Clips from the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial have been inescapable, filling feeds on nearly every social media platform. Cartoon renditions based on live-action footage flood Instagram. Tik Tok is overloaded with Depp-love and Heard-hate edits.
A trial surrounding sexual assault and domestic violence became a spectacle. As the trial progressed, it felt less and less like a court case and more like a soap opera. People eagerly waited for the next day when a new “episode” would air, and the line between those who sided with Heard and those who sided with Depp was so divisive and fanatical as to echo the Team Jacob vs. Team Edward dialogue of pop-culture’s past.
Televising the trial was certainly one way to ensure both sides were heard by the masses. But the two parties held conflicting stances on whether the presence of cameras in the courtroom was justified.
In the pre-trial hearing, Heard’s team seemed to fear her words would be taken out of context, and the already-growing movement against her would intensify should the public have access to trial coverage.
Depp’s legal team reported no objection. Their goal was to prove that Heard’s 2018 op-ed inThe Washington Postfalsely framed Depp as an abuser, significantly hurting his reputation and career. They argued since Heard defamed Depp publically, he should be allowed to clear his name in the same public manner.
It is absolutely vital the judicial system recognizes men as victims of partner violence, and acknowledge that false accusations do occur. Depp’s legal team fought for this, and they performed well.
However, their interrogation of Heard’s claims exemplifies the type of scrutiny so often faced by women reporting abuse.Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School, said,“Allowing this trial to be televised is the single worst decision I can think of in the context of intimate partner violence and sexual violence in recent history.”
Many who report instances of abuse and sexual assault––as Heard did––fear a loss of privacy, not being believed, unearthing past trauma, being blamed, fired, called names, or damaging their reputation.
Though Heard was found guilty of defamation, her experience in the courtroom represents many survivors’ worst nightmare. The Depp-Heard trial showcased, on live television, why so many people––especially women and other minority groups––are afraid to come forward.
The trial may have provided some comfort and evidence the falsely accused can have their name cleared. Though whether this was entirely accomplished––considering the evidence of Depps’ violent and perverse texts, for example––is questionable. Sending brutal messages does not equate to physically hurting someone, but can Depp ever stand in the same glowing, favorable light as before? And if so, what does that say about our obsession with pop-culture icons?
We cling to this trial not only for the general spectacle produced by conflicting stories, sparring lawyers, unusual testimonies, and absurd details like feces on the bed, but because at the center lies a long-loved Hollywood icon. It is not wrong to have hoped for Depp’s vindication on the basis he was falsely accused. Itiswrong to have fanatically rooted for him because we love him without knowing him or the truth.
The trial was, in its foundation, a fight for justice. But in its broadcast and subsequent treatment on social media, it quickly became an unreal, ridiculous oddity.
Certainly, the truth must come out. Camille Vasquez called Heard’s allegations “an act of profound cruelty to true survivors of domestic abuse.” Appropriating trauma for one’s own gain is incredibly harmful, and the legal system has a duty to stand against such acts. False accusations of domestic abuse will only make it harder for people to believe other survivors.
Yet this truth could have been delivered by the verdict alone; Depp winning the suit should suggest who is to be believed. There are undeniably errors and harmful decisions made in the American justice system, which is perhaps one argument for why a case might benefit from the accountability coming from having the public’s eyes on it.
But this trial dealt with the hyper-sensitive topic of domestic violence, and specifically, intimate partner violence. It showcased the brutal examination that survivors face in the courtroom. And while that might scare people away from making false accusations, it may also scare survivors into silence. There is no room for this;too many cases go unreported already.
The Depp-Heard trial had a star-studded cast, but maybe it would have been best to keep the cameras away.