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Voices: The unbearable memeification of the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial

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It’s a messed-up world out there. We’re all aware of course, but every once in a while we receive a reminder of the messed-upness of things so spectacular it cannot be shrugged off. A recent example is the memeification of the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial.

It is, perhaps, an indictment on how firmly I’ve failed to hold my finger on the pulse of digital culture, but I didn’t see it coming. When I read up on the case before the trial started, even when I first traveled to the Fairfax County Courthouse to witness the proceedings, I didn’t think it would come to this. Call it naïveté, but I didn’t think one of the most high-profile domestic violence trials of our era would be chronicled by way of TikTok videos, cut up into soundbites and layered with songs. I didn’t think people would laugh about any of it.

Spend about ten minutes on TikTok (or Youtube, or Instagram, or Twitter) and you’ll see how wrong I was. Visit YouTube for a casual browse today and the algorithm just might — as it did with me — serve you up a video with a title centering on Heard’s allegedly “EPIC” reaction to part of Depp’s testimony. On Twitter, a clip of Depp cracking up while a witness is asked about whether or not he saw the actor’s genitals on a particular occasion – a video clip complete with cutesy music and flippant captioning, of course — circulates. A nauseating meme suggesting that Heard is playing the “victim card” is also making the rounds.

And then there’s TikTok. TikTok is where the fan culture part of the trial has sprouted in earnest. There, you’ll find a mix of relatively basic fan content (such as a video of Depp arriving at court and hugging his lawyers, set to Tom Odell’s sentimental tune “Another Love”), reaction clips to various moments of the trial, and… other stuff. Some videos are so meta that describing them requires a comprehensive unpacking of celebrity culture in 2022 – like a clip of a fan reacting to one of Heard’s lawyers by lip-syncing to an audio clip telling him to keep Depp’s name “out of your f***** mouth”, itself a reference to the infamous slap directed by Will Smith at Chris Rock during the Oscars in March this year.

TikTok has promoted some truly bizarre theories about the trial, with a lot of people semi-joking-but-also-kind-of-suggesting that one of Heard’s lawyers might secretly be a Depp fan. Some of the videos in this category are darker: Depp’s supporters are prone to analyzing every minute detail of Heard’s behavior and interpreting it in the most negative way possible. In the universe of Depp v Heard meme content, Heard has come under fire for taking notes “frantically” (a sign she’s “panicking”, one social media user assured), or for putting on glasses to look at evidence when she previously didn’t wear them to look at something else.

To top it all off, there’s been the plainly stupid stuff, like a post that purported to show “the moment Heard realized she was going to prison”. This is a civil trial. No one is going to prison. Depp and Heard have each asked for damages (so, money), and Heard has also asked for immunity against Depp’s claims. That’s what’s at stake here. This is not a criminal case, and it’s useless — and deliberately misleading — to discuss it as if it were.

This is a defamation trial stemming from serious allegations of domestic abuse on both sides. Some people may believe Depp should prevail, and others may believe Heard should. I have followed the testimony for more than three weeks now, and there have been incredibly heavy moments (as well as moments when I wished Judge Penney Azcarate would hold people to a higher standard of behavior, like when some of Depp’s supporters booed Heard as she left court). The picture painted has been that of an incredibly toxic marriage. More than once, I have found the evidence and the testimony difficult to hear.

If anything, this online mess has made me grateful that social media wasn’t around during the infamous criminal trials of our times. Can you imagine the state of things if we’d had access to Twitter or TikTok when Ted Bundy, during his televised trial in 1979, married himself to his girlfriend while questioning her as a witness on the stand?

The process through which we digest other people’s torment and cough it back up in the form of memes is a complete void of empathy. This is a trial, not the Super Bowl or the Met Gala. A lot of people have a lot of big feelings about the issues being discussed between Heard and Depp: that much is clear. But the current state of affairs leaves a lot to be desired.

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