Deep Dives Level Up Newsletters Saved Articles Challenges


The Depp versus Heard trial is bound to undermine the experience of abuse survivors going forward

By Billie Walker

Toxic masculinity

Apr 29, 2022

The ongoing Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation trial is currently taking up a lot of online discourse. TikTok videos circulate demonstrating Heard’s manipulative tactics while Twitter is filled with hardcore Depp fans ready to crucify her before the trial has even concluded. While I have no attachment to the result of the trial either way, it is the court of public opinion that worries me most.

Let’s be real here—this case was always going to be high profile. Centring around Depp, aka one of the most successful actors of his era, it was never going to go unnoticed by the media. However, this attention could prove deadly if accusations that Heard weaponised the #MeToo movement to her advantage are validated in any way—making this trial (and her actions) another road to damage women’s credibility as abuse and assault survivors.

It has taken a long time for the tide of public opinion to change in favour of survivors. Choosing to believe them first instead of vilifying them from the get-go is growing in practice, however, despite the #MeToo movement’s role in allowing survivors some justice in the world of Hollywood, our attitude to victims is still far from perfect.

Jared Leto, along with many other actors accused of predatory behaviour, still feature favourably in the public sphere, reputation intact. For survivors who don’t make the cut as part of the ‘one per cent’, very little has changed. Only a handful of survivors are recipients of shelter, financial help, while most are often failed by the criminal justice system.

In the UK, despite abuse being currently on the rise, domestic abuse cases are being “dropped at a rapidly increasing rate and fewer suspects are being charged. This BBC report found that in England and Wales, only 1.6 rape allegations actually end in a conviction, demonstrating a justice system that doesn’t understand (and doesn’t punish) the violence experienced by women and girls.

When rape and assault allegations are put forward against someone famous, one of the worst parts of Western society rears its ugly head. Obvious discourse erupts on the accuser’s motives behind the allegations, commonly suggesting that the victim is only making such claims in order to receive a ‘quick and easy’ pay-out. Such sexist misconceptions—that women make up tales of assault and harassment—have time and again been shown to be largely false. The reality is that 90 per cent of rapes go unreported, and of the 10 per cent that are brought to trial (with even fewer convictions) only 5 per cent are found to be false.

Cases of false accusations receive more attention as singular, anomalous anecdotal ‘evidence’ to further a patriarchal society’s belief that women are just lying, rather than look at the systemic nature of gendered violence. Let’s be clear on one thing: Heard’s allegations are the exception, not the rule. Like most women, understandably, I fear in the future many will use this unusual case as an excuse not to believe survivors rather than recognising it as the rarity it is—to be clear, the anomaly here is the false accusations made by women and not the rarity of domestic violence against men, which we know to be prominent. Though not a perfect figure, Depp’s public declaration that he too is a victim of domestic violence is undoubtedly a powerful moment for survivors everywhere.

However, pedestaling and idolising male celebrities accused of such equal crimes continues to perpetuate age-old sexist tropes. Along with the misconception that women often lie about abuse and rape, society also upholds the belief that men are usually ‘good guys’. Their reputation should not be tarred and their careers protected at all costs. Our celebrity-centric world allows us all to think we know the faces that fill our screens. Some of Depp’s most loyal fans have even travelled to Virginia to watch the trial unfold.

Nick Wallis, whose podcast Reporting: Depp v Heard summarises each day of the libel, has been speaking to some of these committed fans. The general consensus of Depp’s advocates, who claim to ‘know’ him due to limited engagement with the celebrity, is that the allegations are simply unthinkable. One fan, Yvonne, who has met the actor many times, claimed she knows the real Depp is “sweet and nice,” stating that “he’s not that person.” Whether or not Heard’s claims of physical abuse are founded is irrelevant to society’s general assumption that we know celebrities enough to proclaim our own verdict.

Many survivors struggle to tell their stories because of the popularity of their abusers. They hear things like “he can’t have done that, he’s a ‘good guy’” from people who are strangers to the abuser in question. Society so often operates on binaries and basic imagery of who we perceive is capable of predatory and violent behaviour—when things go at odds with that ‘picture’, we fail to believe it. In reality, someone can be a charitable giving person to the larger world but create a violent environment in their private life. If you don’t know someone intimately, sexually or emotionally, there will always be elements of them that you aren’t aware of.

