Publisher’s note: Kara Alaimo, associate professor at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was a spokesperson for International Affairs at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter as @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
(CNN) — On Wednesday, a jury found Amber Heard and ex-husband Johnny Depp guilty of defaming each other. Depp had sued Heard for $50 million for defamation after she wrote an op-ed in the newspaper. Washington Post in 2018 in which he described himself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Heard countersued for $100 million, claiming that a statement by Depp’s lawyer that his allegations were a “hoax” constituted libel.
But the jury awarded Depp the most, awarding him $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, while Heard was awarded only $2 million in compensatory damages and nothing in punitive damages.
The outcome of this trial affects something beyond Depp and Heard, as it epitomizes how far our society has regressed since the heyday of the #MeToo movement.
In 2017, the newspaper New York Times revealed the accusations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had abused women for decades. He came after the news, in April 2017, that Fox News had paid millions to the women who had filed complaints against former anchor Bill O’Reilly.
For a time, the floodgates seemed to open: a list compiled by Vox found 262 high-profile people who have been accused of sexual misconduct since April 2017, including CEOs, celebrities and politicians. This seemed to signal a new era in which victims of sexual abuse had more social support to finally hold their abusers accountable. Some, like Weinstein, went to jail, while others, like Mr. celebrity chef Mario Bataliwere acquitted and Today Show host Matt Lauer lost his job.
But feminists know that every time women advance, they provoke a backlash. “Whenever I began researching a popular feminist practice or expression, there was always a hostile retort or challenge,” writes University of Southern California communication professor Sarah Banet-Weiser in “Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny“.
That is exactly what we saw in this trial. The fact that Depp sued Heard for defamation shows the threat that other women will now have to consider when weighing whether to come forward with abuse: the possibility of being charged with defamation.
Depp sued Heard even though a judge in Britain had already ruled in a 2020 trial that Depp had repeatedly assaulted Heard and made her “fear for her life”. The texts presented in court from Depp to his friend, actor Paul Bettany, in which Depp wrote “let’s drown her before we burn her” and discussed having sex with Heard’s body after killing her, possibly provide further evidence of abuse, as does the testimony of the the couple’s marriage counselor that Depp and Heard abused each other.
Depp, for his part, claimed that Heard’s accusations of physical and sexual abuse were false, stating, “I have never in my life committed sexual assault, physical abuse.”
The fact that Depp sued Heard for defamation despite evidence presented in court and a previous judge’s ruling in the UK is a stark reminder of the very real threat women face if they accuse abuse of powerful men.
This trial also reminded us of another factor that victims should take into account when coming forward: the possibility of people coming together to support the alleged perpetrator and making more threats against the accusers. This case prompted people on the internet to support Depp and continue to abuse Heard.
The support expressed for Depp on the internet was much higher than that expressed for Heard. Until last week, #IStandWithAmberHeard had received some 8.2 million views on TikTok. By comparison, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp had amassed $15 billion.
But people on social media didn’t just side with Depp. They also directly threatened Heard. “People want to kill me and they tell me every day”, Heard stated. “People want to put my baby in the microwave and they tell me.”
On top of this, Heard had to deal with the old challenges of not being believed and having her own life and behavior dissected as part of this trial, which proved that she is not a saint. (Recall the marriage counselor’s testimony that Ella Heard was also abusing Depp. Depp also testified that Ella Heard had hit him. Although Heard he claimed that he only did it to defend himself, in an audio clip introduced as evidence he said: “Yes, I started a physical fight”).
This element of possible mutual abuse set the trial apart from many other public cases involving one-way accusations of misconduct – but it was also a stark reminder to women that the #MeToo movement has not taught the world to take women’s rights seriously. women’s claims and to support the victims even if they are imperfect.
This lawsuit began when Heard claimed that she was a public figure representing domestic abuse. Now, she’s become a public figure representing societal abuse towards women who dare to speak out, and how far we’ve come from that ray of hope just a few years ago that the #MeToo movement could make it easier for abuse victims to come to justice. accounts to their perpetrators.