We Don't Want To Believe
The public abuse of Amber Heard is nothing new.
A couple of days ago, I posted a video on twitter showing hundreds of Tik Tok users lip syncing to audio of Amber Heard’s testimony in which she describes being sexually assaulted by Johnny Depp. Most of the Tik Toks were outright horny, with cheeky captions like “I don’t see what Johnny Depp did wrong here!” People overwhelmingly responded to my tweet by sharing their disgust with the Depp fans and horror at the pairing of humor and sexual desire with descriptions of sexual violence and abuse. It is pretty damn horrifying. But even among the people who were repulsed by the Tik Toks, by the Depp fans, by the mocking of Amber Heard, there was a phrase repeated over and over again: “Even if she’s lying.” Or “even if you don’t believe her” or “regardless of what side you’re on.” As if who you believe here is just incidental, frivolous, something that shouldn’t factor into your conduct regarding this case at all. I understand what motivates those opinions. The political and cultural climates of my lifetime have put a premium on perceived neutrality or objectivity; anybody who wants to appeal to a wide liberal audience is incentivized to be ostentatiously impartial (see: Democrats and abortion). I am constantly tempted to preface my tweets or Tik Toks about this case by saying that I was once a devoted Depp fan and I have only seen a single Amber Heard movie. But that doesn’t affect the facts of this case and it doesn’t convince people, and holding on to your idea of what impartiality looks like with all your might does not by any means guarantee that you’re not causing harm.
This case (by which I mean the entirety of Depp and Heard’s relationship from 2009 up until right now) is not new, or unique, although something about it feels that way to a lot of people. The cruel “memeification” of the trial has been bemoaned by many as a scourge borne of the internet or social media, a sentiment that reminds me of the video-games-cause-violence debates. But exploiting public cases of domestic and sexual violence as entertainment or a fad has always been an essential part of our culture. That’s what cable news is. That’s Howard Stern. Some of us feel ickier than others about how we treat violence in the public, and that’s an appropriate response. I also have to admit it’s arguably an appropriate response to go in the other direction, to become desensitized. I’m absolutely disgusted by how flippant and cruel these Tik Toks and memes are, but if I were to list out every single element of this case and the public response that scares me, stupid, evil memes wouldn’t even make the top ten.
What truly scares me is that even the most rational and informed coverage of this case and this spectacle focuses almost exclusively on the spectacle. It’s this weird meta criticism of the coverage; scolding the public for our behavior and the media’s behavior because this will cause damage to “real” victims without engaging with what it means to leave Heard’s victimhood status to be defined by a judge or jury. The thought process is that whether Heard or Depp is telling the truth is not for you or me or us to “decide,” it’s for the court, or for the people involved, or just Heard and Depp themselves. Again, I understand this withholding. For journalists, there are (inconsistently enforced) legal and ethical standards at play that restrict them from speculating, especially as Depp has proven to be very litigious. But it is completely absurd for any person who is not an officer of the court to accept a judicial verdict as a reflection of the objective truth. That is fundamentally unwise for a million reasons but I’m not going to waste your time listing them because all of us already know that that is absurd. We can all think of verdicts we view as wrong and having absolutely nothing to do with the truth; from televised trials to our own experiences in traffic court. And yet people of all politics and demographics use outcomes in court as a safety net when we don’t feel comfortable or confident making a judgment on our own. This is not to say that anyone needs to make a judgment if they would rather not. But think about how often you form an opinion or a stance with less information, or differing stakes. It’s easy to say this case is none of our business–depending on what you mean by that, I might agree. But when has that ever stopped us before?
