who's afraid of amber heard?
abuse, aesthetics, and assigning deviance to difficult women
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By now, the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard over her allegations of domestic abuse has become virtually inescapable. With terrifying inertia, the trial has become a vicious battleground for a maelstrom of cultural forces: the hatred of women, the fear for men, the obsessive consumption of real-life tragedy, the aftershock of the MeToo movement, the influencer attention economy. The resulting political event is something akin to a cultural coup, and it’s also one of the most toxic and terrifying eruptions of cultural misogyny that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Despite the now-popular push to condemn both Amber and Johnny as terrible people and wash your hands of the discourse, I’m not interested in refusing to “take a side”. I’m not the first person to point out that much of the reasonable criticism of this trial tries to have its cake and eat it too; it attempts to criticize the misogynistic, dehumanizing circus around the trial without taking a meaningful stance on the abuse itself. As Caroline Walsh-King writes in her excellent essay We Don’t Want To Believe, much of the popular progressive coverage around the case focuses on “scolding the public for our behaviour… because this will cause damage to “real” victims, without engaging with what it means to leave Heard’s victimhood status to be defined by a judge or jury.” Staying neutral is understandable — I can understand anyone wanting to avoid the wrath of the Depp death cult — but I think it misses the mark. We gain nothing by refusing to address the complexities of abuse. We lose everything by creating a dichotomy between Amber Heard’s story and the theoretical stories of good victims, better victims, “real” victims — while, in the process, implying that her sustained public degradation is only bad because of what it will do to less difficult women.
I have no interest in beating around that bush. I have a great deal to say here, but I want to say this clearest of all: I believe that Johnny Depp is a misogynist, abusive, serially violent wifebeater, and I believe that he owes his cultural victory to a combination of celebrity worship, targeted right-wing propaganda, and vicious, vitriolic misogyny.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the cultural response to the suit is the sheer volume of people now insisting that it’s both radical and necessary to declare that women can lie. “Women CAN do bad things,” proclaim the viral tweets and pseudo-philosophical TikToks, boldly assuming an affect of subversion despite occupying the same philosophical position as a sanitorium baron from 1955. If the never-ending barrage of amateur political punditry on the internet is to be believed, we need to be having this conversation, lest feminism go too far (nevermind the fact that women’s liberation is no nearer now than it was before #MeToo went viral on Twitter). The idea that the dominant culture has moved forward enough for the systemic distrust of women to be anything other than a default setting is somewhere between bizarre fantasy and bold-faced manipulation: in reality, everyone still thinks women are lying all the time, and they never stopped for a second.
The spectacle around the Depp trial is being called a large-scale backlash to the MeToo movement, and I don’t disagree — but this is uniquely terrifying because I don’t think the mainstream MeToo movement was ever actually materially effective in the first place. In Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he writes that an oppressive structure “sees its salvation” in allowing the masses to express themselves freely in lieu of granting them their rights. Similarly, the mainstream MeToo movement offered temporary catharsis in place of systemic change; Hollywood play-acted a revolution so that its men could keep up their abuse unscathed. There is something phenomenally painful in watching a material backlash erupt in response to a movement that was never allowed to be anything more than aesthetic. Now that the state of discourse has moved forward without bringing women’s material conditions with it, men like Johnny Depp are able to benefit from violent systemic misogyny while posturing themselves as radical, anti-establishment activists. Recent events are not so much a pendulum swing as they are a pendulum being repeatedly beaten in one direction for fear it might one day gain a centimetre of ground.
It’s exceptionally clear to me that ever since the advent of the mainstream MeToo movement, the public (even women, even some so-called feminists) has been foaming at the mouth for a neat, uncomplicated example of an evil woman publicly conspiring to bring a good man down. The problem, of course, is that an instance of that is hard to actually find, and so — to paraphrase Voltaire — it became necessary to invent one.
