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Voices: Why are any of us laughing about Depp v Heard?

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I didn’t think I could be shocked by anything else relating to the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard defamation trial in the US.

After all, we’ve seen the unbearable memeification of the events in Virginia, including TikTok clips set to music; memes and bad jokes circulating on Twitter and Instagram about domestic violence. Yesterday, I watched some (clearly faked) footage circulating online of Amber Heard wiping her nose with a tissue, alongside claims she was doing something she shouldn’t in the courtroom.

I also watched a video of Depp being driven to Fairfax County Courthouse, and saw him leaning out of a back window waving at hordes of screaming fans like he was on his way to the Oscars.

What is happening? Have people gone completely bonkers? It’s a defamation trial centred on accusations of domestic abuse – not the red carpet premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean 7.

And the collective madness the general public seems to be experiencing isn’t even reserved solely for the US, where the trial is taking place, but over here in Britain, too. Just when I thought we (and I use the term loosely) couldn’t sink any lower, on Saturday night at a bar I saw Depp and Heard’s names being used as tip jars for staff in the cloakroom. Presumably, before you put your coat in, you have to take sides on whether Heard is a victim or not – one of the most unsavoury (and misogynistic) elements of the entire situation.

What’s really troubling, in addition to the evidence given in court – we’ve heard harrowing accounts of alleged sexual assault and physical violence; of jealousy and drunken rages – is the way such private horror has somehow been translated into the “acceptable” terrain of bad memes and cheap laughs.

My colleague Sunny Hundal wrote about how difficult the trial is to avoid, even if you didn’t want to know about it, due to its popularity and proliferation online – much of it designed, seemingly, to portray Depp as a “nice guy” and Heard as a “hysterical woman”. One video on YouTube was titled “Fake tears”, he noted. Another was equally dismissive: “Worst. Performance. Ever.” A third warned of “brand new lies about Johnny”.

But a lot of it is (seemingly) just for the “lols”. On YouTube, the most popular videos on the trial are about Depp making the courtroom laugh. There’s a popular Tiktok video of a woman imitating Heard by slowly contorting her expression into a big sad face and batting her eyelashes. Depp is playing the funny man, the joker, grinning in the courtroom. Heard, on the other hand, is painted as serious and uptight. Strange that, when she’s talking candidly about experiencing savage sexual and physical violence. It’s harder than you think to crack a smile about your own trauma.

Still, it’s no surprise that Depp’s supporters seem to vastly outnumber Heard’s – I could even see that reflected in the number of coins in the tip jars in central London on Saturday as the night went on.

It calls into question, I think, what we deem as “funny” or “fair game” – it’s all too easy to forget that while these are celebrities, their lives seemingly ripe for public consumption and savage dissection, they are also people. Their lives have become a circus, and it’s alarmingly grotesque.

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It’s become too easy for us to feel so remote and so distant, protected by the glow of our computer screens, that many of us seem to have forgotten one crucial thing about being human: our empathy. If you’ve ever heard a distasteful “joke” about Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, say – and this thoughtless ad on a burger van in Yorkshire is a prime example – then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s exactly the same when it comes to online trolling: rape and death threats are the everyday experience for many women on social media, and what’s the defence? “It was just a joke; can’t you take a joke?” As I wrote about the misogyny directed at Angela Rayner recently, women may laugh – but it doesn’t mean it’s funny.

The Depp v Heard trial is now paused for a week or so, and will resume on 16 May; but this intense interest, this atmosphere – reminiscent of a gladiatorial arena – shows no sign of abating any time soon. The crowds are baying for blood, and they better make it entertaining.

I think we all need to look closely at ourselves and decide if what we’re laughing at is really that amusing. My guess is that it says a hell of a lot more about us than it does about those we’re mocking in the first place.

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