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“Why the ‘poor’ Johnny Depp narrative is dangerous”

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Kayleigh Dray
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“Why the ‘poor’ Johnny Depp narrative is dangerous”

Men are always painted as sympathetic and complex, women as collateral damage, argues Stylist digital editor Kayleigh Dray.

Rolling Stone has just published an extensive interview with Johnny Depp, which mostly revolves around Depp’s ongoing lawsuit with his former business manager. In the process, it delves into the depths of the actor’s chronic spending habits: he keeps a sound engineer on payroll so he can be fed lines through an earpiece, for example. He drops at least $30,000 on wine (“it was far more,” insists Depp). He hired a full security team for his mother in case she ever needed an ambulance, rather than opting for a more practical (and cost-efficient) nurse. And there’s more on top of all of that: think a string of cars, 700+ guitars and 12 storage facilities for his Hollywood memorabilia. Think $200,000 a month on private flights, $1.8 million on security, $1.2 million to have a doctor on call. Then there’s the $3 million he spent shooting Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon – and let’s not forget the $75 million he’s shelled out on various properties, including a Kentuck farm, a French chateau and his own Caribbean island.

Despite all of this, though, the 10,000 word interview paints Depp as a tragic fallen hero – one who lives a sad and friendless existence within a “spookily quiet” mansion, only ever emerging from his room “after sunset” to reminisce about happier times. He is a “bankrupt, isolated” figure which simultaneously sparks revulsion and sympathy in those he meets: indeed, even the interviewer – whose unease is palpable throughout the piece – admits to being “reluctant to leave” this “lost boy who won’t find his way home before dark”.

Due to Depp having signed a non-disclosure agreement (and his minder warning the interviewer against asking), only a few fleeting paragraphs in the piece discuss the allegations of domestic abuse which were levelled at him by ex-wife Amber Heard in 2016. The Fantastic Beasts star himself alludes to it once, saying that during the period of his divorce he was “as low as I believe I could have gotten.”

“The next step was, ‘You’re going to arrive somewhere with your eyes open and you’re going to leave there with your eyes closed’,” he says. “I couldn’t take the pain every day.”

And yet, despite this, some of the world’s more irresponsible press outlets have leapt upon these few lines and used them to shape their headlines today.

‘Johnny Depp reveals depression hell after Amber Heard split,’ screams one tabloid.

Another informs the world that Depp “couldn’t take the pain” after Heard “accused him of abuse”. Yet another outlet has reminded readers, under the headline ‘Johnny Depp’s friends begged him not to marry Amber Heard’, that “Depp has always denied the allegations of domestic abuse”. And countless others have styled Depp as the archetypal fallen man, torn down from his lofty perch by his ex-wife.

It’s an unwelcome throwback to 2016, when Heard was widely criticised after she accused Depp of being physically and emotionally abusive throughout their relationship.

“During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me,” the actress stated in court documents obtained by ET Online in May 2016.

“I endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him.”

Depp was defended by TMZ, people on his payroll, and his celebrity friends. By virtue of being less famous, less powerful, and a woman, Heard quickly became a target, and saw herself labelled as a “gold-digger”, “bitch”, and “fame-w**re”. Because, obviously, every single Hollywood starlet is keen to win the role of “abused divorcee constantly hiding from the paparazzi”? If anything, Heard’s decision to come forward promised to hinder her career.

As the case played out in the tabloids, Heard remained the “villain”. It seemed as if there was no way for her to remove this stain: submitting photographs of bruising around her cheek and eye didn’t do it, nor did the pictures of the alleged damage to her and Depp’s home. The video footage, which ended with Depp taking her phone away from her and seemingly trashing it, also had little to no effect on public opinion. Not even a supporting eyewitness account from iO Tillett Wright, an artist and mutual friend of the couple, could change the narrative.

“The reports of violence started with a kick on a private plane, then it was shoves and the occasional punch, until finally, in December, she described an all-out assault and she woke up with her pillow covered in blood,” Wright, who is also close to Depp’s daughter, Lily Rose, said at the time.

“I know this because I went to their house. I saw the pillow with my own eyes. I saw the busted lip and the clumps of hair on the floor.”

Heard and Depp eventually settled the case out of court, and, in a joint statement, said their relationship had been “volatile”, saying: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love.”

The statement also stressed that there was no “intent” to cause physical harm, and that “neither party has made false accusations for financial gains” – a comment which seemed to go against previous claims from Depp’s lawyers, filed in court papers, that Heard was trying to “secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse”.

Heard did not keep the the financial settlement, donating it to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union – and yet, even in the wake of the ongoing conversation about the cycle of abuse by powerful men in Hollywood, it is Depp who remains the complex and flawed character – a troubled victim of circumstance. The sympathy for Depp is not without precedent, though: when Brock Turner was first accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus reports focused on his straight A grades, his wholesome good looks, and his future as an “All-American swimmer”.

His victim, on the other hand, was described as an “unconscious intoxicated woman, 10 syllables, and nothing more than that” – a fact which she herself later pointed out in an open letter to her rapist.

Similarly, when Reeva Steenkamp – a law graduate, television presenter and women’s rights activist – was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, she was consistently referred to as nothing more than the world-famous athlete’s “model girlfriend”. And when school teacher Alan Hawe stabbed his wife, Clodagh, in a violent murder-suicide, reports focused on his role as a “valuable member of the community”, and a “quiet and a real gentleman”. They reminded the public that he was “very committed” and the “most normal person you could meet”, and that he must have been in a very “vulnerable state of mind” at the time of the murders. 

Clodagh, however, was referred to as the “murderer’s wife”: her photo was not included in the news reports, and nothing was said about her role in the community (she was also a teacher).

Much like Depp, these men were painted as complex and troubled individuals. They deserved context, we were told, and understanding. They needed to have their side of the story shared with the world.

The women they’d beaten, raped and killed did not get the same treatment. They were reduced to footnotes: their entire existence reduced to the role they played in a “complicated” man’s life.

It’s 2018. Isn’t it time we changed the narrative?

Images: Getty / Rex Features