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The Humiliation of Amber Heard Is Both Modern and Medieval

There was a moment in a Virginia courtroom this month when the actress Amber Heard paused mid-sniffle on the stand. She was testifying about abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her movie star ex-husband, Johnny Depp, when she wiped her nose with a tissue — then seemed to freeze as her face was illuminated by a flash, as if she were instinctively posing for a photo.

It was a split second that probably would have gone unnoticed under normal circumstances, except that nothing about this trial is normal, starting with the fact that it is being broadcast live online like a spectator sport. So whether this was a glitch in the livestream or an actual pose, or just a thing that looked to be something it wasn’t, it didn’t really matter, because the moment was isolated and freeze-framed and shared, which meant that it was internet-real.

“Had to make the fake crying seem more believable,” a commenter said on Instagram.

“So scripted,” another wrote.

“This woman should be in jail,” said another.

That seems to be the public consensus as it pertains to Ms. Heard, at least on social media — that everything she does is scripted, conniving, manipulative. Mr. Depp, meanwhile, seems to have so far successfully played the part of quirky, misunderstood romantic who is wrongfully accused.

While much of the circus surrounding the Depp-Heard trial feels entirely of this moment — a livestream that regularly draws half a million viewers, the rhetoric around “believing women,” the sheer power of Mr. Depp’s fans to shape the narrative —in many ways what we are witnessing is a story as old as time.

Whatever you think of Ms. Heard’s actions, or whether you choose to believe her, this is a good old-fashioned public pillorying — only memes have replaced the stones.

Legally speaking, the case between Ms. Heard, 36, and Mr. Depp, 58, that has been playing out in a courtroom for five weeks is a defamation case. In 2018, during the height of the #MeToo movement, Ms. Heard — then nearly two years divorced from Mr. Depp — wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in which she called herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” That article did not name Mr. Depp, but his lawyers say the implication was clear — and that their client lost lucrative acting roles, including in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Mr. Depp is seeking $50 million in damages. Ms. Heard is countersuing him for double that amount, also claiming defamation, because his lawyer called her allegations a “hoax.”

To be clear: This is not a criminal trial. Nobody faces jail time. It’s not even technically a case about domestic abuse. Legal experts say it is a relatively straightforward case about the First Amendment — in which the burden is on Mr. Depp to convince a jury that Ms. Heard was lying when she called herself a victim and that he was not abusive.

And yet in the context-free vacuum of the internet, none of that matters. Because when it comes to public opinion, we might as well be marching Amber Heard through the town square.

She has reportedly faced death threats, as has the psychologist who testified on her behalf, who emerged from court to discover that her now-deleted WebMD page had been bombarded with negative reviews. On social media, where the hashtag #JusticeforJohnnyDepp has spread with the swiftness of a Russian bot campaign — and it appears ad dollars are being spent to promote anti-Amber propaganda — spectators recreate Ms. Heard’s bruises using stage makeup, to show how easy it is to do, and mockingly re-enact her testimony describing her abuse.

The reviling of Ms. Heard has created some strange bedfellows, bringing together men’s rights activists, Depp superfans and those who simply don’t believe Ms. Heard and claim she’s hurting “real” victims of abuse — some of them self-proclaimed feminists — in the cesspool of the internet misinformation machine. Together, they’ve disseminated conspiracy theories faster than anyone can fact-check them: that Ms. Heard was snorting cocaine on the stand (not true); that she was stealing lines from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (also debunked); that she was “mimicking” Johnny Depp’s outfits (I mean … maybe, or maybe Mr. Depp was mimicking hers?); that she was borrowing from the plot of “Gone Girl” (also false).

“When is she going to boil the bunny?” a commenter in the trial’s livestream wanted to know, referencing the famous scene in “Fatal Attraction” in which a spurned lover kills her ex’s family pet.

The trope of the scorned woman who takes revenge goes back much further than “Fatal Attraction,” of course — Dido cursing the Trojans as she killed herself, Medea’s awful revenge on her unfaithful husband. And indeed, this trial could function as a case study in contrived stereotypes used to discredit women, even if you believe there is some truth behind Mr. Depp’s claims.

