It’s the first week of the $50 million defamation trial for Johnny Depp, who is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard over her claims that she was repeatedly assaulted and abused over the course of their relationship.
This is an ugly case with evidence of toxic, violent behavior from both parties, who met on the set of The Rum Diary in 2009 and tied the knot in 2015. It took just over a year for the relationship to fracture from constant conflict. Depp claims Heard was a violent, possessive instigator who got him blacklisted from Hollywood when she wrote a Washington Post op-ed in 2018 detailing her accusations. Heard, meanwhile, claims she feared for her life because of Depp’s alleged behavior, especially while the star was drunk and high.
But for large swaths of the manosphere, the Depp trial isn’t merely a fascinating look into the complicated nature of domestic violence and volatile relationships. Instead, many observers who are obsessed with the loss of “men’s rights” and blame feminism for worsening their lives are portraying Depp’s fight as an existential moment for men as a whole. In their eyes, Depp isn’t merely a target of assumptions and false narratives — he is the vanguard in the war against women who hate men and pretend to be victims.
In that way, Depp is being weaponized by the manosphere, most notably by “men’s rights activists,” in order to paint a picture of how American society chooses to “believe women” even when they’re liars. His trial fits neatly into a tapestry of claims that men are under attack, woven alongside clumsy narratives about false rape accusations and mothers lying to block children from their fathers. No wonder there’s an energized web of right-wing YouTubers, influencers and social media posters who are following the trial live, leveraging the drama for clout while proselytizing on the injustice of mass misandry in the post-#MeToo age.
It’s perfect for anyone who creates content around conservative talking points like Hollywood elitism, “cancel culture” or the harms of feminism and “wokeness.” That includes content creators like Minnesota lawyer Nick Rekieta, who is streaming the trial to his nearly 350k subscribers on YouTube while providing live commentary and insights on Twitter.
He’s joined by such like-minded thinkers as “ThatUmbrellaGuy” (whose YouTube account, for perspective, highlights a video of how Jordan Peterson “WRECKS MARVEL” with his intellectual might) and “YellowFlash,” who recently posted commentary on how the Depp trial will “DESTROY the Hollywood Agenda.” Umbrella, for one, has been making repeated claims that Heard and “her simps” targeted their content with takedown notices, and championing how he and other men’s rights allies are willing to be unbiased in the face of social pressure.
This narrative of speaking truth to power by blaming Heard, cancel culture and feminism is upheld by their fans, including in the live chat for the trial. In one typical comment, a poster named Kiernoth observes that “the kind of crap Johnny put up with from an abusive mother and an abusive ex wife was set up because of the disproportional (sic) focus on female ‘suffering.’” They add, “Look up Men’s Rights movements.”
Other entities, including the U.K.-based “father’s rights” group Fathers 4 Justice, have latched onto the Depp trial in order to prove their point about the alleged systemic ignorance of male suffering in all kinds of venues, not just divorce court. Their newest campaign depicts a dead-eyed Heard standing for a mugshot, holding an edited image of the words “THIS IS WHAT A DOMESTIC ABUSER LOOKS LIKE.”
“Break the silence. End the stigma,” the tagline urges.
This rhetoric has been building for years on mainstream sites like Reddit but also incel and MRA hubs like the forums Poal.co and Incels.is. One thread on Reddit from 2019 claims that “the Johnny Depp case speaks for thousands and thousands of those who actually ended up in prison for having done nothing but be part of a sexist legal system controlled by feminists” — a claim that doesn’t hold water when you consider the trends happening inside prisons nor the fact that the criminal justice system is controlled by a disproportionate number of old white men. Another thread from the subreddit r/MensRights claims that “media bias” always turns society against innocent men, many of whom lack the resources to fight back.
There is little doubt that Johnny Depp himself was victimized in his relationship, and fights, with Heard. He did encounter a wave of harsh public scrutiny after her claims in the Washington Post, even if she didn’t name him in that piece. And he did disappear from Hollywood for some time in the aftermath, although it’s nigh-impossible to prove whether he was really “blacklisted.”
In the broader picture, it’s also true that domestic violence does impact men, who often will not report being assaulted due to personal shame and fear that people will belittle or discredit their experience because of their gender. But treating Depp’s case as a smoking gun that modern society hates men isn’t good for nuance, or even rooted in objective consideration of gendered violence. It’s just the next overture in a performative show about male suffering — and the manosphere has proven incredibly adept at using these overtures to build up a conspiratorial ideology about the world around us.
In that way, the Depp and Heard trial fits neatly alongside moral panics about father’s rights or bizarre fights about “ladies’ night” promotions, all of which is used to argue that society is irreversibly biased. It is the siren song compelling a vanguard of obsessive men to fight on the front lines, rebuking every privilege they have as men and blaming everyone else for being brainwashed. It is the same philosophy that leads young people to believe that inceldom is an inherently positive, revolutionary force in the face of Stacys and Chads corrupting the natural balance of things.
Amid this tapestry, the anger and joy swallowing the defense of Depp is predictable, if volatile. Some aggrieved men just need something righteous to believe in — and they’ve chosen the actor’s trial as a fork in the road for the future.