Since it started on April 11, 2022, the defamation lawsuit filed against Amber Heard by her ex-husband Johnny Depp has saturated mainstream news outlets and social media pages, with an outpouring of support being given to Depp and a disturbing amount of abuse being directed towards Heard as the trial drags on in the public spotlight. We want to take this chance to unpack what has been happening in the media surrounding the trial and its impact on our work here at SASC.
What is going on?
In 2016, Heard reported abuse by Depp to a police station in Los Angeles, California, and was granted a temporary restraining order against him by the courts. This circulated widely in the media and set off a chain of legal battles between the two.
On December 18, 2018, Heard wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post. She wrote about some of the difficulties and backlash she had faced after becoming “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” In the op-ed, she discusses losing job opportunities and having to “change phone numbers weekly” due to harassment and death threats she was receiving from the public. Although Depp is never mentioned by name in the op-ed, he filed a defamation lawsuit against Heard in 2019, alleging that she had lied about him abusing her; this is the defamation suit which Heard is currently on trial for.
Before the start of this trial, in 2020, Depp lost a different defamation lawsuit in the UK that he brought against a tabloid newspaper that had referred to him as “a wife-beater.” After Heard testified, the court concluded that there was enough evidence that Depp had physically and sexually abused her, and the lawsuit was dismissed.
In addition to the defamation suit that Depp has brought against Heard, the court is simultaneously considering a countersuit that Heard has brought against Depp, alleging that he conspired with his former lawyer, Adam Waldman, to defame her in the media after Walden told The Daily Mail that her allegations against Depp were “an abuse hoax.”
The Public Reaction
Since the start of the trial, Heard’s defense team has brought an overwhelming amount of convincing evidence of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse perpetrated by Depp against Heard. Yet mainstream media and social media seem to actively distrust and despise Heard for coming forward with these allegations. Many on social media, especially on Tik Tok and Twitter, have openly mocked Heard, claiming she has made up the abuse by Depp as a “money-grab” or because she was the abuser, not Depp. She has been called names, received rape and death threats, and continuously been portrayed as ‘manipulative,’ ‘lying,’ and ‘evil’ by social media users. Dozens of accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tik Tok have sprung up since the trial began, posting regular incendiary content on the trial and capitalizing on the public devastation of two famous lives by monetizing their posts. Videos rake in millions of views on YouTube, and their creators rake in dollars as users flock to their content, enticed by the sensationalist aspect of the trial.
In addition to the outward hatred directed at Heard, an outpouring of support for Depp has permeated the online sphere. #JusticeforJohnny trended alongside #AmberTurd and Depp stans went as far as to wait outside the courthouse and hand him gifts through the rolled down windows of his limousine.
Why is it Important to Talk About This?
Despite the evidence that false sexual assault and abuse allegations are exceedingly rare, many do not seem to believe Heard’s allegations or even seem interested in giving her the benefit of the doubt. After the #MeToo movement swept through Hollywood and, for the first time in an exceptionally long time, powerful men were being held accountable for their crimes; it is not surprising that society has begun to swing backward in what feels like a moment of regression.
Depp is not only a famous man, he is an incredibly famous man. He has acquired many highly devoted fans during his decades as an actor. Heard is notable too, but her fanbase has always been smaller. Her name is now mostly recognized only in association with this trial and not with the numerous films she has been in. For those fans who found out in 2016 that Depp was just one of many men in Hollywood that had sexually assaulted someone, the news came as both a shock and a disappointment. The initial public response had been anger, as folks boycotted his films, and his career began tanking. His fans were in disbelief; how could this man they had admired and looked up to end up being an abuser and a rapist? So, when in 2018, Heard was called a liar, it is no surprise that his fans latched onto the idea that Depp was an unfortunate victim of Heard’s manipulative schemes to ruin his career out of spite. It is far easier to believe that a man you admire is a victim than a perpetrator.