For the vast majority of casual spectators, the idea that Amber Heard might be a victim is unimaginable. Pro-Depp media has dominated the internet for the duration of the trial, and most of it represents very little of the valid evidence against him. The vast majority of it, too, is largely based in aggressive sexism and strategic right-wing rhetoric — The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s conservative news outlet, spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting biased anti-Heard propaganda. The right-wing connection to the trial is expansive and terrifying in its own right: on the subreddits that serve as home base for Depp’s proponents, tens of thousands of relatively apolitical fans are abandoning mainstream media in favour of increasingly conservative pseudo-news sources that support their cause. Countless right-wing pundits and commentators have latched onto the pro-Depp movement as a gateway to new, young audiences, and even the official GOP Twitter account posted in support of Depp’s victory. It’s not a stretch by any means to say that this trial has been adopted as a gold-rush scenario for right-wing forces looking to gain cultural power — this popular article encourages the institutional right to “copy Johnny Depp” in order to defend and protect accused white nationalists.
Depp’s propaganda machine has effectively obfuscated most of the valid evidence against him, as well as engaged in a large-scale smear campaign designed to paint Heard as a crazy, manipulative abuser determined to take him down at any cost. Even those who are critical of Depp often dismiss the case as an example of “mutual abuse”, wherein both parties were equally at fault and neither one can claim victimhood. In reality, the actual evidence around Heard’s case paints a very different story. In Michael Hobbes’ article The bleak spectacle of the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial, he goes through the facts in a way that makes the truth much clearer. I encourage you the read the whole thing. Much of the article draws from Heard’s testimony, but even if you’re critical of her word alone, there’s more than enough material evidence and eyewitness accounts to corroborate a story of long-term psychological and physical abuse that began when she was 23 and Depp was 46.
Numerous audio recordings show Depp admitting to explosive and violent behaviour, and some capture the outbursts themselves. In one recording, Heard says, “I cry in my bedroom after I dumped you a week prior after you beat the shit out of me.” Depp replies, “I made a huge mistake. I won’t do it again.” Texts show him using homophobic language and violently misogynistic slurs against Heard, who is bisexual: In texts to Paul Bettany, he said he wanted to drown her, burn her, and rape her dead body “to make sure she’s dead.” He also called her a “lesbian camp counsellor,” "ugly cunt," "worthless hooker" and "filthy whore”, and promised in a text message about Heard to “smack the ugly cunt around”.
Heard has a mountain of documentation to support her claims of over 10 counts of violent physical abuse, including photos of bruises, witnesses corroborating those bruises, several witnesses reporting seeing Heard with cuts and chunks of missing hair, recordings of Depp’s verbally violent outbursts, and texts throughout the entirety of their relationship confirming Heard’s accusations. “Both Heard’s and Depp’s texts from their relationship confirm her basic outline of events,” writes Hobbes. “From the earliest incident of violence, Heard told friends and family about his jealousy, his attacks, and his denials. The UK trial includes a text from Depp’s assistant after the private-jet blowup saying, “when I told him he hit you, he cried.”” Depp has an almost ridiculously well-documented multi-decade history of physical violence, rage-induced outbursts, destructive behaviour, and extreme misogyny; he is about to go on trial for another act of physical violence against a crew member.
Meanwhile, many of the popular talking points levied against Heard are questionable if not completely fabricated. As Hobbes writes, “At the center of this case is a wildly plausible, evidence-backed story of abuse.”
And again, this is not to say that Amber Heard is perfect. She was cruel. She was callous. She’s lied, just as Depp has. Most importantly, like many, many women trapped in long-term abusive relationships, she absolutely engaged in emotional toxicity and a degree of physical violence. For anyone familiar with cycles of domestic abuse, this is nothing new — reactive violence is an extremely common result of the psychological degradation and fear responses that come with sustained abuse. Of course, violence is never okay, but the complete dehumanization of women who behave imperfectly in torturous circumstances is just one half of a Catch-22 which conspires to keep all women silent. If you were abused and did nothing, they’ll say you weren’t abused at all, and so you’re a liar and therefore an abuser; if you were abused and you fought back, then it means you were the abuser to begin with.
