Whether or not you’ve been closely following the mega-watt news coverage of Johnny Depp’s $50 million-dollar defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard, in which both parties have made claims of domestic abuse, you’ve probably encountered snippets of it. (Heard is countersuing; both parties also deny instigating any alleged abuse.)
Since Heard first took the stand on May 5, bite-sized pieces of her tearful testimony have been memed, remixed and dubbed.
A video of Heard wiping her nose on the stand. A video of Depp quietly shaking his head with a wry smile on his face. A body language “expert” making a determination of guilt based on the way one of them moves within the courtroom. Fans lining up outside the courthouse waving “Go Johnny!” signs. Depp vs. Heard tip jars at a coffee shop. And then… there are the reenactments.
Since Heard first took the stand on May 5, bite-sized pieces of her tearful testimony have been memed, remixed and dubbed to hell, particularly on TikTok. One popular audio clip features Heard describing an incident of alleged physical abuse: “I was walking out of the bedroom, he slapped me across the face, and I turned to look at him. And I said, ‘Johnny, you hit me. You just hit me.’” In another, she describes an alleged assault: “It felt like he was on top of me, and I’m looking in his eyes and I don't see him anymore,” she says. “It wasn’t him. It was black. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Reading these lines as I’ve typed them, on their own, they’re chilling. But on TikTok, they become transmuted into shareable gags. Thousands of videos now exist on social media, some with millions of views, all featuring people (and sometimes cute animals) acting out Heard’s words — for laughs. Some of these videos include men faux-slapping women. The majority feature young women in one or both roles. In the eyes of these hordes of TikTokers, it seems, there is no ambiguity in this (civil) case. #AmberHeardIsALiar (2 billion views) and thus, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp (10.5 billion views). Related trending hashtags include #AmberTurd (1.4 billion views) and #AmberHeardCancelled (69.9 million views).
I am not interested in litigating whether Heard’s or Depp’s claims of abuse are more credible, or who is to blame for what was clearly an incredibly toxic and dangerous relationship. The truth is that the dynamics of domestic violence are often complex, both parties have given the public reason to question their narratives, and we are unable to get a full picture from a defamation trial. What I am more interested in is the tone of overt glee that accompanies much of the online commentary, and the mass willingness to use graphic descriptions of alleged abuse to land a joke, a like, a view, a share.
These types of collective shifts in social attitudes can have unintended consequences. And that is something that concerns advocates for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, who worry about nonfamous, under-resourced victims.
“Any jokes or mocking disguised as humor can normalize abuse rather than have the conversations we need to have on how common domestic and sexual abuse is and the roles we all can play to prevent it and support survivors,” said Jim Willshier, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR).
Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, echoed Willshier’s concerns. She told me that this sort of discourse could have a “chilling effect” on people of all gender identities currently trying to leave an abusive situation: “If I were a victim and I saw those [TikToks] I would have to ask myself the question — on top of all the other considerations I have about my safety — will I also be dragged?”
Much has been made of the cultural leaps we’ve made since the ‘90s and ‘00s — arguably the peak of celebrity gossip tabloid culture — when overtly misogynistic headlines were de rigueur. As Jessica Bennett recently wrote in The New York Times, we are now in the era of the “feminist redemption plot,” in which we are revisiting (and picking apart) stories the public feverishly devoured 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years ago, but with a new air of smug enlightenment. (See: “Pam & Tommy,” “Framing Britney Spears,” “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” “I, Tonya,” “Lorena,” “Confirmation.” The list goes on.) These reexaminations are supposed to show how far we’ve come culturally since eviscerating complicated, imperfect and sometimes unsympathetic women in the public square without feeling the need to examine the nuances of their stories.
And yet, in the case of Heard and Depp, it seems to be happening all over again. As Bennett writes, “what good are [redemption plots] if they can’t help shape the way we treat one another now?”
Who is the villain? Who is the hero? There is a glee when we, as viewers, feel like we’ve made a breakthrough; when we’ve cracked the human code.
The public is approaching the Depp v. Heard court proceedings the same way we would a buzzy reality television show. And like all good reality TV, there is a hidden script we follow when watching such programs. They provide an outlet for our derision, for our human instinct for storytelling and for our deep desire to be able to understand and categorize others by distilling them down to their basest and most fundamental truths. Who is the villain? Who is the hero? There is a glee when we, as viewers, feel like we’ve made a breakthrough; when we’ve cracked the human code.
But as any avid consumer of reality TV can tell you, there is always more to the story. Maybe the hero is desperately trying to keep their skeletons locked in the closet. Maybe the villain is just waiting for the opportunity to contextualize their alleged villainy. Maybe these categories aren’t even that useful to begin with. Of course, there’s little time to consider that. We’ve already moved on to digging through the wreckage of another season.