Depp vs Heard: in the court of public opinion

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Is Johnny Depp a hero or a villain? Is Amber Heard a vamp with a Cruella laugh who loves assault and lies? On the internet, you have to choose; there are only absolutes. There are no flawed individuals here. No excuses, only judgement. On June 1st, 2020, the seven-person civil jury ruled that both Depp and Heard were guilty of defamation; Heard more so than Depp. However, the court of public opinion had already decided to vilify Heard and deify Depp. Here are some of the reactions to the infamous trial.

Same action, different meanings

During the court proceedings, Depp and Heard would do identical/similar things, and people would interpret their actions differently. When Johnny Depp laughed, it was the joy of someone who had nothing to hide. When Amber Heard rolled her eyes, it was the eye-roll of someone who enjoyed recounting how she had abused her spouse. This kind of narrative had people using facial expressions and gestures as evidence of innocence and guilt in an entirely arbitrary manner. Every witty quip he made was eloquent; her teary testimonies were performances. 

The public viewed even the witnesses for each camp differently. On the one hand, Kate Moss, who testified on behalf of Depp, was cool and regal. ‘Iconic’, ‘sensitive’, and ‘unpretentious’ were some of the adjectives that viewers used to describe her. On the other hand, Ellen Barkin, who testified against him, was ‘a bitter old hag who couldn’t get over him’. The comments section under the video for the latter’s testimony shows the wrath of public opinion, not just against someone they consider subpar to Depp, but against a woman who has visibly aged. Everyone who has anything negative to say about Depp is obviously holding a grudge, netizens concurred.

The internet has no nuance

Most netizens’ remarks seemed as though Depp was entirely innocent, though according to the court ruling, he was not. However, he was praised for taking more responsibility for his actions than Heard, whose reckless statements were reportedly inconsistent. Social media subsequently mocked her–trolls staged comic re-enactments that showed the ambiguity and confusion in parts of Heard’s testimony. The trial was televised because of the media’s multiple demands to Judge Penney Azcarate. Azcarate chose to oblige them with live streaming to curb any possibility of court interruptions and biased reportage. Still, the personal circumstances of this case turned it into a madcap circus. 

Anyone who has attempted to formulate an informed opinion on this topic knows how difficult it is to do so on social media platforms lacking nuance and bipartisanship. Viewers were euphoric each time Depp’s legal team proved their mettle in a cross-examination, just as they booed every time Heard’s lawyers fumbled. The arguments were irrelevant as the public lapped up the sensationalism! A bloodthirsty herd mentality (if you’ll forgive the poor pun) compelled them to rage against Heard, just as they had created an outcry against Depp about four years ago. As everyone’s newsfeed supplied them with more to support what they already believed, the story seemed to have only one side.

The unacknowledged misogyny

Consider all the rambling and ruthless discussions on social media. Now ask yourself this: have we excused (and maybe even fueled) obvious misogyny just to ride a trending wave? An entire faction of women-haters has risen in the wake of this trial to demonise women-empowering movements. This faction intimidates female victims from reporting their abuse. It has also impulsively tagged Depp’s female supporters as ‘unbiased’ and ‘smart’. Why? Because they supposedly have the sense to cast aside the emotional tug of womenkind and instead uphold ‘justice’. A closer look reveals that this praise is more for their abandonment of a sisterhood than for their ‘upright’ choices. Clearly, patriarchy has not yet thrown in the towel; even in 2022. It’s disheartening to see the court of public opinion using one overly publicised trial (that found a woman allegedly making false claims) to invalidate the fight for gender equality.

The public is guilty too

Perhaps the public feels guilty about having jumped to conclusions about Depp. However, it is probably the transference of this guilt that subjects Heard to such wrath. We’ve all listened to Heard mocking Depp, asking him to try and convince the world that ‘I, Johnny Depp, a man, I too am a victim of domestic abuse.’ While this speaks to their relationship’s volatile and toxic nature, it also shows how men are just as trapped as women within this system. The only way out is truth and understanding, which is hard to come by in a culture where people must fall into clear-cut categories. A loving husband cannot also be jealous or angry; a woman displaying violent behaviour can never be a victim. If a crack is detected, the person must be banished from civilisation, ‘cancelled,’ wrong in every aspect of their life. 

While the public now praises Dior for standing by Depp, they seem to have a short memory. Not too long ago, they were on the opposite side of this, disparaging J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. for previously choosing to retain Depp. It all goes to show that witch-hunters must always have a scapegoat. When proven wrong, they must proclaim ardent support for those they had formerly wronged, by simply finding a different scapegoat. Thus ensues a Ponzi scheme model of trial by the masses. 

Have we opened the wrong doors?

It is time individuals took responsibility for where they stand in this tempestuous culture. This trial should make us question why we take particular stands and whether the online mob entirely dictates our opinions. We should also acknowledge that this case may set a dangerous precedent that allows powerful abusers to silence their victims under the threat of a libel suit. Irrespective of the nature of the case, we might soon find that more public figures will now take to court to win redemption in the eyes of the public. Only time and our newsfeeds will tell. 

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