As Amber Heard undergoes cross examination in the Depp v Heard defamation trial, Stylist asks if celebrity fandom blinds us in our support of our favourite stars.
Over the past few weeks, how many times have people you presumed to be of entirely sound mind referenced the suspicion that Amber Heard stole lines from The Talented Mr Ripley to use in court?
After Heard’s second day of giving testimony at a courthouse in Virginia, where her ex-husband Johnny Depp has filed a $50 million (£40.4m) defamation suit against her, various social media posts circulated claiming that she had plucked the script to use in her “opening statement”. Lines like: “The thing with Johnny… the sun shines on you and it’s glorious. And then he forgets you and it’s very, very cold.”
But it’s not even a little bit true. Defendants don’t even give opening statements.
The worrisome truth is that the meme represents the fluffy tail of a very vicious monster that has been social media’s response to the Depp v Heard trial. A tsunami of online content has veered from one misogynistic trope to another, framing Heard variously as a gold-digger, whore, crazy ex – and, always, a liar. Support for Depp, despite the complexities of the case, is as strong as ever, with #JusticeForJohnnyDepp trending as a pretty much constant since the beginning of the trial. Yet, if you were to ask around, most people would admit that humiliating an alleged domestic abuse survivor in court is wrong, so why is this attitude brushed away in favour of supporting a celebrity they love?
There is an intriguing explanation. Unless you are a Hollywood exec or Keith Richards, then any relationship you have with Johnny Depp is likely to be what is known as parasocial. “These are one-way relationships with a person you may feel you know intimately, but that does not know you back,” explains Gayle Stever, professor of social and behavioural sciences at Empire State College/SUNY and author of Understanding Media Psychology. “In the case of a celebrity, they don’t have the opportunity to know you back – it is unreciprocated – and is the result of a perceived connection that one feels with this otherwise distant persona.”
The parasocial paradox
The term ‘parasocial relationship’ was first coined back in 1956 by David Horton and Richard Wohl, both professors of social sciences, to explore the ways in which media users acted as if they were in a typical social relationship with a media figure. Dating back to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, there have been stars over whom we’ve felt a certain amount of public ownership. Stever carried out studies of Michael Jackson fans in the late 80s and early-90s and spotted that they were mimicking learned habits that date back to Beatlemania. “Fan behaviour is played from a script written by our culture where certain expectations for how fans behave have been modelled through media,” she explains. “Going back to the Beatles, the true fan demonstrates their devotion through a set of behaviours that have come to be associated with being a fan.” These can be anything from screaming and yelling in their presence to less innocuous expectations of unwavering support.
Depp, after all, is not the first star to have fans show up at court to evidence their blind devotion: “When Jackson was being tried in Santa Barbara in 2005, the fans lined up outside the courthouse in support of him and were jubilant when he was acquitted,” Stever points out. Similarly, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting his wife at the Oscars earlier this year, it wasn’t long before we were all declaring ourselves Team Will or Team Chris in dramatic (and often public) pledges of allegiance. In this way, parasocial relationships breed a tendency towards blind loyalty that leaves no room for nuance. We are loyal only to our perception of the celebrity and become unwilling to give space to grey areas and complexity.
While many of us may believe we are above them, none of us are immune to a parasocial relationship. And the person you are drawn to will say a lot more about you than it does the actual celebrity. “The parasocial relationship is the result of a connection that one feels with this distant persona,” Stever explains. “That connection could be because of similarity, romantic attraction, admiration or respect”. The star exists to fulfil some kind of internal need. So, the more emotional touchpoints that they can offer, the broader their fan base is likely to be. “Johnny Depp has been in the public eye for almost 40 years, with films, TV shows and advertising campaigns that have well positioned him to connect with various demographics across his career,” explains Melissa Avdeeff, senior lecturer in communication, culture and media at Coventry University. Which, in turn, points to why he is so widely loved.
For most of us, however, this won’t veer into anything more than thinking of them as our ‘favourite celebrity’, and engaging in a parasocial relationship doesn’t necessarily lead to something as serious as stalking. “It’s more to do with certain vulnerabilities that might predispose a person to celebrity worship,” says Stever. “Borderline pathological celebrity worship, for example, is where the worshipper says they would commit a crime if the celebrity asked them to do it. But two important points: celebrity worship and fandom are two completely different concepts. Most fans do not meet the criteria for celebrity worship. Celebrity worship is a very slim percentage of the broader universe of parasocial relationships.”
Another fundamental change since Beatlemania and Jackson is our access. Or rather, the meticulously constructed perception of it. It’s telling that Depp had no social media presence until 16th April 2020 – three months before his UK libel trial– and that his first post is studiedly intimate. In a very on-brand cavernous and candlelit room, Depp talks to the camera as he tells fans who might be worried about Covid that, “our minds are unbound and our hearts are not chained”.
This is part of something that Avdeeff looks at as a newfound “expectation for celebrity figures to present ‘authentic’ versions of themselves on these platforms”, which Depp is likely knowingly playing into. It may go some way to explaining the fact that large swathes of the internet have already decided that Depp is ‘too gentle’ to ever have done the things that Heard claims he has done. All despite the fact Depp has already lost a libel case in the UK, where a judge found the majority of the domestic assaults claimed by Heard were proved to the lower civil standard of proof. “[In this way] it’s a case of fans taking the celebrity’s side in a personal dispute just as they would for a friend, coworker or acquaintance that they like,” suggests Stever. “A person who is engaged in a parasocial relationship with Depp – who is the celebrity in that couple – would tend to see any arguments from his side.”
