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

By Billie Walker

Apr 29, 2022

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Toxic masculinity

Apr 29, 2022

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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.