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On social media, believing women is dead

Even as more people come out in support of Amber Heard, the implications of 2022 on domestic violence victims remains a dark cloud.   – Photo by Amber Heard / Instagram

This past week, more than 130 women’s organizations and prominent feminist figures have now all signed an open letter in support of Amber Heard. If you’ve witnessed and objected to the onslaught of abuse Heard has received this year, one sentiment rings true: too little, too late. 

Let’s recap.

Earlier this month, it broke that Rihanna would invite Johnny Depp — Heard’s ex-husband and pursuant of their multiple legal battles — to be a part of the fourth iteration of her Savage X Fenty lingerie line’s fashion show. To someone who hasn't been on the internet for the past year (or five), this doesn’t really mean anything. 

"Cool," this person without access to a Twitter account or a TikTok or an Instagram or a YouTube might think, "Jack Sparrow/Edward Scissorhands/another role I liked is going to appear in this fashion show."

But the mythologizing of Depp, the refusal to see him in his present form, is part of the problem.

Underneath Rihanna’s first tweet after the news broke (the Tweet itself was an unrelated fan TikTok) are numerous replies addressing the exact issue with featuring Depp as the first male model in the show — which are the large-scale defamation trials, both in the U.S. and the U.K. revolving around his abuse of Heard. But also there, amid angry caps-locked and misspelled defenses of his honor, is confusion.

With nearly 1,500 likes, the first reply I see under the tweet, Twitter user @nicckysays writes, "Wait why is everybody hating Johnny? Wasn’t everyone team Depp a few months ago during the trial??? (Sorry I’m out of touch)."

The trial itself, and its division into teams, is purely distilled misogyny, not only the response to this trial, a post-#MeToo backlash that feels more like a backhand, but also the trial itself. The fact that Depp sued Heard in the first place for an OpEd she wrote in the Washington Post. Heard’s OpEd did not contain allegations against Depp’s character. It did not identify him as an abuser.

The lines in question were, "I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change," "Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out" and "I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse."

The article does not mention Depp by name. 

And yet, Heard was found guilty of defaming Depp on these three counts. Depp was found to have defamed Heard on 1 of 3 countersuit occasions in return, but it didn’t matter: The money she owed him was exorbitant. $10.35 million dollars.

And the internet had already decided — through viral out-of-context clips, a smear campaign, their own misogyny and conspiracy theories peddled as truth — that Heard was an abuser herself. And even worse to many: She was a woman who had lied.

There are a million different bullet points to defend Heard, to "prove" that she is a victim (no matter how vile the act of that being placed into the hands of the public may be), to discredit Depp’s DARVO counter-methods, to confirm that the U.K.’s trial was just and Depp can correctly be identified as a "wife beater" — but all of them are swallowed by the beast that was the conspiracy against her.

DARVO, if you don’t know, is a tactic used by abusers where they "deny, attack and reverse victim and offender." This essentially means they claim their victims as their abusers to escape responsibility for their actions, all while continuing the abuse.

Experts agree mutual abuse does not exist, but many people don’t understand this or DARVO. It’s easy to see how the conspiracy machine turned. Self-defense or reactive abuse can easily be twisted into action rather than reaction. A hit back, when taken out of context, is a hit.

Back in the courtroom, compilations exploded on TikTok and YouTube of courtroom scenes showing one of Depp’s lawyers, Camille Vasquez, berating Heard — Vasquez herself was turned into a token for Depp, her status as a Latina woman was portrayed as a diversity win rather than a woman becoming an agent of patriarchy for a check — or Depp himself giggling in court.

People swooned at him coloring in court or hugging his lawyers. Celebrities and laymen alike lip-synched to TikTok audios of Heard’s courtroom testimonies, including her describing a graphic rape, sexualizing it and claiming the sexual violence Depp exerted over her as a new desire or kink due to a conjured, Disney-fueled image of him in their heads.

People who threatened Heard’s life even showed up to the courthouse and had to be thrown out. Many people in the crowd outside the courthouse purported they’d traveled overseas to Virginia to witness the case. Law&Crime Network, a YouTube channel that livestreamed the trial and posted clips afterward, received nearly a billion views and more than 2 million new subscribers.

