As long as our culture refuses to hold the Depps of the world accountable, there will always be women like Heard who will be tasked with watching their abusers prosper.
[TW/CW: discussion of domestic violence, rape culture and mentions of sexual assault.]
New York Magazine’s July 27th, 2015 cover is still as harrowing as it is iconic. Just beneath the bold red lettering of the publication’s moniker are 35 women—the victims of Bill Cosby’s serial sexual abuse—dressed in black and seated calmly in their chairs. The uniformity of their open poses and solemn, forward-facing expressions portray a shared preparation for public scrutiny, a feeling all too familiar to anyone who has ever spoken aloud of the abuse they have suffered.
Seeing these women congregate in one image is an impactful sight on its own, but the standout element for many of us sits at the end of the last row: an empty chair. It remains unoccupied by all of the women who, despite the presence of nearly three dozen fellow survivors, still didn’t feel supported enough to tell their stories. That doubt— something that so many silent survivors harbor—is substantiated by a society that not only continues to interrogate, mock, and ultimately gaslight victims of abuse, but also protects their abusers when they are especially powerful or popular.
Johnny Depp is an immensely popular actor. When he and actress Amber Heard divorced in 2016, Heard detailed for the court a history of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Depp. Her testimony included pictures of her bruised face and a detailed witness account from a friend who had to physically shield Heard from Depp’s assault. When his legal team claimed that Heard’s accusations were false and motivated by possible financial gain, she promised to donate her entire settlement—$7 million—to charity.
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To simplify: Heard detailed her abuse by Depp, provided supporting evidence and a witness, and eliminated any suspicion of extortion by refusing to hold onto the money gained from her divorce. This should have painted a clear enough picture of an abuser to even his most adoring public. After Heard provided everything that abuse deniers demand from victims—receipts, witnesses, proof of no ulterior motive—the ordeal should have ended or, at the very least, significantly paused his career.
Instead, Depp’s fan base—consisting of both casual and die-hard followers of his career—loudly supported him en masse. High profile actors like Paul Bettany, Mickey Rourke, and Benicio del Toro defended him while referring to him as “gentle” and “low key.” J.K. Rowling penned a wordy justification of his casting in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. In a new lawsuit against the actor, location manager Greg “Rocky” Brooks revealed that he was not only punched in the face by Depp twice on set, but also fired from production when he refused to relinquish his right to sue. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Depp appeared in costume as a surprise for a throng of screaming fans moments before Heard herself was scheduled to appear in the very same hall.
Depp’s seemingly bulletproof career isn’t by some miracle. It’s the product of an industry and culture that are conditioned to shame, ignore, and gaslight victims of abuse in exchange for the promise of entertainment. Calls to “separate the artist from the art” further drown out the voices of those they have harmed, providing an excuse for fans of the abusers to consume their work guilt-free. We continue to witness this in real time with R. Kelly, who recently released a 19-minute song in which he admits to his misconduct, including sexual relationships with young fans. This was met with cheers from his devotees, who continue to ask his many victims—mostly young Black women—for proof of his predatory tendencies.
There is a nearly impenetrable wall of protection built with misogyny, misogynoir, capitalism, and an apparent love for their work that surrounds beloved, abusive men like Depp, R. Kelly, Adam Venit, Mel Gibson, a litany of professional athletes, and so many more. It doesn’t appear to be about “innocence until proven guilty,” or else the evidence provided by Heard or the dozens of corroborated accounts in the cases of Cosby and Harvey Weinstein would have long sufficed. This is about an alarming majority’s visceral need to prioritize their love of certain art over the safety of women, especially Black and NBIPOC. This level of protection doesn’t quite exist for female abusers, by the way, nor should it. But it’s important to note that there is a clear disparity in how the general public treats men and women accused of the same criminal behavior.
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When anyone attempts to postulate that a person who chooses to speak out against their famous abuser is doing so in order to end his career, it could benefit them to refer to the renowned July 2015 New York Magazine cover and remember some things. Dismantling a powerful man’s career is a wildly difficult accomplishment—so difficult, in fact, that it ultimately took over 30 women speaking out against Weinstein and 60 women against Cosby to bring both men to any sort of justice.
As long as our culture refuses to hold the Depps of the world accountable, there will always be women like Heard who will be tasked with watching their abusers prosper. And that chair reserved for victims who have yet to come forward will remain empty.
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