The Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation case and the verdict in Depp’s favour have unleashed a torrent of misogyny, particularly on social media, with Heard facing public humiliation and being treated as fair game for sexist abuse, hatred and ridicule. Hazel Croft argues that socialists and feminists should take a stand against such misogyny and resist this assault on the #MeToo movement.
The Johnny Depp v Amber Heard defamation case and verdict has led to an outpouring of misogyny on social media and elsewhere, accompanied by a vicious and coordinated right wing attack on the cultural gains of the #MeToo movement.
Heard was publicly vilified and shamed on social media during the court case and after the verdict for having the temerity to speak up against domestic abuse. As in so many rape and sexual violence cases, it was Heard’s character and behaviour that was put on trial and punished rather than Depp’s, with Depp’s legal team painting him as the victim and Heard as the abuser.
It is worth emphasising here that this case came about not because Heard took Depp to court with accusations of abuse, but because Depp sued her for defamation after an opinion piece by Heard was published in the Washington Post, where she was described as ‘a public figure representing domestic abuse’ as part of her support for the #MeToo campaign. The article did not mention Depp and was partially drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union in order to encourage women to come forward to report abuse.
The behaviour Depp admitted to was deeply abusive, with a range of texts and tapes coming to light that showed Depp being prone to bouts of drunken rage and admitting to abusive violence against Heard. This included evidence that he joked with a friend about burning and drowning Heard and fucking her corpse. In 2018, Depp lost a court case against the Sun tabloid for calling him a ‘wife-beater’, with the UK court ruling that 12 charges of domestic abuse by Depp against Heard were true, out of a total of 14 incidences brought to the court. And, as journalist Michael Hobbes has commented:
‘let’s not forget Depp’s well-established misogyny. He has defended Roman Polanski, befriended fellow alleged abuser Marilyn Manson and said the accusations against Harvey Weinstein were implausible because his wife wasn’t “some hairy-backed bitch.” His texts from early in his relationship refer to Heard as an “idiot cow,” “filthy whore” and “worthless hooker.” One says, “I’ll smack the ugly cunt around before I let her in, don’t worry.”.’
The turning on its head of who is the victim and who is the abuser is a familiar strategy used by abusers in many rape and domestic violence cases. It is known as DARVO: deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender, whereby the abuser and his legal representatives paint the abused as the abuser and the abusive man as the victim. It is a tactic that is often used as a way of disorientating people by hijacking a feminist message and using it against the abused. Depp is a world-famous film star who had the money, fame and power to pursue this DARVO strategy with impunity. He even performed at two gigs in Britain with Jeff Beck while the jury was deliberating. The jury meanwhile was not sequestered and had access to all the social media campaigns, memes and posts – overwhelmingly in support of Depp. One juror was allowed to stay in the jury pool even after revealing a text from his wife that read, ‘Amber is psychotic’. As Judith Hernon has written in her seminal book Trauma and Recovery, ‘In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.’
Depp’s team were aided and abetted by a coordinated right-wing campaign, including ‘men’s rights activists’, on social media which worked overtime to discredit Heard and in the process to discredit the entire #MeToo movement. Much of this was paid or boosted content and around 11 percent was found to be from fake accounts – a level usually associated with a big election campaign. This social media onslaught included clips from Heard’s testimony being mocked on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. On TikTok couples videoed themselves acting out graphic acts of violence in order to try to ‘prove’ that Heard’s accusations were false. Heard herself suffered death threats and a torrent of online abuse. When Depp won the case, right-wing commentators gleefully celebrated the demise of the #MeToo movement. Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter immediately announced: ‘And thus ends the #MeToo movement’ and a former National Rifle Association spokesperson declared: ‘Amber Heard just destroyed “believe all women”’.
In the midst of this wave of misogyny, it is not only the right who have been critical of Heard. Some have even claimed it is Heard who has set back the clock for women by hiding behind the #MeToo movement and using it for her own gain. Others on the left have condemned the misogyny on social media but have qualified this with statements like ‘whatever you think of Amber Heard’, or ‘I’m not taking sides’, as if they cannot take a strong stance against misogyny unless there is a more ‘credible’ victim.
This is not only an inadequate response, but concedes dangerous ground to reactionary and right-wing ideas about survivors of abuse ‘asking for it’, and plays along with the DARVO strategy that has worked to discredit Heard’s testimony. In my view, socialists and feminists should take sides in this case. This is not about taking sides between two equally nasty and rich celebrities. It is about standing up against a system in which survivors face a battle to be believed when they speak out against domestic and sexual violence, and against a legal system that is weighted against them receiving justice at every stage.
