What Depp v. Heard tells us about Toxic Fandom

Online bullying, parasocial relationships and good old-fashioned misogyny have turned domestic abuse into a spectator sport as part of the #MeToo backlash, says Sian Norris.

It was the television event of the Christmas season. Stuffed with chocolates and leftover turkey, the nation sat down to enjoy A very British scandal, a miniseries packed with period details and perfectly applied red lipstick, detailing the Argylls’ scandalous mid-century divorce.

Between silk shirt and high-waisted pants envy, I tweeted about male lead Paul Bettany’s friendship with actor Johnny Depp, a friendship that involved exchanging text messages where they ‘joked’ about drowning and burning Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard.

The couple had only been married for 15 months when Heard left Depp and accused him of domestic abuse. The story was picked up by Sun, where Dan Wootton called Depp a “wife beater”. He filed a defamation suit, but in October 2020 Judge Nicol said the newspaper had shown that his claims against Depp were “substantially true” and found that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents of domestic abuse had occurred.

In the exchange of messages, Bettany had suggested putting Heard through a drowning test, the medieval method of determining if a woman was a witch. “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” Depp responded. “Then I’ll fuck her burned corpse to make sure she’s dead.”

“My thoughts entirely,” Bettany replied.

An average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the US The vast majority are women.

What happened next surprised even me, a veteran of Twitter pile-ons. For at least three days, I received tweet after tweet extolling Depp’s virtues and condemning Heard in the most vile and misogynistic language. My block button went into overdrive as I listened to Depp fans convinced of his innocence and victimization, of my misandrist ignorance, and of Heard’s evil.

I was told quite haughtily by numerous people that the exchange was referencing a Monty Python joke. I can’t say he’s a Python history buff, but I don’t think Cleese and Palin ever talked about raping a corpse.

My experience with Depp’s “stans” (a term derived from Eminem’s song “Stan” to denote extreme fandom) meant that I had tried not to commit to Depp and Heard’s return to the courtroom, this time in the USA with a jury. and in front of an army of television cameras. Depp had sued Heard for $50 million for defamation, regarding an op-ed she wrote about being a victim of domestic abuse. Heard countersued for $100 million.

But it didn’t really matter that I had decided not to commit. She couldn’t escape the courtroom that had turned allegations of domestic abuse into a form of grotesque entertainment for the masses. Every time I checked my Instagram or Facebook feeds, I was met with pro-Depp content… even though my private Instagram account was mostly friends, books, and classic movie clips. I wasn’t following the case, but social media made sure the case followed me.

We now to know that the daily wire, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, spent thousands of dollars promoting anti-Heard and pro-Depp messages on social media. Heard also claims that Depp orchestrated a “trolling campaignagainst her, with his promises that he would humiliate her, leading some experts to suggest that the two court cases are a form of ongoing abuse.

Bettany and Depp’s text messages were beginning to feel accurate, with the crowd eating peanuts making the scene less of a libel case and more of a witch trial.

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Toxic Fandom

The behavior of Depp’s fans during the trial demonstrates an intense and often toxic bond between the star and the people who have chosen to make him their cause.

“In the 1950s, a theory called ‘parasocial relationships’ was developed,” said Dr. Kirsty Sedgman of the University of Bristol. author times. Sedgman investigates audiences and fan culture. “The theory arose with the advent of televisions in the home, and parasocial interactions describe the intense and personal sense of connection viewers can have with celebrities.”

Such interactions help explain his fans’ identification with Depp, a man who permeated their living rooms and fantasies for more than three decades. It is the belief that he is someone they know and that he would be his friend or even his lover if they met. Women in particular seem to have a vested interest in defending and supporting him in a way that we would normally only expect from people we know ‘in real life’.

While fandom can be a positive force, creating communities and enriching culture, toxic fandom exists. That toxicity has been on display as Depp enthusiasts use misogynistic language and threats against Heard in the name of defending Depp’s fandom.

“Toxic bigotry used to be confined to the fringes,” Sedgman explained. “Subcultural disputes between niche and highly invested communities. It is now smack dab in the middle of mainstream culture, with fandom being the battleground for developing broader political conflicts.”

That political conflict is, in this case, domestic abuse and the backlash against the #MeToo movement. It is a conflict of who is made to believe, who becomes a victim and who has the power. And that is a problem.

“It’s become a refreshing moment, the reality show we’re all talking about,” explained Dr. Phoenix Andrews, who is writing a book on political bigotry. “People who previously had no interest in celebrity culture now have an opinion on this case. But this is not a reality show, this is real people in court, with people out to destroy Amber Heard as a human.”

Sian Norris


online stalking

Many of Depp’s fans are legacy fans, people who enjoyed him in his major film roles during the 1990s and 2000s. by Depp became very involved in the case, entrenched in their positions and became part of networks and communities that share the same point of view on Heard’s status as a victim or a villain.

“Because of the way the case is shared in the mainstream and local media, people make snap judgments and once they have an opinion about Depp or Heard, it’s hard to let go,” Andrews explained. “Then, if you post your point of view on social media, people who share that position will bombard you with love, and you’ll probably get hate from people who think otherwise. They find a community and can easily spiral into radicalization, which is how you end up with someone who was pro-MeToo becoming really misogynistic.”

When Depp is under attack, the community that identifies with him and is committed to defending him against Heard also feels under attack, and its members believe they have a moral duty to defend one another and, ultimately, their fan object. .

This makes the community aspect of fandom, which can be so enriching, toxic and leads to what academic Dr. Alice E Marwick calls “network bullying”. Instead of the bullying being one on one, it becomes a swarm of people pleading their cause, in this case Depp, with missionary zeal.

We now know that The Daily Wire, a conservative outlet founded by Ben Shapiro, spent thousands of dollars promoting anti-Heard and pro-Depp messages on social media.

“When you become part of a community, if someone criticizes your position it’s like they’re criticizing your country, your family, your first child,” Andrews said. “Suddenly it becomes very important to defend your position, especially in front of your new social network. And if someone sees a person who has transgressed the norms of their community and disagrees with a member of their community, it becomes a moral duty to join in and give in. People feel they have to defend the honor and legitimacy of their group, where an attack on one member is an attack on all.”

The bullying then, according to Marwick, becomes a “mechanism for enforcing social order” with a networked group escalating the bullying while fueling moral outrage at the violation of its social norms.

This is not just an issue for Depp versus Heard. It’s something we’ve seen with sports teams, sci-fi fans, political parties, and even Brexit v Remain.

But this is not a hypothetical debate. It cannot be forgotten, as people declare themselves TeamHeard or TeamDepp and use vile hashtags to proudly display their misogyny, that at the heart of this case is domestic abuse.

“What’s scary is that we’re reframing domestic abuse as entertainment,” Sedgman said. “It’s something we’re encouraged to actively invest in, like a sports match between two equally powerful opponents. But people who have studied the case would agree that the idea that the two participants have equal power doesn’t make sense. As a society, we are very bad at thinking about unequal operations of power.”

Domestic abuse is not a show or a battle of memes. It is a crime that affects 1.2 million people in England and Wales each year, that disproportionately affects women (83% of victims experiencing more than 10 incidents of abuse are women) and in which Male abusers kill at least 100 women each year.

An average of 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the US The vast majority are women.

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