Please note that the following is an editorial and the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Fandom Spotlite, its management, or owners.
I haven’t been keeping up with the Depp v. Heard trial. I’ve picked up a few details here or there—if you’re on the internet at all, it’s impossible not to, from the trending topics to the investigative TikToks to the incensed tweets from every perspective. But to the best of my ability, I’ve purposefully avoided not only trial coverage but the public response, which has been very—let’s say—frustrating for me to witness, for very—let’s say—personal reasons.
Still, I think it’s most important to remember that this trial isn’t ours. Yes, we—the royal “we,” the Internet We—have easy access to it, and of course it means something to us; otherwise, we wouldn’t have become so quickly, deeply immersed in it. Its cultural impacts will resonate far beyond the verdict. Our immediate reactions, though, ultimately tell us much more about ourselves than they do about Depp or Heard. And even if it was good and right to speculate, why do we want so badly for Heard to be in the wrong?
You may say, but what about the Milani palette? Evidence that Heard is lying! Under oath, even! Here’s where we come to the scourge of true crime on our critical thinking skills. We, the denizens of online, are not detectives. We may observe what we’re given; we may come to certain conclusions based on that information; we may even be right sometimes. But as we (should have) learned from TikTok’s Couch Guy debacle, our insistence on turning the lives of others into a game can and does cause real harm: psychological, material, and otherwise. TikTok videos analyzing Amber Heard’s body language or pointing out that her tears look fake don’t do anything useful. Even if Heard is lying, you won’t get a prize for being the one to figure it out.
Fan culture—a craving for heroes, villains, true crime stories, easter eggs, and the obsession and shallow community-building algorithmically encouraged by social media sites—has done a lot of the dirty work in creating this monster of a situation. The impact of fandom here is twofold. One: Johnny Depp’s loyal fandom has rallied behind him, especially after his dismissal from the Fantastic Beasts franchise—which, notably, occurred after Depp lost a similar libel trial against Heard in the UK. (That case’s judge ruled that there was “overwhelming evidence” that Depp had abused Heard.) Even among people who don’t consider themselves Depp fans, a thriving Heard anti-fandom has arisen. Heard claims that she had to “fight” for her character Mera not to be written and edited almost completely out of the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, partially because of anticipated negative audience response regarding her legal situation.
Relatedly, two: Public response to the trial has taken on a bizarre, fandom-influenced flavor. Consider the reaction videos; the highlight reels; the multimillion-view meme compilations with emoji-laden titles like “AMBER HEARD BEING CRINGE FOR 3 MINUTES” and “Johnny Depp’s funniest moments in court,” edited for maximum comedy and scored to jaunty Wii Music.
Compilations like those are most frequently seen in fandoms like Riverdale, Supernatural, Saturday Night Live, and Good Mythical Morning— scripted shows, regardless of whether (like SNL and GMM) they’re built partially on improvisation and cults of personality. And because videos like these have proven to garner millions upon millions of views, algorithms favor them, propelling the cycle (one reminiscent of the cycle that has allowed alt-right propaganda to proliferate on YouTube). Do a quick search and note how few of these compilation videos favor Heard rather than Depp. They’re a very specific way of engaging with trial content that speaks to a very particular audience—one that derives joy from making fun of Heard—and they also just so happen to be highly watchable, highly shareable, and algorithmically favored. No wonder mocking Heard is the internet’s new favorite pastime.
If it’s not already obvious, let me clearly betray my ostensibly detached and objective stance: I think Amber Heard has been abused. I think Johnny Depp abused her. I, personally, think that’s fairly obvious if you know anything, anything about domestic violence and abuse. I don’t believe in “mutual abuse,” a myth invented to avoid reckoning with the uglier symptoms of trauma and abuse survivors. I shudder even to use phrases like “I think” and “I believe” in this situation because it doesn’t matter what I think or believe. But my moral compass also says it’s important that, in situations regarding allegations of violent abuse, it’s necessary—for lack of a better phrase—to pick sides. The cost of tormenting Heard if she’s telling the truth is far greater than the cost of giving her the time of day if she’s lying.
