Heard vs. Depp and the Consequences for Women’s Rights

We still have a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights and unequal treatment. Our culture’s response to gendered violence and victim credibility still needs a re-definition and a reform, especially on the online platform, and this trial is clear proof of that.

What happened in the courtroom?

In 2018, Amber Heard penned her now-infamous op-ed in The Washington Post, claiming she experienced domestic abuse from childhood until adulthood. In 2019, Johnny Depp sued Heard for defamation and said he was the victim, not the abuser. The subsequent dynamics and controversies affected Depp’s career. He lost many potential contracts, such as the Fantastic Beasts film franchise. The legal contests between both reached their climax on 11 April, 2022, as a 6-week-long trial took place in Fairfax County, Virginia, which was live-streamed on TV and YouTube. Both sides supplied their evidence of each other’s bad deeds. On 1 June, 2022, the jury found Heard guilty of defaming Depp and awarded him 5 million dollars in damages, and 10 million dollars in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded Heard 2 million dollars in compensatory damages for her counterclaim.

What happened outside the courtroom?

It is important to understand that this was a defamation trial, which refers to a statement that injures a third party’s reputation.

Both sides claimed to be the victim in court. Depp accused Heard of using physical force and intimidation and Heard accused Depp of physically, verbally and sexually abusing her. Social media platforms went rife with memes, casting Depp as the victim, while Heard was castigated as a gold digger. Others used this event to demean the MeToo movement, with the hashtags such as #mepoo. Heard seems to have opened the gates of hell towards women. The reactions on social media reflect an uncomfortable regression for women’s dignity, as a flood of hatred and anger was directed toward a woman who has openly recounted her experiences. Why is she receiving so much hate, and what does this say about society’s reflection on women’s rights?

One of the dangerous amalgamations that resulted from the trial was the concept of “mutual abuse“. According to experts on domestic violence, this term is dangerous because abuse is about power and control. Thus, using this term ultimately ignores the imbalance of power and bullying in intimate relationships. In these relationships, the abuser can manipulate the victim into pushing their limit to react back and eventually believing they are also an abuser (blame-shifting). While Depp fans accused Heard of exploiting the actor’s wealth and status, they omitted the existing power imbalance. One is more famous than the other. One is a better actor than the other, and has been nominated for 3 Academy Awards.

Another concerning trend is the rise of misogynism on social media following the trial. Moira Donegan wrote: “Depp’s fans seem to not so much deny Depp’s alleged violence against Heard but to approve of it. ‘He could have killed you’, says one viral Tiktok supporting Depp. ‘He had every right.’ The post has more than 220,000 likes … The Heard trial does feel like a tipping point in our culture’s response to gender violence. The forces of misogynist reaction are perhaps even stronger now for having been temporarily repressed. Where once women refused, en masse, to keep men’s secrets, or to remain silent about the truth of their own lives, now, a resurgence of sexism, virulent online harassment, and the threat of lawsuits, all aim to compel women back into silence – by force.”

Another equally worrying aspect is the stereotyping of the victim. Violence, specifically domestic violence, has continuously been justified and prolonged by stereotypes. The latter serves as an alternative for the person’s character and the truth of a situation. According to Zanita E. Fenton, an Assistant Professor of Law at Princeton University, any woman that does not meet certain expectations (e.g., feminity, motherhood), then she is not a “true woman” and thus a “bad girl”. While the “good girl” deserves protection, according to Fenton, any woman deviating from the “good girl” image is branded a “bad girl” and, thus, does not deserve protection. Since Heard is not a submissive, quiet woman, she was not perceived as a victim of domestic violence by some.

What does this mean for the future?

There have been two sides to this trial. One side claims that Amber Heard is a liar, manipulator and gold-digger who used her femininity to gain public sympathy; thus, she deserved what she got because she was the abuser who blamed and ridiculed Depp. The other side believes that the verdict was incorrect; even if Amber’s words and actions waivered, she was a victim of domestic abuse, and Depp’s team used her psychological problems to their advantage. Moreover, the verdict persuades the exploitation of the legal system by abusive men who want to exercise power over women.

Many believe the law has always been used as a tool of gender hierarchy, but this lawsuit, and those it will inspire, makes the legal system’s sexism even more complicated. The abuser gives his/her victim no choice, but to fight back or surrender. If the first route happens, she is the abuser; if the latter option is used, the abuse is not that bad. The second the woman fights back, she is no longer a victim. Children have witnessed this trial while watching the memes, captions and jokes. The trial itself was extremely graphic about drug use, assault etc. The constant pressure on Amber not looking the part of the victim has provided incorrect information to these children about what a victim must look like, what consent is, what you can get away with, etc.

Dr Jessica Taylor expressed her concern vis-a-vis the online reaction to this trial, highlighting that this case was “a mixture of misogyny and a real global distrust and disbelief of women who say they have been abused in any context.” For Taylor, “women are being sarcastically called Amber by their exes, families or partners. Amber is the new name for the woman who lies about being abused.

This trial also impacts many other victims of domestic violence. Experts fear it could negatively affect victims of domestic abuse and potentially sway them to stay silent on an issue that people already have difficulty discussing. According to Ruth Glenn from the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, the memes and captions going viral on social media about domestic abuse demean the victim. This case has proved how difficult it is for domestic violence victims to come out and speak against domestic violence without receiving a backlash.

Moreover, this trial turned the tables on the #MeToo movement: what was intended as a #MeToo tribute about women being punished for naming their experiences became a post-#MeToo instrument for punishing a woman who named her experiences. Despite most of the hatred directed at Heard, from what is reflected on social media, it seems that the target is all women, especially those who spoke out about gender abuse and sexual violence during the prime of the #MeToo movement. The fact that Heard may be lying and using the MeToo movement to her advantage is probably why some have described this trial as the Death of MeToo. However, using this verdict as an excuse to defame all women who speak up about an issue that, according to the UN, one in three women face, is a total disgrace.

All in all, we still have a long way to go when it comes to women’s rights and unequal treatment. Our culture’s response to gendered violence and victim credibility still needs a re-definition and a reform, especially on the online platform, and this trial is clear proof of that.

This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.

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