Hearing Amber Heard: The Failings of Pop Culture’s Perfect Victim

April 20, 2022
April 20, 2022 inkmagazine

Hearing Amber Heard: The Failings of Pop Culture’s Perfect Victim

By Naomi Lilac Gordon

I

The Story So Far

On Monday, April 11, 2022, dozens of fans gathered outside of the Fairfax County Circuit Court to stand in support of actor Johnny Depp. They carried protest signs and waved pirate flags to commemorate his iconic role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. One fan, Jacina, traveled all the way from Australia. When asked by reporter Victoria Bekiempis about her support for Depp, she said, “Because I believe he’s innocent, and I don’t think that men’s reputation should be able to be ruined on the say-so of one person when it’s not true. He’s suffered very bad consequences that he didn’t deserve, because I think he’s a pure soul and he deserves redemption.” This is, of course, in reference to his ex-wife, Amber Heard, and the accusations of domestic violence she’s levied against him, the validity of those claims making up the reasoning for this very trial.

Photo by @vicbekiempis on Twitter

The history, including the legal history, between both parties, has been a long and tumultuous battle. On May 26, 2016, around a year before the #MeToo movement took off, Amber Heard issued a restraining order against Johnny Depp and filed for divorce. By August 16th of that same year, the divorce agreement was met. Depp retained all properties and vehicles, and Heard received a seven million dollar settlement, which she donated to charity. In 2017, the divorce was finalized, and that seemed to be the end of it. 

In April 2018, the Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, published an article titled, “GONE POTTY: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?” The article questioned whether, given the allegations against him, JK Rowling would want him to continue his role in the second Fantastic Beasts film. And ultimately, whether he deserved the role. In June of that year, Depp sued the Sun for libel, stating that the article was malicious, and aimed to put him out of work. The trial was scheduled for March 2020, but due to complications with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was postponed until July of that year.

Going back to 2018, at the request of the ACLU, Amber Heard wrote an article for the Washington Post; an op-ed titled “Opinion: Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” In the article, the actress attempted to explain her experience as a public figure representing domestic violence. She wrote in depth about the ways that her career suffered due to her decision to speak out, all the opportunities that she’d lost, and the way that Hollywood treated her like a pariah. There was discussion as to whether she would lose her role as Queen Mera in the Aquaman and Justice League films. She also dove into how systems in society are structured to defend men who are accused by women, both of domestic and sexual violence, using enterprise ships as a very apt metaphor for powerful men. Heard’s career never recovered from this, and popular discourse treated her like an abuser, with Depp fans hailing him as the representation of male victims of abuse, a group too often disregarded in these cases. Male victims are never believed, and Johnny Depp became the face of this issue.

Photo from SkyNews

In July of 2020, the Libel case began, officially titled Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd. On one side, was Johnny Depp and his lawyers, claiming the article published about him was libel. On the other, News Group Newspapers and executive editor of the sun, as well as writer of the article in question, Dan Wootton. Depp claimed the article made false and serious claims that did damage to his career, and that he deserved compensation for it. NGN and Wootton claimed that the article was true. They claimed he had abused Amber Heard like they had claimed, both verbally and physically, injuring her on many occasions and at times causing her to worry for her life. There were fourteen different incidents of abuse that were brought to court by NGN, with Heard as a witness, and twelve of them were proven, with NGN winning the case. On November second, the judge ruled that the assaults were proven to the civil standard, and despite the damage that the article did to his reputation being provable and true, he was unable to prove that the claims were false, causing him to lose the case. Depp appealed to the court, but on the twenty-fifth, his appeal was denied. However, Depp was allowed to appeal to the Court of Appeal directly. In March of 2021, he appealed and lost. This brings us to today, with the current Depp v. Heard trial in Fairfax, Virginia. Depp is suing Heard directly now, claiming that she defamed him in her Washington Post article, while Heard’s defense remains truth.

