I tried to avoid the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard.
I didn’t want to watch a conversation about domestic abuse become a spectacle. I didn’t want to witness the speed at which I feared misogyny would eclipse the conversation. I was sick of the backlash against both individual women and the entirety of MeToo, the adamant claims that “he” would never and the confident assertions that “she” deserved it.
I was exhausted.
Like many survivors, I could see myself too well in the way these narratives play out: a person who doesn’t fit the impossible ideals of the perfect victim; someone who, like many women in abusive situations, often fought back, who wasn’t always sweet, who stayed even when she knew her safety depended on leaving.
But the case was everywhere. It thrummed through conversations with friends, with my partner, through public spaces. Headlines haunted my newsfeeds. Clips from the televised trial invaded social media and especially TikTok, where videos with the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp have reached over 18 billion views. Heard’s weeping face became a meme, her abuse a joke.
It hardly seemed to matter that in 2020 a British judge found Depp physically abused Heard on at least 12 occasions. She was hated and mocked, deemed duplicitous and attention-seeking, an abuser herself, and saddled with the hashtag “amberturd.” Depp, on the other hand, was viewed as a charming and heroic rogue — he explained away gruesome texts about Heard, including that he would kill her and then have sex with “her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead,” by likening the “impassioned” messages to “a canvas, a painting; you choose your colours.”
Strangely, not only did the judge in the case, Penney Azcarate, decide to allow cameras in the courtroom, she also chose not to sequester the jury, only warning them not to do any “outside research.” As if anyone with a smartphone could escape the overwhelming derision toward Heard.
It was both palpable and gleeful, encompassing a swath of antifeminism far broader than one case.
I was not surprised when, on June 1, the panel of five men and two women found she defamed Depp, awarding him $15 million in damages and saying that Heard acted out of “malice” when she described herself as a victim of domestic abuse. (Azcarate later capped the amount at a still-staggering $10.35 million.) Puzzlingly, the same jury also found that one of Depp’s lawyers defamed Heard when he called the abuse a “hoax.” She was awarded $2 million.
Amidst the circus, it seemed like many observers had forgotten the article at the centre of the case, a 2018 op-ed Heard wrote for the Washington Post, which does not, in fact, name Depp.
In it, Heard details how she how she “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out” and also saw “how institutions protect men accused of abuse” — the two exact statements the jury found defamatory.
It’s darkly horrifying to realize that an article meant to underscore how women are punished for speaking out was, in fact, later used to punish a woman who spoke out. It’s perhaps scarier still to realize that, in addition to hurling death threats at Heard, some of Depp’s supporters adamantly believed he had “every right” to hit her. More than four million people signed a petition to boot her from “Aquaman 2.”
In so many ways, the trial’s conclusion has felt like a court-sanctioned rebuke of MeToo. Backlash against the movement has been brewing since its start.
There have always been detractors who feel the movement has gone “too far”; that perpetrators, mainly men, have lost too much. That women lie. The jury, and the world, did not believe Heard despite Depp’s text messages, despite photographs of cuts and bruises, despite audio recordings, despite witnesses and despite her own testimony.
As a society, we’re stuck in simple binaries of belief: victims must be likeable and have acted beyond reproach; abusers must be easily and repeatedly categorized as despicable. There is little room for the shades of grey where abuse most often lives and thrives. We are, as ever, eager to shame women who challenge our perceptions of who is, and is not, a good guy — and as this trial shows, we have fun doing it.
As Depp himself put it in a text to a friend: “She is begging for global humiliation. She’s going to get it.”
While Heard may be the most famous woman to face a defamation suit for speaking out, she’s far from the first. In recent years, such legal action has become alarmingly common.
One recent U.S. study found that 23 per cent of student survivors had been threatened with a defamation suit. In Canada, one university professor is suing his accuser and a dozen others who he claims “recklessly repeated” the accusations. And, since MeToo began in Sweden, more than a dozen women have been convicted of defamation for telling their stories.
Advocates are right to fear the chilling effect of such cases. Why risk sharing your story only to face intense scrutiny, vilification and financial ruin? Many won’t. But it means we must now, collectively, work harder to support — and listen to — those who do.
The legacy of MeToo deserves more than silence.
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