Over the last few days, there have been more than the usual reports of domestic violence against women in the news. Even when women are killed, maimed, die by suicide, our society still considers it a personal matter. In a classic case of victim-shaming, every time a woman speaks out about abuse, the first question people ask—in the minds, if not out loud—what did she do to deserve it? The fact is that a man can beat his wife, because he can, for no reason, with impunity. The pressure of saving a marriage is so heavy on a woman, that in many surveys, a large percentage say that it is acceptable for a husband to beat up his wife, if she did something to provoke him.
Then, across the globe, in America that is baring its conservative fangs, Johnny Depp, in effect won the defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard, when the jury awarded him a far higher amount in damages, than she got.
The real tragedy here is that once again a woman’s voice was stilled, and the message that goes out is that if a celebrity could not get justice what chance do ordinary women have? Worse, the trial was conducted more out of court, in a baying-for-her-blood social media. Depp is more popular, more powerful than Heard, and he used that clout to whip up public opinion against her, and in effect, crushed her career and destroyed her life. Even before the trial, the bits about their marriage that were splashed over the media, turned a woman’s humiliation into a sordid public spectacle.
Monica Lewinsky, who had suffered a similar fate, when she was cast into the wilderness after the alleged affair with then President Bill Clinton, while he got away without a scratch, wrote in vanityfair.com, on the “sheer rancor and vulgarity” of the real life soap opera. “Today, most of us are consuming gossip, news, and entertainment news totally differently than we did in the days of yore… Instead, in lieu of watching coverage in real time (yes, John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard has been available on Court TV’s website and via livestream on YouTube), we have sampled mediated accounts of the trial on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; through memes, video clips, and TikTok nuggets. Our consumption, therefore, has tended to be biased, curated, and cursory. What’s more, we have become so attuned to this narrow, cynical cycle of social media encounters that we consider the trial not tragic or pathetic, but as a pure car wreck: accessible, tawdry, and immediately gratifying. We dispense with critical thinking and substitute the cheap thrill. Such scattershot consumption hasn’t allowed for real comprehension. Instead, we experience only apprehension, knee-jerk outrage, and titillation.”
It all started when Heard, in her role as spokesperson for women’s rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, in which she did not name Depp, but it was obvious she was referring to him. She wrote about how she faced the “full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” She was warned that she would be blacklisted by Hollywood, and she was dropped from films and endorsements. “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse. Imagine a powerful man as a ship, like the Titanic. That ship is a huge enterprise. When it strikes an iceberg, there are a lot of people on board desperate to patch up holes — not because they believe in or even care about the ship, but because their own fates depend on the enterprise.
“I write this as a woman, she continued, “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. Tabloid outlets that posted pictures of me spun them in a negative light. 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.”
Depp had earlier sued in 2020, British tabloid, The Sun, for calling him a wife-beater. The judge in that case, found that he had indeed inflicted violence on Heard, and commented, “I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying.”
The pro-Depp fanboys conveniently ignore this, or the series of deranged messages he sent to her, which are too awful to repeat, but they talk of killing her in atrocious ways.
The current legal blitzkrieg began when Depp brought a defamation lawsuit against Heard for $50 million over that ope-ed piece, and she countersued him for $100 million. The US judge triggered the monstrous social media frenzy, by granting permission for the live streaming of the case, so that clips and nasty memes were being shared in real time and a majority of them were anti-Heard.
A part of the hostility towards her could be because she didn’t appear to be a ‘perfect victim.’ She did fight back; she admitted that “When you are living in an abusive situation, your brain is in constant panic mode. You become the most toxic version of yourself. Like an animal backed into a corner, you do what it takes to survive.”
What Heard had predicted in her piece, did come true, however, and the wrath of our culture did fall on her. Many are calling it the end of the #MeToo movement and reportedly hundreds of women are withdrawing their complaints against abusive men, because this verdict made them lose hope. It is the power of patriarchy that fuels this backlash against women. And very few have social support, or resources for prolonged legal battles.
In her statement after the verdict, as Depp and his legal team gloated, Heard said, “The disappointment I feel today is beyond words. I am disappointed that the mountain of evidence was still not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence and sway of my ex-husband….It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women should be taken seriously.”
And, as Lewinsky wrote, “No matter whom the jury’s verdict favors—be it defendant Heard or plaintiff Depp—we are guilty.” We, as a society, that grants men such easy victories.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal on June 3, 2022)