- Despite being less than halfway through the trial, the public seems firmly on the side of Johnny Depp – not Amber Heard.
- Support for Johnny Depp may have less to do with the facts of the case and more to do with his strong fanbase.
- A lack of domestic violence experts at the trial is denying the public an opportunity to better understand the dynamics of abuse.
The defamation trial between formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has become a public spectacle, a live televised event complemented by hashtags, crowd-sleuthing and billions of TikTok edits. Some of the most intimate details of Depp and Heard’s lives – altercations, text messages, photographs of illegal substances – are being used to construct narratives about their turbulent relationship. Experts in domestic violence say this is a complex case, yet despite being less than halfway through the trial, the public seems to have already decided who is innocent and who is guilty.
On TikTok, the hashtag #johnnydeppisinnocent has 1.4 billion views. A similar hashtag for Heard only has about 600,000. Searches for Heard on the platform also bring up #amberheardcancelled, #amberheardsucks and #amberheardistrash. Depp has already taken the stand. Heard has yet to testify.
“There is so much sensationalism to it,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “This whole idea that before we get the other side, because of who he is, people have already made up their minds, it’s probably the most bias I’ve ever seen, quite frankly.”
The trial stems from an op-ed Heard wrote in 2018 for The Washington Post in which she stated she was a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” which Depp said harmed his reputation and career. Heard says Depp perpetrated physical, emotional and sexual abuse during their marriage. Depp denies Heard’s allegations and says Heard was the aggressor. In 2020, a London judge found “overwhelming evidence” that Depp had assaulted Heard throughout the marriage.
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Experts in domestic violence say testimony suggests both parties behaved violently, though the dynamics of that violence remain muddled. They say a combination of Depp’s star status, a lack of domestic violence experts at the trial and the fact that Heard has not yet taken the stand may be influencing public sentiment in favor of Depp, and it may be denying the public an opportunity to better understand the nuances of abuse.
Intimate partner violence – which can be physical, sexual, emotional or economic – is a public health problem that affects millions of people in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced some form of intimate partner violence.
“I think for people to automatically say, ‘he was the real victim here,’ and ‘she was the real perpetrator,’ is premature because we haven’t heard from her. Both could have been victims and victimizing each other,” said Kellie Lynch, an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies intimate partner violence. “I don’t want to discount that men can’t experience domestic violence, but I think what we’re seeing is too quick of a judgment.”
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Psychologists say many people don’t want to believe someone who has qualities they admire could be capable of harm. Depp has had a large fanbase for many years, and his fans’ unwavering support may have less to do with the facts of the case and more to do with their investment in Depp as a man worth admiring.
“He’s a bigger celebrity. He’s charismatic … I think there’s probably an inherent feeling to want to like him and believe him,” Lynch said.
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Lynch also said Heard may be falling into a likeability trap. Research shows women who fight back, set boundaries and behave authoritatively can be seen as “unlikeable.”
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Lynch said Depp’s trial also exposes hypocrisy around the unfair mandate that victims of sexual or domestic violence “be perfect.” Victims in these cases are typically held to a high standard, needing to be virtuous to be credible. These victims typically can’t struggle with things like addiction. But it seems in this case Depp’s struggle with substance abuse is actually engendering sympathy.
“We’re not seeing him grilled within that same standard of being this perfect victim. And to be clear we shouldn’t be using that against him, but we don’t really see that with female victims,” Lynch said.
Where are the domestic violence experts at the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard trial?
Glenn says it’s notable the jury has yet to hear from a domestic violence expert, which may also be fueling misperceptions about the relationship.
“That expert could give a domestic violence 101 from the stand really quickly so that everyone in the courtroom would understand those dynamics,” she said. “Mental issues may be contributing as risk factors, but when you’re talking about abuse, then you talk to experts in that abuse.”
For example, Laurel Anderson, who was Depp and Heard’s marriage counselor, said she saw “mutual abuse” in the relationship. Glenn said the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence takes issue with that term.
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Abuse is about an imbalance of power, Glenn said. In a relationship where there is domestic abuse, one person tends to be the primary aggressor because they have more power, which they may possess because of their cultural status or access to wealth.
Researchers say there are other kinds of violence that can occur within a relationship that aren’t about power or coercive control, but the absence of domestic violence experts at the trial denies the public an opportunity to better understand important distinctions.
Lynch said it’s possible this case is an example of “bi-directional violence.” Researchers who use this term say that unlike domestic abuse, this form of violence are not about gaining power or control over the other person but arise from the escalation of specific conflicts.
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Lynch said especially in civil suits, everybody’s lives are heavily scrutinized. It’s important to recognize lawyers are strategically creating narratives that benefit their clients.
“I would urge people to just listen to the full case, and to understand that everybody’s behavior is going to be put on blast,” she said. “If anyone ripped apart your life, and cherry-picked your behavior and texts and emails, you could paint anybody in a bad light. That’s why they do it.”
Glenn says while people are watching a high-profile celebrity trial, they should challenge themselves to take the celebrity lens off of it. These are two people, and one of them is saying that the other has committed defamation, but they’re both saying there was abuse in the relationship.
“It’s an opportunity for us to talk about domestic violence and what that means,” Glenn said, “but we can’t do that until we listen to what Amber Heard has to say.”