The swift reaction to coddle Johnny Depp and condemn Amber Heard is indicative of the resistance survivors still face when coming forward about abuse.
Content note: This story discusses domestic violence and situational partner violence.
Last weekend, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp was trending on Twitter in the United States. Depp stans were foaming at the mouth over leaked audio obtained by a British tabloid rag, The Daily Mail. The recording captured his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, admitting that she hit him during an argument. She mocked him for asking a bystander for help at the time, later adding, “I can’t promise you I won’t get physical again.”
Their conversation was taken out of context and purposely editorialized for consumption on social media. For way too many people, this was definitive proof that Heard had been lying about Depp abusing her, and that she was actually the abuser in their relationship all along. To them, this one recording cemented her as the evil, lying, gold-digging, fame-hungry monster they’d always known her to be. Citing a #JusticeForJohnnyDepp tweet by Eugene Gu, an alleged serial abuser himself, one person on my timeline lamented, “An abuse survivor has been ignored!”
Depp’s claims that Heard abused him as part of his $50 million defamation lawsuit against her, which he filed in retaliation for an op-ed she published in the Washington Post. While she does indeed admit that she hit him, this certainly doesn’t absolve him of any of the abuse he perpetrated against her.
Given the contents of Heard’s op-ed, Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Heard is in bad faith, an attempt to intimidate and re-traumatize her into silence. It’s a classic abuser tactic. Nowhere in her op-ed does she directly name Depp or even speak in detail about their relationship, but leave it to a narcissist with financial troubles to weaponize the legal system and center himself when his ex-wife advocates on behalf of survivors.
In response to the lawsuit, Heard filed nearly 300 pages of documents, including photographs, text messages, and a witness statement that all establish Depp’s sustained pattern of domestic violence against her. The evidence in those documents is overwhelming and clear, and it was alarming to see how quickly so many people on my timeline switched sides with nothing but the word of frenzied stans. Of course, it’s important to listen to and believe male survivors of domestic violence, but this is not one of those cases. #JusticeForJohnnyDepp was a misinformation campaign designed to provoke intense reactions and guilt people into supporting him at the expense of Heard.
Alongside the recording, Depp’s supporters accused Heard of slicing the tip of his finger open when she threw a bottle of vodka at him. As part of their strategy to elicit passionate responses, they even included gory images of his injuries and a photo of him laying on a hospital gurney. According to Refinery29, Depp’s injury was self-sustained while he was smashing bottles during an argument with Heard in 2016. The images and the injury are certainly real, but Depp’s supporters purposefully misrepresented its context.
Many people saw this conversation as fresh evidence and were shocked to hear Heard admit that she hit Depp. The recording of their conversation itself was new, but its contents were first made public in April 2019, shortly after he filed suit. According to her deposition about a March 2015 incident, Page Six reported: “[Heard] punched an enraged Depp, fearing that he would push her younger sister down the stairs at his home in LA.”
What all of this demonstrates is that domestic violence is ugly and complex.
Situational violence isn’t the same as domestic violence, though Depp’s supporters insist on conflating the two. In domestic violence, an abuser exerts aggression, whether physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological, to maintain power and control over their victim. Domestic abuse occurs due to a power imbalance within a relationship—for example, the one between a beloved 52-year old cishet male actor and his 29-year old bisexual wife. That his supporters have consistently ignored the power differential between Depp and Heard is extremely telling.
It’s important to consider the context under which Heard hit Depp. Reactive violence is situational, occurring when a victim uses violence to respond to abuse. The abusive partner intentionally pushes their victim to this point, then uses that reaction against them as proof that the victim is mentally unstable. This further damages the victim’s self-esteem and integrity by causing them to feel guilt and shame, manipulating them into accepting blame for the initial abuse. Violence is never okay, but it’s obvious that Heard was acting in self-defence to protect her sister after having endured multiple instances of Depp’s abuse for years.
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The swift reaction to coddle Depp and condemn Heard is indicative of the resistance survivors still face when coming forward about abuse. To many people, Heard simply doesn’t fit their perception of an acceptable victim. It’s disappointing how easily people will believe misrepresented evidence in order to justify gaslighting a victim of domestic violence. Depp’s legal team relies on this misogyny to distract from his long-standing pattern of violence and avoid accountability for abusing Heard. Our culture continues to demonstrate that the continued success and reputation of a beloved Hollywood actor trumps the violence he perpetrated against his wife.
It’s dishonest and damaging to use this recording as proof that Heard was lying this whole time, or that she somehow manipulated the media for personal gain. This is yet another case of rape culture at work, a poorly disguised attempt to justify continued support of a violent narcissist. Survivors have nothing material to gain by speaking up about abuse. When we make our stories public, we open ourselves up to further re-traumatization as total strangers gaslight us and question our integrity. You would think that this would be common knowledge more than 2 years after the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, but clearly, we still have a lot of work to do.