- Although he’s less than halfway through the trial, the public seems firmly on Johnny Depp’s side – not Amber Heard.
- Support for Johnny Depp may have less to do with the facts of the case and more to do with his strong fan base.
- The lack of domestic violence experts at trial robs the public of an opportunity to better understand the dynamics of violence.
The defamation lawsuit between formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has become a public spectacle, a live TV event complete with hashtags, crowd searches and billions of TikTok edits. Some of the most intimate details of Depp and Heard’s lives — altercations, text messages, photographs of illegal substances — are used to build narratives about their turbulent relationship. Domestic violence experts say it is a complex case, but despite being less than halfway through the trial, the public appears to have already decided who is innocent and who is guilty.
On TikTok, the hashtag #johnnydeppisinnocent has 1.4 billion views. A similar hashtag for Heard only has around 600,000. Searches for Heard on the platform also bring up #amberheardcancelled, #amberheardsucks and #amberheardistrash. Depp has already taken a stand. Heard has yet to testify.
“There’s so much sensationalism in there,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “This whole idea that before you go to the other side, because of who he is, people have already made up their minds, that’s probably the most bias I’ve ever seen, quite frankly.”
The lawsuit stems from an op-ed written by Heard in 2018 for the Washington Post in which she said she was a “public figure representing domestic violence”, which Depp said he damaged his reputation and his career. Heard says Depp committed physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their marriage. Depp denies Heard’s allegations and says Heard was the attacker. In 2020, a London judge found “overwhelming evidence” that Depp had assaulted Heard throughout the marriage.
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Domestic violence experts say testimony suggests both sides behaved violently, although the dynamics of this violence remain unclear. They say a combination of Depp’s star status, a lack of domestic violence experts at trial, and the fact that Heard has yet to take the helm could sway public sentiment in favor of Depp, and that could deprive the public of an opportunity to better understand the nuances of abuse.
Domestic violence – which can be physical, sexual, emotional or economic – is a public health problem that affects millions of people in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced some form of domestic violence.
“I think people automatically say ‘he was the real victim here’ and ‘she was the real aggressor’, that’s premature because we haven’t heard from her. Both could have been victims and victimizing each other,” said Kellie Lynch, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who studies domestic violence. “I don’t want to overlook the fact that men can’t experience domestic violence, but I think what we’re seeing is too quick a judgement.”
Why so many people support Johnny Depp
Psychologists say that many people don’t want to believe that someone who has qualities they admire can be capable of doing harm. Depp has had a large fan base for many years, and his fans’ unwavering support may have less to do with the facts of the case than with their investment in Depp as a man worthy of admiration.
“He’s a bigger celebrity. He’s charismatic…I think there’s probably an inherent feeling about wanting to like him and believe him,” Lynch said.
Lynch also said Heard could fall into a sympathy trap. Research shows that women who fight back, set boundaries and behaving with authority can be considered “unsympathetic”.
Lynch said Depp’s lawsuit also exposes the hypocrisy around the unfair mandate that victims of sexual or domestic violence “be perfect.” The victims in these cases are generally held to a high standard, having to be virtuous to be credible. These victims usually cannot fight things like addiction. But it seems that in this case, Depp’s struggle with drug addiction is actually getting some sympathy.
“We don’t see him toasted to the same standard of being that perfect victim. And to be clear, we shouldn’t use that against him, but we don’t really see that with female victims,” Lynch said.
Where are the domestic violence experts at the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard trial?
Glenn says it’s remarkable that the jury has yet to hear from a domestic violence expert, which could also fuel misconceptions about the relationship.
“That expert could give a domestic violence 101 on the stand very quickly so everyone in the courtroom understands that dynamic,” she said. “Mental issues can contribute as risk factors, but when you’re talking about abuse, you’re talking to experts about that abuse.”
For example, Laurel Anderson, who was Depp and Heard’s marriage counselor, said she saw “mutual abuse” in the relationship. Glenn said the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence disputes that term.
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The abuse is about a power imbalance, Glenn said. In a relationship where there is domestic violence, one person tends to be the primary aggressor because they have more power, which they may possess due to their cultural status or access to wealth.
Researchers say there are other types of violence that can occur in a relationship that aren’t about power or coercive control, but the absence of domestic violence experts at trial robs the public of the opportunity to better understand the important distinctions.
Lynch said it’s possible the case was an example of “two-way violence.” Researchers who use this term say that unlike domestic violence, this form of violence is not about gaining power or controlling the other person, but results from the escalation of specific conflicts.
How to digest the Heard, Depp lawsuit
Lynch said, especially in civil lawsuits, everyone’s life is closely watched. It is important to recognize that lawyers strategically create narratives that benefit their clients.
“I urge people to just listen to the whole thing and understand that everyone’s behavior is going to be undermined,” she said. “If someone tore your life apart and picked on your behavior, your texts and your emails, you could paint anyone in a bad light. That’s why they do it.”
Glenn says that while people are watching a high-profile celebrity trial, they should challenge themselves to remove the celebrity lens from it. It’s two people, and one of them says the other committed defamation, but they both say there was violence in the relationship.
“This is an opportunity for us to talk about domestic violence and what it means,” Glenn said, “but we can’t do that until we listen to what Amber Heard has to say. .”