When Johnny Depp won the defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard, dozens of women were waiting outside the Fairfax court in Virginia to congratulate him. Last Wednesday, a jury ordered Heard to pay Depp $10 million in damages for defaming him in an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which she described herself as a victim of domestic violence. Depp was also ordered to pay Heard $2 million for a comment his lawyer made about her in The Daily Mail, which accused the actress of faking a scene to incriminate her then-husband. But notably, two other statements that accused the Aquaman star of making “fake” and “hoax” accusations of abuse were not found to be defamatory.
The verdict has reopened old wounds and made new ones in the fight against gender violence. Five years ago the #MeToo movement gave voice to thousands of women who had been the victims of sexual abuse, but there are concerns that these advances have been set back by the six-week defamation trial. Experts warn that the spectacle of the trial, which saw Heard mocked and ridiculed on social media, will discourage women from coming forward and reporting sexual abuse.
“Domestic violence and sexual abuse are already crimes that are underreported, and now, with this precedent, there is going to be more silence,” warns Diana Ortiz, the director of Doorways, a non-for-profit that offers support and shelter to victims of gender violence.
“The fear among the feminist movement is that women will stop denouncing after seeing how Heard was publicly exposed on social media,” agrees Teresa Valdés, a researcher from Chile’s Gender and Equality Observatory.
Heard herself warned of this outcome after the verdict was announced. “It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated,” she said in a statement posted on Twitter.
But not everyone is convinced it is a blow to the #MeToo movement. “This is the same legal system that y’all have been relying on for justice and accountability for decades to no avail. When you get the verdict you want, ‘the movement works,’ – when you don’t, it’s dead,” said Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement, in a message on Twitter. “The movement is very much ALIVE.”
The official site of the movement also made a similar argument. “The way in which #MeToo has been co-opted and manipulated during the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial is a toxic catastrophe and one of the biggest defamations of the movement we have ever seen,” it stated in a press release. “What we experienced in the Depp-Heard trial was a public retelling of intimate partner violence between two privileged white celebrities. And the accounts are as equally harrowing as the public humiliation and harassment thwarted against Heard. It is a case study for how social and political movements get misused and weaponized against the very people it’s meant to serve.”
These comments, however, have not calmed concerns that the verdict is a blow for women’s rights, more generally. “We are at a moment that is trying to take back women’s rights, and I see a contradiction: society is becoming more aware about violence, but many institutions look the other way. The judiciary is the most conservative institution on women’s rights,” explains Montserrat Boix, a Spanish consultant on gender and communication. She says the trial was “a very well-designed campaign to defend Depp,” and that the public perception of the case was influenced by the media.
Feminist sociologist Mar Venegas also thinks that social media played an important role. “Not long ago I was sent a meme. It was an image of Johnny Depp and it said: ‘The first time a man was right in a fight with a woman,’” she recalls. “I think there is a clear rejection of progress, of feminism, of the fact that sexual violence has become an important issue, and this is happening especially among young people.”
Heard’s lawyer Elaine Bredehoft, agreed with this point in an interview with NBC, claiming that the social media frenzy over the trial affected the jurors’ opinion.
“They went home every night. They have families. The families are on social media. We had a 10-day break in the middle because of the judicial conference. There’s no way they couldn’t have been influenced by it,” she said on Thursday following the verdict.
Bredehoft spoke out about the fact that the trial was allowed to be broadcast on the grounds that it was not a criminal case. “It’s like the Roman Colosseum, you know? How they viewed this whole case. I was against cameras in the courtroom and I went on record with that and argued against it because of the sensitive nature of this. But it made it a zoo,” she said.
Bredehoft was also upset that the legal team was not allowed to present evidence which was included at the UK defamation trial, which Depp lost.
“The court found there – and we weren’t allowed to tell the jury this – that Mr Depp had committed at least 12 acts of domestic violence, including sexual violence, against Amber. So what did Depp’s team learn from this? Demonize Amber and suppress the evidence,” she said.
Following the ruling, Depp released a statement on Instagram celebrating the jury’s decision. “I also hope that the position will now return to innocent until proven guilty, both within the courts and in the media,” he stated in the post, which has been liked by more than 18.9 million people, including celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Naomi Campbell, Bella Hadid, Juliette Lewis, Zoe Saldaña, Paris Hilton, Sophie Turner, Ashley Benson and Shannen Doherty. Even Jason Momoa, Heard’s costar in Aquaman, liked the post.
It is yet to be seen how the verdict will affect women’s rights and the effort to combat gender violence. Coincidentally, a day after the Heard vs Depp verdict was announced, a New York appeals court upheld the sentence against Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who was sentenced in 2020 to 23 years in prison for sexual assault and rape.