The Johnny Depp Defamation Trial Will Hurt Abuse Victims for Decades to Come

content warning: this essay discusses domestic violence, sexual assault, and victim-blaming.

I really didn’t want to write about the Johnny Depp trial.

But, well, here we are.

In 2018, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about her experience as a survivor of domestic violence. It was a pretty tame essay, free of graphic details or identifying characteristics. She did not name her abusers, and she focused on policy changes and how institutions protect powerful perpetrators.

“I write this as a woman who had to change my phone number weekly because I was getting death threats. For months, I rarely left my apartment, and when I did, I was pursued by camera drones and photographers on foot, on motorcycles and in cars,” Heard said in her op-ed. “I felt as though I was on trial in the court of public opinion — and my life and livelihood depended on myriad judgments far beyond my control. I want to ensure that women who come forward to talk about violence receive more support.”

Johnny Depp, her ex-husband, is now suing her for defamation over that op-ed. He is seeking $50 million in damages. Heard has counter-sued for $100 million.

This is not the first time Depp has sought legal action against abuse allegations. In 2018 he sued the executive editor and publisher of The Sun, a British tabloid, for calling him a “wife beater.” British courts are infamous for how easy it is to prove libel, and yet Depp still lost his case against The Sun. The judge ruled that 12 of the 14 alleged assaults Depp subjected Heard to had been “proved to a civil standard.”

Yet that ruling did nothing to convince Johnny Depp’s supporters that he, not his ex-wife, is the true abuser. In a wild collision of stan culture, misogyny, publicity campaigns, and social media algorithms, the trial taking place in Virginia has taken over the internet, with Depp emerging as the hero of the story. For weeks, hashtags like #AmberTurd, #AmberHeardIsALiar, and #JusticeForJohnny have trended on Twitter. SNL wrote an absurdly tone-deaf cold open that made fun of the trial and repeated false claims that Heard cut off Depp’s finger and defecated in his bed. 

Every time I open the Facebook mobile app, a lurid tabloid story is in the featured article slot. My YouTube dashboard is all armchair trial analysis skewing heavily in Depp’s favor. No matter how often I tap the “not interested” button, these sites continue to serve me posts and about the trial, most of it pro-Depp.

And TikTok… hell, TikTok is a mess. Folks have literally taken the audio of Amber Heard’s testimony describing Depp physically assaulting her and made videos ridiculing her. I’ve seen creators I respect chasing the trend and making anti-Heard meme videos. Children and teenagers are being aggressively served pro-Depp content on the platform, shaping how an entire generation will think and talk about domestic violence.

In an incredible, sickening article for Vice, Anna Merlan interviewed some of the creators cashing in on the Depp trial. YouTubers, TikTok comedians, and even Etsy sellers are using the Johnny Depp supporters to grow their following and make money. It goes without saying that most if not all of these folks know nothing about domestic violence; they are simply responding to the internet’s massive appetite for content about the case. “Another pro-Depp trial YouTuber who’s racked up millions of views said that before the trial, he had exactly 349 subscribers; today, he has more than 12,000,” Merlan wrote. “Mid-interview, the YouTuber told me he is 15 years old, and makes videos during the day because he’s homeschooled.”

The trial has turned into a social media circus. It’s easy to dismiss it as an elaborate celebrity farce, the private mess of a has-been movie star and his C-list ex-wife. I can understand thinking the trial is annoying distraction from the Real Issues of Today — fuck, we’re about to lose abortion access, there’s a war going on, parents can’t find baby formula, and queer people are under attack across the United States.

But the trial sets a legal precedent that will hurt survivors going forward, and the conversation around the trial is already harming victims of domestic violence. So let’s talk about it for a bit.

First of all, this trial isn’t a criminal case deciding Johnny Depp’s innocence or guilt. He will not go to prison if he loses. It is a defamation case that will rule on whether or not Amber Heard and other victims of abuse are allowed to speak. And it’s creating a legal playbook for other abusers to silence their victims. Depp isn’t the first perpetrator to sue his victim for speaking up, and he won’t be the last. His pal Marilyn Manson recently initiated a defamation lawsuit against Evan Rachel Wood for her powerful documentary about his all-out terrorism of her during their relationship.

Abusers often use the court system to continue to torment and control their victims after the relationship ends. Defamation lawsuits, drawn out divorces and ugly custody battles keep a victim under their abuser’s control. They can also bankrupt a victim by drowning them in legal fees and debt for years.

This trial has trapped Heard in the past and kept her entangled with Depp, whom she left in 2016. “I have to relive this every single day that I have to address those claims,” she said in her emotional testimony. “Over and over again, the most intimate, embarrassing, deeply humiliating and personal things that I have survived are used against me every day. It’s torture. I’m in so much pain emotionally. I just wanted him to leave me alone, I wanted to move on with my life and he won’t let me.”

We should also note that Depp chose to sue Heard in Virginia, even though they both live in California. His team claims they did so because the Washington Post prints its paper and houses its server in Fairfax, VA. But Depp’s lawyer also “acknowledged in a pre-trial hearing that one of the reasons they brought the case in a Fairfax County courthouse is because Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law is not as broad as the one in California,” according to NECN. Anti-SLAPP laws are essentially free speech laws designed to protect critics from being sued by powerful celebrities, corporations, etc.