The results of the Depp versus Heard trial are difficult to predict, but public opinion is much easier. This case seems likely to continue to cause rippling consequences for survivors of assault and abuse as long-held myths keep resurfacing. But, whether Heard’s allegations against Depp prove true or false, my philosophy will not change—and neither should yours. I will always choose to believe a survivor, regardless of gender or status, and be proved wrong, rather than add to the voices of disbelief that silence so many from speaking about their experience.

You’ve heard of toxic masculinity. What’s toxic femininity?

By now you’ve heard of toxic masculinity, I even once wrote about toxic monogamy, but have you heard of toxic femininity? Don’t worry, we were just as confused at first. Here is everything you need to know:

What is toxic femininity?

Toxic femininity can manifest in different ways, and therefore, its meaning can vary.

In its simplest form, toxic femininity refers to women shaming other women. Sometimes, this involves using traditional feminine qualities as a means to do so, acting as if there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to be a woman. For example—choosing your career over your family, or choosing to grow out your body hair instead of waxing or shaving it. Other times, this can be a little more niche: shaming women in the name of feminism.

In that case, women are being judged for not meeting someone’s expectations or ideas of what feminism should look like. For example, you might be judged for getting plastic surgery because some people might assume you are subscribing to patriarchal beauty standards and therefore giving into the male gaze. Or you may be shamed for wanting to prioritise your marriage and family over having a career, because this gives in to misogynist tradition—but remember, feminism is also about personal choice. As long as you are not harming anyone, it’s not anti-feminist to make a choice that works best for you.

In other cases, examples of toxic femininity can be seen in the way of women using stereotypes attached to their gender as a form of manipulation, which can sometimes get malicious. It’s using qualities such as softness, vulnerability, and fragility in a false manner, and it’s typically white women doing so.

Historically, white women have used these exact traits to falsely convict men and people of colour. Take the case of Emmett Till as an example, who was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white, married woman—who sixty years later admitted to having lied. Take the example of the ‘Victoria’s Secret Karen’ incident that happened recently. Or take a look at a whole TikTok trend that exists for the sole purpose of women falsely using these traits as a tool of manipulation.

How did the term toxic femininity come about?

“There’s toxic masculinity but what are examples of toxic femininity?” asked user u/VysX_ in a recent Reddit thread, sparking a wave of responses. “Being told I’m not a real woman because I don’t want kids. I was told this by a woman,” answered one user. “Women who think other women who enjoy cooking, child-rearing, and homemaking are perpetuating stereotyped gender roles enforced by the patriarchy. Tearing other women down because what they enjoy doesn’t fit into the tiny box of what YOUR version of feminism should be is toxic femininity to the max,” wrote another.

Interestingly enough, toxic femininity isn’t a new term. Previously, it has been used by men’s rights activists as an anti-feminist rhetoric, and a response to them being associated with toxic masculinity. The idea is that women can be toxic too—and of course they can. Anyone can be toxic, regardless of sex or gender identity.

According to Urban Dictionary, toxic femininity traits are developed as a result of how women are treated, and taught how to act by society, often starting off from a young age. Historically, men used to have control over society, meaning it was difficult for women to be seen as equals to them, let alone overpower them. Nor did they really have the actual rights to do so. Because of the patriarchal structures in place, in the eyes of men, women’s best qualities were their femininity—their beauty, their ability to be homemakers, and their social status. Their success almost solemnly depended on this. As a result, women were made to feel like they were each other’s competition.

Today, the pitting of women against each other continues, although it manifests differently. It can be seen in the form of gossip or social exclusion, and in fact, is most common in the modern workplace. According to previous research conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 58 per cent of workplace bullies are women, with 90 per cent of their victims being female too. This is also known as ‘Queen’s Bee Syndrome’ (a term coined by Cecilia Harvey, founder of Tech Women Today), which is when women demoralise their female colleagues in order to manipulate others to think less of them. Pretty twisted, right?

Toxic masculinity, toxic femininity, sexism, misogyny—so many terms, is there really a difference?

Some might see toxic femininity as the antonym of toxic masculinity. Others might simply argue it can’t exist. Many traits of toxic femininity are also traits of internalised misogyny. Both are a bi-product of social gender inequality, and perhaps it would be unfair to judge either without addressing the root of the bigger problem. Some elements of toxic femininity exist because of the ways in which women have been treated for centuries, and pitted against one another—progress takes time, and until we address all of the issues that come with this, it won’t go away anytime soon.

Neither masculinity nor femininity are necessarily good or bad—but it’s toxic displays that hold us back from gender equality. Remember, anyone can be toxic, regardless of their gender identity.