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The Depp-Heard Trial Perpetuates the Myth of the Perfect Victim

11 minute read

Victim advocates hoped that, five years after #MeToo went viral, our culture would have developed a nuanced understanding of harassment and assault. Domestic abuse, in particular, is messy and complicated. The victim often stays with the perpetrator fearing economic, social, or physical repercussions. Sometimes the victim fights back. And victims can be flawed: They don’t need to be pure or sober to tell the truth.

But social media strips away nuance. We’re left instead with myths. One such myth is the “perfect victim.” The perfect victim is an innocent. She doesn’t drink or do drugs. As a result, she has a clear memory of her assault. She has corroborating evidence—but not too much evidence because that would indicate she’s vindictive and planned to speak out. In fact, when she comes forward, she does so reluctantly. She cuts off contact with her abuser as soon as the abuse takes place. She does no wrong—at the office, in relationships, as a mother or daughter. She’s never lied about anything, ever, in her entire life. She dresses “appropriately.” She’s ideally virginal. She’s simplistic. She does not exist.

Read More: Depp v. Heard Reminds Us That the Legal System Is Still Stacked Against Survivors

Johnny Depp accused his ex-wife Amber Heard of defaming him by publishing a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she called herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” without ever naming her abuser. Ever since the trial began in April, users on TikTok have compared Heard to this mythical perfect victim and found that she did not live up to that impossible standard. For weeks the public (and, possibly, the jury, which curiously was not sequestered) was bombarded with videos of Heard testifying about her alleged abuse at the hands of her famous ex-husband. The videos were cut and memed and paired with disinformation to paint Heard as a harlot, a drunk, a liar. They accused her of faking evidence of bruises, of persuading witnesses to lie over the course of years. (There’s no evidence to support these claims.) They called her Amber Turd and mocked the #MePoo movement. Audio of her crying on the stand trended on TikTok.

“They discredited Heard based on conduct that had nothing to do with whether she was abused or not. I had really naively thought that we were past that after #MeToo,” says Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights attorney and founder of Know Your IX, an organization fighting gender violence in schools. “Particularly among young people [on TikTok] who seem to have a more developed understanding of sexual consent.”

Legal experts did not expect Depp to win his defamation suit against his ex-wife, who wrote in the Post op-ed that she “spoke up about sexual abuse—and faced our culture’s wrath.” Depp had already lost a similar defamation suit against the tabloid The Sun in the U.K. A British court found that The Sun’s claim that Depp was a “wife beater” was “substantially true” and that Depp had physically abused Heard at least 12 different times. In both cases, her legal team presented a lot of documentation of the alleged abuse, including Depp implying he abused Heard in recordings as well as pictures of Heard’s injuries. And yet after weeks of social media picking apart Heard, the verdict in favor of Depp seemed inevitable. Confusingly, the jury also found that Depp’s lawyer defamed Heard when he called her account of abuse “a hoax.”

According to Deborah Tuerkheimer, author of Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers, the verdict was “a case study in how women who fall short of our expectations are disadvantaged in the court of public opinion and the court of law.”

How TikTok framed Heard as a “bad victim”

It is unusual for a court case dealing with domestic abuse to be televised, even one involving famous actors. It’s also unusual that a jury would not be instructed to sequester in such a case. (The jury was notably made up of five men and two women. Studies show that men are more likely to accept rape myths and attribute higher levels of blame to victims than women do.) Depp’s supporters took full advantage of the ability to screen grab, meme, and manipulate images.

Social media attacked Heard on many fronts. They blamed her for not leaving Depp after the first instance of alleged abuse. But studies show that victims of intimate partner violence often do stay in relationships out of fear or love, among other reasons. “It continues to be a real misconception for many people that the first time there’s abuse the person ends the relationship,” says Tuerkheimer. Heard admitted to fighting back, emotionally and physically, again defying expectations of the meek woman under the sway of a powerful man.

Read More: Why You’re Seeing So Many Johnny Depp Defenders on TikTok

Though not germane to the central question of this particular defamation case—did Johnny Depp abuse Amber Heard?—Depp’s fan accounts focused specifically on the idea of Heard as abuser and Depp as victim. Depp’s legal team questioned Heard about an incident in 2009 when a Seattle policeman intervened in an argument between Heard and her then-girlfriend Tasya van Ree. Heard was arrested, though charges were later dropped. Van Ree has released a statement sticking by Heard saying the incident was “misinterpreted” and that Heard was “wrongfully” accused, going on to say that the police were “misogynistic” and “homophobic” in their dealings with Heard. “It’s disheartening that Amber’s integrity and story are being questioned yet again. Amber is a brilliant, honest and beautiful woman, and I have the utmost respect for her,” she said.

But footage of Depp’s team questioning Heard about this incident were offered up on Johnny Depp fan accounts without context from van Ree. The van Ree incident is just one example of many moments clipped from the trial footage without rebuttal. “Unfortunately we have a public—online and in the media—who were seduced by the incendiary rhetoric and didn’t provide context that undermining and discrediting the other side is the ugliness that happens in trial,” says Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who specializes in sex crimes.

