There are ambiguities in the sordid conflict between the divorced actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, but some things are clear.
Depp texted a friend that he wanted to kill Heard and then have sex with “her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead.” There is a video of Depp smashing kitchen cabinets while Heard tries to calm him, saying, at one point, “All I did was say ‘sorry’!” In an audio recording, she tells him to go put his “cigarettes out on someone else,” and he responded, “Shut up, fat ass.”
He admitted to head-butting her, though he said it was an accident. When Heard went to court to get a domestic violence restraining order against Depp, she had a bruise on her cheekbone from where she said he threw a phone at her.
In 2018, The Sun, a British newspaper, called Depp a “wife beater,” and he sued for libel. Proving libel is much easier in Britain than in the United States, because there the burden of proof rests with the defendant. Depp lost his case. A judge, evaluating 14 incidents of Depp’s alleged abuse of Heard, found that 12 of them had occurred and concluded that The Sun’s words were “substantially true.”
Now Depp is suing Heard in Virginia for $50 million, saying that she defamed him when she described herself, in a Washington Post opinion essay that didn’t mention Depp, as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” His case seems absurd, since even if he were entirely innocent, the British verdict was well known, and Heard was referring to what she symbolized, not what she allegedly endured. (She is countersuing for $100 million.)
If Depp somehow prevails, one can expect similar lawsuits against other women who say they’ve survived abuse. Already, the singer Marilyn Manson has filed a defamation suit against his ex-fiancée Evan Rachel Wood, one of several women who have accused him of sexual violence.
But Depp needn’t succeed in court to achieve his ends. In a 2016 email to his former agent, Christian Carino, Depp wrote that Heard was “begging for total global humiliation.” Now this televised trial has resulted in an explosion of hatred and derision directed at her. The volatile actress — who at times was violent toward Depp, and who never made good on a promise to donate her entire divorce settlement to charity — is very far from a perfect victim. That made her the perfect object of a #MeToo backlash.
Online, there’s a level of industrial-scale bullying directed at Heard that puts all previous social media pile-ons to shame. Countless videos skewer Heard on TikTok; the ’NSync member Lance Bass joined in the trend of mockingly re-enacting her testimony. A makeup brand even took part in the anti-Heard melee, posting a TikTok video meant to contradict her lawyer’s description of how she covered up bruises. Meanwhile, every platform appears to be full of adoring pro-Depp memes. “Why Does It Seem Like the Entire Internet Is Team Johnny Depp?” said a Vice headline.
But it’s not just the internet. “Believe all women, except Amber Heard,” Chris Rock joked recently. A “Saturday Night Live” sketch last weekend turned one of Depp’s wildest accusations against Heard into a skit, treating her as a figure of ridicule and him as a charming scamp.
This doesn’t mean that the case is entirely straightforward. Heard has admitted hitting Depp, and has been recorded insulting and belittling him. The couple’s marital counselor testified that they engaged in “mutual abuse,” saying of Heard, “It was a point of pride to her, if she felt disrespected, to initiate a fight.”
Some domestic violence experts consider mutual abuse a myth, arguing that while both partners in a toxic relationship can behave terribly, one usually exercises power over the other. But even if you believe that Heard acted inexcusably, the idea that she was the primary aggressor — against a larger man with far more resources who was recorded cursing at her for daring to speak in an “authoritative” way — defies logic.
Indeed, one of the most salacious details from the trial — the one that’s been used to jeer at Heard across every form of media — might just as easily fit into a story of her victimization. Depp, you may know by now, accused Heard or one of her friends of defecating in her bed as an act of revenge, and his bodyguard said she’d confessed to a prank gone wrong. Heard testified that one of their dogs, incontinent since eating Depp’s weed as a puppy, defiled the bed. “It was not really a jovial time, and I don’t think that’s funny, period,” she said. “That’s disgusting.”
If she’s telling the truth, one has to marvel at how thoroughly Depp and his team have sullied her name. When Depp testified, the hashtags #AmberTurd and #MePoo shot across the internet. The image of Heard, a woman whose brand is bombshell blond glamour, is now linked, perhaps permanently, to excrement. If she’s not a psychopath, she’s the casualty of a truly sadistic reputational hit job.
It’s worth noting that in 2020, Bot Sentinel, a group that tracks online disinformation and harassment, was hired by Heard’s lawyers to analyze the social media campaign against her. “Everyone thinks that any activity against them is bots or whatever,” the group’s founder, Chris Bouzy, told me. But in this case, some of it was — Bouzy estimated that there were 340 “inauthentic” Twitter accounts devoted to defaming Heard and amplifying petitions calling for her to be fired from acting and modeling gigs. “A small number of accounts can drive conversations on Twitter,” he said.
Yet even if trolls and bots helped juice anti-Heard mania, there are obviously plenty of real people participating in it. Some of them are obsessive Depp fans; as Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in The Atlantic, there’s a history of online communities fixating “on theories that the male objects of their fandom were being manipulated and tortured by less-famous, female romantic partners.”
There seems, however, to be a broader misogynist frenzy at work, one characteristic of the deeply reactionary moment we’re living through. “She will hit the wall hard!!!” Depp wrote in the email to Carino. Looks like he knew his audience.