In recent weeks, as the defamation trial brought by Johnny Depp against his ex-wife Amber Heard has continued to overshadow nearly all other news stories and dominate the main social-media platforms, I’ve noticed that the normal people in my life—the ones who have not had the Law&Crime Network live stream of the proceedings running on their laptops since it began, in April—are often under the impression that the case is impenetrably complex. They aren’t entirely wrong: Depp-Heard 2022, playing at least through the end of this week in Fairfax, Virginia, is the sludge pit of an outlandishly toxic relationship. But so much of the online chatter about the trial is noise rather than signal; it has obscured how simple the core matter is, and how that simplicity makes the case all the more bizarre and tragic.
Depp’s fifty-million-dollar defamation claim against Heard rests on the first part of one sentence, which she published in an op-ed in the Washington Post in December, 2018: “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” It is incontestable that, two years earlier, Heard did indeed appear on the cover of People magazine with apparent facial injuries and that, around the same time, she obtained a temporary restraining order alleging domestic violence against her husband; she was photographed leaving the courthouse with what looked like a bruise on her cheek. She also has a trove of text messages, witness statements, and photos of injuries—which, she says, corroborate her allegations of abuse. The careful legal vetting of her Post op-ed may be evident in the wording: Heard calls herself a “public figure representing” abuse, not a victim or survivor of it; she does not name Depp, nor does she specify a type of abuse. (Depp has denied ever hitting or assaulting Heard; she is countersuing him for a hundred million dollars.)
As for whether Heard has “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath,” a quick glance at Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms, where she is cast as the Medusa of Sunset Boulevard, may settle the question. The precise demographics of the pro-Depp coalition are diverse, if uncertain in their exact proportions: bots, shitposters, men’s-rights activists, women who were in middle school when “Edward Scissorhands” came out. According to Wired, the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp has surpassed ten billion views on TikTok. Parody videos of Heard’s emotional testimony are already a TikTok cliché. The conservative site the Daily Wire spent tens of thousands of dollars to promote mainly anti-Heard content on Facebook and Instagram about the trial, per a story in Vice World News. (The Daily Wire has not commented on the story.) NBC News has reported on the YouTube creators who pivoted to anti-Heard videos when they realized how much users and the algorithm liked them.
But that half-sentence in the Post—that’s the whole case. That’s fifty million dollars. Depp lost a 2020 defamation lawsuit against a British tabloid, the Sun, which was far more brazen in its language—it called Depp a “wife beater”—and, despite the United Kingdom’s strict libel laws and a reversed burden of proof, the High Court in London found the vast majority of Heard’s claims to be “substantially true.” And yet, earlier this month, the presiding judge in the Virginia case, Penney Azcarate, rejected Heard’s motion to dismiss. Azcarate cited “evidence that jurors could weigh that the statements were about the plaintiff, that the statements were published and that the statement was false, and that the defendant made the statement knowing it to be false or that the defendant made it so recklessly as to amount to willful disregard for the truth.”
The evidence that jurors must weigh varies widely in its apparent relevance to Depp’s defamation claim. Just today, the jury and viewers at home were treated to closeup views of Depp’s bloody finger stump, injured in a domestic fracas in Australia. Earlier in the trial, we saw images of the deranged, slut-shaming messages that Depp scrawled in paint or blood using the selfsame freshly injured stump. There are also Depp’s texts sent before he married Heard—in which he calls her a “worthless hooker,” jokes about how he’ll “smack the ugly cunt around,” and, at one point, shares a brainstorm with the actor Paul Bettany: “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.” There’s footage of Depp trashing a kitchen and audio recordings of him telling Heard, “Shut the fuck up. . . . Don’t fucking pretend to be authoritative with me. You don’t exist.” Depp, to review, is the plaintiff in the defamation trial, and the one whom most of social media is rooting for.
It should be acknowledged that Heard, at times, has made questionable statements about her relationship with Depp and its aftermath. Both Depp’s legal team and the #JusticeforJohnny and #AmberTurd armies on social media have focussed on flawlessly gorgeous photographs taken of Heard after alleged severe beatings and, especially, on her claim that she appeared on James Corden’s late-night talk show with “two black eyes” and a nose that she suspected was broken. On the other hand, two pieces of evidence that her detractors hold up to allege that it was Heard, in fact, who was abusive—an audio recording in which she admits to hitting him and another in which she mocks any claim he might make of being a victim of domestic violence—both sound uncannily like fragments from a DARVO scenario, in which an abuser denies what he is doing at the same time that he deflects and projects his behavior onto the person he is abusing.
You don’t have to trust Amber Heard to look at twelve words in a newspaper column and wonder why they serve as an invitation to listen to her sobbing incoherently in an ugly argument with her unmoved spouse, or to read texts in which Depp calls her a “gold digging, low level, dime a dozen, mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market.” You don’t have to like Heard to sympathize with her when one of Depp’s lawyers, Camille Vasquez, who cross-examines all of the defense witnesses in a tone of incredulous contempt, repeatedly confirms with her that she did not seek medical attention after some alleged incidents of violence; or, on redirect, when Heard’s flustered lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, is unable to formulate questions that would permit Heard to defend herself. (Vasquez has taken fearsome advantage of what appears to be Azcarate’s unusually rigid application of hearsay.) You don’t have to believe everything Heard says to be startled when a Law&Crime guest, the defense attorney Lara Yeretsian, wonders aloud, after hours of Heard’s testimony, why she stayed with her alleged abuser—a question so exhaustively asked and answered over decades of work by domestic-violence advocates that it inspired an activists’ hashtag eight years ago. “It’s a question that I’m sure a lot of people are asking today,” Yeretsian said.
The longer the trial slogs on, and the more that various third parties profit from it, the more difficult it is to fathom Depp’s motivations for instigating it. He and his supporters say he filed the suit to clear his name, but it has put more terrible behavior of his on the record than any scrubbed and ghostwritten op-ed could do. In fact, if you spend enough time inhaling the sulfurous fumes of the Depp-Heard live stream, what it starts to resemble most is a high-budget, general-admission form of revenge porn, an act in which the person with the upper hand in a relationship forces the other to be complicit in the sharing and dissemination of raw, vulnerable, literally sensational moments for the delectation of an unseen audience. One of the hallmarks of revenge porn is the way it freezes its victim in time, a plight that Heard summoned at the end of her direct examination. “I want to move on with my life,” she said. “I want to move on, I want to move on, I want Johnny to move on, too. I want him to leave me alone.” But the consequences of his legal action against her will never leave her alone. This is who she is now—the victim of an unprecedented Internet pile-on, a bruised face on an iPhone, a woman who makes people laugh when she cries.