The trial is taking place in a county court where photographing, filming and live-streaming the proceedings is allowed with a judge’s authorization. The entire world gets to watch the trial live, clip and remix the footage, and revel in every humiliating detail. This puts even more pressure on Heard, with millions of people able to watch her testimony and heckle her online in real time. 

And they are. According to a VICE News article by Anya Zoledziowski, “Comments on the livestream of the trial refer to Heard as a ‘monster’ and a ‘Karen.’ Viewers, many anonymous, accuse her of being “manipulative, calculating, and quite possibly a con artist,” as well as ‘fake crying’ in the courtroom and of looking ‘smug.’ Others poke fun at her hair and courtroom clothes, and call her ‘bipolar.’”

Heard may never see those horrible comments, but other victims and survivors of domestic violence do see them. Many survivors written to me to share that they feel triggered by the trial coverage in the media, and betrayed by friends and family who have participated in the digital pile-on. As the internet turns against Heard, victims get a front row seat to how they too can be discredited. Heard has been framed as the “real” abuser, or a “mutual” abuser. A forensic psychologist hired by Depp’s team falsely claimed Heard has borderline personality disorder and “histrionic personality disorder.” (Real original, to say the woman accusing you of assault is crazy.)

Domestic violence experts are scared that this trial will make victims feel less safe asking for help. “I can’t imagine what this might be doing to someone who may eventually want to seek safety and support,” Ruth M. Glenn, the CEO of National Coalition Against Domestic violence, told NBC.

I find the “mutual abuse” claim is especially troubling. Indeed, my first assumption when I learned of the Depp/Heard situation years ago was that they were both messed up people in a toxic relationship. But domestic violence is not an equal affair. Talking about “mutual abuse” frames victims defending themselves, or reacting violently after years of being on the receiving end of violence, as just as bad as the abuser’s behavior. It confuses the actual dynamic at play, which is prolonged violence, sexual assault, isolation, and terror perpetrated by one person against another person. A victim lashing out at their abuser does not make them an abuser, too.

As domestic violence survivor and advocate Leslie Morgan Steiner put it on Instagram, “Like most abusive relationships, this one is contradictory, confusing, and disturbing… Although she clearly was afraid, emotional, at times violent, ashamed, confused & hysterical (as I was, and as most victims are) I see no evidence that Amber Heard was the abuser. I hit my ex at times. I screamed horrible things at him. That didn’t make me the perp. I was reacting – “overreacting” if you must — to being tortured and manipulated. We were victims of a crime. Would you fault a kidnap victim for fighting back? No. You’d call her a hero.”

If you are a victim who has defended yourself against your abuser, or been violent toward your abuser after being psychologically broken down by them, you are at risk of being arrested alongside them. You are also less likely to feel valid seeking the support you need, as you may be convinced that you are the true abuser, or that your partner’s violence is excused by your own behavior. Seeing Heard’s behavior picked apart, and watching Depp and his supporters frame her as the true abuser, will only make victims more confused and ashamed.

In a disturbing twist, Depp fans are quick to claim that Heard is exhibiting DARVO behavior — Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. They argue that by saying Depp abused her, Heard is switching their roles and ruining his career deliberately. In reality, that is what Depp has successfully done: after Heard wrote her op-ed about her experience as an abuse survivor, he fired back that she is the real offender. Which is how we find ourselves where we are now.

Meanwhile, Johnny Depp fans have begun to harass other victims. They’re badgering survivors on Twitter who support Amber Heard, myself included. They’re circling the wagons around Marilyn Manson and attacking Evan Rachel Wood, who has done incredible activist work to lengthen the statute of limitations for survivors to press charges against their rapists and abusers. And they’re even going after Johnny Depp’s daughter on Instagram for… not supporting him vocally enough? Or something? Totally normal behavior.

So I get why folks want to look away from this cesspool of celebrity drama. I get wanting to just ignore the bizarre TikToks from boy band has-beens, and the tone deaf brand posts, and the deeply cringe memes. But the misinformation and turmoil around the Depp/Heard trial will insidiously damage the way we think about and talk about abuse and sexual violence for decades. It will indirectly hurt millions of victims who feel less safe getting help, speaking up, and seeking justice. There are already reports of victims “retracting or pulling out” of pending cases because they are horrified by the way Heard has been treated.

One reason I find the Johnny Depp defamation trial so upsetting is that one of my abusers is the wealthy son of a litigious celebrity. For years I was petrified that he and his family would come after me for writing even vaguely about our relationship. If I had seen the media coverage and social media conversation about this trial when we were dating, or in the years after we broke up as I tried to take my voice back, I would have internalized the message that I needed to keep my head down and stay quiet. It would have set back my healing for years.

The Me Too movement made it so much easier for victims to understand our experiences with sexual violence and emotional abuse. But the pendulum is swinging back in the opposite direction, and it feels like the whole internet is laughing.

If you are a survivor of sexual harassment, sexual violence, rape, domestic violence, or psychological abuse, please know…

You are not crazy.

You are not exaggerating.

You are not a liar.

You are not alone.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.