As a defamation trial between actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife actor Amber Heard continues in Fairfax, Va., the headline-making case is raising awareness of domestic violence, as the two accuse one another of abuse. It’s too soon to tell where the trial will fit in the history of the subject, but experts who study domestic violence say the lawsuit has the potential to help shape the national and global conversation about abuse—just as a number of high-profile incidents have done before.
The modern history of that evolution begins with O.J. Simpson. Though he was acquitted in the 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson, Simpson’s trial—during which details about the violence she suffered were presented by prosecutors—is seen as “a watershed moment for the understanding of domestic violence,” says Danielle Slakoff, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Sacramento State University who studies media portrayals of criminal justice. Domestic violence had long been seen as a private matter, about which both abusers and sufferers kept largely quiet; the nationally televised trial exploded that wall of silence, asking viewers to consider the consequences of violent behavior within a relationship.
“There was such a lack of understanding about domestic violence before the case, and now it is much more common that people understand what domestic violence is,” Slakoff says.
The increase in awareness led to tangible policy change: President Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) into law on Sept. 13, 1994.
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“You can draw a direct link between the O.J. trial and the creation of the first-ever national domestic violence hotline, which was created by Violence Against Women Act fund,” says Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. “And so, suddenly, victims in communities had a place to go—they had a phone number to call, they had some resources to consult. [The trial also] led to a lot of smaller media organizations and newspapers, for the first time ever, reporting on domestic violence and reporting on domestic violence in their communities.”
A few weeks after Nicole Simpson was murdered, TIME ran a cover story on the subject, headlined “When Violence Hits Home.” The magazine described the influx of calls to domestic violence shelters:
Many high-profile cases of domestic violence, however, are not handled in a courtroom. “The vast and overwhelming majority of domestic violence cases do not go to trial, don’t go into the public view,” says Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. “There’s very limited public understanding of the issues in domestic violence, and therefore there’s all kinds of bad information circulating constantly about domestic violence.”
One celebrity case of dating violence that did not go to trial, but still generated conversation, was the night in February 2009 when Chris Brown punched then girlfriend Rihanna in the face in the back of a Lamborghini. That June, Brown pleaded guilty to one count of felony assault on Rihanna, and accepted a plea agreement for community service and five years probation.
The incident raised awareness about how young, unmarried people are at risk for intimate partner violence, leading to conversations about safety at younger ages.
“The Rihanna case really did shift the national conversation about dating violence,” says Emily Rothman, professor at Boston University who researches intimate partner violence and sexual assault. “The whole issue of people being in dating relationships and potentially experiencing physical abuse and severe violence—that really came to the fore because of that case. [The case] started a whole national dialogue about dating abuse that wasn’t there before… When this event happened, and it was so public, it got educators talking, it got parents talking and got young people talking about dating violence. It was really a pivotal event.”
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Social media has also provided a whole new platform for talking about celebrity cases of domestic violence. That became apparent in 2014 when video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Rice punching his then financée Janay Palmer in the face in an elevator. In 2015, a judge dropped the domestic violence charges against Rice after he paid a $125 fine and completed anger management training.
“His actions were captured on film, and that shifts everything because so many cases—whether it’s domestic abuse or sexual assault—are essentially ‘he said-she said,’” says Kjerstin Gruys, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada in Reno.
“The Ray Rice incident started a national conversation about why women (or survivors of any gender) would stay in a relationship even after experiencing physical violence,” Rothman says. “There was tremendous public interest in domestic violence because of it. People really wanted to talk about how to feel about survivors of domestic violence who made the choice to remain in relationships with the people who hurt them. Because of the incident, we got one of our first hashtags about domestic violence: #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft.”
Each of these cases marked an opportunity for outside observers to expand their previous assumptions about domestic violence, and spikes in awareness also tend to translate to greater support for the organizations out there that support victims. But experts on domestic violence say that, while the celebrity cases can start new dialogue, sustaining the interest in the cause can be challenging.
“Ray Rice, Chris Brown, [after] all of those high profile cases, we’ve definitely seen an increase in calls and donations. But, to be very clear, it is very short lived—maybe a month,” says Ruth Glenn, President of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I just wish that there was a way that when these high celebrity cases happen, we could find a way to continue that conversation.”
As for the Depp-Heard trial, how long the interest is sustained after the verdict (expected some time after closing arguments begin on May 27) isn’t the only thing advocates wonder about. While celebrity cases have often provided a salutary opportunity for consciousness-raising, the tenor of the conversation about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard—with Depp’s fans staking out the courthouse before sunrise, often in costume, some with alpacas in tow—suggests that perhaps not all awareness-raising is necessarily beneficial.
“The case has just not been a good case. And by that, I mean, we have not seen donations,” says Glenn. “I think the public discourse has gotten in this weird trajectory of being an entertainment show.”
“Both parties have had things revealed about them that are far from complimentary,” echoes Gruys. “We’re in the middle of the mudslinging. Somebody’s going to walk away cleaner than the other. We just don’t know who.”
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