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People seem to love a story where a person who we might traditionally think of as a victim is instead cast as the perpetrator. False rape accusations, female-on-male domestic violence, “anti-white discrimination”; stories like these are shared and pored over with a sense of glee that you don’t really see in the tens of thousands of cases where the roles are reversed.
One of the more famous examples of this from the past few years was the 2019 case of African American actor Jussie Smollett, who in early 2019 claimed that he had been assaulted by two masked men in an alleged hate crime.
Smollett claimed that the men had placed a rope around his neck and made reference to Donald Trump’s MAGA catchphrase, painting a clear picture of a racially-motivated attack, spurred on by a climate of intolerance encouraged by the former president.
While prominent liberal celebrities initially jumped to Smollett’s defence to condemn the supposed attack, it didn’t take long for the truth to come out: Smollett had faked the whole thing, and rather than seeking justice for the incident, would instead himself be brought to court for perpetrating a hoax.
Smollett’s case has a surprising number of parallels with that of Amber Heard, who is currently in a legal battle with ex-husband Johnny Depp over allegations of domestic abuse.
As was the case with Smollett, there was an initial groundswell of support for Heard – which was quickly replaced with fury as it emerged that she may have been equally, and perhaps even entirely, antagonistic towards Depp. And, as with Smollett, Heard’s public image has quickly transformed from being a poster girl for speaking out against male violence, to complete persona non grata among her former supporters.
The most insidious parallel between the two, however, is more to do with the way that the public discourse around their respective cases has developed. When Smollett’s hoax was revealed, it wasn’t really considered in isolation. Unlike Heard, Smollett wasn’t particularly famous for his work as an actor before the incident, so discussions quickly moved on from the specifics of his case to the wider culture of racially-motivated violence in America.
Those discussions were often predictably harmful to the cause of social justice, with many using the incident as a stick to beat over the head anybody who suggested that racial violence was an issue, or that hate crimes should be treated as categorically different from other types of assault. Trump himself even weighed in, tweeting, “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments?”
Incidents of hate crimes did rise under Trump. Of course they did. Racist, inflammatory rhetoric was his bread and butter for the entire course of his presidency. But that didn’t matter, because Smollett had already given him the high ground, and ample opportunity to paint himself as a victim and cry anti-white racism.
Comedian Patton Oswalt said it best when he responded to Trump, tweeting, "Way to go Jussie. You just handed this racist dipshit a ‘Get Out Of Race-Baiting Free’ card that he’s gonna wave around like a soiled diaper until he’s re-elected."
We’re seeing something very similar to this in Heard’s case, with many people taking real, genuine pleasure in denigrating the Aquaman star. On forums like Reddit and Facebook, serious discussion of Heard’s case often gives way to comment chains of people repeating the phrase “f**k Amber Heard” over and over, or simply using misogynistic profanity to describe her.
Right-wing talking heads like Joe Rogan broadcast to their millions of followers that Heard is “a crazy actress,” passing premature judgement in a trial that is ongoing. Sites like the Daily Wire and Breitbart rile up their base with an endless stream of articles which focus on Heard’s assumed culpability. Depending on how you found this article, you might see something similar in the comment section underneath it.
Whether or not Heard is actually deserving of people’s ire isn’t the issue. If you think Amber Heard is guilty, or if you believe she’s innocent, is ultimately irrelevant (unless you’re on the jury, in which case you probably shouldn’t be reading this).
The issue is that, as in the Smollett case, the discourse around Heard has the potential to become less about one specific actress, and more about women and domestic abuse in general. Not every criticism of Heard carries with it the subtext that women lie about the abuse they experience, but enough does so as to make that discourse potentially harmful.
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More common forms of abuse aren’t interesting to us, they’re just tragic. As unpleasant as it is to admit, cases like Heard’s and Smollett’s tend to catch fire in the public imagination because they are outliers. Unfortunately, these outliers tend to get such a high level of exposure, that it risks creating the impression that instances like them are more common than they actually are.
People with an agenda will happily latch on to them, using them as an excuse to attack people who otherwise would be considered vulnerable targets, and keeping them in their back pocket as a “gotcha” for the next time a high profile hate crime or case of abuse makes their team look bad.
Having a point of view on this case doesn’t make you a bad person, or a misogynist, or whatever. But the way it’s discussed can have a knock-on effect on our wider cultural attitudes towards the subject of domestic violence.
I’d like to believe that it won’t warp our perception of the issue, and cause us to fall into the trap of offering undue benefit of the doubt to male abusers in future high-profile cases. But I’m not optimistic.