Why the Internet Sided With Johnny Depp

Why the Internet Sided With Johnny Depp

Why the Internet Sided With Johnny Depp

In a he said/she said scenario, we tend to believe him, regardless of our own gender.


She’s begging for total global humiliation. She’s gonna get it… I have no mercy, no fear, and not an ounce of emotion or what I once thought was love for this gold digging, low level, dime a dozen, mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market… I’m so fucking happy she wants to fight this out!!! She will hit the wall hard!!!”

Johnny Depp texted this to his agent in August 2016 about his then-wife, Amber Heard. Now, it seems his wishes have come true. Last week, a jury awarded Depp $15 million in his defamation suit over a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, where Heard identified herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” (The judge reduced the amount to $10.35 million, because of the state of Virginia’s cap on punitive damages.) On social media, people have overwhelmingly sided with Depp. Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok remain filled with misogynistic hatred, contempt, and disgust toward this woman.

This is just what happens when a woman accuses a rich and powerful white man of sexual and domestic violence. Such a woman must be a perfect victim—or maybe simply perfect—to avoid becoming the target of a smear campaign against her on the Internet.

The legal travails between Depp and Heard began in 2018, when Depp sued The Sun for libel in the UK. The British tabloid called him a “wife beater” after Heard initiated divorce proceedings and obtained a restraining order against him in May 2016. The judge, Andrew Nicol, ruled that “the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard” of being more likely than not to be “substantially true.” It is striking—and telling—that Depp lost the libel suit in the UK, where the burden of proof is on the defendant to show they haven’t committed libel, rather than on the complainant to prove their accusations.

The details of the alleged incidents are harrowing. According to the 2020 ruling, Depp was first violent toward Heard early in 2013, when he began to drink and take drugs after a period of sobriety. He allegedly responded to a misunderstanding by slapping her repeatedly across the face, eventually knocking her to the ground. Heard says that Depp cried after doing so and told her that he sometimes snapped into a character he called “the monster.” He promised it would never happen again. It allegedly happened again in March 2013 when Depp became jealous that Heard had hung a painting by her former partner. Depp allegedly tried to set the painting on fire and hit Heard so hard that blood from her lip ended up on the wall. She also says that he grabbed her, shook her, and shoved her into the wall. Depp referred to it afterward via text message as a “disco bloodbath” and a “hideous moment.” He texted a friend in June that year: “Let’s burn Amber!!!… Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”

Other allegations ruled to be “substantially true” include Depp’s throwing things at Heard, smashing things around her, ripping her dress, kicking her in the back, ripping out chunks of her hair, spitting at her, head-butting her, punching her, shoving her, and strangling her. In perhaps the most horrifying of these purported incidents, Heard alleges that in Australia in early in 2015, Depp grabbed her by the neck, mocked her, and touched her breasts before strangling her and banging her head against a countertop. Depp had allegedly thrown glass bottles at Heard earlier, so there was broken glass underfoot and on the countertop, leading to her sustaining lacerations. (In the US trial, further gruesome allegations emerged; Heard said Depp sexually assaulted her using a liquor bottle.) Heard testified she was scared for her life and that she managed to escape and barricade herself in a bedroom. Depp sustained an injury himself that evening, cutting off the tip of his finger. Heard said she believes this happened when he allegedly smashed a plastic telephone against a wall repeatedly.

If you read most people’s social media feeds, Heard abused Depp more than the reverse. The evidence for this theory is flimsy. Depp’s defense rested on the idea that Heard’s allegations were part of an elaborate hoax to bolster her career and get his money in the event of their eventual divorce. (The jury also awarded Heard $2 million last week in her countersuit for defamation over Depp’s former lawyer’s claim that she and her friends roughed up her apartment to make it look worse for the police.) But given that rather few women have gotten a career boost from accusing a powerful man of violence and that Heard would had to have started planning this before they were even married, Depp’s account strains credulity.

As does the idea that Heard was looking for a payday, since (a) the money she received in the divorce settlement was not contingent on her abuse claims, and (b) she pledged to donate the $7 million she was awarded to charity. (A great many of the accusations against her from the online popcorn gallery hinge on the unsurprising fact that she was making her donations to the ACLU in installments, and paused the payments when Depp sued her in the US, tying up her money; she did this with full transparency, as the ACLU has testified.)

Like all conspiracy theories, there is a high evidentiary bar for claims of this kind, and in my view, Depp has not met it. Heard, on the other hand, supplied significant corroboration: contemporaneous witnesses, photos of her injuries, and records of relevant communications.

No one, including me, is claiming that Heard behaved perfectly throughout this ordeal. As their relationship devolved, she allegedly yelled and threw things at Depp. She shoved and struck him—in defense of herself and others, in her account. She also ridiculed him when he spoke of coming forward about this later. But she does not have to be a paragon of virtue for the purpose of either the court case or to recognize the dynamics that I believe are most likely in play here: A powerful, rich white man abuses his female partner for years, and when she finally fights back, he weaponizes the legal system to punish, silence, and smear her as the real monster.

We saw a similar dynamic play out when Donald Trump allegedly raped his ex-wife, Ivana, pulling out chunks of her hair and then violently entering her. Although Ivana described this incident to a Trump biographer, Trump’s lawyers prevailed on her to issue a statement upon the book’s release in 1993 attesting she had not meant the word “rape” “in a literal or criminal sense.” Later, in 2015, when the story resurfaced, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen threatened Daily Beast reporters that if they published it, “I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have.… So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting.… You put Mr. Trump’s name there onto it, rest assured, you will suffer the consequences.”

We saw this play out again when Andy Puzder, Trump’s initial pick for US labor secretary, faced abuse allegations from his ex-wife, Lisa Henning. She alleged that, on one occasion among others, Puzder attacked her by throwing her to the floor, hitting her in the head, shoving her against the wall, kicking her in the back, and strangling her. Henning came forward about the abuse on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1990 titled “High-Class Battered Women,” under the pseudonym “Ann,” wearing a wig and dark glasses. She spoke of her fear in doing this: “Remember, my ex-husband was a public figure—everyone knew him and knew what he was doing—and once I made that public, he vowed revenge. He said, ‘I will see you in the gutter. This will never be over. You will pay for this.’”

Lisa Henning, like Ivana Trump, has since recanted her testimony.

How do powerful men get away with this pattern of abuse and intimidation? In part, they garner what I call “himpathy”—the disproportionate and undue sympathy often extended to powerful and privileged men over their female victims in cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and even outright rape and murder. In a patriarchal and often grimly misogynistic world, we are socialized to care about men more than women, boys more than girls, and to side with the former over the latter—at least all else being equal in terms of other social factors like race, class, disability, and so on. In a he said/she said scenario, we tend to believe him, regardless of our own gender. And even if the evidence points to his hurting her—even if he admits it—we’ll often care more about the loss of his reputation than the damage to her body, her psyche, her person. Or, as Heard herself put it in her op-ed, we can “imagine a powerful man as a ship, like the Titanic. That ship is a huge enterprise. When it strikes an iceberg, there are a lot of people on board desperate to patch up holes.” This applies both to people on a man’s payroll and people so invested in his reputation that they’ll do anything to preserve it.

Powerful men also get away with abuse by depicting their female victims as bad people. A man may portray a woman as cold, callous, manipulative, uncaring, a liar, a psychopath, or a “gold digger.” Or all of the above. The abuser thereby plays into the hands of people who believe that misogyny involves hating a woman with the conscious thought that she’s a woman. This naive view misses the fact that misogyny often traffics in moralism—the sense that women who are imperfect are positively evil and that women who are not perfect victims do not deserve justice and were asking for their mistreatment. “He could have killed you,” said one viral TikTok video in support of Depp, “He had every right.” The video had over 222,000 likes before the company removed it.

One of the best ways to discredit a woman is by painting her as disgusting. Psychologically, people often confuse visceral disgust with moral disgust and so come to believe a target associated with some disgusting property is, in fact, a terrible person. Hence the (likely unintended) power of Depp’s allegation that Heard defecated on their bed to get back at him. The Internet promptly dubbed her “Amber Turd.” Depp’s story doesn’t make sense: Why would Heard do this in a bed Depp wasn’t even sleeping in at the time? And there is a more plausible explanation: One of their dogs had done this before. But this doesn’t matter to people seeking out reasons why Heard is beyond the pale. And once she is associated with something disgusting, like revenge-shitting the bed, it is that much easier to spread bullshit that she was the real abuser.

Legally, this all ought to have been irrelevant in Depp’s US lawsuit against Heard. He alleged that a few lines in the Washington Post op-ed constituted defamation, even though she did not name him or mention any specific wrongdoing. Even if Depp’s claims are true, she still didn’t defame him. She wrote that she was a public representative of domestic abuse—a fact that is indisputable. And her claim that she “faced our culture’s wrath” for having “spoken up about sexual abuse” is harder to deny than ever.

But of course this case isn’t really about what it’s supposed to be about—particularly since Judge Penney Azcarate allowed bizarre lines of questioning over, for example, how Heard secured her role in Aquaman, permitted TV cameras, and failed to sequester the jury despite the imminent social media firestorm. The trial became about what the Internet made it about: Whom do you side with? And too many on the Internet—men and women both—automatically sided with Depp. We defend powerful, privileged men; we malign their vulnerable, imperfect female victims.

Depp wrote in the same series of text messages with which I opened: “I cannot wait to have this waste of a cum guzzler out of my life!!!… I can only hope that karma kicks in and takes the gift of breath from her.”

This is what so many abusive men want—to take the words from their victims’ mouths, if not their supply of oxygen. And, in this country, when they’re a star, we let them do it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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