II

Not Your Perfect Victim

Right now, Depp is suing Heard in court for defamation, saying that her article for the Washington Post had malicious intent, did serious damage to his career, and was false. Heard is suing for counter-defamation, stating that her career took serious hits due to the claims he made, and standing firm in the claim that she was telling the truth. All week long the two have been battling it out in the court, bringing forth witnesses and questioning them in front of the jury, both parties’ team of lawyers battling it out for their respective names. This is all being televised on CourtTV for the world to watch, turning this marital spat into a spectacle, just like any other form of entertainment. This time, though, the actors are not playing roles. This is their life.

This time, it’s not for a judge to decide, but a jury, and with that, comes an advantage for Depp, since his star power and his public image far outranks Heard’s. He’s a movie star in a way that she never was, and perhaps, given the struggle it is for her to obtain roles since she went public with the allegations of abuse, she never will be. On Thursday, April 14, Depp and Heard’s marital counselor was called as a witness, and she claimed that the both of them engaged in mutual abuse. She discussed both of their psychological issues, and though it didn’t paint a pretty picture of either of them, the idea that Heard has hit Depp back, or rather, at all, was seen by the world as damning evidence against her. She’s hit him, so she must be an abuser, right? If she’s admitted to it, it at least proves that she was an abuser, if not the abuser, doesn’t it? Herein lies the issue that this entire case has brought up. What public discourse requires of those who have been subjected to abuse, assault, or other forms of violence. In this case, and many others an expectation exists for these people. The expectation is not just to be a victim but to be the perfect victim.

Photo from Matt Dunham/AP

It’s a narrative trotted out in the media time and time again. Every time someone is the victim of abuse, sexual assault, or murder. Whether the violence is gender-based, race-based; an act of homophobic, transphobic, or xenophobic sentiments. The idea is that the person victimized was kind. They were loving, sweet, and altruistic. They looked after others, they wouldn’t hurt a fly, and that a force for good has been wrongfully taken from the world, or wrongfully hurt by someone that is evil. The sentiment is clear: a bad thing happened to a good person, and there is nothing worse than that. The person is given such humanity and praise in order to garner sympathy from the general public, but this narrative, at times, does more harm than good. What if the person wasn’t good? What if the person was bad? Perhaps the person didn’t care for others, was rude to most people, and lived their life in a negative way? Would that state of living, that personality, make them someone who deserved to be abused, assaulted, or even killed? Would their status as an imperfect victim make the horrible thing that happened to them justified?

While I’m glad I live in an era where the actions of rapists and abusers are being held up to public scrutiny, where the bigoted actions of those in the public eye are being called out, I think, in a lot of ways, people, especially those most in need of support, are not served by the microscope in which peoples’ actions are viewed. In the toxicity of online discourse, the line between “someone who did an unsavory thing” and “someone who doesn’t deserve to live” is becoming more and more blurred, and those most in need of support aren’t receiving it, and the damage that this can do to them can be heartbreaking. We live in an era where perfection is an expectation, especially from those who occupy marginalized bodies or marginalized spaces in society. When these people step out of the expectation of perfection, they are punished heavily for it. One such person is Amber Heard. As proven in the UK Libel case, she is indeed a victim of abuse, but in that same case, she also openly admitted to fighting back in self defense. She did what she had to do to survive because survival under abuse isn’t easy. It hardens you, and breaks you in ways you didn’t know you could be broken, and leaves you picking up the pieces for years to come.

Photo from Shawn Thew/AP

The way that the public has received Amber Heard has been less than positive, and in a lot of ways, it’s been colored by biphobia and misogyny, and hasn’t been helped by the fact that Heard isn’t a perfect victim. She’s messy, she’s complicated, and she’s made mistakes and done bad things in her life. She’s a human being, and all of the contradictions and complexities of the human condition exist within her. But this issue is bigger than her. This issue is true for all victims, most of whom will not be perfect, because that’s just not the way that people are. It’s not goodness that makes the harm done to victims wrong. It’s the fact that they’re living, breathing humans. That that level of harm is something no one deserves, regardless of how kind they were, and that needs to be the narrative. The Depp v. Heard defamation trial is still ongoing, and in the coming weeks, more and more information about the details of their relationship will be unearthed for the public to see. I don’t know who will win the trial, but I know who I believe. I believe Amber Heard, and I hope, with all of my heart, that she will find the justice that she deserves. Not because she is kind, or because she is good, but because she is human.