It’s true that the post-#MeToo call to “believe women” flattens the fact that sometimes, women (like all people) lie—even, sometimes, about sexual assault. But beyond any argument about what benefits Heard could possibly reap from years-long accusations of abuse predating the larger #MeToo movement, beyond the UK judge who ruled in Heard’s favor, beyond any other evidence supporting Heard’s claims: Notice how much fun you’re having mocking Heard. Now imagine who might benefit from that.
You may be thinking, well, if you’re not caught up on all the details, how can you make a decision about who you think is guilty? First and foremost, no one, not even the most dedicated case-followers among us, has all the details. Not judge, not jury, maybe not even Heard or Depp. Having “all the details” provided by media coverage and trial footage doesn’t guarantee a fair, full, and impartial perspective—indeed, far from it.
Second, this isn’t a domestic violence trial. Heard has not charged Depp with a crime that he is now tasked with defending himself against. This trial is not designed to determine who’s innocent and who’s guilty of abuse; it’s not an abuse trial. It’s a defamation trial. Its goal is to determine whether Heard committed libel, of which Depp has accused her, by lying about abuse in a public forum. An outcome for either party entailing anything other than the initial demands for financial restitution is extremely unlikely.
So what’s really at stake in this trial, then, is reputation. Depp’s entire goal is to protect his reputation—and it’s working. He looks charming; Heard looks manipulative. He looks like a victim; Heard looks like a liar. Regardless of what the court finds, Depp has already secured his reputation as a long-suffering abuse victim in the eyes of many.
Even if this was an abuse trial, the American legal system is not just woefully unprepared to take on questions of abuse and power but in fact is built to side with those in power. Women couldn’t open a credit card in their own name—that is, they had to use their husbands’ — until the 1974 Fair Credit Opportunity Act. Marital rape did not become a crime in all 50 states until 1993. While false rape allegations are exceedingly rare, less than 3% of actual sexual assault perpetrators are convicted.
All right, you might say, fine. But it’s important to keep in mind that women can abuse men too! That’s true. Women can abuse men, especially when a woman abuses some sort of systemic power she holds over an individual man: race, class, wealth, age, fame, etc. Let’s observe, then, what other kinds of power Depp might wield over Heard in this specific situation:
He’s much older (22 years); much wealthier; much more famous, for much longer—he has a dedicated fan base willing to go to bat for him. When the outcome of your trial, whether legally or just publicly, has so much to do with how people feel about you, that’s a major benefit.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Amber Heard is a genuinely bad person. Maybe she is. I don’t know. I honestly don’t care. Abuse isn’t a question of who’s good and who’s bad, who’s evil and who’s a victim of that evil; it’s a question of who’s abusing their power. Because we’re all capable of abusing whatever power we might hold in any situation, we may like to shy away from that uncomfortable truth. It’s easier to decide that you don’t like someone, even that you hate them, than to recognize that they’ve been harmed—especially when the person alleged to have harmed them is more familiar to you, more comfortable, more charming. Harm doesn’t run cleanly along power lines; hurt is different from harm; and reactions to abuse (including what we might reasonably call self-defense) don’t always come as immediate, sensible, or recognizable. If Heard hit Depp and it wasn’t right after Depp hit her, that’s not mutual abuse—that’s causing hurt as a reaction to being harmed.
I see a lot of people on social media using the word “innocence”—she’s not innocent! Who cares? Innocence is a fool’s game. Everyone who has ever been harmed has caused harm at some point. Just because Heard might be mean or crazy or annoying or cruel, whatever any of those words might mean when applied to her, doesn’t mean she has abused Depp specifically, and it doesn’t mean she deserves to be abused. Bad people can still be abused—and they don’t deserve to be abused. No one deserves to be abused. That’s what makes it abuse.
Leave Amber Heard alone, you vultures. Go read Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. This trial is not a reality TV show or a game or a shipping war or a true crime podcast. It has nothing to do with you—and if it does, it’s as a mirror in which you refuse to see your gawking reflection.