Social media accounts were particularly vicious when attacking how Heard behaved on the stand. “Victims are expected to represent the right amount of emotionality,” says Tuerkheimer. “Women have to thread the needle very carefully.” In her book, she calls it the “Perverse Goldilocks” scenario. “If they’re too emotional, they’re perceived as hysterical and untrustworthy and suspect. If she’s too calm and her affect is flat, that too is held against her.”

Some of the most viral videos on TikTok pointed to every lip quiver and sigh as some sort of actorly ruse. “There was so much scrutiny on how affected she was and on how she presented. If you didn’t believe her, she was ‘faking it all,'” says Tuerkheimer. “It turns out that people are not very good at judging demeanor, particularly when it comes to accusers who are alleging abuse.”

These strategies for undermining accusers aren’t particularly new. “The defense strategy in cases involving intimate partner violence or sexual assault is to always depict the other side as liars, opportunists, money hungry, jilted, delusional witch hunters, and to claim the other person is perverting #MeToo or is the real abuser,” says Goldberg. “That is always what happens.”

During Harvey Weinstein’s trial in New York, his lawyers challenged Weinstein’s victims about the fact that they kept in contact with the super-producer who controlled the future of their careers in Hollywood after they had been assaulted by him. The circumstances to the Depp-Heard trial were somewhat different: The women who testified against Weinstein in New York were not in long-term romantic relationships with their alleged abuser. But several had continued contact with him, emails that were “friendly, even flirty,” says Tuerkheimer, who carefully monitored the Weinstein case, “and during cross examination, Weinstein’s lawyers pushed on this expectation that women sever all ties.”

Still, Weinstein lost his case. At that point dozens of women had come forward with stories of assault at Weinstein’s hands. Brodsky points out that while many of Weinstein’s victims may be considered “imperfect,” there’s strength in numbers. “The flip side of that is one isn’t enough anymore.”

Read More: TIME Person of the Year 2017: Silence Breakers

Depp also seems to have more ardent fans than many other public figures who have been accused of harassment or assault. His Pirates of the Caribbean movies remain some of the most financially successful films ever. His fan base is particularly vocal and skilled at lobbying in his favor: When the Oscars asked people to vote for the “fan favorite” film of 2021, a film that Depp released with almost no media coverage, box office, or fanfare last year, Minamata, placed third in the Twitter poll. “It’s very easy to believe survivors in the abstract,” says Brodsky. “It’s a lot harder when they like the accused, when they like the movies he was in.”

Depp has long been considered a liability on sets because of reportedly erratic behavior as well as alleged use of drugs and alcohol. (Heard alleged in both the U.K. and U.S. case that Depp often abused her while under the influence.) Studio insiders called him “radioactive” in a 2020 Hollywood Reporter story on his public implosion. The story describes an actor with an “unquenchable thirst for revenge,” which is reflected in text messages about Heard introduced as evidence in court. He texted fellow actor Paul Bettany about how he fantasized about murdering his then-wife: “I will f-ck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead,” he wrote in one such message.

And yet the main sentiment on TikTok seemed to be that Depp was justified in speaking about his wife this way. A viral post with more than 222,000 likes writes over Heard’s bruised face, “He could have killed you….He had every right.”

“A lot of people just didn’t like her,” says Brodsky. “They thought that she seemed irresponsible or too wild, and that meant that in their eyes she was literally incapable of being abused—either Depp never laid a hand on her, or if he did, she deserved it.”

The ramifications of the “perfect victim” myth

Perpetuating the “perfect victim” myth will have long-term consequences. Already, women are expressing trepidation about coming forward with allegations of abuse following the Heard-Depp trial.

Famous and wealthy women sharing their stories of harassment and assault under the hashtag #MeToo in 2017 helped inspire other women to speak out: If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone. But if a prominent and privileged woman like Heard with all of her resources—including well-paid legal and PR teams—are not be believed, what hope is there for the average woman? “Beyond Amber Heard, the people who are most likely to have their credibility unfairly judged are women of color and poor women and LGBTQ women,” says Tuerkheimer.

Even if women do feel comfortable speaking out, misconceptions about who victims are and how they ought to behave can affect not only how a case is judged but whether it ever sees the inside of a courtroom at all. “This comes up all the time,” says Brodsky, “both in how judges and juries receive allegations of abuse, but also in the decision making that survivors and lawyers and prosecutors and police officers make in deciding whether to ever bring an abuse claim to court in the first place.” Prosecutors sometimes worry about victim blaming on juries and will cut a plea deal with an alleged assailant rather than taking him to trial because they worry a jury will not rule in favor of, for example, a woman who was raped while she was drunk at a party.

No woman under scrutiny can ever live up to the “perfect victim” standard. Even those who come close find themselves under fire when they testify about assault. Brodsky says the Depp-Heard case sends a clear message to accusers that they ought not speak out or else they’ll suffer public humiliation. Legal experts say suing for defamation has become the new playbook for alleged abusers looking to avoid consequences. “It’s a public education for abusers. I’ve already started hearing, ‘If you speak out, I’m going to Johnny Depp you,'” she says. “A defamation suit doesn’t have to be meritorious to work. Even before the verdict, the trial served its purpose in punishing Heard in the court of public opinion.”

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com