Depp v Heard: When the Lines Between Reality and Fiction Blur

The Depp v Heard “Show”

It was practically impossible not to get sucked into the rabbit hole of what seemed to be the greatest show of all time. It had everything a viewer could ever want-unique characters, dramatic dialogue, and shocking plot twists. With its sombre courthouse setting and flurry of suits, it might have seemed like just another addition to the saturated genre viewers know as legal dramas. So, how could this show possibly compete with greats like ‘Law and Order’, ‘The Good Wife’, and ‘Suits’? The answer lies in the fact that this show wasn’t a fictional tale concocted by a team of screenwriters. There was no director behind the scenes yelling ‘action’ and ‘cut’. There were no producers pulling the strings. And, the two Hollywood stars in the vanguard of the show weren’t playing a part. Nevertheless, it did incorporate all the allure of a traditional legal drama with real-world and real-time stakes. How could anyone possibly have taken their eyes off the screen? 

The “Characters”

The star of hits like Edward Scissorhands, Pirates and the Caribbean sequels, and Fantastic Beasts, Johnny Depp has been nominated for three Oscars and been named People’s Sexiest Man Alive twice.

Amber Heard, on the other hand, has starred in films like Magic Mike XXL, The Adderall Diaries and had her major role in the DC Extended Universe franchise, playing Mera in Aquaman. Both Hollywood stars’ defamation trial has been the centre of public attention.

In 2009, Johnny Depp met Amber Heard on the set of ‘The Rum Diary’. Depp starred as Paul Kemp, a journalist who takes a job in Puerto Rico and is attracted to an engaged woman, Chenault, played by Heard. In 2011, they fell in love and started dating. Depp announced his separation from Vanessa Paradis after having his children, Lily-Rose Depp and Jake Depp. Depp and Heard were engaged in 2014 and got married in 2015. However, in 2016, Heard filed for a divorce from Depp and obtained a temporary restraining order against Depp. Later, rumours surfaced about Heard secretly dating Elon Musk in 2017 after she posted a ‘cheeky’ picture on social media.  

The “Plot”

Amber Heard accused Depp of physical abuse under the influence of alcohol and drugs, leading to facial bruises and emotional damage. But, this quickly died down when a $7 million out-of-court settlement was reached on 16th August 2016. Heard received the money but donated it to charity. According to People, Heard received the money but donated it to charity. The divorce between the two was finalised. In 2018, Heard wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post about sexual abuse and domestic abuse. In the op-ed, she wrote, “I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Depp’s name was never mentioned, but this made Johnny Depp involved in the #MeToo scandals. 

In 2019, Johnny Depp sued Heard for $50 million for defamation over the Washington Post article. The suit he filed denied that he abused her and said, Heard “is not a victim of domestic abuse, she is a perpetrator”. Depp also sued the British newspaper, The Sun which had called him a “wife-beater” in an article. He lost the libel case and was not allowed to appeal to the high court. In a statement posted to his social media account after the conclusion of the libel case, he stated that,“ I wish to let you know that I have been asked to resign by Warner Bros. from my role as Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts and I have respected and agreed to that request”.

In March 2021, Depp was once again denied permission to appeal against the high court ruling by the court of appeals in London. In January 2021, Amber Heard counter-sued Depp for $100 million. Depp and Heard’s defamation case finally went to trial in Fairfax County, Virginia in April 2022. The nearly two-month trial played out as dramatically as anyone could have imagined. Finally, it was announced that the jury found Heard guilty of defamation by Depp on three counts, which resulted in an award of $15 million for Depp, with $10 million in compensatory and another $5 million in punitive damages, per the New York Times. At the same time, the jury awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages in her countersuit.

The “Reception” 

With a total watch time of  83.9 million hours and 3.5 million peak viewers, the Depp v Heard was clearly a smashing hit among the public.

This wasn’t the first time a televised trial garnered such a wide audience. A notable example is the People v O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, where, approximately 150 million viewers deserted their offices and schools to witness the trial unfold on their TV screens. However, the buzz around the 1995 trial was mostly concentrated in the US, unlike the Depp v Heard trial which was watched or at the very least, discussed by people from all over the world. And the obvious culprit behind this, was none other than social media! 

It started with the fans, the people with posters of Johnny Depp on their bedroom walls or pictures of Amber Heard saved in their camera roll. They devoured every second of the trial and regurgitated it out for all to see on their Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube accounts. This triggered an ugly battle between the actors’ fans. And, it didn’t take long for everyone else to notice the heated debates in comment sections. To fellow victims of domestic abuse, the Depp vs Heard trial became blank canvases for them to paint their own trauma onto. The enigma of the two actors made them the ideal vessels for all the pain the victims had to shoulder. Many victims were inspired by the actors’ stories and felt compelled to share their personal experiences. 

But, why did everyone else jump on the Depp v Heard train? What could have possibly triggered people to rush back home from work or school just to catch the trial live? What could have prompted people to travel hundreds of miles just to stand outside the Fairfax County Courthouse? What could have instigated people to over-analyse every single detail of the trial, from the colour of Heard’s outfit to the smirk on Depp’s face?  

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The first reason was the hype. Even if you weren’t a fan of either of the two actors, the social media algorithms would feed you endless memes, parodies, and edits revolving around the trial. Even if you somehow managed to escape the content being shoved down your throat, FOMO eventually caught up to you. The second reason was the chance to steal a portion of Heard and Depp’s spotlight. Many social media users tried to get their five minutes of fame by capitalising on the momentum of the trial. Although some added to the conversation by highlighting the seriousness of the trial, many chose to poke fun or throw insults at the actors- with Heard being on the receiving end of a majority of these jibes- for the sake of cash grabs.

The “Reviews”

Positive

“ Tell the world, Johnny, tell them, ‘I Johnny Depp, a man, I’m a victim too of domestic violence.’ See how many people believe or side with you ”- Amber Heard to Johnny Depp in 2016

“ Yes, I am [a victim of domestic violence] ”- Johnny Depp to the world in 2022

Pots, pans, vases, candles, and remote controls; household items or dangerous weapons? Allegations by Depp’s team point to the latter, stating that Heard had thrown said items at Depp’s body and head, causing him severe harm. If these allegations are indeed true, Depp joins the approximately 13.8% of men aged 18 and older in the US who have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. Although this figure is significantly lower than that of female domestic abuse victims (24.3%), it is still staggeringly high and should be paid equal attention. 

Unfortunately, the default narrative is that the female partner is the victim whereas the male partner is the perpetrator in a heterosexual relationship. Many male victims have proclaimed that the police failed to act on their reports and that social workers did not take their accounts seriously. Male victims are also far less likely to come forward than their female counterparts, with men being two and a half times less likely to do so than women. This is usually due to gender stereotypes and social stigmas. Thus, many feel that the trial has helped highlight the disparity of attention and action given to male victims. Many also believe that having a rich and powerful A-list actor like Depp speak out on his experience will empower male survivors of domestic abuse to stand up for themselves in the future. The overwhelming support received by Depp from social media users- evidenced by the more than 21.1 billion views for #justiceforjohnnydepp on Tik Tok- could also pave the way to encourage victims to step forward and share their stories.

Negative

“I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.”- Amber Heard on Twitter after losing her case

It is obvious that Depp’s star shines brighter than Heard’s. Hence, it is not surprising that people have rallied around Depp, who is known for his devilishly good looks and acting prowess. Many have a soft spot for the eccentric yet lovable characters Depp has played and found it immensely difficult to separate the actor from the characters he has played, developing a parasocial relationship with him. Hence, they declared Depp completely innocent and went after Heard despite the existence of contrary evidence. After all, how could the beloved Mad Hatter have committed a heinous act as such? Meanwhile, Heard is relatively unknown in the acting sphere and only gained notoriety through her allegations towards Depp. 

Many social media users romanticised Depp and ignored his evident flaws while Heard was reduced to a villain despite having grounds for her case. Depp was portrayed in a favourable light by social media users, with thirst trap edits made from clips from his movies and the trial. Heard did not receive the same treatment and was the subject of countless hate comments, memes, and parodies. Although some of the criticism towards Heard is arguably justified, many took it too far, by trivialising the abuse she allegedly suffered. There were also people who took this opportunity to unleash their internalised misogyny by taking swings at feminist movements such as the Me Too movement, with #MePoo trending during the trial.

While the trial has managed to aid male abuse victims, the same cannot be said for the opposite sex. What many people fail to realise is that the slander directed towards Heard has a ripple effect on all women. Heard has become the face of all women who have suffered similar fates, which could have detrimental effects on female abuse victims. It is highly likely the public backlash received by Heard will prevent women from coming forward with their stories, due to fear of hatred and humiliation. This trial could be a step backward for women in the relentless pursuit of bringing justice to domestic violence, with some hailing it as the final blow to the Me Too movement.

The “End” (?)

“The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through; the hole is frozen over by the following morning.”- Jasper Fforde

The cameras may have stopped rolling and the audience may have left their seats for now, but unlike a fictional TV show, the effects of the Depp v Heard trial will reverberate through time. The inability of many to separate between reality and fiction has led to them being unable, or unwilling, to understand the real-world consequences of the trial and their reactions to it (and yes, we see the irony of our article). Sure, it did generate plenty of hilarious memes which provided a much-needed distraction from the current state of the world. And, it did shed some light on male abuse victims. However, the effects of the trial extend far beyond the two actors, with women arguably taking the biggest hit. It seems that the only real winner from these theatrics is Depp, who will retain his coveted status in Hollywood. On the other hand, it is highly likely that Heard’s appearance in the trial was her swan song. As for the rest of the world, only time can tell the extent of the damage that has been done. 

Written by: Isabel and Priyanka

Edited by: Poorani

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