Even before the jury returned a muddled verdict in Johnny Depp’s lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard — paradoxically ruling that Heard had defamed him as an abuser in an op-ed, but also affirming the counterclaim that Depp’s lawyer labeling her column a “hoax” had defamed her — the trial had dangerously shifted the terrain of post-#MeToo rhetoric. The fevered fanfiction that arose from courtroom footage spun the tale of a victim who was really a monster, and a gentle soul who had been unjustly condemned. In short, it offered a blueprint for how men in Depp’s compromised position can weaponize their accusers’ statements and, in front of spectators disposed to side with the more famous person, take revenge by way of humiliation and financial injury.
It won’t be the last time we see this agonizing kind of circus play out. Of particular relevance in the coming weeks are the next legal maneuvers from Brian Hugh Warner, better known as the shock-rock musician Marilyn Manson, who has been accused by many women, including one-time fiancée Evan Rachel Wood, of abuse and sexual assault. In March, a month before the Depp-Heard showdown got underway, Manson shared his own pending defamation suit — which may well echo and entrench the harmful dynamics of the bombshell case.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office opted not to pursue charges against Manson for unspecified sex crimes in 2018, when the #MeToo movement was at a fever pitch. In February 2021, however, Wood went public with her allegations: “He started grooming me when I was a teenager and horrifically abused me for years,” she wrote in a statement posted on Instagram. “I was brainwashed and manipulated into submission.” Both Manson’s label and manager dropped him soon after. Then a number of other exes came forward, claiming variously that Manson had assaulted, raped, imprisoned and threatened to kill them. By the end of the year, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had raided Manson’s home. But now their investigation is winding down, and it looks as if he’s unlikely to face any criminal counts.
Meanwhile, a judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Manson from a former assistant (who had also alleged sexual abuse, harassment, battery and assault) due to the statute of limitations, as the purported incidents dated back to 2010 and 2011. Pro-Johnny Depp social media accounts like the one above celebrated the news as if it proved Manson innocent of the misconduct described by all his accusers — at least 16 so far.
That Manson and the actor are longtime friends has encouraged Depp’s fan base to suspect Wood and the other women of fabricating their stories, just as they believe Heard to have wildly misrepresented her relationship with Depp. And in March, as Manson sued Wood along with her friend Illma Gore over a supposed “conspiracy” the women had orchestrated to tank his career, an internet movement like the one supporting Depp took shape around Manson’s case, as if on cue, deploying hashtags like #IStandWithMarilynManson and #EvanRachelWoodIsALiar. The slogans are exactly the same; it’s the names that have changed.
Depp achieving a partial victory in court, buoyed throughout by an army of zealous fans, helps to establish the precedent that Manson and other alleged abusers no doubt hope to continue: the successful leveraging of image and wealth to retaliate against accusers in headline-grabbing trials. Long term, this would create a chilling effect on survivors who wish to speak up against abusive celebrities, as they risk not only being dragged through the mud but having their bank accounts pillaged, too. Nevertheless, the political right and antifeminist forces can go on peddling the canard that victims stand to profit somehow from outing their abusers.
Heard is now the first domino. Maligned and discredited, her downfall triggers the reexamination of every #MeToo disclosure, and it offers a cheap rejoinder to the popular exhortation to “believe women.” It’s especially concerning that the Depp-Heard jury was able to decide her allegations were not false yet simultaneously find that she had “defamed” Depp by making them, as it suggests truth is subordinate to the reputational damage it may cause. Manson’s lawyers promise to push that principle to the limit, since they’re adopting the same playbook to target Wood and Gore. Winning that lawsuit in the media spotlight, with substantial cheering from the sidelines, is probably enough to make those other narratives moot.
So prepare yourself for the rehabilitation of Marilyn Manson, still more legal filings from prominent men who faced a reckoning these past few years, and, worst of all, an enthusiastic audience for courtroom scenes where survivors are forced to relive their darkest traumas. This backlash has just begun.