The Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard case which Depp won on 1 June 2022 has exposed many ugly truths about domestic violence, sexism, and misogyny ever since Depp started going on a public rampage against Heard in 2018 for writing an op-ed in the Washington Post (without naming him) about her experience as a survivor: the prevalence of post-separation abuse as a way for abusers to punish their victims for leaving them and exposing their abusive behaviour; that the myth of the “perfect victim” is alive and thriving; the public’s lack of understanding about the complex dynamics of domestic violence; the ingrained misogyny in society (and in many women); and the fact that the world remains an unsafe place for female victims and survivors.
These revelations are not unusual each time there is a high-profile domestic violence case, nor is the media frenzy surrounding Depp v. Heard. From Clint Eastwood to OJ Simpson to Harvey Weinstein, cases involving powerful high-profile men who commit violence against women have always been sensationalised on the public stage. However, what makes Depp’s post-separation abuse of Heard a horrific watershed moment in the history of domestic and sexual violence cases (celebrity or otherwise) is that Depp has not merely combined his financial might and his seemingly inexhaustible social capital as a beloved celebrity – as his predecessors did – to wage a war on his victim who has always been less powerful than him in every way. He has gone much further beyond the pale by using a strategy that is only possible in the 21st century:
Enraged by the ruling by the UK courts that he is indeed “a wife-beater” with 12 out of 14 allegations of his abuse of Heard upheld, Depp capitalised on every online technology tool at his disposal to carry out his self-confessed mission to inflict “total global humiliation” on Heard by unleashing a public online smear campaign of massive proportions carried out via social media and powered by misogyny, sexism, and toxic celebrity fandoms as part of his strategy to crush her in the global court of public opinion. Even he did not win the case, he would still win widespread public approval which would be the key to reviving his career that he wrecked all by himself.
The wide-ranging damage wreaked by this campaign establishes the fact that Depp is not just any domestic abuser – he is the multimillionaire bad boy movie star who has become the latest poster child for violent men looking to add the manipulation of social media, online communities, and digital technologies to their arsenal of abuse tactics. As Aja Romano, culture staff writer for Vox reporting on internet culture, noted: “The Depp-Heard trial has refined the Gamergate playbook in a way that will haunt us for years to come. It has proven to extremists that if you rally around the right beloved public figure or institution, blanket them in a protective sphere of outrage and misinformation, and weaponise fandom culture — already so prone to ideological radicalisation and irrational groupthink — you can successfully push whatever media narrative you want into the mainstream.”
Depp v. Heard and Depp’s triumph in both the legal court and court of public opinion has made the act of leaving an abuser even more fraught for victims and survivors by setting four (4) dangerous precedents that may well characterise domestic violence cases and how domestic abusers carry out their violence and terrorism in the 21st century.
Precedent #1: A Blueprint for the Online Post-Separation Abuse of Victims
Depp has provided the blueprint for male abusers to weaponise the 21st century technology landscape in order to maximise the damage they can inflict on their victims through public character assassination while garnering himpathy that will shore up their status and power. The Johnny Depp Playbook For The Tech-Savvy 21st Century Male Abuser includes: using attack bots; choosing to have the defamation trial in Virginia which is a state with weak anti-SLAPP laws and where judges have the authority to allow the proceedings to be livestreamed; and feeding misinformation to his supporters – including his lawyer leaking a recording of a fight with Heard that is selectively edited to present her as his abuser – as fodder for their online dragging on Heard. Depp has succeeded so spectacularly that beyond winning his case, he has inspired other abusive men have taken to using ‘Amber’ or ‘Ms. Heard’ as their new go-to pejorative to terrorise and gaslight their victims while Heard has received an endless stream of death threats, as she testified in court, along with threats to microwave her baby daughter.
