The Dilemmas Around the Depp-Heard Trial and the Risks of Supporting Either Side

The case set in motion a second and third trial by social media which were overwhelmingly misogynist.

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The #DeppversusHeardtrial that started on April 11, 2022 predictably set in motion a second and a third trial by social media, and the verdicts emerging from the digital republic are proving to be deeply misogynistic. They have also soiled Depp’s win.

By petitioning for the trial to be televised, Johnny Depp has done an incredible amount of damage to women survivors of domestic violence, compared to his role in front lining male victims. No doubt he felt confident about his testimony, but in doing so he mobilised an army who will piggyback on the facts of the case to propel fiction about women in general.

We are in the age of toxic Twitter rage. Toxic, not only because the internet belongs very much to bigots, but the duress of arguing, debating, and countering misinformation on social media takes a mental health toll on everyday ordinary warriors who fight our extraordinary condition. And so it was not fair on his part to hurl us into a fight over two narcissistic celebrities that we could have lived without.

Amber Heard is a victim of Johnny Depp, disputably of domestic violence, but indisputably of Depp’s desire to enlist the services of a global kangaroo court. For the culture’s wrath against a woman exposing abusers is great, but its wrath against a woman exposed is even greater. No court should allow men accused of domestic violence to televise trials, no matter how wronged or privileged – for their possible vindication will undoubtedly be grist for the misogynistic mill.

Also Read: The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Defamation Trial Shows the Dangers of Fan Culture

Social media warriors

There have been two kinds of coverage and posts circulating. Type 1 emerged during and after the trial, critiquing the misogyny online of viral TikTok jokes about Heard and her lawyers that would emerge daily, almost immediately, after the live broadcasts. Type 2 has been the post-verdict misogyny-alert articles and social media ‘stories’ and tweets and secondhand reportage of reportage.

Type 2 is the concern here. A cursory glance through these posts will give evidence that social media users have reacted to the verdict almost instantaneously, as is the case with almost every headline. Opinions such as that Depp may have won the defamation angle but was not exonerated of domestic violence prove their authors and those sharing posts in solidarity are unaware of both the legality and the case. For instance, when it comes to defamation of public figures in the US, plaintiffs need to prove actual malice, i.e., the defendant’s willful ignorance or knowledge of the fact that the statements were false at the time that they were made. It is the reason Depp had to prove Heard had defamed him via her op-ed and that she knew those statements to be false at the time of its publication. Hence, the entire exposé.

Opinions that invoke the UK court case, which was not a direct case of abuse between Heard and Depp, but a defamation case between Depp and The Sun, are also revealing given the technicalities of evidence would differ enormously. These short-circuits to understanding a very complex case, whose every detail and moment is available online, raises questions about our politics, our praxis, and our own use of social media as a source of news and activism. Should we not reflect upon our own quick consumption of tweeted opinions as hasty, given that we often accuse the extreme right of being non-reflective, truculent members of ‘WhatsApp University’? Should we not do some basic homework on an issue that is so close to our bodies and homes?

Amber Heard. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

So let us go back to the US verdict that has been construed as a miscarriage of justice because our non-willingness to engage with events that may be contrary to our liking is worrying. Let us not collapse the hate Amber Heard has received from misogynistic men and women with the probability that she may have lied. After all, she tried to obfuscate the issue of her “donations” on the stand in front of the judge and jury.

Women, especially women in power (and Amber Heard is privileged, maybe lower in the rungs of Hollywood A-listers, but definitely privileged and powerful), have lied before to have men incarcerated and killed by jury and judge. Why then are we suddenly so shocked that Heard may have done the same?

Why this absolute stonewalling, especially, and perhaps only, in progressive circles? Heard, unlike most women, had access to technology, legal and medical help and supportive social groups. This is not our average Jane Doe whose circumstances don’t allow documentation. Heard recorded almost every move of her husband, but rarely one of herself. She had what most women do not have: a platform and a network of celebrity activists.

Yet, she did not produce any conclusive evidence for the ever-escalating, heinous egregious abuses that Depp allegedly had committed. In the end, her lawyer brought down the claims of abuse to include verbal threats in an attempt to expand the gambit of allegations. This is interesting since Heard not only admitted to being verbally abusive herself in her marriage to Depp but had also defended the allegations of domestic abuse against her – in a previous relationship – as being “verbal” and therefore not domestic abuse.

But let us focus on the absolutes here: if all victims are to be believed, why not Johnny Depp? If all victims are not to be believed, then why not Amber Heard as one of those incredible cases? And what warrants highlighting is that for six long years, we did take Heard at her word. At her word, quite literally. And we did demonise and ostracise Johnny Depp as ‘a wife-beater’ for the entire length of time. Some will continue to do so. And today, the same is being done to Heard. The difference is that her vilification – thanks to the televising of the trial – has real-life consequences for less-privileged women who are under the chokehold of their male partners, while Depp’s defamation led to a pretty contained crater of destruction that affected only him.

But what if Heard is the abuser? And that is a possibility we must take seriously in our fight for gender justice. What if, and what can be done now in our struggle against misogyny? Is it even conceivable for us to imagine a possible traitor within the movement itself – a fact that is not uncommon in any movement – without feeling that we will lose all if we concede? What should we do when women use other women’s tragedies to forward their own agenda? How should we respond when our celebrity warriors fall short of perfect? Do we need them at all and are they the right kind of measuring stick for justice served?

And so it follows, should Depp be taken seriously as the face of male domestic abuse victims? If we are going to speculate ad infinitum and consider evidence not to our liking as biased, then such celebrity trials boil down to mere fan warfare. Championing either side then is a risk we take until the next revelation, and the next. Quite surprisingly, both parties and their legal teams have begun rather unsavoury media rounds and expanding their social media presence. And so it may not be unfair to conclude that the issue of intimate partner violence is now secondary to concerns of image management and power flexes. Should we then fan the fire when our heroes are as dubious as their legal wins?

Oeendrila Lahiri is a postdoctoral researcher of online misogyny at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich.