The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation suit has become a Hollywood media (sh*t) storm, but there are troubling real consequences in the way domestic violence is being portrayed, when the victim is less-than-perfect.
First the background: Johnny Depp and Amber Heard met in 2012. They started a relationship when Depp was still with Vanessa Paradis, and eventually married in 2015. Fifteen months later, Heard filed for divorce, accusing Depp of domestic violence and asking for a restraining order.
In the lawsuit, Heard said, ”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.” They then made a million-dollar settlement, and soon after, Heard asked for the restraining order to be dropped.
In December 2018, Heard wrote an article for The Washington Post presenting herself as a victim of domestic violence and suggesting that her attacker had been Depp, though she didn't cite him by name. According to Depp, the column got him fired from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, although there is also a Disney document explaining the reasons for the dismissal as "repeated misbehavior."
Lawsuits and countersuits
As a result of the column, Depp decided to start a legal battle against Heard for slander and the lawsuit accuses her of being the aggressor in the relationship. As the registered office of The Washington Post is in Virginia, the trial is taking place in that state, instead of California, which is where Heard and Depp reside and where most of the attacks that both denounce took place.
This was a victory for Depp, because California has what is known as the "Anti-SLAPP" law, which consists of extra protection for the freedom of expression of people who file cases about issues of public interest. In Virginia, there are similar laws, but their scope is much more limited, and they include the exception of when those affirmations generate work losses to the accused person. The trial we're seeing right now is specifically for Depp's $50 million lawsuit against Heard for defamation and Heard's countersuit against Depp in response for $100 million.
Depp also sued the English newspaper The Sun over a headline saying he had been cut from the Fantastic Beasts franchise and labeled him a "wife-beater." This went to trial in the United Kingdom and a judge determined that the accusations of abuse against Depp were "substantially true" in a 130-page document detailing a string of incidents and fights where it was already noted that both Depp and Heard are very reactive.
In the long series of incidents and fights detailed in the ruling, there are some patterns: Depp is drunk or using other drugs, usually cocaine or MDMA, often drinking wine. He breaks glasses and for almost every fight there are at least two broken bottles. Among the evidence presented is a video of Depp destroying things in the kitchen. He never comes close to hitting her, but he does throw things at her, insult her, and grab her by the hair. During their relationship and marriage, Depp was in rehab for an opiate addiction.
Heard also uses drugs (Ambien for sleeping, and it seems marijuana and MDMA recreationally). The judge, in his ruling, rejects the theory that all of Heard's accusations are a setup, since these have also been catastrophic for her career. So the judge ruled that The Sun newspaper could refer to Depp as a woman beater, and the actor's attempt at censorship was unsuccessful.
The vanishing armadillo
There is something important in the series of incidents that are narrated in the ruling, and it is not the first time that Depp, in a fight with his partner, destroys things. In 1994, he was staying in a very expensive hotel in New York, The Mark Hotel, with his then-girlfriend, model Kate Moss: “An altercation took place, loud enough for the authorities to go see what was going on. They found Depp and Moss in a totally destroyed room after an alleged fight. The officer who arrived said he found Depp calmly smoking, but the scene was horrifying: "There was glass everywhere, upside-down furniture, tables with broken legs." Depp said that "an angry armadillo had been hiding in the closet" and that the destruction of the room was the result of Depp's attempts to ward off the creature.
Depp is the contemporary incarnation of the Byronic hero of Hollywood
The armadillo was never found and Depp was arrested on charges of $10,000 in damages. Depp himself speaks of the incident, almost with pride, in an interview for Esquire magazine: “You gotta have an outlet available, stimulus, know what I mean? But I wasn’t embarrassed about it then, and I’m certainly not embarrassed about it now. I mean, you know, I was in a bad mood, I assaulted a hotel room. I broke a lot of stuff. And it felt good. I felt better afterwards. Can’t say that I would recommend it, but, you know, you do what you have to do in the moment. Then you have to do it. You know you get old, and then you get thrown out the pasture, and the worst thing you get is: didn’t you used to be Johnny Depp?”
This is important because Depp is the contemporary incarnation of the Byronic hero of Hollywood: "mysterious, alternative, romantic boy, tortured by a deep pain that makes him sensitive but at the same time elusive and unattainable." But that does not exempt him from being a sexist/macho. His is not a “new masculinity”; it is the same toxic masculinity that solves problems with parties, women, substance abuse and romanticizes the idea of “geniuses” and systematically “love bombing” (remember that Depp is famous for tattooing his girlfriends' names and hastily proposing). In the messages that have been disclosed in the trial, he uses all kinds of misogynistic insults to refer to Heard, calls her a “cheap whore” in various ways, and fantasizes about killing her and raping her corpse. This is how the most sensitive heartthrob in Hollywood thinks.
A pop cultural phenomenon
Heard was arrested in 2009 for allegedly grabbing and striking her girlfriend, Vanessa van Ree, at an airport in Seattle. Today, van Ree says that the arrest was unfair, that the incident was blown out of proportion, in part, by the homophobia of the police: “I recount hints of misogynistic attitudes toward us, which later appeared to be homophobic when they found out we were domestic partners and not just ‘friends.’ Amber is a brilliant, honest and beautiful woman and I have the utmost respect for her. We shared five wonderful years together and remain close to this day." Both Depp and Heard have a history of extreme, sometimes violent, reactions and ex-partners who defend them and assure them that they are sweet and peaceful people.
The trial, packed with celebrity witnesses, has become a pop culture phenomenon with everyone taking sides. Depp has a number of especially virulent fans who attack people online, and because they won't let them camp outside the courthouse, they park outside from 5 a.m. with signs that say "JusticeForJohnny." A Vulture reporter recounts that fans gather at a nearby cafe to talk about how much they hate Heard. The fans are a kind of Greek choir for the trial and they applaud and laugh every time a witness makes Heard look bad. This is particularly serious because the wife of one of the jurors is one of those Depp fans who intensely hate Heard, she is a #HeardHater, according to Vulture magazine.
In this trial, Depp has to prove that Heard's accusations in The Washington Post article are false, and yet the trial has been more about proving that she is an aggressor. And it seems that this can be proven. There are audios of Heard admitting that she hit Depp. It seems that many of the fights had to do with Depp continuing to use alcohol and drugs despite being supposedly rehabbed. It seems that Heard was also a rude and exploitative boss and hung out with a group of obnoxious and capricious friends. It seems quite likely that in one of those jokes with his friends, Heard defecated on Depp's bed, in revenge for being late and drunk for her birthday. It is also said that Heard had affairs with James Franco and Elon Musk (she has terrible taste).
On the other hand, the evidence presented by Heard's defense has not been the most solid: They have not wanted to disclose the photos of the aggressions for forensic analysis of the metadata. Days after one of the altercations that she denounces, she appeared on a television program without visible marks of those attacks. The makeup artist testified that she hadn't seen any such marks, though Heard apparently told her something along the lines of "can you believe I did this show with two black eyes?"
There was another incident where Heard accused Depp of destroying things and breaking wine bottles in one of his apartments in L.A. However, when the police arrived, twice, Depp was no longer present, only Heard with Depp's friends who were reluctant to let them in. When the second group of police officers with cameras on their uniforms arrived, they observed the same reluctance but also recorded on video that the apartment was clean and tidy. There is also the infamous "Australia finger" incident, in which Depp ended up with the tip of one of his fingers sliced off in a fight and had to go to hospital. This means that Depp has a medical record of the assaults and Heard does not. It's unclear if the accident was caused by grabbing a broken iPhone (as Heard claims) or a vodka bottle thrown by Heard (as Depp claims).
Amber Heard wrote in The Washington Post in 2018 that she was a survivor of domestic abuse from an unnamed person.
Victim vs. villain? It's not that simple
To summarize, Heard is a woman who can be really obnoxious (or charming, as Depp himself describes her at the beginning of their relationship), and it seems that she has told quite a few lies. She is a villain. Thus, Depp becomes "the good victim" because it is easier to see things in black and white and because as a society, it is still hard for us to imagine that a woman can be both a victim and an aggressor.
That human complexity is a privilege that we reserve for men who, for example, we can see accused of all kinds of atrocities, particularly sexual violence and harassment, and still recognize that they are talented in their field, that they have made contributions to the humanity and we even excuse their terrible temperaments with the idea that they are "geniuses." Nyla Burton said in February 2020 in the wonderful Bitch Magazine — which sadly has just closed — that "in a culture that often seems incapable of nuance, there’s a persistent need to see victims and perpetrators through an unrealistically narrow lens before acknowledging the harm itself. Cisgender women are held to an impossible standard in cases of domestic violence and rape, tasked with proving their own lifelong perfection before the violation of their bodies or spirits can be accepted as valid."
As a society, it is still hard for us to imagine that a woman can be both a victim and an aggressor.
For the philosopher Diana Tetjens Meyers, there are two types of victims who are "acceptable" in our societies: the "pathetic" victim (who is something like the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued) or the courageous cartoon heroine who is willing to put the common good before her own. Any deviation from these two paradigms implies putting the victim under suspicion and this is very evident in cases of gender-based violence related to harassment or sexual violence. Heard, specifically, incarnated the deviation from these paradigms.
Is it possible that Heard is a victim of gender violence and misogyny and at the same time is an abuser and a morally questionable person? Is the enthusiasm with which many people criticize and persecute her at the moment only because her case is weak and she appears to be an aggressor as well? It is hard for us to understand it because we are used to very reductive narratives about the relationship between victim and perpetrator.
Witch hunt disguised as moral crusade
The philosopher Kate Manne has a long work on how misogyny works in our societies. According to her, we tend to think of victims as innocent, without any guilt, and we have a persistent resistance to acknowledging someone as a victim when they are suspected of being guilty or are in fact guilty of something minor. The focus shifts from the assault to the ways the (sometimes genuine) recklessness, or even morally problematic behavior, of the person on the receiving end contributed to a situation in which she was assaulted. Manne emphasizes that this implies their role as victims in the narrative is totally compromised.
Manne explains that sexism is something like the ideology that justifies patriarchy and that misogyny is much more than a personal hatred against women. It is a social function that serves to keep women in the place that patriarchy has reserved for us. Misogyny, according to Manne, demands that women be "generous, loving, caring, as opposed to being power-hungry, careless and domineering." Manne adds that women are positioned in an asymmetrical relationship with regard to the moral support they give men, who have historically required them to show respect, approval, admiration and gratitude.
“When she breaks character and tries to make moral criticisms and accusations against him, she is taking away that good faith that maintains her sense of self-worth. Her resentment can feel like a betrayal to him, leading him to seek revenge and retribution.” This is one of the reasons why women who report sexual harassment or violence are often later prosecuted by their aggressors when they have the economic power to take legal action.
On the other hand, misogyny is something that all people, men and women, and even feminists, can exercise. Manne says that misogyny "feels like a moral superiority, like standing up for justice, like a moral crusade and not like a witch hunt." When I read reviews of Heard online, I get the feeling that those who criticize her don't feel like they're being misogynistic. On the contrary, they feel like they're being fair and that this social sanction is necessary. I am particularly struck by how many men, who have never shown any interest in the public health crisis that is domestic violence, are suddenly more involved than ever with this case. It is as if they believed that proving Heard to be a liar or guilty would exonerate all male harassers, abusers and aggressors.
"Himpathy" for Depp
But that's not how it works. This is an exceptional case. What the statistics show is that according to 2020 figures, men in heterosexual relationships are victims of domestic violence "with a prevalence between 3.4% and 20.3%". The statistics also show that the majority of men who have been victims of some form of domestic violence had also been violent against their partners. Between 10.6% and 40% were victims of violence in their childhood. Jealousy, alcohol abuse, mental health problems, physical limitations and short-term relationships are factors associated with a higher risk of domestic violence.
The consequences of such violence committed against men often include minor physical injuries, impaired physical health, mental health problems such as anxiety or a disruptive disorder, and increased use of alcohol or other illegal drugs. Depp seems to fit this profile, but that does not change the terrible reality that the majority of perpetrators in cases of domestic violence are men. It is estimated that around the world, 1 in 3 women has been a victim and that 38% of all the murders of women in the world are femicides committed by an intimate partner.
At trial, Depp's defense has done everything better: They managed to paint the actor as a victim of an evil woman, a survivor of childhood abuse, a generous man, an ordinary man (who owns an island in the Bahamas). It must be said that most of the witnesses who testified in his favor, including his sister, are also his employees. The greatest success was the testimony of Depp himself, who is a magnetic and charismatic guy, and managed to dodge his long stay on the stand very well.
Around the world, 1 in 3 women has been a victim
Depp is taking advantage of what Manne has defined as "Himpathy": a general tendency in our society to always empathize with men. Culturally and socially, we are trained to assume the point-of-view of men as the neutral look. We are used to seeing them as complex human beings, so feeling sympathy and empathy for them is irresistible. They live lives that are "worth living," as Butler would say. And since the lives, dreams, desires and experiences of men are worth living, we are very concerned that "a lie" will "ruin" them.
This empathy that people feel for men — even strangers — becomes very evident in cases in which women report sexual violence: There is a "tendency to forgive privileged men for their mistakes and crimes, arguing that they are very vulnerable to us, to criticism, to cancellation, while society is markedly hostile to the victims who speak out,” says Manne. Despite these concerns, what experience shows is that himpathy is so powerful that it enables men to come back, even when they have admitted guilt. Luis CK who was denounced by five women for sexual harassment, has just won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, with a work in which he makes fun of the same complaints.
The Depp Vs Heard trial has become a pop cultural phenomenon.
Mutual abuse — but women judged more harshly
All this empathy towards Johnny Depp seems to want to overlook all his macho behaviors and will probably help Depp win the case. Yes, Heard most likely was an aggressor, but what the lawsuit is about is whether she lied when she said she had been a victim of violence in The Washington Post column, which was the cause of his firing from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Fantastic Beasts. The firing thing is difficult to prove because, as I pointed out earlier, it seems that many of the problems on the set of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie had to do with Depp arriving on set drunk, to the point of needing his lines dictated through an ear device.
And, despite all her lies, it appears that Heard was indeed a victim of abuse. There is enough evidence to show that Depp was insulting her, throwing things at her, and had problematic drug and alcohol use. Their couple's therapist famously said the abuse was mutual. But somehow these aggressive behaviors by Depp, which are serious enough to admit that Heard's column was not libelous, have been downplayed in public discussion.
As Manne explains, this interplay between misogyny and selective empathy with men results in "women being judged more harshly than their male counterparts for the same actions." For example, at trial, Depp's defense called an expert psychologist to the stand who diagnosed Heard with Borderline Personality Disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of BPD include “an intense fear of abandonment, including going to extreme measures to avoid real or imagined separation or rejection, a pattern of intensely unstable relationships, inappropriate anger, such as losing your temper frequently, being sarcastic or bitter or having physical fights.”
I mean, it doesn't seem unreasonable that Heard has BPD. What is very interesting is that this diagnosis, at trial, favored Depp's defense and helped to strengthen Heard's image as an abuser, stigmatizing, incidentally, people with BPD. Note that, on the contrary, when men are aggressors and it is pointed out that they have some condition that affects their mental health, these diagnoses serve to exculpate them from their behavior. For example, Depp's obvious addiction and substance abuse problems have served to say that he is generally a great guy, except when what he himself has called "the monster" comes out: His violent facet is an “exception” to his “true personality.”
The end of #MeToo movement?
Many people are excited about this case because they see it as the end of the #MeToo movement. For years, they have told us that "reporting abuse just like that" was "dangerous" not for the victims, but for some poor innocent men who would see their lives ruined by an evil woman with a hunger for revenge. This is a common trope in fiction and soap operas, although in real life it is as rare as a shooting star. But here it is: The paradigmatic case that will forever be used to justify the suspicion on any woman who comes forward. And a powerful message of warning to all those who want to report: If you don't have hard evidence, don't bother speaking. If Amber Heard lied, no one is going to believe you.
But if Heard is lying, does that mean that any woman making sexist violence accusations could easily be lying too? If it is true that Heard is lying, her accusations will most likely not stand the test of time, manner/mode, place, and circumstance. Complainants of sexist violence have the entire system against them and a permanent suspicion that will exhaustively search for cracks in their history. The burden of proof is always on the victims who denounce, so no, they haven't had it, they don't have it, and they won't have it easy.
The victims know this and that is why the vast majority do not report it. Heard is an exceptionally privileged woman, and yet her career is going to be ruined by this claim no matter if it's true or false (in which case, it'll cost her $100 million plus). So there is no such thing as the possibility of a woman making a complaint, because, if it is true, the punishment of misogyny will come for leaving the corral. This implies such terrible things as economic bankruptcy, being forced to migrate to another country to make a new life without the shadow of the verdict, reputational destruction, mental health problems and much more.
The aggressor can easily “flip the story”
Nyla Burton quotes Danielle Tcholakian who says that “Every time a complication presents itself, you see who hates the #MeToo movement on some level. They pour out of the woodwork, declaring the movement has finally gone too far, or is dead, or both. They don a cloak of neutrality, the protection of the spectator, as opposed to a participant. It was inevitable, they say.” To this Burton replies that “When such complications arise — and they will — advocates for survivors of domestic violence and rape shouldn’t default to defensiveness or confusion, but should instead acknowledge the essential truth at the heart of this movement."
We must support survivors and work toward creating a world where violence is eradicated. Cases like that of Argento (who denounced Weinstein, and was later also accused of sexual abuse) and Heard are co-opted in bad faith in order to shut down conversations about how to create that world, but we can use these cases to reignite, broaden, and deepen such discourse. Acknowledging how complex these issues are doesn’t negate the amazing work of the #MeToo movement; it only continues it. Burton also explains that “the myths of 'the perfect victim' and 'the typical abuser' to the detriment of all abuse survivors. By accepting that perpetrators of abuse are often victims as well, we can better understand and address the dynamics of interpersonal violence.”
Not all victims stay crying under the shower in the face of aggression. Some respond, answer, bite, hit. Some decide to take revenge on their attacker. It is rarer, in fact, that a woman shows absolute submission to the aggression of a partner. We live in a world that insists that the solution to domestic violence is that "we stand for ourselves." But when, in fact, a woman does this, she has to think twice before reporting abuse because the aggressor can easily “flip the story” and accuse her of being an aggressor if at any time she has reacted in an upset way, or with anger, or if she does not look fragile and tearful as we expect “the real victims” to be. Maybe this is not the case with Heard, or maybe it is. The truth is that we have no way of knowing. At this time, that is the problem for a jury and judge. Our problem is what are we going to do to build a safe space for women to speak out even if they are not “the perfect victim.”
Scrolling on social media, I saw a meme that said that Johnny Depp had proven that "you are not guilty for being a man, nor are you a victim for being a woman." We feminists have never said that. What we are saying is that we live in a system that minimizes, makes invisible and even celebrates the violence of men against women and that harshly punishes and represses women who leave subordinate feminine roles, either because they denounce and expose their aggressor, or because they are the aggressors. What we are saying is that men have more power than women and trans and non-binary people, and that inequality makes it easy and tempting to abuse that power, especially when there is a guarantee of impunity that exceeds 90%.
It astonish me, although it does not surprise me, that when a man (especially a white, hetero-cis man with some social power) is accused of macho behavior (ranging from mansplaining and gaslighting to physical and sexual violence) people immediately jump to say the now classic "not all men!" However, if one woman among millions screws up, or lies, or takes advantage of the circumstances to become an aggressor, then it seems that her behavior does represent that of all women, that of all victims and, especially, that of all women that file complainants.
That double standard is not explained simply by laying out in detail the reasons why someone might think that Heard is indeed guilty of being an aggressor. The misogyny begins when we begin to think and say that Heard's behavior "discredits" the word of all women, as if any woman had the possibility of suing her husband for 100 million dollars. The himpathy begins when we refuse to see or minimize Depp's macho behavior: "He never punched her, he just threw an iPhone at her."
To say that Heard's behavior is "morally problematic" is an understatement. Precisely for this reason, this case is putting our feminist principles to the test: How to assimilate that women are aggressors and that they lie, and at the same time continue to believe the victims? It is said that Amber Heard is harming all the victims of sexist violence by setting this precedent of lies, but the ones who are doing potential harm to them are us, those who prefer to simplify moral dilemmas, those who do not understand the complexity of the victims, and those who hide behind Heard to create a hostile environment that discourages women from speaking up in the future.
*Catalina Ruiz-Navarro is a Colombian feminist and author of the book “Las mujeres que luchan se encuentran.” She is the co-founder of Volcanicas, the Latin American feminist magazine and her work as a journalist has been published in international newspapers such as The Guardian and The Washington Post.