“If she was scared to death, why didn’t she just leave?” everyone’s favorite bad boy-turned-Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp asked in court.
He was talking, of course, about his ex-wife Amber Heard, whom he is suing for defamation in the US for an article she wrote for the Washington Post in 2018. During her testimony, the actress accused Depp of physical abuse and sexual abuse.
If Depp’s phrase sounds familiar, that’s because it is: Survivors, families of victims, and advocates against domestic abuse have worked tirelessly to prevent society from using language that blames the victims. Instead of asking a woman why she didn’t run away from abuse, ask a man why she abused her in the first place. That would be a good place to start.
Escaping from an abusive relationship is one of the most dangerous times for victims. Just because the relationship ends, doesn’t mean the abuse ends. Post-separation coercive and controlling behavior is one of the most insidious and corrosive forms of abuse I have seen.
Depp lost his libel suit at the High Court in London in 2020. He was greeted by adoring fans, throwing roses at him, blowing kisses and holding banners of support. I stood next to him after going through security, he smiled at me and I returned the coldest of my expressions.
The judge later found that Depp physically assaulted Heard — including head-butting her, pulling out clumps of her hair and holding her by the neck — and she said she feared for her life. Depp is alleged to have texted her friend Paul Bettany threatening to burn Heard and “then f*ck her burned corpse to make sure she’s dead.”
It is telling that Depp is dragging Heard into a high-profile second trial in the US, in the hope of a better outcome. He is suing her for a staggering $50 million; this sounds to me like a serious financial control.
Both cases, in England and the United States, focus on silencing Heard from talking about the mistreatment she says he inflicted on her. I see many victims of family abuse being sued for “defamation” for daring to speak out about what their perpetrator did to them.
The world sits in judgment, questioning whether Heard is a “real victim.” Does he look like a victim? Does she talk like a victim? Does he cry like a victim?
Where are the headlines asking if Depp is a perpetrator, judging him in every move you make? There are no special measures in court: Depp sits there smiling, while Heard relives the abuse and trauma.
Depp’s lawyer is used as a pawn, a weapon to re-victimize her for the entertainment of the world. The court has become a tool for a perpetrator to continue to abuse and control her. What message does that send to victims? Victims without money, fame, photos of injuries, and text messages threatening to harm them? How do you think they will be treated by the justice system?
The court is asked to classify Heard as “abnormal”, “mentally ill” and “crazy”. Too often, psychologists label victims of family abuse with sexist diagnoses such as “histrionic and borderline personality disorders,” instead of understanding that they are experiencing trauma caused by family abuse. Heard is no exception.
Dr. Curry, a psychologist, suggested that Heard might have two personality disorders, while Dr. Hughes diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress. But why isn’t Depp pathologized? Where is her mental health diagnosis?
After all, this is a man who explained his abusive behavior by calling himself “the monster.” Every headline that has dealt with Heard’s mental health has stigmatized people with mental health problems, while undermining the credibility of the victims who speak out.
Heard will be questioned by Depp’s team next week. I can tell you now how that will play out because I see it every day in court: “Why didn’t she say no? How drunk were you? She provoked it. You were abusive. It’s your fault.”
These questions blame the victim and make the perpetrator invisible. It is a tactic that continues to be very effective and persuasive, because it plays with all the myths that teach us about how abuse works. She lies; he is a hero.
So when I see hashtags trending on Twitter as “AmberHeardIsALiar” [ Amber Heard es una mentirosa”], I realize how deeply ingrained misogyny is in our society. No matter there is a High Court decision showing that Depp assaulted Heard, it wouldn’t matter if the world saw 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 some point. if even the You can be the perpetrator of family abuse, with all the fame, glory, money and power you have, it sends a strong message to men that anyone can be a perpetrator of violence. Anyone can fall from grace, even you.
But it also says something more sinister: that our society doesn’t care about family abuse. “So what if he slapped her? She deserved it”. Depp has said it was “mutual abuse.” We are subtly told that even if he mistreated her, we should feel “sympathy” for him (which is inappropriate sympathy for powerful men who mistreat women).
These men, we are taught, must not be ruined by transgressions towards women, because women are not worth it. Our patriarchal society upholds this and uses Depp to continue to empathize with perpetrators and admonish victims.
We saw it with Weinstein, Spacey, Louis CK, and Brett Kavanaugh, just to name a few. Depp is not the first man to win public support despite evidence that he beats his wife, and he won’t be the last.
Dr. Charlotte Proudman is a lawyer specializing in violence against women and girls and a junior research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge.
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Opinion: Why do people blindly support Johnny Depp? I’ll tell you why