On Thursday 3 November 2022, representatives for Johnny Depp confirmed rumours that claimed the controversial actor will appear in none other than Rihanna’s November fashion show for her Savage X Fenty lingerie brand. Depp—fresh out of the six-week-long defamation trial he ended up winning—would be a featured surprise guest in the fashion show, which will stream on Amazon Prime Video on 9 November.
Understandably, netizens, Rihanna fans and celebrities alike have expressed dismay that the beloved singer would feature Depp in her show given his ex-wife Amber Heard’s allegations that he was violent towards her and the pop star’s personal history with domestic violence.
Because, let’s be clear on one thing, the fact that the Pirates of the Caribbean actor won his defamation case against Heard in June 2022 and was awarded $15 million in compensatory and punitive damages does not mean that Depp is not guilty of abusing his ex-wife.
In fact, following the victorious Instagram statement Depp shared on the social media platform after the verdict was announced, more than 6,000 pages of court documents were unsealed, providing a lot of unpleasant new information about the actor. And guess what? Depp fans were the ones responsible for thrusting this information into the public eye. They crowdfunded the fees required to get hold of the unsealed documents, which contained allegations that lawyers for Depp and Heard had managed to keep out of the trial.
The plan was to dig up dirt on Heard, but their efforts backfired: the documents were packed with nasty details about Depp and shed light on the extent to which his legal team weaponised misogyny throughout the trial.
Sadly, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. This summer, Chris Brown was announced as one of the headliners for the Wireless music festival. Brown’s performance was his first in the UK since he was found guilty of assaulting Rihanna—a charge which reportedly banned him from entering the country. Since then, the R&B singer has sought to reclaim the narrative in his own documentary, ‘explaining’ the abuse. His career, just like Depp’s, is seemingly unscathed.
It’s therefore completely understandable for most of the internet to be surprised by the recent move. In August, Depp made a surprise appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) as the channel’s Moon Man mascot. While some fans were pleased to see their icon make his return official, many viewers took to Twitter to criticise the cameo.
Depp’s appearance in the Savage X Fenty show is just the latest instance of the once-disgraced actor being rehabilitated by the entertainment industry. He will appear in the show alongside models Cara Delevingne and Irina Shayk, actors Taraji P Henson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Winston Duke and Marsai Martin, and musical performers Anitta and Burna Boy—making him the first man to take the featured ‘star’ role modelling the brand’s men’s collection.
Among other famous names, Olly Alexander (also known as Years & Years) has said he will no longer be wearing items from Rihanna‘s Savage x Fenty range after the news was first reported. Alexander, who has previously been photographed wearing a harness and underwear for a promotional campaign for the brand, retweeted a post about Depp’s appearance in the show, adding a frowning emoji.
After a fan replied to that tweet saying that the singer wears the range “so well,” Alexander responded by thanking them but added that “after this news I won’t be wearing it anymore.”
As the Twittosphere continues to fight over whether Rihanna is supporting a fellow victim of domestic abuse or platforming someone who was the abuser himself, I’ll leave you with one question to ponder: what if he’s both?
The messy details surrounding the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard lawsuit have permeated their way into the forefront of public discourse, namely social media, in what has undoubtedly become a trial on TikTok. Testimonies broadcast on the app by users along with controversial commentary, videos of ‘evidence’ found by supporters and disturbingly strange fan edits of the Pirates of the Caribbean actor is what’s being called ‘coverage’ these days.
Though Heard’s abusive behaviour has been evidenced in court, the misogynistic mocking that has arisen in response to her sexual abuse testimony is worrying to say the least. Surfacing on the platform comes an insidiously dark trend that could set survivors back decades as users sexualise the description of her alleged assault for laughs. Unravelling the progressing societal attitudes towards abuse—largely in part to the #MeToo movement—women, particularly white women, have been creating videos listening to the TikTok sound and “trying to understand where Johnny Depp went wrong.”
Failing to understand where they themselves have gone wrong, this is, unfortunately, not the first wave of the trend. The alarming signs preceded this movement and began with Rolling Stone’s reports of domestic violence, whereby a TikTok audio—which sections a portion of Heard’s court testimony against Depp of physical violence—has been used as skit material. Users are recreating Heard’s description of the incident where she stated, “I was walking out of the bedroom. He slapped me across the face, I turned to look at him. And I said ‘Johnny you hit me. You just hit me’.”
