In the middle of 2020, as the world dealt with the surreal predicament of a pandemic, an equally surreal court case unfolded in central London. For weeks, fans of Johnny Depp gathered around the forebodingly sober Royal Courts of Justice – some proudly placards adorned with his pictures, brandishing Depp tattoos or even dressing up as Captain Jack Sparrow – to offer support to the Hollywood icon as he brought a libel case against the Sun newspaper.
But, despite the celebrity stardust and the buzzy atmosphere outside the court, this was a deadly serious moment for domestic abuse survivors and campaigners watching from all over the globe. Depp was making the case that he was not – contrary to what a 2018 article in the Sun had said – a 'wife beater'. This meant that his ex-wife Amber Heard’s allegations against him had to be called into question, with the real possibility that she would be discredited and labelled a liar.
Campaigners feared that such an outcome would deter domestic abuse victims from speaking out about their experiences. After all, if even a wealthy, successful film star like Amber Heard could be labelled a liar, what chance would an ordinary person have of being believed?
Of course, things panned out very differently. Depp lost the case against the newspaper, with the judge saying 'I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard.' This vindication of Heard was hailed by campaigners. Harriet Wistrich, founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice, reacted by saying 'So many women who have tried to speak out or share their experiences are being threatened with libel actions. This is a really helpful judgment and will serve as a warning to men who think they can silence those who speak out about their abuse.'
Widespread fury among Depp’s followers has persisted throughout the whole episode, however. When news broke that he’d lost the case, fervent fans vented their rage on Twitter – '#AmberHeardisAnAbuser', 'Amber Heard You’re Gonna Pay For This' and 'I hope Amber gets f***ing hit by a bus and dies' were among the tirades that echoed in the social media arena. These were part and parcel of a long-running campaign of hate against Heard, which began when she took a restraining order out against Depp in 2016, saying she 'endured excessive emotional verbal and physical abuse from Johnny'.
Back then, even the mainstream media was openly sceptical. One outlet, TMZ, mused: 'As for why Depp and his people are calling BS ... first she never filed a police report, and she posted Instagram pics after the alleged beating and never showed any injury.' The Daily Mail tweeted a photo of Heard with the headline 'Amber Heard pictures smiling hours after Depp’s "iPhone attack’"'. Celebrities also weighed in on Depp’s side. One was his friend, the abrasive stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope, who wrote a column saying that 'Johnny Depp got used, manipulated, set up' and 'We’d watched [Heard] manipulate and f*** with him for years.'
The comments beneath Stanhope’s column were telling, in that they revealed knee-jerk, ad hominem distaste for Amber Heard as a person, regardless of what she’d actually said. 'I never liked Amber Heard from the moment I saw her. Something about her, her body language with Johnny, just raised red flags for me,' one commenter wrote.
'This girl was calling herself a bisexual and was mostly involved with women before marrying. In fact, I was surprised when she did,' another wrote. 'I believe this was a scam from the start.'
Indeed, according to US court documents, Amber Heard has alleged that much of the online hate has been part of a deliberate smear campaign to 'interfere with her reputation, career and livelihood.' The claim is that 'Mr Depp has directed both authentic and inauthentic social media accounts and 'bots’ to target Ms Heard’s Twitter account and attempt to interfere with her contracts and business.'
Regardless of how culpable Depp himself has been with regards to some of the trolling, it’s undeniable that droves of fans were determined to believe him and disbelieve her, even continuing to dub her a 'gold digger' despite the fact she promised to give away her $7 million divorce settlement from Depp to charity.
The whole saga has been a resounding reminder that, even in these apparently enlightened, post #MeToo times, deep prejudices still hold sway when it comes to domestic violence – colouring how many people think an abuser should look and sound like, and how a victim is expected to behave in order to engender our sympathy or belief. As Women’s Aid said after the end of the libel trial, every case needs to be taken seriously – 'this also applies to survivors who do not fit the image of the "perfect” victim – and regardless of the high profile of the alleged abuser.'