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Johnny Depp has used every weapon in his artillery to paint a detailed and specific picture: one of a crazy, scheming woman who spent over a third of her life crafting a conspiracy to bring down the thriving career of a beloved celebrity and boost her own in the process. It’s a familiar caricature, and one that’s been used to discredit and demonize women for hundreds of years.
Allow me to paint a more realistic one. Johnny Depp’s career has been fizzling out for years. He’s spent the 2010s putting out the lowest-rated performances of his career and watching his star power and cultural currency fade as he sunk further into bouts of addiction and self-destruction, while surrounding himself with misogynists and abusers at every turn. He’s accused Heard of dragging his name through the mud for attention, despite the fact that she never even used his name at all — instead, he instigated the public battle, had the trial be televised, and summoned the media circus. Now, he’s beloved again, and more popular than he’s been in over a decade.
Unlike Depp (and many of his acolytes), I find no value in flattening the experiences or motivations of either party in this case to fit an easily consumable Marvel movie plotline. I’m not interested in buying into the dominant narrative that treats this trial like a soap opera, with characters that exist to be rooted for and against. Much of the popular discourse acts as though there are only two feasible options when it comes to Heard’s (and, really, any woman’s) innocence: either she’s an evil, psychotic manipulator who’s guilty on all counts, or she must have to be a perfectly innocent angel who’s never done anything wrong. I don’t think Amber Heard is a feminist hero, and I’m not saying this to make my support of her more palatable or to perform impartiality — I’m saying it because she shouldn’t have to be. I think it’s essential to a much larger point (and, in reality, far more controversial) to believe Amber Heard is a victim while also acknowledging her wrongdoings. Once you start pushing the idea that a woman has to be perfect in order to be believed, you head down a road that ends with the systemic exorcism of any woman too human to be a good victim.
Those who believe Amber Heard are often accused of ignoring the truth to capitulate to a convenient girl-power narrative. The obvious flaw in this argument is that absolutely nothing about Amber Heard’s victimhood is convenient. I’ve been told multiple times, point-blank, to leave the Amber Heard case alone and focus on picking an easier subject; it’s become a common pseudo-feminist diatribe to insist that Heard is “setting the movement back”. For decades, the dominant pop-feminist ethic has focused on boosting the stories of “good” victims — victims whose experiences with abuse seemed so cut-and-dry, whose innocence was so indisputable, that it seemed no sane person could disbelieve them. The trick, though, is that every woman stops being “good” once they decide to resist abuse, and so no victim could ever be good enough to avoid scrutiny. Even still, feminists have been encouraged to leave the stories of difficult women in the dust, lest they hurt our cause with their complexity — again, we’re fed the myth of the model victim and told to focus on defending the good girls.
The problem, of course, is that good girls don’t report domestic violence. In Labelling Women Deviant: Gender, Stigma, and Social Control, sociologist Edwin Schur notes that women who come forward about abuse at the hands of men are consistently villainized and vilified far more than the men who committed the violence, no matter how indisputable the case or how “correctly” the victim handled it. He writes that this is in large part because deviance is projected onto those who resist or subvert societal norms: in this case, gender roles. The very act of resisting abuse violates the woman’s passive and submissive gender role, and so the woman is punished for it; committing an act of gendered domination actively conforms to the man’s, and so no social punishment is necessary. Often, he is socially rewarded. (This is also, by the way, part of why Amber Heard’s supposed position as an abuser has been subject to more vitriol than Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Marilyn Manson put together — she violates the gender role, while they operate within it). Her mass objectification and dehumanization can be understood as a kind of power play to put her back in her place.