Precedent #2: The Legitimisation of Defamation Lawsuits to Silence Victims, Survivors, and Women
Depp’s status as a celebrity has also bestowed legitimacy to a legal maneuver that male abusers have been turning to increasingly since the advent of #MeToo: using defamation lawsuits to silence their victims. He has shown abusive and misogynistic men worldwide that defamation lawsuits can be used to silence their victims or any woman who speaks out against them for any reason. He has also demonstrated that for victims and targets who refuse be silenced, lawsuits are a tool that enables the abuser to continue punching down by dragging them through the courts for years. Depp’s close friend Marilyn Manson has already taken the cue from him to sue Evan Rachel Wood (whom Manson battered and raped) for “defamation” and many more will follow. According to Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies the social structures that enable sexual violence, stating that one is a domestic violence survivor has historically qualified as protected speech. In an interview with The 19th, she pointed out the chilling effect that defamation lawsuits may have: “Will this make survivors reluctant to volunteer at a crisis center, to share their story for a non-profit campaign, to warn friends about the perpetrator or ask them to set boundaries with him? […] I worry survivors will go back to suffering in silence.” Bedera’s prediction has proven correct – DV victims who spoke anonymously to Rolling Stone magazine after the jury verdict was announced have said that the case have shown them that if their abuser “chose to, he could destroy and humiliate me beyond repair” if their case ever reached court.
Precedent #3: The Normalisation and Amplification of Attacks on the Victim’s Supporters and Advocates
Depp has brazenly demonstrated to abusers that it is perfectly acceptable to punish a victim’s supporters for supporting her. More than that, he has also shown abusers that they need to use social media and other online technologies to widen the radius of the damage to cow every person who either stands up for the victim or does not publicly support the abuser himself. In Depp’s case, his global fandom, misogynistic supporters, and bots do not just whale on Heard but also go after anyone who publicly speaks up for Heard. Organisations, groups, and individuals who have stood by Heard and spoken out online in her defence have experienced a massive backlash steeped in misogyny and hate. Depp’s online army has attacked everyone from expert witnesses called in to substantiate Heard’s claims to Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, who has been bombarded with abusive messages on Instagram for remaining silent throughout the trial. The venom of Depp’s supporters has been so extreme that Heard asked the judge to seal the jurors’ identities for a year, ostensibly to protect them against any backlash (her request was granted).
Precedent #4: The Weaponisation of Internalised Misogyny Online
Beyond the silencing of Heard’s supporters and anyone who isn’t vociferously on his side, Depp’s tactics have also resulted in another form of collateral damage: his weaponisation of social media and fandoms has triggered the internalised misogyny and sexism in many women, creating major fissures in the #MeToo movement and amongst feminists. Many of Depp’s most vocal and aggressive champions include domestic violence survivors, some feminist activists, and even a women’s abuse organisation. These women have mounted takedown attacks against women’s organisations, domestic violence charities, feminist campaigners, and other domestic violence survivors who show any support for Heard. While many abusers have relied on the internalised misogyny of the women in their circles to aid and abet them, none have done so on such a large scale. It would not be surprising to see in the near future that many abusive celebrity men will follow Depp’s lead and recruit female fans who are blinded by their fame to their cause.
The most cruel irony of the case is that the female domestic violence survivors who support Depp and attack Heard may not have fully comprehended what they are now complicit in: that Depp’s success in the legal court and the court of public opinion doesn’t just mean that other victims and survivors will be thrown under the bus created by the Johnny Depp Playbook for Abusers. It means THEIR OWN ABUSER – the monster they fought so hard to leave – may very well now happily file a defamation suit to silence them from talking about their experience with anyone because Depp has shown how effective this move is.
