The high-profile defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard may have come to an end last week, but the onslaught of misogyny and vitriol it’s brought to the surface will continue to take its toll for some time to come.
The past two months have brought out the very worst of internet culture. Despite a UK judge previously finding that Depp had abused Heard on at least 12 occasions, the court of public opinion fell on the Pirates Of The Caribbean star’s side from the very beginning, resulting in an explosion of anti-Heard content online.
From TikTok videos of people mocking Heard’s testimony to YouTube videos claiming to debunk her account of events, the abuse directed at the Aquaman star over the course of the six-week trial was blatant and widespread.
On the flip side, her ex-husband was frequently portrayed as a hero, despite evidence emerging of numerous text messages in which he called Heard an “overused flappy fish market” and wrote about wanting to “fuck her burnt corpse”.
Last week’s verdict has made this commentary even worse. On Wednesday (1 June), the jury found that Heard defamed Depp in her 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post, ruling that she acted with “actual malice”. They awarded him $10 million in compensatory damages and a further $5 million in punitive damages.
The jury also found that Depp was liable for one defamatory statement made by his former lawyer Adam Waldman, awarding Heard $2 million in compensatory damages as a result.
Heard’s legal team presented a range of evidence, testimony and expert witnesses, but the message sent by the jury was clear: they did not believe her. On the flip side, the verdict does not suggest that Heard abused Depp – but that hasn’t stopped fans of Depp from suggesting as much.
Unsurprisingly, this commentary, and the levels of abuse that have emerged online over the last couple of weeks, have had an impact on Heard; in her rebuttal testimony, she fought back tears while describing the death threats she receives “every day”.
However, it’ll also have more wide-reaching consequences. While it’s easy to dismiss the events that have taken place both inside and outside the courtroom as mere ‘celebrity drama’, it’s so much more than that. In fact, this trial will continue to inform, influence and overshadow conversations about domestic abuse and sexual violence for longer than any of us expected.
The ‘perfect victim’ reborn
One of the most harmful results of the commentary surrounding this trial has been the reinforcement of the ‘perfect victim’ concept – aka, the idea that victims of abuse should look, sound and act a certain way.
There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘perfect victim’. But that fact hasn’t stopped social media users from scrutinising Heard’s physical and emotional behaviour on the stand – and holding it up as ‘evidence’ that she’s not telling the truth.
“The perfect victim stereotype is something that we’ve been theorising in psychology since the 1960s,” explains Dr Jessica Taylor, a chartered psychologist and founder of Victim Focus – a campaign group which works to challenge, change and influence the world to treat victims of trauma, abuse and violence with respect.
“Millions of people have scrutinised everything about her,” says Dr Taylor. “Why is she crying? Why is she not crying? Why is her memory recall of some incidents not good, but for others it is razor sharp? Why didn’t she tell somebody? Why did she cover her injuries with make-up? Why didn’t she? It’s just endless nitpicking.”
While this kind of commentary isn’t uncommon, it’s worrying to see this kind of scrutinisation playing out on such an international scale. Taylor, who is also the author of Sexy But Psycho: How The Patriarchy Uses Women’s Trauma Against Them, says this is a sign of just how widespread outdated views of victims remain – and warns that the prevalence of the ‘perfect victim’ idea in this case could have a silencing impact on those who feel they don’t match the parameters being described.
“It’s likely there are people watching the trial thinking, ‘I wouldn’t cry,’ or ‘I would probably say that,’ or ‘I can’t remember that clearly,’ and thinking that no one will believe them as a result,” Taylor says. “I’ve been getting messages from victims telling me that they’re pulling out of their cases because of this – it’s just been atrocious.”
The number of posts making light of the allegations being made – including in the form of TikTok videos re-enacting Heard’s testimony and compilations of Depp’s ‘best moments’ on the stand – also sends a similar message. Allegations of abuse are not a laughing matter – but by transforming Heard and Depp’s relationship into memes and jokes, the internet has temporarily succeeded in trivialising something unimaginable.
