Depp v Heard: Underlying the Nuances of Domestic Violence
Domestic Violence Featured USA

Depp v Heard: Underlying the Nuances of Domestic Violence

The recent verdict in the defamation trial, Depp v Heard, highlighted the nuances of domestic violence and was, from gavel to gavel, a singularly baffling, unedifying and depressive spectacle.

Background to the Domestic Violence Case – Depp v Heard

Johnny Depp prevailed in his three counts of defamation against his ex-wife, Amber Heard, on June 1st 2022. Depp sued Heard for $50 million for implying he abused her in the 2018 Washington Post op-ed. The world was anticipating the final verdict in Depp v Heard, which underlined the nuances of domestic violence and abusive relationships.

Heard did not name Depp directly in the article but wrote that she was “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp claimed her allegations impacted his career and ability to appear in future films. Heard pursued a $100 million counterclaim.

The trial consisted of graphic testimonies highlighting Depp and Heard’s horrifically abusive relationship. The trial was televised worldwide for seven weeks.

A Fairfax County Circuit jury, after 13 hours of deliberations, found that Heard defamed Depp on all three counts and awarded him $10 million in compensatory damages. Additionally, Depp received $5 million in punitive damages. However, because punitive damages were automatically reduced to $350,000 – the legal limit according to Virginia law – Depp’s actual damages amounted to $10.35 million.

Moreover, the jury decided that Depp defamed Heard on one of three counts in her countersuit through his lawyer Adam Waldman. Thus, Heard received $2 million in compensatory damages.

The Cultural Phenomenon of Depp v Heard Underlying the Nuances of Domestic Violence

Depp v Heard turned into a cultural phenomenon underlying the nuances of domestic violence. This case brought up emotional experiences for many viewers who have been subject to abusive relationships. It is personal for many people worldwide, and this sensitive topic should be treated with respect and dignity. The conduct of the trial highlighted the difficulty victims face when speaking up about their abuse. The case had both positive and negative consequences for abuse victims.

The case highlighted that men are also victims of physical and emotional violence within a relationship. Following Depp coming forward and admitting he was a victim of domestic abuse in his relationship, this inspired other men online to admit they were subject to similar abuse.

However, viewers’ hostile reaction towards Heard highlighted the difficulty women could potentially face when speaking about their abuse.

The trial re-establishes the need to create the “perfect victim” within an abusive relationship. It creates a false expectation that a woman or any other victim of abuse seeking justice must be likeable and without any fault in the relationship. This case exemplifies how abusive relationships are not always black and white, and the “perfect victim” does not always exist.

Why Depp Won His Libel Case in the US but Lost in the UK?

The Depp v Heard verdict contradicts a similar case taken by Depp, where he sued the Sun tabloid newspaper for calling him a “wife-beater”. Libel law has traditionally been more favourable to plaintiffs in the UK, even creating “libel tourism” allegations. “Libel tourism” is pursuing a case in the UK in preference to other jurisdictions, such as the US, which provide more extensive defences for those accused of making derogatory statements. Depp won his case in the US due to the difference in laws between the two countries. In the US, the burden of proof lies on the person filing the defamation claim, but it lies with the defendant in the UK, making it far more complex.

Heard testified in the UK case against Depp on several occasions. The judge held that the allegations made against Depp were accurate. Moreover, Depp appealed the decision but lost. In contrast to the British case, a jury decided the outcome of the US trial.

The Toxic Culture Surrounding Media

A critical difference between Depp’s case in the UK and his case in the US is the media uproar online and outside the courtroom. Millions tuned to the live-streamed Depp v Heard trial. Millions dissected the testimony through social media platforms. While the UK case prompted outsize media coverage, the US trial took this to an entirely different level.

According to data from NewsWhip, social media interactions about the trial have trumped all other topics in the past month.

Social media interactions in Depp v Heard domestic abuse trial trump all other topics this month.
Caption: Image obtained from NewsWhip. Social media interactions in the Depp v Heard domestic abuse trial trump all other topics this month.