While Depp v. Heard has dealt a significant blow to the movement to end violence against women, including domestic violence, it has also created a profoundly teachable moment – a golden opportunity to use it as a reference point to educate family, friends, community, and the general public about domestic violence. Here are five (5) actions individuals can take to get started with maximising such an opportunity:
Teachable Moment Action #1: Combat Misinformation On Social Media (Safely)
The internet has been flooded with news, memes, op-eds, articles, etc about Depp v. Heard the vast majority of which are heavily and ridiculously weighted on Depp’s side thanks to the spreading of misinformation by Depp’s online army of fans and bots. NPR reports that as of May 23rd 2022, on TikTok, #IStandWithAmberHeard has garnered about 8.2 million views, while #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has earned about 15 billion views. So it is not unusual to see people citing Depp-biased sources as “proof” that Heard is the abuser while Depp is the victim. In particular, they target the comments sections under any articles, forums, or social media posts that point out that the situation is very much the opposite. This results in a frightening wall of support for an abuser, invariably containing victim-blaming comments about Heard because she isn’t the “perfect victim” and the misinformed belief that “mutual abuse” exists. (It doesn’t.)
When you come across such “walls of support” for Depp on social media, consider dropping some truth amid all that misinformation. Add a comment with links to sources that dispel domestic violence myths, that set the record straight with regards to Depp’s behaviour and history, and perhaps a couple of corrections (with receipts) to counteract the lies that Depp and his internet army have manufactured about Heard.
Here’s where the safety measure kicks in: LEAVE THE THREAD. The vicious pile-ons from Depp supporters will begin almost immediately. Use the “mute” and “block” buttons liberally if need be.
You may think that it is pointless to leave a comment or make a few tweets without engaging with anyone who responds but consider this: there may be lurkers in the thread who may be sitting on the fence about the case, who may be doing their own research because their gut tells them something is off, or who may outwardly support Depp but are beginning to have doubts.
The information you post or tweet might just change some minds while educating them about domestic violence.
Here are a few links and resources to get you started:
(A) Dispelling Myths about Domestic Violence
- There is no such thing as “mutual abuse” because the abuser will always have more economic clout, social capital, etc than the victim. Here is a primer on the myth of mutual abuse from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- Reactive abuse: What it is and why abusers rely on it.
- Veteran domestic violence experts Julie Owens and Bea Cote talk to family therapist Dr Tara Egan about the dynamics of domestic violence, how to recognise an abuser, and how to identify a victim.
- Veteran domestic violence expert Julie Owens provides an extensive analysis of the case and outlines how Depp fits the abuser profile and the power and control wheel.
(B) Dismantling misperceptions about Johnny Depp and Depp v. Heard
- Here is a timeline (with receipts both in the original post and the updates in the comments section) tracking Depp’s history of abusive behaviour towards women.
- An extensive report charting Depp’s history of destructive, abusive, and violent behaviour, not just towards Heard but also many other people who have known him and/or worked with/for him over several decades.
- Depp lost his case in the UK courts which upheld 12 of the 14 allegations of his abuse of Heard. Here is the full court verdict (downloadable as a PDF file for reading). If people don’t have time to read it all need the key points? Here is the summary.
- UPDATE: Here is a list of myths about Depp v. Heard debunked. Here is part 2 of the list.
Teachable Moment Action #2: Engage Your Friends – Call Them In
With Depp v. Heard saturating celebrity news and any discussion about domestic violence and violence against women, it is almost impossible to dodge hearing at least a friend or two mention the case. Pay attention to their attitude towards the case. If they are leaning towards Depp or rooting for him, don’t let it just pass because while this may be a celebrity case, imagine what their attitude would be if you or anyone you know is or becomes a domestic violence or rape victim.
Engage with them in the way that would work best when discussing sensitive or controversial issues with them – send them an email or WhatsApp/Signal message with the resource links we have shared further up; ask them questions that would prompt them to start thinking critically about the misinformation they have received about the case and about domestic violence.
Even if they dig in their heels about supporting Depp, your disruption of their reasoning process may well prompt them to rethink their stance about the case or their views about domestic violence.
Teachable Moment Action #3: Educate the Fence-Sitters on Social Media
The fence-sitters are usually the people who dismiss the case as just another celebrity brawl or who opine that both Depp and Heard are “just as bad” or that it’s “mutual abuse”. They do not take sides but may play a role in perpetuating domestic violence myths or minimising the dangers of domestic violence. Some of them may also be the ones who would hear domestic violence happening next door but do nothing to help the victim because “we don’t know what happened” and “it’s none of my business”.
