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No matter who 'wins' the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, America has lost

The jury has final say. But I’m less interested in whether Amber Heard is a liar, and more interested in why so many people are invested in the idea that she might be.
Photo diptych: Johnny Depp and Amber Heard
How did we go from “believing women” to cheering their humiliation?MSNBC / Getty Images file

UPDATE (June 1, 2022, 4:07 p.m. EST): The jury has reached a verdict in the defamation lawsuits involving Johnny Depp and his former wife, Amber Heard, finding Heard liable for all three claims of defamation and ordering her to pay Depp $15 million in damages. The jury found Depp liable for one claim of defamation, and ordered him to pay Heard $2 million in damages.

After weeks of contested, contentious testimony, expert witnesses and cross-examination, closing arguments in the defamation lawsuit over Amber Heard's Washington Post op-ed concluded on Friday. In her final statement, Heard became emotional as she described being "harassed, humiliated, threatened every single day" of the proceedings, which were instigated by her ex-husband, Johnny Depp.

The jury might disagree, but the internet’s court of opinion has seemingly already made up its mind. She is lying.

The jury is still deliberating, but the internet’s court of opinion has already made up its mind. She is lying. While the TikTok hashtag #IStandWithAmberHeard has amassed more than 8 million views, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp is at 15 billion views and counting. As NBC News reporter Kat Tenbarge noted, the internet simply wasn’t built for a trial like this. Some of the social media content slamming Heard has even (reportedly) been paid for by conservative websites. A psychiatrist who testified on behalf of Heard is facing a campaign of negative online reviews meant to sabotage her career.

The trial is revealing a lot about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard — but it’s revealing a lot more about us. Why is our supposedly progressive culture suddenly obsessed with old-school, misogynistic tropes about lying harlots? How did we go from “believing women” to cheering their humiliation?

Armchair pundits and comedians have called the trial and its ensuing media circus “fun.” The experience has been anything but for survivors. This kind of voyeuristic and sensationalistic celebrity treatment further normalizes abuse and undermines victims of intimate partner violence, especially those who happen to be women.

Wagatwe Wanjuki, an anti-violence advocate who helps communities prevent and respond to sexual abuse, believes that the trial’s reception is a symptom of a culture that still needs to be educated on the complicated realities of intimate partner violence. “We need to show and encourage a better way to talk about abuse, abusers and victims,” she said. “We do not teach people what domestic violence is, so most are ill-equipped to talk about abuse with the proper care and education needed to avoid upholding a culture of abuse.”

Meanwhile, much of the online commentary about the Depp-Heard trial contrasts sharply with the actual evidence presented in the courtroom. Heard described more than a dozen experiences of violence — which Depp called “insane” and “all false.” While Depp described himself as “a Southern gentleman who had respect for women,” texts Depp sent to Heard called her a “worthless hooker.” In others, he joked about wanting to “smack the ugly c--- around.” He also joked about burning and raping her dead body in a text sent to his friend and fellow actor Paul Bettany. The trial also revealed that Depp spent a lot of time with Marylin Manson, a man who has been accused of rape by several women — and who is also suing one of them for defamation. (Like Depp, Manson denies the allegations.)

Heard’s every gesture has been analyzed and scrutinized. Depp’s odd behavior? Not so much. The actor smiled, grinned and snacked on candy throughout the trial. Depp is either an abuser, or a victim of abuse. But his body language throughout this excruciating ordeal has remained casual, even cheerful. It would be hard to imagine Heard getting away with similar (even seeming) nonchalance.

Ultimately the jury will decide whom they believe is telling the truth. But I’m less interested in whether Heard is a liar and more interested in why so many people are gleefully invested in the idea that she might be. Millions of people seem suddenly interested in domestic violence — but only because there’s a chance a scorned and vengeful woman might be lying about it.

Being wrongly accused of rape is astonishingly rare. In fact, it rarely ever happens. The majority of sexual assault is not reported most of the time. But the ongoing mythology around false accusations prevents a lot of survivors from getting justice. Innocent men rarely get accused of abuse, but the Depp case could give the public more reasons to believe the opposite.

To an outsider, Heard and Depp’s relationship seems tumultuous, volatile and at times even violent. But calling their dynamic “mutual abuse” — as it was during the trial — perpetuates the same kind of stereotypes that keep abusers in control. “It's dangerous because it doesn't exist,” Wanjuki said about the term. “At the core of an abusive relationship is a power imbalance that is created and sustained by a pattern of domination and control. Spreading this term is a gift to abusers, because it distorts the true nature of the relationship by minimizing what they've done.”

While the throngs of Depp fans may believe that they’ve picked the right side in this trial, they are also enabling damaging stereotypes about survivors. The public humiliation of Heard will only make victims more afraid to come forward. No matter who "wins" this lawsuit, it feels as if we have all already lost.