April 21, 2022: Johnny Depp is presented with one of his own texts sent to Paul Bettany, which read, “Let’s burn Amber!!!” about his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Another reads, “I’ll smack the ugly c[***] around before I let her in, don’t worry.”
In a less deranged world, perhaps it might have ended there.
Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for defamation, arguing that when she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” she materially affected his reputation to advance her own career. The violent, misogynistic texts that Depp sent to his mates – plus an abundance of more damning evidence – weren’t enough to convince a jury that Amber was being truthful.
At this point, however, the #JusticeForJohnny machine was powering full steam ahead, taking swathes of public figures and social media users along for the ride. Amber Heard’s testimony of being raped was turned into prime meme fodder (including by the likes of Doja Cat). At the same time, some innovative TikTok-ers created “Amber Heard Makeup tutorials,” using her claims of covering up bruises allegedly inflicted by Johnny as inspiration.
Two months after the trial concluded, many of Depp’s fans – evidently pining for more entertainment at Amber’s expense – made the truly myopic decision to crowdfund the $3,300 cost to release 6600+ pages worth of recently unsealed trial documents, which show – amongst plenty of filings that paint Depp in an unflattering light – how Depp’s legal team attempted to introduce nude photos of Amber into evidence.
While ardent Depp fans remain defiant, their voices are no longer the loudest. Celebrities are subtly withdrawing their support for the Pirates of the Caribbean actor, mostly by “unliking” his triumphant Instagram post, which praised the trial’s jury for “giving him [his] life back.” Pro-Amber videos are gaining traction on TikTok, subreddits devoted to calling out Depp are suddenly exploding in popularity, and even some of the most clickbait-y YouTube channels seem to be changing their tune.
So, what’s changed? As the feverish momentum surrounding Depp v. Heard slows, are people thinking differently about the way it played out (televised live with a non-sequestered jury) and perhaps starting to feel uncomfortable pangs of guilt?
One theory that’s doing the rounds on social media is that we – yes, we – were all manipulated by Depp and his hot-shot, girl-boss legal team.
Long-term Amber Heard supporters have made short shrift of this idea, with one Twitter user (@k4mil1aa) tweeting, “When the tide turns for Amber, people will be too ashamed to admit that they partook in the mocking of an abuse victim. Instead they’ll try to minimize the harm they caused to survivors. They’ll say “we were all manipulated” as if the information wasn’t easily accessible.”
At the time of writing, this tweet had 15.7K retweets and 86.7K likes.
A Reddit user who posts on a pro-Amber Heard subreddit spoke to GLAMOUR about how the court of public opinion seems to be shifting – slowly but surely – in Amber’s favour. Their explanation for this was that during the trial, “You would not see any viral pro-Heard content as it would get buried swiftly and creators would get harassed. Seeing viral threads on Twitter or viral TikToks that have a fair share of Amber support in the comments as well is very encouraging.
However, they felt it would be a long time “until everyone can look back at this and say society really f[*]cked up,” explaining that “Accepting that you took the side of an abuser and ragged on the victim is something that will not come easy to people.”
Sarah Marshall, writer and host of You’re Wrong About [YWA], is well-versed in critically evaluating society’s treatment of women in popular culture: having written about Tonya Harding, an American figure skater who was banned from the sport due to her alleged involvement in an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan; and hosting podcast episodes about everyone from Monica Lewinsky to Tammy Faye Bakker and Jessica Hahn.
In a bonus episode of YWA about Amber Heard, Sarah spoke about the discomfort she felt when people began to compare the real-time treatment of Amber Heard to “living in a [YWA] episode,” or looking forward to the YWA episode about Amber Heard in “ten years time.” This rhetoric highlighted an uncomfortable question: are we – as a society – only prepared to redeem seemingly “unlikeable” women long after the damage is done?
In conversation with GLAMOUR, Sarah theorised why public opinion often shifts too little too late for maligned women, saying, “One of the reasons that it’s easier to look back and think ‘Oh my God, Tonya Harding was done so dirty by the establishment’, or Amy Fisher, or Lorena Bobbitt, or Anita Hill, or so many of the other women that I’ve talked about on You’re Wrong About, is that it’s easier to look back to a past that you don’t feel connected to, or you don’t feel like your own ego is being wounded by the truths that you are altering or overturning in your mind.
“It gets easier the less it has to be about saying that [you as an individual] are wrong.”
As we watch Margot Robbie star as Tonya Harding and Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker, we’re convinced that – surely – we would have been on their side; we wouldn’t have participated in the gleeful public flaying they endured. As Sarah explains, “Coming back after the fact maybe gives us the illusion that we can balance the scales; it feels less like an open wound; it’s kind of inert by that point.”
Is that the kind of redemption that awaits Amber Heard? Will she really wait two decades before a younger actress is cast to play her in an Oscar-winning biopic and her image is fully rehabilitated?
For Lucy Robinson, Professor in Collaborative History at the University of Sussex, the answer lies in society’s perception of Amber Heard’s victimhood. Speaking to GLAMOUR, she said, “If Amber can somehow redeem herself – by reinventing herself so that she’s perceived as a more acceptable victim – she might be reevaluated.”
She adds, “Historically, we’ve never been very good at having anything other than a very black-and-white, gendered understanding of how domestic and sexual violence works. The woman must be wholly a victim and must demonstrate her victimhood by not participating in anything at all – literally just being a passive recipient of violence.
The notion of imperfect victimhood is something that Sarah Marshall has also been drawn to in her work, telling GLAMOUR, “We at some point came to believe that an abuse claim should be believable to us because we should like and feel sympathy for the victim. And in fact, victimhood does not automatically make you cuter, more lovable, or more obviously deserving of help from the public.”
Even if the tide does turn in Amber Heard’s favour, without a comprehensive reassessment of society’s language and expectations surrounding victimhood, who is to say that another unfairly maligned woman in the public eye won’t be hounded and memefied in the future?
As Lucy Robinson tells Glamour, “I can imagine that in 10 years, we could have a conversation about Amber Heard and say that [the trial] really should never have happened… And it will be happening to another woman, in our face, at exactly the same time.”
Originally published in Glamourmagazine.co.uk