“We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
‘You can have ambition
But not too much
You should aim to be successful
But not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man’
Because I am female
I am expected to aspire to marriage
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes”
–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Beyonce’s song Flawless
I have often heard this song, played it to others, danced to it, made others dance to it. It needs to be heard. It needs to be sung. On full volume. Now, more than ever. The trial’s just concluded. Yes, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial that lasted six weeks and was broadcast globally from a courtroom in Fairfax, Virginia. Depp won. Heard lost. Both have to pay for damages. Depp is to pay $2M. Heard to pay $15M that was capped at $10M. Some have called this a balanced judgment. It isn’t.
It didn’t generate as much outrage when Johnny Depp’s text messages to friends about murdering his then-wife, Heard, said, “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead,” than it did when Heard talked about her bruise kit (a makeup kit that she used to hide the scars of her abuse) which was dissected, ridiculed and dismissed. I insist on the bruise kit because that’s where a lot of answers lie. They kept coming at her with questions and pictures. You appeared on a television show and no bruises showed. Your nose wasn’t broken. It didn’t look like it and if a broken nose looks that good, they could do with one. They cut her off in the courtroom. They demolished her outside of it. They even said she should have smelled the Dior perfume on her husband’s chest and lived a good life rather than coming out with her bruises and her story of abuse.
We didn’t see much outrage when Depp described her body as “Mushy, pointless, dangling, overused floppy fish market.” These texts were part of Depp’s defamation suit against Heard. Depp sued her over a 2018 Washington Post column titled I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. Heard called herself a public figure representing domestic abuse. While she didn’t take names, his lawyers claim the piece was about him and was defamatory. Depp sought $50M. In a counter suit, Heard sued for $100M. In that courtroom, the trial became more about who the aggressor was and how, than about defamation. At one point, I heard Depp’s lawyer Camilla Vasquez say that Heard didn’t have friends because none of them showed up for her.
Heard had been alienated. Some feminists argue that the trial that Depp won will have an adverse effect on the #MeToo movement and will deter women from coming out with their stories of abuse. On the #MeToo website, it says the movement aims at a cultural change by “encouraging millions to speak out about sexual violence and harassment” and the aim is about “disrupting all systems that allow sexual violence to flourish”.
Started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the hashtag took off on social media in 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano wrote on her Twitter handle “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. More than 66,000 users replied. The “too” is where we are failing. I remember the anonymous ‘elbow’ on the 2017 cover of Time magazine where it named the “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year for the hundreds of women who came out with their stories of abuse anonymously. Besides the elbow, there were five women who came out with their names as they called out their harassers. But it was the elbow that acknowledged the anonymous silence-breaker.
The skewed world of gender relations and power dynamics was finally going to change with hashtags like #MeToo, #HerToo and #TimesUp. And then, defamation and libel lawsuits were filed. A silencing of the women was attempted. With every case that a powerful man won against a woman, the movement suffered a setback. How do we fight the might of patriarchy?
The movement’s founder Tarana Burke insists the movement is very much alive, but cracks have appeared in the way we see the movement or even feminism. Like how Daphne Merkin in her article in The New York Times assessed the anti-#MeToo sentiment once. She wrote to the women coming out with their stories of abuse “Grow up, this is real life”. Well, real life was never easy. But that doesn’t mean we have to resign to that idea.
Heard isn’t the perfect victim. She also isn’t as powerful as Depp. That’s where we need to remind ourselves of the point of the #MeToo movement. The “too” in it is for inclusivity as espoused in intersectional feminism. Here’s the thing about the trial that was almost “courtroom porn” as Monica Lewinsky writes in her column after the judgment. It leapt out from the screens everywhere. Amber Heard was shamed publicly. Didn’t the movement that sought to empower women in coming out with their stories of sexual harassment say #BelieveAllWomen?
Violence against women is systemic. There are contexts and origins. There are articulations and complex histories and outdated and oppressive traditions. Our histories might differ but our oppression must unite us. That’s where intersectional feminism comes in. #MeToo is a movement that dared to collectivize suffering, empathy, and perhaps hope. The burden of shame, a huge one, was going to be shed. It was a cathartic moment. We started to dream of a feminist future. And then, we slowed down.
Let’s not shrink ourselves. Let’s remember patriarchy feeds off of shame and silence. Let’s organise and let’s believe in sisterhood. There’s hope. That’s why we have called this issue Still I Rise. That’s why there’s the woman in a veil made of razor blades on the cover. Remember the “too” in the #MeToo. It isn’t about me or her. It is about us.
(This appeared in the print edition as "A Feminist Future")