And we’re all tumbling through it
Well, you know what they say: you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see sexual assault and domestic abuse being mocked on TikTok. The last fortnight has shown that if there’s one thing with the power (read: PR team) to unite content creators of all stripes – including men’s rights activists, middle-aged white women, true crime stans, and adults who think cinema begins and ends with Disney movies – it’s the trials of Johnny Depp. Which, in case you’ve been living in blissful ignorance, is what the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard defamation trial has morphed, mutated, and been memed into.
Across every social media feed, the trial is being portrayed as a contemporary retelling of the biblical trials of Job. In this scenario, Johnny is a blameless and righteous man. Johnny lost all his money, his mother died, and he suffered great physical agony. In the midst of his suffering, the world turned on him, and accused innocent Johnny of sinful transgression. Amber Heard, meanwhile, is being painted as the manipulative, deceitful woman par excellence. A liar, a gold digger, a bitch. For anyone with any awareness of gender stereotypes, the script really writes itself. In this world, Amber is a rapacious harpy and Johnny’s been through hell.
I’m not here to mount a grand defence of Amber Heard, because, honestly, I have no clue what really went on in their relationship (and yet somehow I still wish I knew less). I’m not saying Depp is the perpetrator and I’m not saying he’s the victim. I’m certainly not saying that men can’t be gaslit and subject to abuse. What I am saying, though, is that things are getting very, very weird out there, in a way that is increasingly deeply worrying.
Despite trying to steer clear of the trial as much as possible at first, every day Youtube would throw up clips, reaction videos and what can only be described as Depp propaganda onto my home page. One day it was ‘Captain Jack Sparrow visits patients in hospital’ and ‘Johnny Depp complete penthouse tour’, the next it was ‘Johnny Depp Best Bloopers’, ‘Johnny Depp talking about the birth of Lily Rose’ and ‘Amber Heard Forgetting Her Lines On The Witness Stand’. YouTube channels recently dedicated to maths and engineering tutorials have pivoted into dedicated ‘funny court clips’ accounts (“Amber Heard Exposed With An Instant Mood Shift”). Looking at these channels’ skyrocketing view counts, it is clear there is a toxic combination of clout and money to be made from jumping on this particularly fucked-up bandwagon. One Twitter user pointed out that women are doing their make-up to mimic Heard over sound clips from the trial of Depp calling her a whore. There are now countless videos of people acting horny over sound clips from the trial of Heard talking about being sexually assaulted by Depp. After realising they “could dress up as Wish versions” of Heard and Depp (in Captain Jack Sparrow garb, of course), a couple on TikTok acted out a ‘scene’ from Heard’s testimony, describing Depp slapping her across the face (over sound clips from the trial, of course). That video has now been viewed over 22 million times.
It’s almost as if the last five years – and #metoo – never happened. Treating an ongoing defamation trial, featuring graphic and distressing testimony about physical violence, coercive control, and sexual assault, like the entertainment love-child of a new season of Love Island and Netflix’s latest true crime documentary series is, at best, distasteful and, at worst, actively dangerous.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley, author of My Body Keeps Your Secrets and legal affairs reporter for Law360, told me how she was “terrified by the jokes and memes” she has seen making light of the Depp/Heard trial. “The jokes about Heard’s rape allegations – including jokes about her descriptions making people want to have sex with Johnny Depp – are really disturbing and lay bare just how far we have to go in terms of taking this kind of violence seriously,” she continued. “To make matters worse, Amber Heard hasn’t even presented her case yet – so the TikTokkers and Instagrammers have decided to write her off before they’ve even heard her side of the story. Jokes about rape and domestic violence are never okay, and they are particularly disturbing when they are being made halfway through an ongoing trial when she hasn’t been given a chance to present her evidence yet.”
Ultimately, the most worrying thing about how all this is playing out is what it potentially sets the precedent for. If it’s proved so incredibly easy for people to get swept up in a highly-orchestrated, seemingly money-no-object PR operation, becoming public ‘defenders’ of a wealthy and influential male celebrity at the expense of a younger, less well-known woman, it’s not a stretch to imagine the same model being rolled out time and time again – the #metoo movement and its long-overdue teachings about power dynamics and trauma responses ground into dust.
Just started a fight with the barista at Joe & the Juice cause Nylah asked why this was here and most of the tips were in D*pp’s cup so I dumped it in Amb*r’s cup and suddenly what the fuckboy said was for fun wasn’t fun. I can’t have fun? I thought it wasn’t that deep. pic.twitter.com/hinlPzHFvY— Najma Sharif (@overdramatique) May 8, 2022
Apparently unable or unwilling to understand the complex nature of abuse allegations, some in the ‘Justice for Johnny community’ are now taking what they believe about Depp and Heard and applying it to other public allegations. Marilyn Manson – Depp’s long-time friend and drinking buddy – recently filed his own defamation case against Evan Rachel Woods. Manson intends to say, much like Depp has, that her accusation of sexual assault, rape and abuse is “a malicious falsehood that has derailed Warner’s successful music, TV, and film career.” Already, a concerted campaign to ‘Stand With Marilyn Manson’ has kicked into gear. "Keep helping your buddy #EvanRachelWood falsely accuse a man like you did to #JohnnyDepp," one tweet addressed to Heard in response to the support she has shown Wood. “In the world of showbiz there's always two toxic friends who decide to put Regina George to shame and that's Amber Heard and Evan Rachel Wood,” another stated.
The tragic thing is that none of this is new. Did you know The Sun was poised to publish a story uncovering Jimmy Savile as an abusive paedophile in 2008, years before his death? The newspaper’s lawyers advised against it, because they knew Savile would sue for libel, and if he did, they knew he would probably win. He could call on a network of powerful people to defend him, while the vulnerable young people he molested would, in the lawyers’ view, be deemed untrustworthy – out to make money from tarnishing the reputation of a charitable and honourable man.
As Osborne-Crowley says: “Johnny Depp won’t see your posts turning Amber Heard’s graphic rape allegations into a humiliating meme, but your friends who have survived sexual violence will.” Looking at video after video of people laughing at abuse testimony, it's hard to shake the feeling that the message is the same as it's ever been: by all means speak up, but we won’t take it seriously.