As soon as the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard defamation trial started, the media had a field day. The trial has now been decided and Depp won $10.35 million ($5 million in punitive damages was capped at $350,000) while Heard was also awarded $2 million thanks to defamatory comments from Depp’s lawyer. This is the result the public wanted and yet this trial was a circus from the day it began.
The trial was easy to livestream and from there the public pushed the narrative “Heard bad, Depp good” despite the fact that evidence showed that Depp also committed some heinous acts (or that he lost a similar trial in the U.K). Granted, it wasn’t to the extent Heard had made it seem, hence the outcome of the trial, but before a verdict was even given, the court of public opinion had already decided who was guilty and it was without a shadow of a doubt Amber Heard.
But this isn’t about the result of the trial. I’m not here to defend Amber Heard or Johnny Depp. This about how people consumed this case like it was reality TV. As with reality TV, you choose which “character” is your favourite and cheer them on. Turns out, the internet’s favourite character was Johnny Depp and that materialised through memes, TikToks, and the like.
Justice as Reality TV
This was a car accident that no one could keep their eyes off of. It wasn’t tragic, or even pathetic as Monica Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair. Instead, it was a “soap opera,” a reductive “scattershot consumption [that] hasn’t allowed for real comprehension.” In these situations, we become an audience that isn’t interested in objectivity but allows a distorted view of events, creating a narrative that fits our purposes.
Lewinsky has some experience in this arena given her very public controversy with President Bill Clinton back in 1998. She believes that the “blurring of public figures and private lives” is something that really turns us on.
Is that not similar for viewers of reality TV? As Caroline Framke for Variety wrote, “When people consume true life like scripted dramas, and news updates like twists in a script, it becomes all too easy for them to divorce reality from its humanity.”
It certainly didn’t help that each party’s lawyers also played up the theatrics. So much so, that Depp’s lawyer, Camille Vasquez was described by the BBC as “the trial’s breakout star.” Vasquez isn’t a lawyer whose career looks to be promising, but a “breakout star.” What is this? An episode of Law & Order?
Even some of the witnesses played their part. Remember Dr. David R. Spiegel? The weird mouth guy? While you can think what you want about his testimony, he was still bombarded by negative reviews on WebMD despite none of these people having been patients of his. It was based completely on his “role” in the Depp v Heard case.
One (now deleted) negative review on the site highlights the issue perfectly, “Dr. Spiegel needs looking into after today’s performance! He looks and sounds like he is the one who needs psychiatric help.”
Key word: performance.
Had the case not been televised publicly, it is likely that fans and defenders of each party would be making assumptions about how things are going based on what’s been drip fed to the press. But this way? The public has all the information and the public creates a narrative. What if Depp hadn’t won the case? Would Amber Heard receive even more hate than she already is? The public got what they wanted, a public takedown of Amber Heard. Is that justice? Or is Hollywood expanding into the courtroom as well?
The Possible Aftermath
Not only all that but some experts believe that this trial may have “bolstered damaging stereotypes of victimhood” according to the ABC. Let’s not forget that the similar libel case in the U.K. found that 12 of 14 of Heard’s allegations of abuse were “substantially true.”
New evidence was given and a portrait had been painted, “Heard bad, Depp good.”
This trial has highlighted a tactic that could be used by other abusers. Namely, that abusers could use the court system and litigation to retain control over their victoms. Christine Scartz, director of the family justice clinic at the University of Geogia told the ABC that she believes “it’s only a matter of time before somebody calls my office and says ‘I want to do something. I want to file this protective order or get out of this relationship, but he said he’ll do a Depp on me.’ It’s going to become shorthand for dragging someone’s name through the mud and making them relive the trauma, and just doing it in a very public way.”
It’s unlikely that this is what Depp and his team set out to intentionally do this, but the genie is out of the bottle now. If this weren’t televised, maybe fewer abusers would discover these tactics, especially seeing how effective they are.
These trials are matters for the individuals involved and nobody else, they should not be televised for our pleasure because once everyone has had their fun and moved on, the abusers have been taking notes. The effects of this case will have ramifications for the U.S. court system for some time and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more men accused of abuse retaliate with defamation trials.
Oh wait, it’s already happened. Marilyn Manson, Depp’s friend, has already accused Evan Rachel Wood of defamation. She claims that Manson raped and abused her while they were a couple. This has been denied by Manson.
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