Before Depp-Heard Trial, Celebrities Shaped Abuse Narrative

The defamation case between Johnny Depp, actor, and Amber Heard, his ex-wife, continues in Fairfax. Va. This headline-making case raises awareness about domestic violence as they accuse each other of abuse. It’s too soon to tell where the trial will fit in the history of the subject, but experts who study domestic violence say the lawsuit has the potential to help shape the national and global conversation about abuse—just as a number of high-profile incidents have done before.

O.J. Simpson is the modern story of this evolution. Simpson. Though he was acquitted in the 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson, Simpson’s trial—during which details about the violence she suffered were presented by prosecutors—is seen as “a watershed moment for the understanding of domestic violence,” says Danielle Slakoff, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Sacramento State University who studies media portrayals of criminal justice. The issue of domestic violence has been viewed as private and kept secret by both victims and abusers for a long time. However, the national televised trial exposed that silence and challenged viewers to think about the implications of violent behavior in relationships.

“There was such a lack of understanding about domestic violence before the case, and now it is much more common that people understand what domestic violence is,” Slakoff says.

The awareness raised led to concrete policy changes. President Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act into law (VAWA), Sept. 13, 1994.

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“You can draw a direct link between the O.J. trial and the creation of the first-ever national domestic violence hotline, which was created by Violence Against Women Act fund,” says Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. “And so, suddenly, victims in communities had a place to go—they had a phone number to call, they had some resources to consult. [The trial also] led to a lot of smaller media organizations and newspapers, for the first time ever, reporting on domestic violence and reporting on domestic violence in their communities.”

A few weeks after Nicole Simpson was murdered, TIME ran a cover story on the subject, headlined “When Violence Hits Home.” The magazine described the influx of calls to domestic violence shelters:

However, many high-profile domestic violence cases aren’t handled in courtrooms. “The vast and overwhelming majority of domestic violence cases do not go to trial, don’t go into the public view,” says Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox – Why some men hurt women and how all men can help. “There’s very limited public understanding of the issues in domestic violence, and therefore there’s all kinds of bad information circulating constantly about domestic violence.”

Although the celebrity dating violence case did not reach trial, it generated discussion. In February 2009, Chris Brown punched Rihanna’s face into the Lamborghini’s back. Brown was convicted of one count in felony assault upon Rihanna and agreed to community service and five year probation.

This raised awareness of the dangers that unmarried young people face from intimate partner violence. Conversations about safety were initiated at younger ages.

“The Rihanna case really did shift the national conversation about dating violence,” says Emily Rothman, professor at Boston University who researches intimate partner violence and sexual assault. “The whole issue of people being in dating relationships and potentially experiencing physical abuse and severe violence—that really came to the fore because of that case. [The case] started a whole national dialogue about dating abuse that wasn’t there before… When this event happened, and it was so public, it got educators talking, it got parents talking and got young people talking about dating violence. It was really a pivotal event.”

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The internet has opened up a new way to talk about domestic violence cases involving celebrities. That became apparent in 2014 when video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Rice punching his then-financée Janay Palmer in the face in an elevator. After Rice paid $125 in fines and received anger management training, the judge dismissed Rice’s domestic violence charge.

“His actions were captured on film, and that shifts everything because so many cases—whether it’s domestic abuse or sexual assault—are essentially ‘he said-she said,’” says Kjerstin Gruys, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada in Reno.

“The Ray Rice incident started a national conversation about why women (or survivors of any gender) would stay in a relationship even after experiencing physical violence,” Rothman says. “There was tremendous public interest in domestic violence because of it. There was an overwhelming desire to share how people felt about victims of domestic violence, who chose not to be with their abusers. Because of the incident, we got one of our first hashtags about domestic violence: #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft.”

The cases offered outside observers an opportunity to question their preconceived notions about domestic violence. Additionally, awareness increases tend to lead to more support for victim support groups. Domestic violence experts say celebrity cases are a great way to start a dialogue but it is difficult for people to keep the interest going.

“Ray Rice, Chris Brown, [after] all of those high profile cases, we’ve definitely seen an increase in calls and donations. But, to be very clear, it is very short lived—maybe a month,” says Ruth Glenn, President of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I just wish that there was a way that when these high celebrity cases happen, we could find a way to continue that conversation.”

As for the Depp-Heard trial, how long the interest is sustained after the verdict (expected some time after closing arguments begin on May 27) isn’t the only thing advocates wonder about. While celebrity cases have often provided a salutary opportunity for consciousness-raising, the tenor of the conversation about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard—with Depp’s fans staking out the courthouse before sunrise, often in costume, some with alpacas in tow—suggests that perhaps not all awareness-raising is necessarily beneficial.

“The case has just not been a good case. And by that, I mean, we have not seen donations,” says Glenn. “I think the public discourse has gotten in this weird trajectory of being an entertainment show.”

“Both parties have had things revealed about them that are far from complimentary,” echoes Gruys. “We’re in the middle of the mudslinging. Somebody’s going to walk away cleaner than the other. We just don’t know who.”

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