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“If she was scared to death, why didn’t she leave?” asked everyone’s favourite Hollywood heartthrob-turned-bad-boy Johnny Depp in court.
He was talking, of course, about his ex-wife Amber Heard, who he is suing for libel in the US over an article she wrote for the Washington Post in 2018. During her testimony, the actress has accused Depp of physical and sexual abuse.
If Depp’s phrase feels familiar, that’s because it is: survivors, families of victims and domestic abuse campaigners have worked tirelessly to stop society using such victim-blaming tropes. Instead of asking a woman why she didn’t escape abuse, ask the man why he abused her in the first place. That would be a good place to start.
Escaping an abusive relationship is one of the most dangerous times for victims. Just because the relationship ends, it doesn’t mean the abuse ends. Post-separation coercive and controlling behaviour is one of the most insidious and corrosive forms of abuse that I’ve ever seen.
Depp lost his defamation claim in the High Court in London in 2020. He was greeted with adoring fans throwing roses at him, blowing kisses and holding supportive banners. I stood next to him after we passed through security, he smiled and I gave him my best dead eyes.
The judge later found that Depp physically assaulted Heard (including headbutting her, tearing out clumps of her hair, and holding her by her neck) and she said she had feared for her life. Depp is alleged to have sent texts to his friend, Paul Bettany, threatening to burn Heard and “f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead”.
It is telling that Depp is dragging Heard through a second high-profile trial in the US, hoping for a better outcome. He is suing her for a whopping $50m – this looks to me like serious financial control.
Both cases in England and the US centre on silencing Heard from speaking about the abuse she says he inflicted on her. I see many victims of domestic abuse being sued for “defamation”, for daring to speak about what their perpetrator did to them.
The world sits in judgment, questioning whether Heard is a “real victim”. Does she look like a victim? Does she speak like a victim? Does she cry like a victim?
Where are the headlines asking if Depp is a perpetrator, judging him on every move that he makes? There are no special measures in court – Depp sits there smiling, while Heard relives abuse and trauma.
Depp’s lawyer is used as a pawn, a weapon to revictimise her for the world’s entertainment. The court has become a tool for a perpetrator to continue his abuse and control. What message does that send out to victims? Victims who don’t have money, fame, photos of injuries and texts threatening to harm them? How do they think they will be treated by the justice system?
The court is asked to pathologise Heard as being “abnormal”, “mentally ill” and “mad”. All too often, victims of domestic abuse are labelled with sexist diagnoses such as “histrionic and borderline personality disorders” by psychologists, rather than understanding that they are suffering with trauma caused by domestic abuse. Heard is no exception.
Dr Curry, a psychologist, suggested that Heard could have two personality disorders, while Dr Hughes diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. But why isn’t Depp pathologised? Where is his mental health diagnosis?
After all, this is a man who explained his abusive behaviour by calling himself “the monster”. Every headline that has commented on Heard’s mental health has stigmatised people with mental health challenges, while simultaneously undermining the credibility of victims who come forward.
Heard is due to be cross-examined by Depp’s team. I can tell you now how that will play out because I see it every day in courtrooms: “Why didn’t you say no? How drunk were you? You provoked him. You were abusive. It’s your fault.”
These questions blame the victim and render the perpetrator invisible. It’s a tactic that continues to be very effective and persuasive, because it plays on all of the myths we are taught about how abuse works. She lies; he’s a hero.
So, when I see hashtags trending on twitter like, “AmberHeardIsALiar”, I realise how deeply entrenched misogyny is in our society. It doesn’t matter that there is a High Court decision proving that Depp assaulted Heard, it wouldn’t matter if the world watched Depp physically assault Heard in public, people would still support Depp. Why is he above the law?
Is it because Depp is the definition of masculinity? Every man wanted to be him at one point. If even he can be a perpetrator of domestic abuse, with all the fame, glory, money and power that he has, it sends out a strong message to men that anyone can be a perpetrator of violence. Anyone can fall from grace – even you.
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But it also says something more sinister: that our society doesn’t care about domestic abuse. “So what, he slapped her? She deserved it.” Depp has said it was “mutual abuse”. We are subtly being told that even if he abused her, we should feel himpathy for him (which is inappropriate sympathy towards powerful men who abuse women).
These men, we are taught, shouldn’t be ruined because of transgressions towards women, because women aren’t worth it. Our patriarchal society is sustaining this and using Depp to continue the empathy towards perpetrators and the admonishment of victims.
We saw it with Weinstein, Spacey, Louis C.K. and Brett Kavanaugh, just to name a few. Depp isn’t the first man to win public support despite evidence of him being a wife-beater – and he won’t be the last.
Dr Charlotte Proudman is a barrister specialising in violence against women and girls and a junior research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge