive behaviour toward her were also dismissed as “fake”, much before the US verdict. It all circled back to the question - what does a survivor of domestic or sexual abuse look like? Definitely not like Amber Heard, said the general internet consensus.
Such trolling of women who choose to speak out about domestic violence or sexual harassment is not new, neither in the West or closer home in India.
In 2018 after Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta accused Nana Patekar of harassment on the sets of 'Horn Ok Pleassss', a sting operation conducted by a media channel obtained footage of the film’s Producer Samee Siddiqui, the film’s director Rakesh Sarang, the Cine & TV Artists Association (CINTAA) member Raza Murad and former FTII chairperson Gajendra Chauhan, victim shaming Dutta and making vulgar assumptions like “she must have been on her period” and that she would not be believed as the victim simply by claiming she was one, meaning the onus of proving herself as the victim was on her.
Following the Depp-Heard verdict, many on Indian social media started hashtags like #mentoo, seemingly as a sign of solidarity of men who face sexual abuse. One look at the tweets under the hashtag, however, reveal them to be a mockery of the 2018 #MeToo movement in India, which had started with Dutta’s complaint but seems to have ended up as just another hashtag in the lexicon of social justice (and social media) jargon.
The Me Too and Times Out movements, however, clearly established the need to always believe the victim, no matter what or when. It also emphasised the need to work out systems - legal, economic, and social - that can actually help victims of sexual or physical abuse come forth and speak out against their oppressors. By making a charade out of Heard - who accused a powerful man of abuse and was outnumbered on all fronts vis-a-vis Depp’s social connections, wealth, advanced legal strategy and obvious mass appeal as an actor - the social media trial of Amber Heard has shown once again that social capital and the ability to influence public perception and control narratives is key to being a convincing victim. And, as history has shown, the narratives have not been kind to women.
In India, for instance, the 2020 death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput led to massive outrage and media trial against actor and his former partner Riya Chakraborty, who was vilified as a “witch” and girl with questionable character who practiced black magic and consumed 'deugs'. Social media carried out a several-months-long hate campaign against Chakraborty who was paralley facing official inquires. Much like Heard’s trial testimonies, videos of Chakraborty’s speeches to the media were broken down and scrutinised. Trolls questioned her “acting skills” when she got emotional and accused her of “dressing plainly” to win media approval (she was dressed in a white salwar kameez). TV news channels flashed photos of her in so-called racy clothes to complete the juxtaposition.
The Me Too movement in the US was a big step in the right direction. But the Amber Heard social media trial proved that even in the US, there is much to be done when it comes to believing women - or at least providing them a safe space to talk about their problems without caring about their attire or the fear of being ridiculed or disbelieved. Instead of creating a social security net for women online, the existing ’stan’ and cancel cultures on social media continue to favour men. On April 13, days after the trial began, the #ISupportJohnydepp and #JusticeForJohnyDepp hashtags had over a billion hits each. Amber’s hashtag had 22 million hits. While that is a big number, the fandom for Depp far escalates the former.
And one has to wonder, does such public perception shape verdicts? In 2020, when the US Supreme Court issued rulings on some of the most complex and polarising issues on the national agenda including church vs. state, abortion, immigration, LGBGT rights and presidential powers, research showed that “the court’s position in every major case that term was exactly in line with public opinion”, researcher Maya Sen was quoted by Harvard as saying. So did public opinion sway the verdict of the Virginia court that delivered the Depp-Heard verdict? After all, the seven-member jury that decided on the matter all go back home to their social media feeds. When the verdict was delivered in Fairfax, crowds in support of Depp were already waiting outside the courtroom with celebratory banners. The ball had been in Depp’s court from the start.
What trolls of Heard in the herd of proponents for men’s rights seem to forget is that men who suffer domestic abuse cases are disbelieved for exactly the same reasons that they used against Heard. If a man is not believed as a domestic abuse survivor, it is the fault of toxic masculinity and the very same reason Heard was not believed - because they don’t LOOK like domestic abuse survivors. Heard’s own incriminatory statements to Depp implying no one will believe him in case he came out as a domestic abuse survivor are a proclamation of how much public perception matters in a ‘he said-she said’ case. And in Heard’s case, public perception was not on her side. Was Heard the victim? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In the US, however, one in four women faces domestic abuse (as opposed to one in seven men as per the National Domestic Violence Hotline). What does this verdict say to them about coming out? That the next joke might be on them.