Projection at play
That, however, doesn’t quite answer why fans are willing to do all this publicly. And the answer actually has more to do with us than the celebrity. “In a public trial, where we do not actually know the people, there is more room to project, transfer and idealise,” explains Aaron Balick, psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics Of Social Networking. “The people in the trial serve as placeholders for our own ideas and fantasies.”
In other words, it is possible, in an effort to freeze in time the swoon-worthy Depp of their teenage fantasies or the cheeky-chap swashbuckler beloved of their childhood, that Depp’s fans are ignoring compelling evidence right in front of them. “It is easier to see the world in black and white than in a more nuanced way,” Balick explains. “That way, we get to keep our heroes and villains, without seeing the larger, more complex reality. When reality threatens the way we want to see the world, we either have to give up the idea and experience a sense of loss, or double down and see the world irrationally – which preserves the hero but distorts the truth.”
There could be another factor at play, where our opinions are being influenced by what we’re seeing on social media. Depp and his team took a gamble when deciding to share some of the unsavoury truths about his life with the world. But perhaps, like Balick, they understood the power of the public desire to see the world in black and white. But perhaps, like Balick, they understood the power of the public desire to see the world in black and white. Plus, perhaps they could have had an insurance plan; a surefire way to nudge the public feeling in the right direction. “In Heard’s [US] counterclaim, she accuses Depp of a highly funded, coordinated online harassment campaign, and that he’s paying people to say these things online,” legal journalist Lucia Osborne-Crowley points out.
Back in 2020, during the UK trial, cyber analysts Bit Sentinel found around 6,000 fake accounts leveraging a targeted smear campaign against Heard. Individual accounts were found to be tweeting up to 30 times in a ten-minute period, claiming Heard was an “abuser”, “gold-digger” and a “slut”. The deputy CEO of Bit Sentinel described it as “one of the most sophisticated online targeted attacks we had seen”. Johnny Depp’s lawyer Adam Waldham has publicly denied that he or Depp is behind this.
This can lead to a form of ‘groupthink’. Just as a certain ex-president emboldened Joe Public to say all kinds of previously unspeakable things around race and gender, perhaps something similar is happening with this trial and the #MeToo movement. “The narrative of the misunderstood man who has been labelled an abuser has resonated with a subgroup of media consumers who think there is an unfair balance of blame for the man,” says Stever. “The truth then gets lost in the phenomenon of this being memed to death. The co-creation of meaning through media is at the heart of this kind of thing.”
So, if the bots handed us a way of thinking, Depp’s fandom has taken that and run with it. From there, we have a trickle-down effect – those who aren’t avidly following the case get a general sense that the headline is: Depp is good, Heard is bad. “Media doesn’t necessarily tell us what to think, but it does tell us what to think about,” says Stever. “And so, the presence of more media that is sympathetic towards Depp fuels this narrative for consumers who really aren’t paying careful attention to what has happened [at court].”
Heroes and villains
If Depp is the chosen hero, then Heard must be the villain. To caricature her as such, it’s essential that fans erase the fact that she is a real-life human being. “The way in which the court case has been live-streamed on platforms such as YouTube has had a complicating influence on how people perceive the trial,” says Avdeeff. “The case is, in a way, positioned as a form of reality TV, where audience members become highly familiar with these celebrities, but in ways that serve to enhance their own enjoyment of the ‘show’ while not always recognising the humanity of the celebrities themselves.”
A good example of this was when, earlier this week, Heard took to the stand to detail what she described were “terrifying” experiences of Depp allegedly hallucinating, prompting the internet to instead focus on turning her cross-examiner Camille Vasquez into a “cult icon”. The meme, “In a world of Amber Heards, be a Camille Vasquez” is currently circulating on social media.
Of course, parasocial relationships are not always destructive, and fandoms can in fact be a powerful force for good. Take, for example, the #FreeBritney movement, where fans galvanised – on social media, outside courtrooms, in op-eds – to ensure Britney’s concerns about her conservatorship were taken seriously. It led to a level of media attention so great that it arguably played a role in the conservatorship being lifted earlier this year. Some academics even suggest that we develop social skills through engaging in these relationships: “The imagined interaction we have with these people (often as teenagers) can be a source of pleasure, but it’s also a way to develop skills in things like conversation and social interaction,” explains Stever, “particularly in a romantic context.”
But it’s important to reflect on the dark sides too. As the trial draws to a close (it’s set to end 27 May) there is a very real concern that Depp’s fandom could actually influence the outcome of the case. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Osborne-Crowley. “The combination of the way people are criticising her, the quantity, the number of accounts, the level of misinformation. Jurors are not supposed to be on TikTok and Twitter reading this coverage, but it does happen [in some cases]. It’s very hard for judges to actually stop people.”
In the age of celebrity, when fan accounts, TikTok trends and Instagram pages that track celebrities’ comments are commonplace, we can feel as if our relationship with public figures are at once deeply personal and wildly aloof. We can tweet about them, like their pictures, watch their Instagram stories, idolise and worship them, but we don’t expect we can actually influence their lives (or legal battles) too much. This, however, could be the trial which crosses that threshold – and isn’t that a terrifying precedent?