On Depp v. Heard and its Implications for the Feminist Movement

By: Ana L. Noriega Olazábal

"Amber Heard just destroyed 'believe all women.'" Thus proclaims Dana Loesch, to the acclaim and praise of 23,800 Twitter likes. For anybody who has spent any time on any social media platform—principally Tik Tok and Twitter—for the past few months, the words "Amber Heard" alone are enough to inspire a multitude of feelings. After all, the Depp v. Heard defamation trial, held in Fairfax County, Virginia from April 11th to June 1st, was, above all else, a trial by social media. Day after day, most young English-speaking users of said platforms were exposed to thousands of hours worth of content on the proceedings, its background, and the final verdict. Of course, as one has sadly come to expect, such coverage was not balanced in the slightest. By far, the most common perspective being broadcast was one which took up unambiguous, uncompromising sympathy with Johnny Depp, the famous actor who has been embroiled in serious controversy for several years. The center of said controversy? Actress Amber Heard, his ex-wife, who has come out and accused Depp of abusing her throughout the duration of their relationship.

Before all else, let it be clear that Spare Rib does not seek to publish sensationalist tabloid pieces. As such, this article will not spend time combing over the details of these actors' personal lives, nor will it throw personal qualifiers at any of the people involved in the proceeding. This is, firstly, a matter of principle, and secondly, because unbeknownst to many of the casual, online observers of the Depp-Heard saga, the matter has already been settled in a British court of law. Legally speaking, Johnny Depp has been found guilty of abuse—on 12 out of 14 alleged counts, in fact. That verdict was reached under a trial held only before a judge—a trial which was, furthermore, not broadcast across several television channels and streaming services.

The American trial, on the other hand, was a televised, live-streamed trial by jury—a jury that, in spite of official restrictions, was not sequestered. As such, they were perfectly free to go home and indulge in hours upon hours of unbalanced, pro-Depp content in social media—all of which dwarfed pro-Heard content by a wide margin. Depp's defense fully utilized all these facts to their advantage. Firstly, their strategy consisted of shifting focus from whether Depp did or did not abuse Heard, instead centering on whether Heard is credible in the first place. Researchers and analysts have termed this the Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender strategy—DARVO. When abusers use this strategy, they move the spotlight from themselves and their crimes, instead pushing people to question the legitimacy of the claims themselves—and thereby, the legitimacy of their victim.

According to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, when people without prior knowledge of the strategy are exposed to it, they are often led to "perceive[] the victim to be less believable, more responsible for the violence, and more abusive." They are also more likely to sympathize with the perpetrator, seeing them as less abusive. In a case like this, where Depp is 23 years older than Heard, far wealthier, male, physically larger than her, and the more famous party by a wide margin, and where—as previously established—he has already been found guilty of abuse by a court of law, it is difficult to believe the TikTok image of Depp as the poor, helpless victim of a deranged, sadistic Heard. Though DARVO in name was not likely applied with malice by Depp's legal team, the parallels are striking.

Secondly, the fact that the trial was broadcast in real-time, making the proceeding completely public, was instrumental in getting a different verdict in the United States. The trial could be streamed anywhere on the internet for free, often with added commentary from people who are far from experts on legal matters—people who, in most cases, took the side of the powerful, moneyed celebrity. Clips were cut and edited, memes containing misogynistic slurs and language were circulated, and "cringe moments" compilation videos—often assembled from Heard's most harrowing, emotional moments—were made, garnering thousands, if not millions, of likes and views. The jury itself, composed of five men and two women, was most likely exposed to this content as well. And yet, even if they weren’t, the atmosphere and culture of the internet's response is demonstrative of popular opinion as stoked by the media. It is thus still indicative of the massive sway that the entertainment industry has on the judicial process, even when the decision comes down, on the surface, to 7 individuals. In other words, the arguments that decided the verdict did not happen in court; they happened on the internet.

History has repeatedly shown us that the cultural arena is merely the expression of concrete social relations. In this case, we have Johnny Depp—a beloved male actor, most notable for his classic, celebrated children's movies—and on the other hand, Amber Heard—a woman, active in certain charities, with some large roles, yet nowhere near the same level of cultural relevance. In fact, for many people—including yours truly— the first encounter with the name Amber Heard was in the context of the trial itself. Therefore, the instant, impulse reaction of this online jury towards the situation was hardly a surprise.

To begin with, Heard is female, and at this time and context, on that basis, she experiences oppression. No amount of money or privilege will ever erase this material, sociopolitical reality. Her words implicitly weigh less, her emotionality is weaponized against her, and her resolve is painted as deranged, manipulative hysteria. Of course, it must nevertheless be remarked that Heard is, at her core, not just any woman, but a wealthy, white, petty-bourgeois woman. If a working-class movement seeking the end of all existing social conditions arose, she would almost certainly adopt a counterrevolutionary position—she simply has too much to lose from it. As socialists, we cannot fall into the trap of believing that everyone who is oppressed on one specific, non-economic front—in Heard's case, on the basis of being female—would support a revolutionary politic. Under a class society, especially bourgeois society, class will always supersede all other factors in forming a person's consciousness. However, let us look beyond Heard the individual, towards Heard the symbol—Heard the icon. Here, things become clearer.