One oft repeated maxim that far predates this case, is that men who come forward about DV or SA are less likely to be believed or supported than women who come forward. Sometimes the wise old sage explaining this obvious truism to you will reference the #MeToo movement while lamenting how ever since then we automatically believe women to the grave detriment of truth and justice. Even people who recognize that “observation” as complete bullshit will wonder how we could have fallen so far from the glorious heights of fall 2017, a time when we actually took women seriously. Let me be crystal clear. As a culture we have never ever given victims of assault, abuse, or harassment even a fraction of the support and restitution that they deserve and need. Not during #MeToo, not now, not ever. We’ve given them plenty of media coverage. We interview them and we watch them and we make movies and TV shows about them. We put them onstage at the Oscars so that we can publicly absolve ourselves of our complicity in their suffering. We make jokes about how evil Harvey Weinstein is, even if our dad was one of his accomplices. But the victims are not people we want to help, they are people we want to use.
At the 2018 Golden Globes, for which virtually every single woman celebrity wore black to show an undefined and extremely tenuous “solidarity,” James Franco, professional creep, won Best Performance in a Motion Picture : Musical or Comedy. Anthony Anderson, who has been accused of sexual assault three times since 2004, was nominated for Best Performance in a Television Series : Musical or Comedy. Geoffrey Rush, who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by one coworker in 2017 and would go on to be accused by another, was nominated for Best Performance in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film. Christian Slater, convicted of punching his girlfriend in 1997 and accused of sexual assault in 2005, was nominated for Best Supporting Performance in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film. At the Academy Awards ceremony in 2018, during which numerous celebrities spoke again about the importance of the #MeToo movement, Gary Oldman won Best Actor. His ex-wife had publicly accused him of choking and beating her with a telephone in front of their children in 2001. This is the year we believed women? This is the year men were oh so scared? This is the year we effected meaningful change? Where? Seriously, where is it? All the guys whose careers were supposedly over are back by now except Weinstein and that’s just because he’s a producer and he’s not hot. He’s still rich and the people who conspired to let him rape and abuse whoever he wanted to are still working and making money.
Why aren’t we being honest about this? Do we not remember? Are we trying to avoid succumbing to pessimism or sullying the media we consume to distract us from every other horrible thing happening around us? That’s fair. I think we are also terrified to be wrong. We feel safer administering justice retroactively. Britney Spears, Megan Fox, Janet Jackson, Monica Lewinsky; we’ll make it up to you, but you gotta wait a decade or two first. But do we make it up to them? Monica Lewinsky, though very involved with Ryan Murphy’s dramatization of her life as a White House intern, admits she wishes the TV show wouldn’t exist at all. Britney criticized the hypocrisy of those who made documentaries about her conservatorship for doing the same thing the media had always done: exploiting Britney and her trauma for financial gain. If we can only conceive of “correcting the record” after the fact, we require victims to become survivors or martyrs in order to earn our support or respect.
So. Amber. Unless you’re a staunch Depp supporter, you probably feel bad for her. “Even if she’s lying,” you think the way she’s being accused of lying is too far. Maybe you’d prefer she be doubted by the judge, by the jurors, or some other prototypical good citizen who weighs the evidence using his good reason, without being swayed by petty emotion or personal investment. You’re probably skeptical enough to know that body language experts are charlatans, that Heard did not do cocaine using a loose tissue on the stand, and you’re pretty sure she didn’t quote The Talented Mr. Ripley. You’re also vaguely aware there’s some “rule” about who you’re supposed to believe here, but you can’t quite figure out what it is–it’s either Heard because she’s a woman, or Depp because he’s a man, or maybe it’s Heard because Depp’s a man or Depp because Heard’s a woman, or maybe for some reason it’s Paul Bettany? It’s too much. The propaganda and the finger and the recordings and the Milani cosmetics and the lawyer that you think objected to his own question and the Youtube videos and it’s just. Too. Much. The waters have been muddied and you’re gonna stay out of this one and wait for the next one, one that doesn’t make you so queasy, one with a clear victim and a clear abuser from the start.
