Amber Heard, Johnny Depp, and the Myth of the Perfect Victim

VAdvocates for victims hoped that five years ago, #MeToo would be a landmark in the development of a culture with broader understandings about harassment and assault. Domestic abuse in particular is complicated and difficult. Fearing repercussions, the victim will often stay with their perpetrator. Sometimes, the victim will fight back. And victims can be flawed: They don’t need to be pure or sober to tell the truth.

Social media takes away the 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. She has clear memories of the assault. She has corroborating evidence—but not too much evidence because that would indicate she’s vindictive and planned to speak out. She is reluctant to come forward when asked. When the abuse occurs, she stops speaking with her abusive partner. 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 is not real.

Continue reading: Depp v. Heard Reminds We That The Legal System is Still Stacked Against Survivors

Johnny Depp accused Amber Heard, his ex-wife, of defaming her husband by publishing a 2018 article Washington Post op-ed in which she called herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” without ever naming her abuser. TikTok users have made the comparison of Heard with a perfect victim since she began her trial in April. The public, and possibly the jury as well, were bombarded for weeks with video of Heard testifying to her abuse by her ex-husband. These videos were edited and memed to portray Heard as a drunken, deceitful, and harlot. They accuse her of using fake evidence to show bruises and persuading people to lie over the years. (There’s no evidence to support these claims.) They called her Amber Turd, mocking the #MePoo movement. TikTok has a trending audio clip of her crying on the stands.

“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.”

Experts in legal law did not predict that Depp would win the defamation case against his ex-wife. Post op-ed that she “spoke up about sexual abuse—and faced our culture’s wrath” but never named her alleged abuser. Depp already lost another defamation lawsuit against the tabloid The SunIn 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. Despite weeks of Heard being vilified on social media, Depp’s verdict seemed certain. Confusingly, the jury also found that Depp’s lawyer defamed Heard when he called her account of abuse “a hoax.”

Deborah Tuerkheimer (author of The Credible: How We Protect Abusers and Doubt the Accusers, 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”

Even if the case involves famous actors, it is rare for domestic abuse cases to be broadcast on television. It’s also unusual that a jury would not be instructed to sequester in such a case. (The jury included five men and two ladies. Research shows that men accept more rape myths than women and assign higher degrees of blame to victims. Depp’s supporters took full advantage of the ability to screen grab, meme, and manipulate images.

Heard was attacked on multiple fronts by social media. She was blamed for failing to leave Depp following the initial alleged assault. However, studies have shown that many victims of intimate partner abuse stay together out of fear and love. “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 said that he fought back emotionally and physically under the influence of powerful men, defying the expectations of meek women.

Continue reading: 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 initially arrested but the charges were 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. This van Ree case is one example of many that have been cut from the trial footage. “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.

The attack on Heard’s conduct at the witness stand was particularly brutalized by social media. “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.”

Many of the viral TikTok videos pointed out that every lip quivering and sigh was an actorly trick. “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 Depp-Heard trial was different. The Depp-Heard women that testified in New York against Weinstein were not involved in long-term relationships with the 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.”

Continue reading: TIME Person Of The Year 2017: Silence Breakers

Depp appears to be surrounded by more passionate fans than any other celebrity who has been charged with harassment or assault. His Pirates of the CaribbeanThe most successful movies ever made are still films that have been financially profitable. 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, MinamataThird in the Twitter poll was… “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’s erratic behaviour and use of alcohol and drugs has been regarded as an issue on sets for a while. Heard it said that Depp did a lot of abuse while she was under the influence. Studio insiders called him “radioactive” in a 2020 Hollywood ReporterHis public implosion is described in this story. 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.

Yet, TikTok’s main message seemed to suggest that Depp had no right in talking about his wife like this. 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. Women are already trepidatious about speaking out regarding allegations of abuse after the Heard/Depp trial.

Celebrities and rich women shared their stories about harassment and assault using the #MeToo hashtag in 2017. This helped to inspire others to speak up: It can happen to anybody. 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 though women feel more comfortable talking out about their experiences, misperceptions regarding victims and the way they should behave can have an impact on how cases are judged. They could also affect whether a case ever gets to see the courtroom. “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 the closest witnesses to assault are often under attack. 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. Experts say that suing defamation for abuse has been the preferred method for those who wish to avoid being punished. “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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