Ms. Heard has been portrayed as mentally unstable, hysterical, a gold digger, a temptress who brought home other paramours at all hours of the night, a freeloader who moved her friends into Mr. Depp’s many houses, an attention-seeker with an unquenchable need for drama and of course an untrustworthy liar — textbook undermining strategies, each with its own sexist implications.

And, some have asked, what about the timing of the whole thing? If Mr. Depp was so abusive to her, even before they were engaged, why didn’t she just leave? “I knew it was wrong and I knew that I had to leave him,” Ms. Heard testified in court, a response that rang familiar to anyone with even a baseline understanding of domestic abuse. “And that’s what broke my heart, because I didn’t want to leave him.”

Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University who studies gender violence, said she has been “unnerved” by the display of schadenfreude over Ms. Heard’s debasement in this public forum. “There is a glee, a kind of delight, that is being taken in watching her be humiliated,” she told me.

There’s something almost pornographic about the voyeurism involved, with a kink for every predilection: fame, beauty, drugs, extreme wealth, a private island, five penthouse apartments, fecal matter left on a marital bed, bloody messages written on walls, even an appearance by the moment’s most controversial man, the billionaire Elon Musk, whom Ms. Heard dated briefly. As “Saturday Night Live” satirized it in a sketch last week, boy is it “fun” to watch.

And, honestly, why wouldn’t it be?Whether you believe Ms. Heard or not, watching a woman excoriated in public has been popular entertainment since the Middle Ages. Somehow, Ms. Heard seems to have become a stand-in for every evil, lying woman getting her comeuppance — alpha queen bees in high school, the girl who slept with your boyfriend or girlfriend, every manipulative ex. She is Eve, she is Medusa, she is Lady Macbeth. She evokes vamps and vampires, wicked stepmothers, witches. As one Twitter user put it, she is an example of “toxic femininity” and a reason to never date younger women. Pass the popcorn.

All of this, of course, is taking place against the backdrop of the very particular cultural moment we are living through, in which a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion on abortion invokes a 17th-century British jurist, Sir Matthew Hale, who presided over actual witch trials, and some of the most prominent #MeToo cases are in various states of disarray. This month, Mario Batali, one of several prominent restaurateurs accused of sexual misconduct — and the only one to face criminal charges — was found not guilty of groping a woman in a Boston bar. The comedian Bill Cosby is out of jail on a legal loophole. There are rumors that the conviction of the film producer who set off the whole #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein, could be overturned on appeal.

All around us, it seems, there are evocations of manipulative, lying women: Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, each with dramatized retellings of their scams; “The Girl From Plainville,” about the Massachusetts teenager who encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself after, as the prosecutor in her case described it, she “got her hooks in him”; even the unreliable, drunk “trainwreck” protagonists of shows like “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window” and “The Flight Attendant.”

“We no longer have what Hester Prynne had, but we have a version of it,” said Gillian Silverman, a gender studies scholar and professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, referencing the 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” whose subject is shamed for her adultery. “And this thing of putting women on a sort of dais in order to mock them, and make them take it for quite a while, feels pretty age-old.”

One might have thought — or, at least, I might have thought — that we’d be in a more enlightened place by now. And yet despite the public reckonings of #MeToo and the recent reexaminations of pop culture figures — Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, Janet Jackson and others — there is precious little introspection over the widespread hatred of Ms. Heard.

This trial seems to have exposed some of the rhetorical weaknesses of #MeToo. “Believe women” for example — a phrase that was meant to underscore how rare it is for a woman to lie about her own abuse — had somehow morphed into “believe all women,” which left no room for the outlier. That has apparently become, as the comedian Chris Rock put it this week, “Believe all women … except Amber Heard.”

The intent of that early slogan was, in part, to encourage the public to treat women who speak up with basic dignity and respect, however messy and imperfect they or their stories may be. Yet none of that seems to have trickled down here. Perhaps one lesson from this spectacle is not about belief at all — but decency.

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