And that’s why Depp has already won, and he won a long time ago, before the trial ever started and before he even did what he did to Amber Heard. Because she was never going to be the victim we wanted with the evidence that we want because that person doesn’t exist and never has, and there’s nothing Heard could ever have done to be that person and we hate her for that. Why can’t she just supply some basic evidence? Where are the photos of her genitals after being raped with a liquor bottle? Where are the pictures with the bruises we think she ought to have had, to be circulated around the internet for all of time like we do with the ones of Rihanna? Why didn’t she get the most brutal attacks on video or audio by anticipating them beforehand, or documenting them in the immediate aftermath of being raped or abused? We want her to be the crime scene and the cop and we just can’t believe how bad she’s being at both. I mean how damn hard can it be? If she just ticked off those basic boxes we would believe her for sure, we really really would.
But we wouldn’t. If she had the pictures of the bruises people think she should, we’d say it was make-up, or maybe she’s so crazy she slammed her head into the wall. If she went to the hospital after the rape we’d say she did it herself, or that was the kind of sex she liked. If she had more witnesses than she does we’d say she’s paying them or they’re crazy or we can’t take their word for it. If he confessed (even more than he already has!) we’d say she still deserved it or we don’t like her anyway or maybe we would stop paying attention altogether. And in a pinch there’s always just making stuff up, already used to great success by Depp and his fans. From the first time Depp hit Heard she was doomed to fall short of our reasonable requests. We don’t want to be responsible for believing or saying the wrong thing, so we put the burden on her and we resent that she just can’t seem to carry it by herself.
That’s what really kills me. She’s so alone. As far as I know, the only celebrities who have publicly spoken up for her during this trial are Ellen Barkin, Kathy Griffin, and Evan Rachel Wood. Of all the celebrities who have profited off of feminism, not one has the backbone to stand up for their colleague who is currently on the receiving end of exactly the kind of abuse they pledged to stop. She receives some of the worst consistent harassment online that I have ever seen, she has spent years of her life recounting her trauma in courts, she’s at risk of having to pay her abuser an enormous amount of money, her most lucrative acting job has been targeted relentlessly by Depp and his fans, she’s been shunned by virtually all of her colleagues, and the entire world is watching and the most action we feel compelled to take is asking that people keep their hatred for her just a tad more under the surface.
When Robin Givens came forward about being abused by Mike Tyson in 1988, people made T shirts reading “FREE MIKE TYSON,” which would later be resurrected when he was actually imprisoned for the rape of an eighteen-year old. Tyson later confirmed that he did abuse Givens in both his book and in an interview with Oprah. He described the punch that threw her backwards, “hitting every wall in the apartment,” and said “That was the best punch I’ve ever thrown in my entire life.” His career has continued to flourish to this day and neither he nor the public at large has ever made any effort to make amends to Givens. In the article I’ve linked, the lede reads that Givens received widespread backlash for accusing Mike Tyson of domestic abuse. But what I think it should say is that she received that backlash for being abused. The accusation and the evidence and the backlash and the trial and everything that comes after; you can’t extricate any of those things from the abuse itself. Tyson doesn’t just owe Givens for the abuse, he owes her for how it literally changed the course of her entire life. I don’t mean to argue that there is no hope for someone who suffers abuse or assault; Givens is incredibly successful and she told Wendy Williams she would like to believe she’s a better person for her experience and that she helped other victims. But that’s not her fucking job.
Part of #MeToo–the Alyssa Milano bastardization, not Tarana Burke’s original and continued activism to help victims of sexual violence find peace–was predicated on what I will call The Other Big Lie. The Other Big Lie is that the way to prevent widespread or systemic violence or other harm is by putting the resulting wounds on display. If only people knew about how hurt we’ve been, if only they could see that it’s real, if only they had to witness our suffering, if only we had pictures and speeches and profiles in magazines, if only we were somebody that everybody could believe, if only the perpetrator would admit we’re telling the truth, if only if only if only, then they will care and things will change and we just need that one perfect case, that one punch or shove or rape, and that will be the last straw. Well, we’re all out of straws. There’s nothing left to see.