Depp-Heard verdict: Domestic abuse case reduced to a reality show filled with flippant drama

Besides the courtroom, there was a parallel trial going on across the world, the reality show to beat all reality shows, through live clips and memes on the social media and thousands of reels and posts that fell into the age-old traps in our cultures: The woman is less believable than the man she accuses, the woman finds it harder for her story to be accepted as legitimate in the society.

FPJ EditorialUpdated: Saturday, June 04, 2022, 10:00 AM IST
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Depp-Heard verdict: Domestic abuse case reduced to a reality show filled with flippant drama | Photo: AFP

In the Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard story, there emerge no heroes at all. As a tantalising reality show played out in front of millions of eager audiences around the world, the just-concluded defamation case was a super hit complete with a nail-biting finish and the ‘hero’ winning in the end; only the popcorn was missing. However, as a symbolic case of domestic violence or intimate partner violence – the silent pandemic in our societies – it was a complete flop show. In fact, it pushed back – even undid – several decades of painstaking work done by domestic violence survivors, gender activists, and lawyers around the world including, of course, in the United States.

The verdict in the six-week long trial in the defamation cases that the Hollywood actors filed against one another in Virginia – Depp sued her for her op-ed in The Washington Post in 2018 – and she sued him back for alleging that the domestic violence between them was a “hoax” – capped the courtroom trial. It awarded him larger damages; the jury found that Heard had defamed Depp on three counts, causing him loss of reputation and professional work, and awarded him $15 million, significantly lower than the $50 million he had sued for but a substantial sum anyway. Heard was awarded $2 million on being defamed too for the “hoax” remark that Depp’s team had made.

Besides the courtroom, there was a parallel trial going on across the world, the reality show to beat all reality shows, through live clips and memes on the social media and thousands of reels and posts that fell into the age-old traps in our cultures: The woman is less believable than the man she accuses, the woman finds it harder for her story to be accepted as legitimate in the society, that people who have no knowledge of the intimacies of a marriage and the abuse or violence in it are ever willing to make judgements based on selective nuggets of information that reach them, and that wealth and fame are no insurance against domestic violence in a relationship.

From reports over the last six years when Depp and Heard filed for divorce, after a marriage of around a year, and going by the evidence brought out in this trial as well as the one in London in 2020 – which incidentally Depp lost – it is hard to paint either of the actors as hero and villain. It’s complicated: There seems to have been assault and abuse from both of them towards the other at different times, anger and rage, substance use and inter-personal toxicity, even leading the London court to comment that it “placed (Heard) in fear of her life”. There’s evidence of Depp texting his friends with abusive and threatening language, there’s evidence of her hitting him and then daring him to tell his story to the world. What we know is enough to surmise that the actors were both abusive and violent towards one another. However, at the end of the Virginia trial, he comes out the ‘wronged’ one and she the abuser, he the mascot of men who suffer domestic violence and she the one who damaged his reputation by hinting about his violence towards her in that op-ed.

There are many lessons to draw for all those who work in the domain of domestic violence around the world but the abiding one is this: over and beyond the authenticity of your story of domestic abuse or violence is the narrative that you craft around it, the effectiveness and elegance of your legal strategy, and your ability to take your story directly to millions out there. On these three counts, Depp outshone his former wife – he narrated his side of the story with greater conviction and believability knowing that the cameras in the courtroom were picking up every flicker on his face, he employed a legal team that wowed the jurors as well as millions of audiences, and his public relations team was able to ‘market’ him as the sufferer and Heard as the unfeeling, gold-digging, slightly unhinged aggressor.

Heard’s side of the story of domestic abuse, just as real, came out as possibly fake or less serious in this narrative. He seized the narrative; she was the villain in it. The aftermath of the outcome of this trial came across immediately in reports where women survivors were rethinking their decision to drag their partners to a court or withdrawing cases of domestic violence because they would not be believed now. In making this larger than herself and pretending to stand up for other women survivors, but muddling up her overall strategy and legal defence – she changed her public relations team midway – Heard actually dealt women survivors a major blow.

The long, hard battle that survivors across the world have fought for years, and continue to do so, cannot be hostage to a single trial of celebrities such as the Depp-Heard one. In the eyes of millions around the world, Depp emerged the only and legitimate victor – not unlike the many heroes he has portrayed on the screen – and has got his life back. But the issue of domestic violence got a beating: Women survivors will be put to even harsher scrutiny than before about the stories they dare to bring out to the world. There can be nothing more discouraging to women than this. Heard was a poor representative, a bad actor as it were.

The op-ed at the centre of the trial was titled “I Spoke Out About Sexual Violence - And Faced Our Culture’s Wrath. That Has to Change.” Every word came true and resonates more deeply today, for her as well as millions of women around the world, than when she wrote it.

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