In what could be the most notable example is a video that has been viewed over 16 million times. In it, a cat is used to placate the roles of both Depp and Heard and acts out the alleged slap made by the Fantastic Beasts alum against the Aquaman actress. The worst epithet of this TikTok torrent against Heard are actual couples recreating the scene in a mocking manner—with some even dressing as the pair. And this isn’t some sordid little corner of the internet. No, even some of TikTok’s most popular creators have participated in the acting challenge. With over 18,000 clips made in response to the sound, even users like @llilmaz (who have over 4 million followers) have jumped on the supposed ‘trend’.
Let’s say for argument’s sake, Heard’s testimony is falsified, this does not suddenly make the context of the claims not about abuse—that fact is still true. And it is this fact that should embarrass those making light of the very serious issue.
Following Rolling Stone’s reporting, the public pelting Heard is receiving took an even darker and more dramatic turn. In an audio that has since been removed from the platform, users filmed themselves reacting to the actress’ sexual assault testimony, in which she described being held against her will by the neck and her underwear torn off. Their response? “Trying to understand where ‘daddy Depp’ was wrong…”
Though the sound and respective videos are inaccessible for the most part, the emergence of such a trend in the first place is a terrifying result of a prevailing patriarchal concoction that most definitely will impact future survivors coming forward with their own testimonies. In perhaps what can be seen as some bizarre crossover into the world of true crime fanaticism, the unadulterated adoration of Depp—that sets him on some innocent, godly pedestal—is reminiscent of the trials of Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez. But this time, they’re not just sitting on the back benches of the courtroom, they’re saturating social media in droves.
Now, we’re not calling Depp a serial killer here, nor are we denying his valid victimhood to violence at the hands of Heard but—and it’s an important but—he’s not entirely innocent either. His own victimhood does not suddenly negate the crimes he may have committed too. The so-called ‘attractiveness’ of Depp, much like white women’s attitudes to Bundy or Ramirez, has fed into a burgeoning hyper-sexualisation by female fans that distracts the public from real evidence and focuses on how ‘hot’ he is. Sexualising the alleged abusive acts (whether real or not) does nothing but belittle victims of sexual violence and play into the existing vicious tropes of ‘you know you wanted it’.
The ‘uglification’ of Heard that has been happening, on the other hand—whereby people have mocked her appearance, facial expressions and clothing—reenacts classic cartoon imagery: beautiful is good and ugly is evil, in turn, celebrating the sexual abuse TikTok audio because of Depp’s looks.
Maureen Curtis, the vice-president of criminal justice programs at the victim assistance organisation Safe Horizon, told Rolling Stone that the trends were “not surprising.” “When you have a celebrity, particularly one who’s as well-liked like Johnny Depp, accused [of violence], it makes it harder for a survivor to want to come forward, and to be believed,” she said. “People don’t want to believe a well-liked man [could] do things like this.”
While Heard’s abusive actions are, of course, inexcusable, the attitudes to male abusers of the past pale in comparison to the vitriol rallied against her—that is misogyny. Never before have we seen such a public and universal attack against a male abuser. Where are all the male-written think-pieces on supporting the victim when it comes to Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or Jeffrey Epstein? But when a woman is accused of violence, then the entire society (male and female) form a mob with pitchforks and wood at their disposal. Even Roman Polanski, who was convicted of a sexual crime against a child, has been continuously celebrated in cinema—but Heard, now that’s real evil.
The unbridled support of Depp is less about him being the victim of violence specifically and more so crosses over in an evident duality of his privileged maleness. One: if he indeed is also a perpetrator of abuse then he is absolved among fans and his crimes ignored (read: ‘she’s probably lying’) and two: he is also a victim of a violence that is supported, coddled and celebrated for coming forward. In either category, or most likely both, the actor ultimately receives sympathy.
The opposite exists for Heard. As both the victim and the abuser, she is loathed beyond measure. And just like the ghosts of the cases from the past, we will look back in 20 years and wonder how in the world female fanatics of Depp behaved in 2022.