You do not have to like Amber Heard to be on her side. She did not match the trope of the ‘perfect victim’, but no rape or domestic violence survivor ever does. In case after case the woman’s past history, behaviour, manner and dress is held up to scrutiny to imply she deserved to be attacked and was not an innocent victim. But why should women have to live up to some ideal notion of how a victim is supposed to look and act in order to have the abuse committed against us acknowledged and condemned? Not only that, to be believed we are expected to act in very gendered ways, conforming to feminine stereotypes of passivity and of acting suitably grateful for being believed. And if we don’t act in ways deemed suitably demur or thankful, we are punished for seeming to be too aggressive, too angry and vengeful, too hysterical or even categorised as mentally ill. And none of this takes into account the way that those of us who have experienced domestic or sexual violence have been traumatised and changed by the abuse, or the impact on us of having to recount traumatic events publicly and often under hostile questioning in courts.
Depp’s behaviour was not scrutinised to the same degree as Heard’s despite his history of abusive behaviour, allowing Depp’s supporters to claim that Depp and not Heard was the victim of domestic abuse. There are a minority of men who are survivors of domestic abuse, and the ways in which this abuse can traumatise and damage male survivors is increasingly being recognised. But the way in which Depp’s supporters have used this to claim victimhood for Depp provides no justice for male survivors of abuse or even an honest recognition of the issues they face. Indeed, this setback for the #MeToo movement harms all survivors of abuse. It makes life harder not only for women to speak out and to be believed but also makes it much harder for men to be taken seriously and believed when they speak out about abuse.
Moreover, while it is the case that a minority of those experiencing domestic abuse are men, it is still the case that women are far more likely to experience abuse. Some 94.3 percent of perpetrators of domestic violence are male and women are far more likely to experience abuse on a on a sustained, long-term basis. The violence meted out to women is also more likely to include sexual violence, and to lead to injury and death, according to Women’s Aid.
This assault on #MeToo has been weaponised by the global right at a time when reproductive rights are also under attack, such as the assault on Roe v Wade in the US and at a time when there is a cultural backlash against the women’s movement and against trans rights in the US and elsewhere. The right want to send a deeply reactionary message to women that they should shut up and keep quiet about abuse or else they could face public shaming and ridicule. But although we have witnessed a serious knock to the gains of #MeToo that does not mean the movement is over or that the right will succeed in silencing our voices.
The mainstream media coverage of #MeToo has usually focused on celebrity women or on the big cases, like the eventual taking down of media mogul Harvey Weinstein. But the impact of #MeToo went far beyond film and media stars and was never just about the rich and privileged. The majority of women who experience abuse but who do not have the means and support to fight expensive court cases – working class women, women of colour, disabled women, migrant women, sex workers and other marginalised women, against whom the justice system is already skewed. And while speaking out was never enough on its own, #MeToo gave confidence to women in struggles around the world – in India, in Argentina, Ireland, the US – to fight for reproductive rights and for an end to sexual and domestic violence.
The real power of #MeToo came from its collectivity. As any woman who has been traumatised by domestic or sexual abuse knows, when we are alone we feel powerless against our abuser or feel we are on a losing battle against a legal system that disbelieves, ridicules and punishes us. The inspiration and hope of #MeToo was the realisation that it wasn’t just ‘me’, it was ‘me too’, and me and me and me. When we feel we can stand up with others, and have a sense of solidarity, not only do we feel less isolated, but our voice becomes stronger. It is through this sense of solidarity in the fight against gendered violence that we can gain more confidence to challenge patriarchal capitalist structures and the myths about gendered violence that support them.
For me it is this sense of collectivity that can offer some hope for the future following the reactionary anti-feminist backlash surrounding the Depp v Heard case. We should continue to raise the message from #MeToo in our political organisations, and in our community and trade union activism: that survivors should be able to speak out without fear of retribution from ex-partners or the media, and that all domestic and sexual abuse is unacceptable. We also need to ensure that the fight to defend the gains of the #MeToo movement, for women to be listened to and believed, are linked to wider struggles against the ascendency of the right. In the coming months and years we face battles in Britain, and globally, over the high cost of living, climate change, for reproductive rights and for trans rights. This is not the time to be silent or to cave to the position that many survivors of domestic abuse have had used against them: that it was mutual abuse and that they’re both as bad as each other.