This is also why we must accept that Amber Heard is no exception. Heard’s story is a study in damnation, and it’s not a new one — when she didn’t have photographs of the abuse, it was proof she was lying. When she did, it means she faked them. When she had no witness accounts, it meant the violence never happened; when she did, it was proof she planned a grand conspiracy to bring Depp down. She was too loving at some points, too cruel at others; either so calm and collected that she must be lying or so distraught and uncertain that she must not know what she’s talking about. Amber Heard might not be a perfect victim, but she sure as hell is a typical one.
And still, the vast majority of participants in the zeitgeist purport to be defending victims even as they take part in Heard’s mass victimization. Even those who consider themselves progressive feminists insist that Amber Heard has no place in the movement against domestic violence. In the process, they’re crafting a blind, toothless framework for understanding abuse that will end up failing each and every woman who needs it.
This is a great contradiction of the internet age: the act of saying you’re a feminist and the act of engaging in feminism are two entirely disparate inclinations, sharing little in common when they’re not actively at odds with each other. Everyone thinks they’re a feminist now. Everyone thinks they believe women. Few actually are; few actually do. Believing women in theory is much easier than engaging with the messy realities of victimhood. The dissociation of political identity from material reality has become so essential to popular discourse that one can truly, genuinely believe they support victims of abuse while operating within a community that needs to be reminded via Jim-from-The-Office meme that not all women are lying psycho bitches.
Depp’s supporters wish death upon a woman whose husband went on the record saying he wanted to rape her lifeless body. They make half-jokes about hoping she starts stripping or gets on OnlyFans now that she is destitute at the hands of litigative and financial abuse (no matter how much men purport to hate a woman, by the way, they will still hunger to see her naked — in fact, their desire to fuck her is central to their hatred). They laugh at the photos of her bruises and memeify the makeup she used to cover them. And through it all, they still honestly insist that they’re on the side of all victims everywhere, despite the fact that most victims of abuse are made to look a lot more like Amber Heard than anyone wants to admit.
So if you’re one of the many people saying that you “believe victims, just not Amber Heard” — that you don’t think all women are psycho bitch liars, just Amber Heard — I sincerely regret to inform you that you are lying to yourself and others. Here’s the long and the short of it: if you can take an honest look at the evidence in front of you and not believe that Amber Heard is a victim of abuse, there are exceptionally few women who you actually would believe if they were to receive the same treatment.
For women, this truth is terrifying. I understand why it’s far easier to bury our heads in the sand and insist that Heard deserves what’s coming to her — this validates the pipe dream that there’s some level of respectability women can reach which will free us from the violence of patriarchy. Women align themselves with power because they think it means that when their backs are against the wall, power will align itself with them, too. I think that’s precisely why so many abuse survivors threw their support behind Depp so publicly. Time and time again, I saw women online insist that they were real victims, and they would never be so cruel, so angry, so manipulative, so dishonest. They would have more proof (never mind the fact that Heard had lots of it); they would have behaved better (because they’re good women, undeserving of abuse, and she’s a wicked one). I understand the impulse; I understand the fear. I hope it’s clear that I don’t say this with the intention of engaging in holier-than-thou judgement — rather, I say it as a desperate plea for women to understand that aspiring to perfect victimhood on the backs of imperfect women will fail them just as it has failed me.
This trial has conjured, in perfect, terrifying detail, a near-comprehensive list of reasons why any woman can be discredited, villainized, and crucified in the court of public opinion: if you ever dared to do anything but lie down and let yourself be hurt. If you’re mentally ill, or if you can reasonably be painted as mentally ill. (Womanhood is basically a symptom in and of itself, by the way — the psychiatrist who spot-diagnosed Amber Heard with histrionic personality disorder literally cited being “overly girly” as evidence.) If he's charming enough, handsome enough. Even if he's not handsome anymore — even if, hypothetically, he looks like a leathery skin sack gently deflating before our eyes as he leaks grease and prescription benzos — they will remember that he once was, and it will be enough. Whether it be with Johnny Depp or Brock Turner, the fantasy of a man’s illustrious past or bright future will always take priority over a woman’s present.
