Content warning: This article describes sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and assault, which may be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers.
On June 1, Johnny Depp was awarded $15 million in damages following a highly publicized defamation trial with his ex–wife Amber Heard over a 2018 Washington Post op–ed in which she claimed to be a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” The 2022 civil defamation trial ensued when Depp filed for $50 million in damages on the grounds of three alleged counts of defamation while Heard filed a counterclaim for $100 million in damages. Despite Heard’s recent victory (she was awarded $2 million for one of three statements in which Depp’s lawyer referred to a visit from law enforcement to the couple's house as an "ambush, a hoax" orchestrated by Heard), the trial was a definitive win for the Pirates of the Caribbean actor. However, in the court of public opinion, Heard lost long before the jury reached a verdict.
Legal experts will tell you that the burden of proof fell on Johnny Depp, but one look at social media will tell you it didn’t. For weeks, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube have become saturated with Depp v. Heard memes with the vast majority in favor of the former. The love for him is palpable and the disdain for her is unabashed. But despite what you’ll see on social media, Depp is no hero. Even if many seem to believe that Depp wasn’t the primary aggressor, we’ve put him on a pedestal he doesn’t deserve.
Throughout the trial, content creators flocked to sponge off the trend of mocking Heard’s testimony. From Dr. Evil to #AmberTurd to the “My Dog Stepped on a Bee” meme to comedy skits mocking her legal team’s performance, her viral ridicule was impossible to escape. Suddenly, internet–goers were true crime experts and body language analysts, speculating on how a victim should behave. On TikTok, videos tagged #JusticeForJohnnyDepp amassed over 20 billion views, while #IStandWithAmberHeard has amassed only 30 million. The idea of Heard as a liar permeated the public sphere long before inconsistencies arose in her testimony.
Online, Depp’s odd behaviors were written off as courtroom quirks. On the other hand, Heard’s every move was dissected and disparaged—indisputable proof that furthered the narrative depicting her as manipulative, cruel, and emotionally unstable. His stardom won over Twitter before Heard had the chance to take the stand, and when she did, her every move worked to dismantle her case. If she cried, she was fake and hysterical; if she didn’t, she was cold and distant. Regardless of whether or not her claims were false, the fight was never fair.
When Heard’s disturbing, graphic accusations of sexual violence such as a “cavity search” for cocaine and being penetrated with a liquor bottle were scoffed at by social media users, I was stunned—it’s one thing to be skeptical, but it’s another to openly mock abuse allegations. Her visible bruises in photos, text messages from friends and employees, and even Depp’s demeaning, aggressive comments and destructive rampages should’ve been given their due diligence. Heard wasn’t somebody the public began to gradually doubt when Depp’s legal team waved red flags—she was the target of a coordinated witch hunt on social media seeking to poke holes in her story. Unlike Depp, she wasn't given sympathy or the benefit of the doubt.
But Heard had evidence working against her, too. An audio recording reveals her goading Depp to “tell the world” that he’s a victim of domestic violence, and it was found that she has yet to donate the entirety of her divorce settlement promised to the American Civil Liberties Union and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles—neither of which reflect well. Yet, Depp’s vile text messages to WandaVision actor Paul Bettany (in which he said he would “fuck her burnt corpse” after drowning and burning her “to make sure she’s dead”) were brushed aside by many as an unfortunate error in judgment. Neither conforms to the myth of the perfect victim, but we’re considerably more inclined to excuse one’s toxicity over the other’s.
In her 2018 op–ed, Heard wrote that she had “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out”—today, that's true. Domestic violence allegations should be investigated, but that means taking these accusations seriously, and Heard’s have been met with global humiliation. To make a spectacle of Depp v. Heard is a dangerous precedent. Admittedly, there were multiple issues with Heard’s case that left her credibility in tatters (the audio clips, her charity pledge, and Kate Moss). The problem isn’t so much that she was found liable, it’s that we considered her liable from the start.
When Depp lost his U.K. libel case in 2020, there was no barrage of Heard supporters declaring that justice had been served or that Depp was the tried–and–true villain of the story, despite the fact that the judge had found 12 of 14 of his alleged incidents of abuse to be “substantially true.” When the verdict was decided mostly Depp, legions of his fans claimed that justice was miscarried. From the onset, we’ve cast Depp as the lovable scoundrel, the misunderstood, yet charming rogue, and assigned Heard as the villain. If respecting due process is the goal, the least we can do is to rid ourselves of prior conceptions of both Depp and Heard—it’s difficult to look at the discourse surrounding the case and say that we are doing so.
After all, Depp never really went on trial. In the court of public opinion, it was always Heard.