Heard v. Depp, a year later

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Content Warning — sexual assault, domestic violence, Ben Shapiro

If you're anything like me, you were probably extremely ambivalent about the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp defamation lawsuit while it was going on. Everything I learned about that was entirely against my will, because celebrity drama feels like perhaps the lowest form of entertainment.

You, like me, may also have been left with a vaguely negative impression of Amber Heard, even if you couldn't quite describe why. The smear campaign was so comprehensive that what little I did learn gave me the impression that Heard was the abuser (or at the very least, there was mutual abuse). Yet, I never made the effort to read into it because I had no interest in a defamation lawsuit between movie stars. Here's why I should have cared about it more at the time.

Let's recap the facts of the case. In 2018, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post with the eerily prescient title, "I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture's wrath. This has to change." In response to statements made in this op-ed, Johnny Depp sued Heard for defamation and won $350,000 in damages. Separately, the jury also found that Depp and his lawyer had defamed Heard during the trial, and she was awarded $2 million in damages.

Recently, I came across a YouTube video titled "Amber Heard is Broke, Divorced, and Talentless," by none other than Mister Benjamin Shapiro. For the uninitiated, Ben Shapiro is an intellectually vacuous right-wing reactionary and author of some truly horrendous sci-fi. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then perhaps Ben's ravenous disdain for Heard should make me reconsider my position on the suit.

Obviously, we will never know the full story of what happened in the privacy of their relationship, and with the discourse so poisoned it's hard to find a balanced breakdown of who is at fault. It does seem that the relationship was highly dysfunctional and unhealthy from both ends. We know that Johnny Depp sent texts to other actors about wanting to kill and rape Heard. Furthermore, during the suit Heard was forced to relive these traumatic experiences on the witness stand, with the full understanding that she would be the target of overwhelmingly negative media coverage.

With regards to who was more at fault, I would like to make one point. The existence of "mutual abuse" is extremely contentious, with many arguing it cannot exist. Abuse requires power imbalance, and it is impossible to have two people who each have more power than the other. There can certainly be mutually harmful or mutually toxic relationships, but toxic does not necessarily mean abusive. And if you want to figure out which of the parties had more power in the court of public opinion, try to recall if you'd ever heard the name Amber Heard before April of 2022.

In a nutshell, Amber Heard was the victim of a massive, deliberate smear campaign by bad-faith actors — particularly on the online right — to heighten the coverage of her behavior while diminishing that of Depp. I doubt I'm the only one who (repeatedly) heard the story about Heard pooping on Depp's bed, but not the story of Depp threatening violence against Heard. It was arguably the greatest concentration of online misogynistic rhetoric since Gamergate.

For those unaware, Gamergate was a targeted harassment campaign against female video game critics led by antifeminist, male video game YouTubers in 2014. It was somewhat of an inflection point for the growth of the alt-right, as it introduced many male adolescents to extremely toxic rhetoric about women via their interest in video game-related content. In much the same way, the virality of the Heard/Depp case mainstreamed a lot of really vindictive, misogynistic rhetoric about Heard, with no care given to producing a nuanced analysis of their relationship.

One particularly insidious element of the media frenzy around this trial is how it co-opted the discourse on male abuse. In particular, Depp's experiences were framed as being invalidated by a society that can't view men as victims, and that those opposed to Depp must therefore be opposed to male abuse victims. There is a kernel of truth in this. As counterintuitive as it sounds, men do experience negative consequences of living under patriarchy — in particular, that a man can't be at the receiving end of a power imbalance. It's important to have a nuanced conversation about things like male abuse and sexual assault in a way that doesn't antagonize feminism. But these issues are repeatedly exploited by dishonest people for political ends, because many believe (or rather, want to believe) that these issues are being ignored by progressive or left-wing ideologies. The Depp-Heard trial had the perfect confluence of factors to allow the online right to have an absolute field day, by pushing with all their strength the narrative that Depp is the victim of a society which refuses to acknowledge male abuse.

I think the fact that this is an issue I care about made it easy for me to fall for the prevailing online narrative, especially when I couldn't be bothered to do my own research. It was a bit shocking to learn that I'm still just as susceptible to targeted disinformation as I was in middle school, especially given how good my opinions are these days. At the time, a friend of mine told me that my ambivalence on the case was a "very online take." If only I'd listened to him. For anybody else who fell for this, let it serve as a reminder to stay vigilant when engaging with political issues on the internet. And maybe, if Ben Shapiro says something, consider that the opposite is probably true.