According to an article published by Vice, The Daily Wire—one of the premier, best-oiled fronts of the American fascist movement—spent between $35,000 and $47,000 on ads across multiple major social media platforms with the expressed goal of discrediting Heard and promoting a pro-Depp narrative. The content of these ads was as expected—an orgy of violent misogynistic abuse targeting Amber Heard whilst painting Depp as a good, innocent man who, if anything, should have fought back harder. Candace Owens, notable grifter and fascist sympathizer, calls Heard a prime example of "toxic femininity." Michael Knowles, famed explosive constipation sufferer, paints Heard as "obviously a complete lunatic," and asks why Depp couldn't just take "control," lamenting about the loss of "strong men." A laxative is clearly in order.

Other right-wing media, from the mainstream Fox News to the tabloid, yellow-press National Enquirer, have jumped on the bandwagon as well. Headlines such as "Johnny Depp Gets Last Laugh — Amber Heard: MOST HATED WOMAN IN HOLLYWOOD!" and "Amber Heard has Symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder" abound, each competing to be more misogynistic than the last (In the last example, the weaponization of BDP as a modern form of hysteria is only meant to further discredit Heard, painting her as "just a crazy woman"). This was the legal front of the anti-Heard operation. On the Internet, things get murkier. Thousands of accounts were engaged on almost every platform, continually creating and sharing pro-Depp content. Heard's emotional testimony was turned into a viral TikTok audio. Big corporations, such as Duolingo and Milani, also partook in Heard's public humiliation. An angry email sent to Vice, perhaps summarizing much of this popular sentiment, called Heard a “crazy bitch” and stated, whilst mocking feminist critiques of sexist domestic violence, that “because she has a vagina and Depp has a dick, the woman must be right. bElIEvE aLl wOmEN!” #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath, alongside similar hashtags, went trending on Twitter. Calls to boycott Aquaman 2, Heard's newest movie, are currently making the rounds as of the time of writing.

This is all in defense of a man who calls his wife—who is supposed to be the abuser here!— a "mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market," a "waste of a cum guzzler," a "worthless whore," and an "ugly cunt." A man who joked, in text conversations with actor Paul Bettany, about beating, drowning, and then burning his wife, promising he would "fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead." This level of horrific, violent misogyny was not only considered, under a veil of lighthearted “joking,” an acceptable and understandable response to marital disagreements, but was also rewarded by every single person who contributed to Heard's slander, by the jury that awarded Depp his coveted win, and by every so-called "news" outlet that celebrated the outcome. And all of it has an express purpose: to bring #MeToo back into the spotlight, sabotage it, and thus, discredit the wider feminist movement as a whole.

There is a reason why so many right-wing news outlets, personalities, and leaders have been promoting and investing so heavily in the trial. There is a reason why, for a whole month, news of the trial was almost inescapable no matter where one looked. This trial, more than anything else in recent memory, spoke to the pent-up frustration of anti-feminist, reactionary men. Men who grew up in the shadow of "gamergate" and "SJW Owned" YouTube compilations. Men who, as teenagers, spent countless hours on 4chan forums, learning a wide array of vile misogynistic slurs to call women. Alternatively, men who live in fear of "false accusations," men who mourn the end of traditional values, and men who hunger for the humiliation of another woman to reaffirm their claims of innate superiority, from the dredges of mediocrity. Even women have been easily sucked into the pro-Depp whirlpool of content, believing that Amber Heard is giving women a bad name, and by extension blaming the female sex for its own subjugation.

These outcomes and happenings have been recounted elsewhere, but it is crucial to understanding the true matter at hand. And that matter is this: the Depp v. Heard trial came at the perfect time for those who seek to continually erode the societal gains and legal rights that have been conquered by, and for, women. Our historical moment is a profoundly dangerous one—the overthrow of Roe v. Wade is now imminent, the #MeToo movement is losing steam, and generally, across the United States, women are being imprisoned for having miscarriages, being sexually assaulted with impunity in college campuses, and losing ease of access to basic birth-control. Depp v. Heard was one of these puzzle pieces—a culturally significant moment through which to reassert male supremacy, throw doubt unto victims again, and make people less willing to believe women. Their efforts are now bearing fruit: according to Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University, "every victim is going to think twice before coming forward and seeking a restraining order or telling anyone about any abuse they are experiencing after this… Women may be injured or even killed as a result of not seeking help… it is potentially catastrophic." Not only this, but the Depp playbook, whether intentionally or not, now provides a template to be used by any abuser trying to cover his tracks, or simply, by any man seeking to ruin a woman's reputation to protect his own (already unlikely to be tarnished by sexual assault allegations). This will disproportionately affect women with the least political and social power—that is, women of color, impoverished women, prostituted women, trans women, etc. In the third world, where American cultural happenings often transmit through osmosis, the situation is far bleaker. What is a rich, white man's word against any of theirs? It is gospel.

The point of this article isn't to prove if Heard was abused or not—that has already been proven in court four years hence. The point is to sound the alarm on this trial, its verdict, and the manufactured reaction to it, as part of a larger, more sinister plan. In our Weimar America, where the decaying, rotting corpse of capitalism is kept on life-support, the fascist movement, now gaining both cultural and political ground, continues to conquer significant victories in the face of an incompetent, cowardly, geriatric left. Unless we take out our tails from between our legs and see—with the same clairvoyance the fascists have achieved—the state of our circumstances, we will be powerless to stop this movement from reaching its vile, logical conclusion. The decade ahead will be both difficult and decisive. Organize, politicize, and prepare—the fascists have been doing so for decades. When will we start?