“If she was scared to death, why didn’t she just leave?” asked Johnny Depp, everyone’s favorite bad boy-turned-Hollywood hunk, in court.
He was talking, of course, about his ex-wife Amber Heard, whom he is suing for defamation in the United States for an article she wrote for the Washington Post in 2018. During her testimony, the actress accused Depp of physical and sexual abuse.
If Depp’s phrase sounds familiar, that’s because it is: Survivors, families of victims, and advocates of domestic abuse have worked tirelessly to prevent society from using victim-blaming tropes. Instead of asking a woman why she didn’t run away from the abuse, ask the man why he 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, does not mean the abuse ends. Post-breakup 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 fans throwing roses at him, blowing kisses and holding banners of support. I stood next to him after going through security, he smiled and gave him my best dead eyes.
The judge later found that Depp physically assaulted Heard — including head-butting her, pulling out strands of her hair and holding her by the neck — and she said she feared for her life. Depp is alleged to have sent text messages to his friend, Paul Bettany, threatening to burn Heard and “F*** her corpse burned afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”
It is telling that Depp is dragging Heard into a high-profile second trial in the US, hoping for a better outcome. He is suing her for a whopping $50 million; This seems like a serious financial control to me.
Both cases in England and the United States focus on silencing Heard from speaking out about the abuse she says he inflicted on her. I see many victims of domestic abuse being sued for “defamation” for daring to speak out about what the 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 to the 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 “insane”. Too often, psychologists label victims of domestic abuse with sexist diagnoses as “histrionic and borderline personality disorders,” instead of understanding that they are experiencing trauma caused by domestic abuse. Ear is no exception.
Dr. Curry, a psychologist, suggested that Heard might have two personality disorders, while Dr. Hughes diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder. 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 commented on Heard’s mental health has stigmatized people with mental health problems, while undermining the credibility of the victims who come forward.
Heard is to be questioned by Depp’s team. I can tell you now how that will play out because I see him every day in court: “Why didn’t he say no? How drunk were you? You 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 we are taught about how abuse works. She lies; he he is a hero
So when I see hashtags trending on Twitter like “AmberHeardIsALiar,” 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 can be a perpetrator of domestic abuse, with all the fame, glory, money and power it has, it sends 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 told that even if he abused her, we should feel sympathy for him (which is inappropriate sympathy for powerful men who abuse 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.