If you see this is in a social media comments thread discussion, consider answering their comments by providing information and resources dispelling myths about domestic violence and correcting any misinformation they may cite.
As above, even if they are adamant about maintaining their fence-sitting stance, your disruption of their reasoning may well prompt them to reconsider their attitudes towards the case and domestic violence.
Teachable Moment Action #4: Think Long-Term – Talk to the Kids
As Depp v. Heard trends on social media and will remain a reference point for domestic violence cases for many years to come, it is inevitable that children and teenagers will have heard about it. With TikTok being the current social media darling of young people and TikTok influencers treating the trial as entertainment and using Heard as a punching bag to increase their followers, children and teens will very likely have witnessed it and, without context, may have started learning to victim-blame, hold women and girls to sexist double standards, and treat sexism and misogyny as normal. This is something that needs to be nipped in the bud before it is set in stone in their attitudes. They may not have personally experienced or witnessed domestic violence but they still need to be taught how to identify it and why it is unacceptable.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a coach, it may be a good idea to use Depp v. Heard as a springboard to start talking to the kids you know about domestic violence, what abusers are like, and why victim-blaming should never be tolerated.
Here are a few resources to start you off:
- Listening and talking to your child about domestic violence
- 8 ways to talk with kids exposed to domestic violence
- How to talk to teens about dating violence
- How to talk with teens about domestic and family violence
Teachable Moment Action #5: Be Prepared – Educate Yourself About Domestic Violence
Finally, aside from educating kids and teens for the future, why not take the cue from the Girl Scouts’ motto “be prepared”? As in, be prepared to do your part in the next high-profile domestic violence case to:
- correct and educate family, friends, and your community about myths about domestic violence
- recognise, call out, and quash victim-blaming
- recognise the signs and tactics of online sexism and misogyny driving victim-blaming
- recognise the red flags that are characteristics of an abuser
- recognise the signs that someone may be a victim of abuse
- recognise and understand survivors who have internalised misogyny
By learning about the complexities of domestic violence, starting with the resources above, you will be better equipped to:
- critically consider what you read about domestic violence cases in the media before joining discussions about them
- recognise when public sentiment is with the abuser rather than the victim
- avoid inadvertently spreading misinformation or falling for misinformation
- call out sexism, misogyny, and victim-blaming
Beyond Depp v. Heard
Depp v. Heard – compounded by Depp’s victory – has and will make life even more dangerous and difficult for domestic and sexual violence survivors (the majority of whom are female). 21st century technology has given abusers more weapons for terrorising victims while amplifying the magnitude of victim-blaming, sexism, and misogyny to an unbearable degree. Anyone and everyone who buys into the patriarchy can now harass and attack victims as either a deliberate or unwitting proxy for abusers via social media.
Yet as grim as the outlook is, there is no turning back. Every single one of us who cares about women’s human rights, the rights of victims and survivors, and the urgency of dismantling the patriarchy that upholds the male violence and entitlement exemplified by Depp needs to push forward in every way that we can, whether it’s developing new technology to combat the misogyny high-profile cases like Depp v. Heard propel or teaching the next generations to do better.
We stand by Amber Heard and every victim and survivor who has never been believed and who has been forced by their abuser to undergo a public victim-blaming witch-hunt in their communities and beyond.
We stand by every victim who is now afraid to leave their abuser and every survivor who has been re-traumatised and triggered because of this case.
We stand by every advocate, activist, ally, and feminist who is doing the good work that they do for victims and survivors in the face of attacks from misogynists and the toxic Depp fandom.
And we believe that there is strength in numbers. Working together is how we will eventually prevail against this tsunami of tech-enabled misogyny that has accelerated and compounded the power of men and boys to abuse the women and girls they target.
It’s time to stop violence against women. Together.
Top photo via @IvanaE on Twitter