Opinion | The Depp v Heard defamation trial is sucking us all into the gaping jaws of a cultural abyss
——And it's the most extraordinary form of entertainment ever to exist.
Let's start with the grotesque pleasures of watching this hideous species of zoo-like fascination.
Visually speaking, the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard trial is like that mind-altering sequence in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The bit where the astronaut gets hurled into an unidentified globule of flashing lights and color propelling us all on a journey through time and space. Kick back with a six-pack and float down the supersensory highway of the Star Gate sequence from 2001 — a vortex of two highly flawed individuals slicing themselves open and parading all the decaying flesh within as their relationship pus seeps out from our screens into our precious little heads.
That's what this trial feels like. The whole thing is just high levels of whoa. So you think you're jealous of being a movie star? Think again. Want to know what they're like behind the scenes? Watch the trial. Watch them bleed. Think money and fame bring happiness? No.
The split in gender perspectives has been militant. That's because a lot is riding on this trial culturally. First of all, this hellish vortex has opened up the normalization of domestic abuse as something akin to mockability, as if the past half-decade of #metoo never existed. On the other hand, the trial has also cracked open the other side of the debate — men are also abused and taken advantage of and should have their own #metoo too.
As salacious details of Depp-Heard's noxious 14-month marriage have come to light, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp and #IStandWithAmberHeard hashtags have sprouted everywhere. Well, which one are you? Team Johnny or Team Amber? There are tip jars in stores with those labels, and people are dropping hard-earned cash to show support for one of the exes. The Depp jars are constantly fuller. But then there are the scores of memes and reaction videos to clips of the trial that make light of all the graphic details of physical violence, coercive control, and even sexual assault as if reviewing Netflix's new terrible reality love show.
Team #JFJD views Depp as a largely blameless passive bystander. An alcoholic and drug indulgent fiend, yes. But a beloved, humble, righteous man also. After Amber, Johnny's world started to crumble. He lost his money, status, and reputation as one of the highest-paid actors in the world. His mother died days before Amber strategically filed a temporary restraining order (TRO). According to his testimony and all the audio clips we've heard so far, he suffered substantial physical abuse at the hands of his ex-wife, including a severed finger, multiple facial injuries, chronic mental anguish, and now permanent reputational damage. All of this after Heard's highly implied domestic violence allegations against him in an op-ed for the Washington Post in 2018. In Depp's own words, it was the heartbreaking moment that he 'lost nothing less than everything.'
Thus far, the trial has not been kind to Amber Heard. From the evidence on offer, she is fast becoming Hollywood Villain No.1, doing herself no favors by coming across as a manipulative, gaslighting witch on the numerous audio recordings, most of which she orchestrated as future proof against Depp but backfiring spectacularly against her at trial. The construction of Heard in the court of public opinion is that now she is a gold-digging narcissist who was intent on ruining Depp from day one, securing millions from a non-prenup the moment he said, "I do."
That's not to say Amber Heard isn't worthy of defense. We will never know what happened between them. However, she isn't going over well. In contrast, Depp's testimony seemed highly credible. Sure, he's an actor—arguably one of the best character actors of the modern era. But he spoke with that thousand-yard stare of relived memories and nightmares that all rolled into one, made his perspective closer to a truth we will never know.
On the other hand, Heard is, I'm not sure where to begin. She's angrily rigid, crying dry tears, and constantly looking at the jury for approving believability. Her testimony was hamfisted and riddled with bizarre retellings that focused on the most innocuous details (a sign of fabrication) — dirty carpet, breath on windows, etc. She even quoted lines verbatim from films to help frame her narrative just like a Hollywood script.
Depp seemed to tell it as he felt it; Heard blustered amplifications of semi truths that, if authentic, would never be recalled in the way she remembered them. She seems to be hiding something in some capacity.
Was this all a manipulative play that went way too far against someone who had the resources for a rebuttal? Or is this yet more evidence of Hollywood power dynamics against women?
Depp is quite possibly oblivious to the cultural vortex surrounding his star-time gravitational pull. Perhaps he will never see the memes making light of Heard's heinous sexual violence allegations. Still, genuine sufferers will see them and feel they have lost power through voice.
Maybe he will remain unaware that his trial also gives voice to male sufferers of gaslighting and domestic abuse, exposing a justice system traditionally slanted against men, willing to believe everything a woman says in the first instance with the burden of proof of innocence on the man. Depp's case is televised and high profile. Many family law cases are never seen, but the systemic biases remain.
"A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on," goes a famous adage.
Regardless of the truth, the opportunity to make money from other people's suffering has never been more apparent than in Depp v Heard. YouTube algorithm gods have been quick to promote Depp/Heard content, notching skyrocketing view counts. Channels have grown, and individuals have become influential, hopping on this kaleidoscopic vortex of a cultural bandwagon.
Court is in recess until tomorrow, May 16, when Heard likely faces immediate cross-examination.
Will you be tuning in?
I know I will.