The “Saturday Night Live” show faces significant criticism for its insensitive parody of the trial. Many viewers felt it was unfair to make jokes about serious topics like domestic and sexual abuse while litigation proceedings were still ongoing. It felt as though the media had already judged Heard long before the court had made any legal decision.

The Media’s Need To Create A Hero-Villan Dynamic

The trial played out on social media, where Depp fans dominated most coverage. There were social media generated hashtags to support Depp and many hashtags highly criticizing Heard. The trial was treated merely as a piece of celebrity entertainment and not as a domestic violence case.

Heard’s accusations immediately appeared unfounded as social media trial footage was edited, mocking her throughout her testimonies. The #JusticeforJohnnyDepp received more than 19 billion views on TikTok. Concurrently, an estimated 69 million videos tagged #JusticeforAmberHeard. Social media posts needed to create a compelling hero-villain dynamic at the expense of many genuine victims of domestic abuse.

It was clear that Depp v Heard served as a cultural battleground in the politically divided US. Following the verdict, the Republicans tweeted a GIF of Depp on their official account as Captain Jack Sparrow, standing triumphantly on his ship in support of the trial verdict. However, this is not a Marvel movie; this is a real and influential precedent-setting case regarding abusive behaviour. A profoundly abusive relationship is portrayed in simple black and white thinking. The media creates an illusive scenario where one individual rises as the hero and the other as the villain.

Caption: House Judiciary GOP tweeted following the verdict announcement in the Depp v Heard trial.

The evidence emerging from the trial underscores how Depp and Heard have both perpetrated wrongdoing against each other. Commentators have tried to use the case to evangelize their long-held misogynistic beliefs. However, Depp is not entirely innocent despite the overwhelming support he has received through social media. The case’s complexity underlines how neither party rises victorious, given the abusive behaviour highlighted throughout the trial.

The Aftermath of Depp v Heard & Moving Forward

Depp v Heard is a mirror of our overly toxic culture. We must not forget that domestic abuse can happen to men and women.

Abuse victims are commonly silenced, dehumanized and, in the most extreme cases, murdered by their abusers. Legal proceedings related to domestic abuse should respect both parties’ right to privacy.

Depp v Heard highlights how we should re-consider televising victims’ private lives to viewers worldwide during court proceedings. Censoring personal details in domestic abuse cases prevents personal information from spreading online and creating public entertainment. This would create a safer environment for future victims to come forward and speak about their abuse.

Shockingly, male intimate partners are responsible for 50% of female homicides in the US. However, female intimate partners are responsible for 5% of male homicides. Although statistics related to domestic abuse fall overwhelmingly on women, this does not undermine instances where men suffer as victims.

Depp v Heard represents a cultural phenomenon highlighting the horrors of domestic abuse. This case will serve as a landmark precedent for encouraging both men and women to come forward and talk in the future. In contrast, Depp v heard has the possibility of silencing abuse victims due to the negative backlash this high profile trial attracted.

Laura Shorten
Laura Shorten is an Irish human rights consultant and researcher based in the Netherlands. Laura qualified with an International Bachelor of Social Sciences degree from University College Dublin. She majored in politics, international relations and social policy. Laura graduated from Technological University Dublin with a Postgraduate Diploma in Law. In 2021, she graduated with an Advanced LL.M in International Children’s Rights at Leiden University. Laura specializes in international law, children’s human rights, political science, international relations, middle eastern studies, refugee/migration law, gender studies, strategic litigation and global diplomacy. Laura has published various articles pertaining to international law and human rights violations occuring worldwide. Laura defended her Advanced Master’s Thesis entitled “An Analysis of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Legal Framework in Protecting Children’s Right to Health and Right to Life in the Face of Climate Change”. This thesis is published on the Leiden University website under the Advanced Master of Law Theses for children's rights. Laura has previously worked for UNICEF Ireland, campaigning for children worldwide who are facing discrimination and living in war zones.

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