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Amber Heard Was Never Enough of a Victim

Johnny Depp loyalists promote a dangerously oversimplified understanding of domestic abuse

A year ago, I wrote about the guys who spend their time caping for allegedly abusive male celebrities on social media. Each was in ironclad denial about the possibility that their favorite musician or actor might be capable of such behavior. While casting lesser-known women as untrustworthy, opportunistic snakes, they had unbridled confidence in famous men they had never met, and in their absolutist takes on intimate relationships to which they had no access. They often struggled to prove that someone was innocent, or had reckoned with their wrongdoing, but it didn’t matter, as they operated from a principle of pure invention: The women always lied, and whatever narrative justified further worship of the man was the basic truth.

Because, let’s face it: the thing that counts most to the fans of an alleged abuser like Johnny Depp — accused by ex-wife Amber Heard of physical violence and explicitly threatening to kill her — is whether he keeps his career in movies. They know him as a star, a fixture in the Hollywood firmament, and that is the Depp they want to keep. Any threat to that status is automatically discredited. So when they got audio evidence suggesting Heard was also violent toward her husband, they quickly began to agitate in favor of his resurgence with the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp. 

The audio clips are indeed disturbing, as is the reality of a marriage where it becomes necessary for the couple to consensually record their arguments. But Heard admitting that she hit Depp doesn’t falsify her terrifying accounts of his destructive malice, laid out in a 300-page legal filing last year, replete with “photos of herself with bruises on her face, scars on her arms and hair allegedly torn from her head,” as well as “screenshots of dozens of text messages describing these incidents at the time.” That document, by the way, only came in response to Depp’s $50 million defamation suit against her. Furthermore, Heard’s original divorce deposition had already established that she’d punched Depp at least once — to protect her sister, Whitney, who had tried to insert herself between the pair as Depp purportedly rampaged through their home. “He was about to push my sister down the stairs,” Heard says in the transcript.  

The new information, then, doesn’t materially change our impression of the toxic partnership in which Depp and Heard were once embroiled, unless to the extent you feel it demonstrates that Heard would “start” physical fights. The perfect victim is a myth, and Depp’s loyalists have accordingly smeared her as a manipulative psycho from the jump; their latest burst of outrage is, in so many ways, more of the old party line. This reflexive condemnation of Heard’s alleged violence despite the circumstance is something additionally enshrined in our hierarchy of state justice. As one law scholar puts it: “The battered woman who fights back simply is not a victim in the eyes of many in the legal system.”   

It’s meanwhile deeply suspect how those willing to adopt a dismissive opinion on reports of their idol’s open belligerence (certainly not limited to the domestic sphere) would instantly accept a brief and heated dialogue as confirmation that his spouse was the lone aggressor in their hostile dynamic. It’s telling, too, that they view #JusticeForJohnnyDepp as nothing less than the ruination of Amber Heard — a petition to fire her from the Aquaman sequel has more than 100,000 signatures, and its text commits to the usual absurdities of logic. “Heard recounts fabricated incidents of Johnny Depp hitting her in the face when she had, in fact, punched him,” it states, as if people have never simultaneously beaten each other in a struggle, or Heard’s version is rendered illegitimate by virtue of the source.

The deranged amateur sleuthing the Depp Army has performed since his split from Heard — including attempts to debunk the photos of her injuries — has been in the service of a foregone conclusion: that the man can do no wrong, fell prey to an evil bitch and deserves to keep making millions. Their unwillingness to engage with complications of abuse that isn’t entirely one-sided speaks to their disingenuous use of this issue as a weapon against a survivor, and their interest in the particularities of this awful and high-profile marriage go only as far as scoring points in some proxy battle of Hollywood reputation that the actual film industry will continue to largely ignore.

For all the angst over Depp’s supposed pariah status, he’s still a lead in a multibillion-dollar Harry Potter franchise, with both the director and J.K. Rowling singing his praises. Heard donated her $7 million in divorce settlement money to charity, whereas Depp complained in 2018 that the rumor he spent $30,000 per month on wine was an insult, the true expenditure being “far more.” Throughout this saga, he has retained power and influence that Heard is unlikely to ever enjoy — more than 20 years her senior, living at the top rung of stardom since before she was born, and allegedly vindictive enough to pull some strings in an effort to get her fired from a major role. Do critics of “cancel culture” want to weigh in on that? 

Of course not. They’ll go on acting like it’s Heard who has control over what Depp does, or that she can somehow enforce his theoretical exile from a business where he has done plenty to alienate peers and colleagues by himself. Wherever she’s shown to have succumbed to her worst impulses in a bitterly antagonistic marriage, they will embrace the dopamine rush of confirmation bias and look straight past the statement she and Depp jointly issued at the finalization of divorce. It read, in part: “Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain” — the parties essentially agreeing on the facts as presented, among them that Depp had screamed at and beaten Heard while one of his security guards pleaded with him to stop, that he’d pelted her in the face with a cell phone in a fit of anger, that he smashed bottles and glasses, that his temper was so dangerous and wild that she feared for her life when he exploded. In the end, she had sufficient cause to obtain a restraining order against him. 

What Heard has confessed to is a measure of complicity in this pattern of violence and recrimination — a far cry from sole responsibility. But for the Depp zealots, there is no difference, and she must be punished in order to raise up their fallen king. Except that’s not really how this works. The most damning thing about the #JusticeForJohnnyDepp crowd is their belief that harm done to a man’s name is more egregious than harm he has dealt another person, so much so that it erases his crimes. They imagine, likewise, that the mantle of this victimhood entitles him to the level of success he finds most familiar.

Strange, then, to see how they’ve dragged Heard through the mud over the years. After all, they insist on not jumping to conclusions. It’s important to have a skeptical approach to any story, resisting the reckless accusation. Until you decide someone’s résumé hasn’t earned them the benefit of the doubt.