This follows an overall societal trend of exhaustion with the #MeToo movement. The dominant values of our society are patriarchal. This means that our society tends to overwhelmingly favor the opinions and lives of men, anything which is perceived as masculine. In comparison, women's lives and anything perceived as feminine are undervalued and considered insignificant. The patriarchy thrives off controlling women’s bodies, and it is pushing back against the strides made by the #MeToo movement. Patriarchy wants us to believe that women lie about being raped, and Heard is being made an example of. Making an example of Heard gives patriarchy the fuel it needs to discredit even more survivors. By painting survivors (mostly women) as liars, the patriarchy keeps them in their ‘place’ as less valuable to society when compared to the accused perpetrators (mostly men) who are painted as ‘truth tellers’ and "promising young men with their whole lives ahead of them” who would never lie about things like rape. Regardless of the reality that Heard is highly unlikely to be lying about the abuse she faced from Depp, folks online are already pointing to her as an example of why survivors should not be believed or trusted.
Heard does not stand for all women, but in the court of public opinion, that does not matter. How can survivors come forward to report if they fear being seen as liars? A 2012 study done by the YWCA of Canada found that for every 1000 sexual assaults in Canada 33 are reported to police, 29 are recorded as a crime, 12 have charges laid, 6 are prosecuted, and 3 lead to a conviction. This means that out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 997 assailants walk free. The reporting rate is already so low, and with this trial and the treatment of Heard on social media, we can only guess how many survivors may not come forward because of it. This trial has already impacted survivors, and many have spoken out on social media, condemning Heard and supporting Depp. Sentiments say the same thing: We are not Amber Heard. We are not liars. Please believe us. If someone does speak out in support of Heard, their voices are drowned out by the support for Depp, or they receive a similar reception to Heard; they are called names, they are called liars, and they receive rape and death threats.
What Can We Do?
When things like this happen in the news, there is little we can do to affect the event itself directly, but there is plenty we can do to affect the well-being of those in our lives who are being affected by it.
1. Do Your Research
When events like this occur, it is all too easy to get sucked into what is happening on social media. But we must remember that social media is not a good substitute for news. Look for articles or stories from credible news sites like the CBC, the Washington Post, or the New York Times for information about the event. This will help you better understand the facts about what is taking place and develop a fully informed opinion on the topic outside of the social media bubbles we often find ourselves in. Try to read or watch the news from multiple sites to get a fuller picture of the events and avoid skimming article titles without thoroughly reading them.
2. Speak Up When It is Safe
If you hear or see something harmful (like some of the comments about Heard) and you are in a safe position to do so, speak up. Let the person know what they are saying is harmful and negatively impacts them. This is best done in person, as online interventions are unlikely to go noticed, and trolls are unlikely to change when called in.
3. Support the Survivors in Your Life
If there are survivors in your life that you think may be affected by the events in the news, reach out to them. Let them know you support them. It can be good to have a conversation with others about what is happening and how we feel about it. It can often feel isolating to view content like this, especially when it saturates our news feeds and often feel inescapable.
4. Invest in Prevention Education
Everybody needs media literacy tools to understand how patriarchy manifests itself in the news and social media. With these tools, we can better prepare ourselves for how to respond to new stories like the Depp v. Heard trial and better understand their real-life impacts beyond the internet bubble.
At SASC, our public education program offers free prevention education to groups of all kinds, and there are online counselling groups and workshops that you can sign up for. You can also consider donating through our website to our general fund to help us expand support for survivors and our public education programming.
How to Care for Yourself
If you are a survivor and this news or other news has affected you or your healing journey, here are some tips to help you take care of yourself.
1. Take a Break from Social Media
Put down your phone or laptop and disconnect from social media. It is okay to take a break and do something else. Do something that makes you happy. Maybe there is a book you have been meaning to read or a tv show you have been meaning to watch. You could go for a walk or color a picture.
2. Let Yourself Rest
Take a moment to yourself to breathe and to sit with your emotions. Allow yourself to acknowledge them and practice grounding techniques like deep breathing to help you process your feelings. It is okay to take time for yourself.
3. Reach out For Support
If you need to talk to someone about your feelings, reach out to your friends and family or contact our 24-Hour Support Line at 519-741-8633 or use our online chat services at sascwr.org. We are here to listen to you, and we believe you.
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