Ruth Davison, who works as the CEO for domestic abuse charity Refuge, says she’s seriously concerned about the impact this trivialisation will have on people who are thinking about coming forward.
“What we have seen emerge online has been truly disturbing,” she tells Stylist. “Domestic abuse is never a joke and with the memefication of this trial I am of course fearful for what this might mean for survivors.
“Survivors of abuse are so often told that ‘no one will believe you’ and the reaction and response to disclosures of abuse during this trial may mean that survivors, who already face barriers to coming forward, are even less inclined to do so.”
The extended coverage this trial has received has not only reinforced harmful stereotypes – it’s also made it impossible to avoid. From people asking ‘whose side’ you’re on to endless videos on YouTube, the details divulged during the trial have invaded all of our lives in one way or another.
“The commentary and videos emerging from this trial are extremely triggering for victims – I know lots of people are finding it really difficult,” says Dr Taylor.
“It’s on every social media platform, and the testimonies contained some very graphic details. There’s been no safeguarding around this whatsoever – social media sites have allowed so much content to be uploaded.”
You only need to ask people what they think about the trial to get a sense of how overwhelming the online conversation about it has become – primarily because of its televised nature.
Alongside the live stream from inside the court, there’s been plenty of post-testimony analysis and talk-show panels dissecting the events, which has transformed a legal proceeding into a public spectacle.
Dr Taylor says this treatment of the trial as “reality TV” will affect abuse survivors in more ways than one: “The fact that this has been seen as some kind of entertainment that everyone’s been tuning into has made it into a big circus – and it shows a massive lack of empathy for victims.”
Setting an example
Beyond having an impact on people who have experienced abuse and the way society talks about those who come forward with allegations, this trial also has the potential to set a dangerous precedent.
Depp won this case, but in the past legal action like this has been used to silence victims (numerous women faced defamation claims in the wake of the #MeToo movement), and campaigners have warned that the social media reaction to Heard could empower those accused of abuse to use the law to humiliate and control their accusers.
“This was a very complex case where it would seem that the relationship was damaging on both sides, but perpetrators of domestic abuse have historically used the legal system to further control and abuse their victims,” says Sharon Bryan, head of partnerships and development at The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV).
Bryan also believes the televised nature of the trial could have a particularly damaging impact: “Despite the fact that the televising of this court case would never have happened in the UK, victims of domestic abuse don’t necessarily know that.
“In my professional opinion, this case will prevent victims of domestic abuse from coming forward and reporting their abuse. The way this case was played out to the world by the media by televising it made it a form of entertainment.”
Davison is also concerned about the message this case might send on a legal basis, especially when it comes to people coming forward with abuse allegations in the first place.
“The rise in strategic litigation to silence survivors of abuse is something which gives me huge cause for concern,” says Davison. “Wealth, status and threats are often used to try and suppress survivors from coming forward, and the idea that litigation can be used as a way of ensuring people are too afraid to come forward is a terrifying prospect.”
The image of Heard that has been painted throughout the course of this trial – as a deceptive, over-emotional ex-wife who makes things up for attention – is also incredibly damaging.
The misogynistic belief that women are over-emotional and attention-seeking has long been used to belittle those who allege abuse, but the arguments made during this trial have gone a significant way towards legitimising this way of thinking.
Indeed, Dr Taylor says the way Heard has been spoken about during this trial is also already having an impact on the treatment of women.
“Women keep messaging me and telling me that the abusive men in their lives keep calling them Amber when they call out their behaviour – just last week, a woman got in contact saying her ex called her ‘Amber Heard’ for asking him to lower his voice,” Taylor says. “When have we ever seen anything like this happen?”
If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is available free, 24 hours a day, on 0808 2000 247 or at www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk.
For free emergency legal protection orders, please contact The National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) at www.ncdv.org.uk, call 0800 970 2070 or text NCDV to 60777.
Victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence also have a number of legal protections and rights across the UK. Rights Of Women run two free confidential legal advice lines for England and Wales, the details of which can be found on their website.