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Leave Her Alone: Depp v Heard

Perpetrators abusing the system and social media to get revenge on victims for speaking out


On August 16th 2023, Netflix released Depp v. Heard, a 3-part series recounting the case and evidence surrounding Amber Heard and Johnny Depp's court appearance in 2022. The case was brought by Depp for defamation when in 2018, Amber published an op-ed with the Washington Post that stated: "two years ago, [she] became a public figure representing domestic abuse". Depp sued her for $50 million USD; Heard countersued for $100 million USD.

The trial dominated social media and was one of the biggest stories of 2022.

It was also a clear example of systems abuse.

Systems abuse, or abusive litigation, is when someone uses the civil legal system to regain power and control over another. It is extremely common in domestic abuse and intimate partner violence cases, particularly when victim-survivors speak out about their experience, or take legal action against the perpetrator. This can involve seeking justice through courts and Apprehend Domestic Violence Orders (ADVOs). It aims to cause further psychological, emotional and financial harm to victims as "revenge", or rebuilding their image as reputable, upstanding citizens.

Common forms of systems abuse can include:

  • stating custody battles and describing victims as unfit parents;

  • requesting unnecessary mental health evaluations;

  • re-litigating in different courts (ie from criminal to civil jurisdictions);

  • refusing to obey court orders;

  • making false reporting to deterrent forces, including child protective services and immigration authorities;

  • falsely claiming drug or alcohol abuse; and

  • suing victims for reporting or speaking out about the violence and naming their abuser.

One of the most prominent acts of systems abuse in this case was Heard's mental health evaluation at Depp's request. This is often used to discredit a victim's testimony and evidence. During this process, Amber was diagnosed with Borderline and Histrionic Personality Disorder by the Depp's appointed psychologist, which involved "making up stories" to be "the centre of attention". Not only did this aim to discredit Amber, but to question her experiences of childhood abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV), despite her psychologist debunking the myths surrounding Amber's mental health and story.

The trial instantly became about whether she was lying or looking to destroy him. Despite many of the testimonies stating that Johnny was drunk during different violent episodes, Amber was "looking for a fight". Despite voice recordings, video evidence and multiple calls to police, Amber was "lying". Several incidents were questioned, with many of Depp's witnesses and experts stating they "couldn't recall", and evidence against Depp was blocked in several attempts. The evidence displayed a clear pattern of abuse, and yet the public was still convinced she was lying.

Let's drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead...

- a text message sent from Johnny Depp to friend/actor Paul Bettany about Amber Heard.

Depp even excused threatening texts like this by saying they were sent "in the heat of the moment ... the heat of the pain" he was feeling. This sympathetic narrative Depp and his lawyers created, along with his lawyers accusing Amber of creating "a story of shocking, overwhelming, brutal abuse", only increased the harassment she received.

The hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp was seen over 20 billion views on TikTok. #JusticeForAmberHeard gained just over 75 million views.

Depp and Heard are real people with real problems, after all, not just meme fodder and hashtag subjects ... the vile nature of some of the misogynistic tweets and TikTok videos posted about Heard was toxic masculinity at its worst.

- Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic

Since her divorce from Johnny Depp, Amber Heard has received millions of abusive comments. Before and during the trial in 2022, she had millions of Depp's fans abuse her online and outside the courtroom. When Amber took the stand, millions online twisted her story and degraded her through sound bites and abusive memes. Many had made up their minds before the case had begun, and used their bias to fuel attacks against her. Remember, she didn't want the trial live-streamed. Not because the public are great investigators and body language experts, but because Johnny Depp has a massive social popularity that would and did sway public opinion. Even with evidence and testimonies, his public popularity trumped her experience of abuse.

When Amber allegedly wanted to ruin his career, it never happened. He is just as popular as he ever was. No powerful man in Hollywood has ever been ruined by IPV allegations. Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Chris Brown, Brad Pitt - no man has had his career ruined by it, and Johnny Depp is no different. This was an act of revenge, not of reputation.

You don't leave Mr. Depp, and if you do, he will start a campaign of global humiliation against you ... a smear campaign that lasts to this very day. He will do everything he can to destroy your life, to destroy your career.

- Benjamin Rottenborn, Amber's attorney in the closing statement

This trial was a "foot in the door" for abusers to pursue revenge. It was a step backwards for the #MeToo movement, and will, if it hasn't already, deter survivors from sharing their story. It tells us that without proof, it didn't happen; and with proof, you're lying and faking evidence.

While the documentary is seemingly neutral in its portrayal of the case and the public response, it mistakes a balance of coverage for truth. The reality is... it wasn't balanced. Amber Heard was degraded and humiliated, and many victim-survivors were invalidated. All it did was repackage court footage, evidence and harmful public commentary into palatable viewing. There is no context, particularly of the UK libel case which found Amber had not defamed Depp, and no recorded impact of the case or the online discourse. It merely mentions the astroturfing support, a deceptive campaign that appeared to be unsolicited comments from members of the public but was really thousands of bots, as a possibility, when it very much happened.

It offers nothing but a reminder of how victims are treated in the 'justice' system. It digs up trauma and triggering content for views.

Survivors deserve to gain justice on their terms and for their own healing. Abusers shouldn't be able to harass them through the legal system or online after that justice or freedom has been gained. After years of online torment and abuse from Johnny Depp fans and supporters, and numerous accounts of victim-blaming and injustice through "reporting documentaries", enough is enough.

I just want Johnny to leave me alone.

- Amber Heard




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