They’ll make him a folk hero. They’ll call him a feminist. He’ll sell fucking NFTs dedicated to furthering your humiliation and degradation. And despite it all, you will be the one called the attention-hungry slut desperate to manipulate your way to the top.
The cornerstone of Johnny Depp’s case is that Amber Heard fabricated the accusations against him in a carefully constructed plan to further her own career. He knows this is a lie, by the way, because the idea that any woman could get ahead in Hollywood by taking a vocal anti-abuse stance is a fabrication that only the most impressionable of celebrity sycophants could ever believe. Apparently, any woman who speaks a truth that threatens power is now at risk of being sued for defamation, so I’ll be strategic: I think Hollywood is run by rapists and womanbeaters. I think the commercial #MeToo movement served only to remove a few sacrificial lambs from the herd so the rest could continue business as usual unscathed, shaking their heads and tut-tutting at the few men who faced consequences before returning to business as usual. I think that women who speak out about sexual assault in Hollywood are immediately blacklisted from the industry with such swiftness and efficiency that we don’t even know (or remember) most of their names. And I know, deeply and ultimately, that the idea that any woman’s social standing within a violently patriarchal institution could possibly be improved by publicly fighting abuse is a collective fantasy-slash-delusion strategically sewn together by those in power.
I’ve been saying it since 2018: Powerful men don’t fear the consequences of committing sexual violence. They fear being one of the unlucky few who’s chosen to publicly face some degree of accountability so the rest can continue to violate women in peace. And now, the most influential among them don’t even fear that anymore, because Depp has proven that our culture will be far quicker to circle their wagons around a man whose image is under threat than to consider for a second that a woman might be telling the truth. There’s a reason why defamation suits in particular are becoming abusers’ first line of defence: a man’s reputation has always been considered more precious than a woman’s life.
Johnny Depp has created a new playbook for getting away with murder — which is to say he’s used the oldest playbook in the world to appeal to our cultural fear of a crazy, manipulative psycho bitch and craft a narrative in which it’s okay to beat her. It’s a playbook every man in Hollywood is preparing to adopt to get back at the women they’ve abused. It’s a playbook that will trickle down to the masses — if you’re a woman, it’s a playbook that may be used against you, if it hasn’t been already. If you’ve ever raised your voice, retaliated with cruelty, lost yourself in the depths of an unspeakably cruel and mind-twisting relationship, or, god forbid, hit back, this spectacle has proven that you, too, can be dehumanized within an inch of your life until the question is almost no longer whether or not you’ve been hurt, but whether or not you were insane enough to deserve it. Once the conversation gets to this point, by the way, the answer will always be yes.
What’s happening to Heard is no accident. It’s a cosmic punishment rained down from every aspect of the patriarchal establishment — mainstream Hollywood, right-wing media, the GOP — that’s intended not only to kick her down one last time for daring to stand back up in the first place, but to serve as a looming warning to every woman who might be considering doing the same.
I’ve seen many people in progressive circles question why we should care about the problems of a rich, white, beautiful celebrity. While I understand the exhaustion with what appears to be distracting tabloid drama, to me, the answer is clear: if this could happen to Amber Heard, it could happen to anybody. Any strategy that capitalizes on the cultural fear of an angry, aggressive, crazy woman to justify financial and legal abuse will be used a thousandfold on more marginalized women who don’t have access to Heard’s social, cultural, or monetary currency. And when you consider how quickly and effectively the right-wing institution monopolized this case, I would go so far as to say that’s exactly the point — by making a spectacle of the public humiliation and degradation of a rich, famous, beautiful white woman at the pinnacle of worldly privilege, the patriarchal establishment intends to make sure no woman feels safe resisting abuse ever again. That will certainly be the effect if we don’t fight it as swiftly and as strongly as we can.