It feels impossible to cover the scope of the Depp and Heard trial, even retroactively. In writing this, I keep remembering or finding new threads that lead into the depths of internet conspiracy that tore down Heard unjustly — the kind you don’t need to go on 4Chan or the dark web for, the kind posted by your friend on their Instagram stories or hidden in your favorite singer’s Twitter likes.

People were even so dense as to believe Heard took verbatim lines from the movie "The Talented Mr. Ripley" or was doing cocaine on the stand. There’s no coherent path to follow because nothing is coherent.

The trial consumed me when it happened — daily, I was obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed, eager to dogpile Depp stans, combat misinformation and defend Heard tirelessly.

Did people know Depp had wined and dined the psychiatrist that diagnosed Heard with two personality disorders after meeting with her for only 12 hours? Did people know the audio clips of Heard allegedly implying men could not be abused were inaccurately captioned? Have they seen the texts of Depp and friend Paul Bettany threatening to rape and burn Heard like a witch, all before the abuse Depp alleges began? Or do they just not care?

But my time in the Twitter trenches also presented a looming question: If Heard (though marginalized through her sexuality) as a cisgender, conventionally-attractive white woman with the resources of celebrity was not believed when she was alleging abuse against someone with a history of violence (Heard’s "history" of violence does not exist in the form that Depp’s does), what does that say for everyone else? 

Heard’s status of privilege and whiteness were both discussed extensively during the trial by pro-Depp commentators, dubbing her emotional responses on the stand as "white woman tears." This is despite the fact that Depp is, in fact, a white man.

(White men, as they have done with "Karen" and will do with a million other terms, have taken a term created to refer to white women weaponizing their white womanhood against people of color to mean "a phrase where we tack white in front of woman to absolve ourselves from misogyny").

But her sexuality, and lack of privilege there, is a significant piece of the puzzle. Bisexual women are at an extremely high likelihood of experiencing domestic violence, with 61 percent of bisexual women reporting they’d experienced dating violence, stalking or rape. Nearly 90 percent of those women reported only having male perpetrators of this violence. 

Evan Rachel Wood and Angelina Jolie have also come out as survivors of domestic abuse and been dog-piled by Depp-adjacent mobs for their abuse allegations against Marilyn Manson (whose history of cruelty and abusive behavior is even more storied than Depp’s) and Brad Pitt, respectively. Wood and Jolie are both also bisexual.

Megan Thee Stallion, who has indicated attraction to both women and men as well but hasn't publicly labelled herself, has also been victim of an extreme online hate campaign after detailing the assault in which Tory Lanez shot her in the foot. Megan has the additional obstacle to being believed by society at large due to the fact that she’s a Black woman, whereas Wood, Jolie and Heard are all white.

Abusers of out bisexual women aren’t the only abusers getting their time in the sun. It’s worth noting FKA twigs, though she hasn't commented on her sexuality, has experienced intense online backlash for detailing her abusive relationship with Shia LeBeouf. LeBouef himself has even admitted to abusing Twigs, but he is currently getting his redemption arc online through podcast appearances and involvement in social media drama.

Though factors revolving around identity can sometimes indicate the likelihood of being believed, women, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or any other factor, seem to be overwhelmingly called liars, abusers, fame-hungry, cheaters and a whole other manner of terms men say when they want to allude to or state a woman being in a position of moral wrong.

But you can’t say that. You can’t say people hate women and trust men more. It’s not that you don’t believe her because she’s a woman. You’re not sexist. You promise.

But she’s a cheater, he only responded in turn. He might have hit her, but why didn’t she run away? Why didn’t she hit back? Why did she hit back? Why didn’t she gather evidence? Doesn’t it seem staged to you that she has so much evidence? That bruise looks nothing like a bruise. That bruise looks too perfect, too much like a bruise. She’s a golddigger. She’s taking advantage of him needing her money. She’s a liar, she’s an actress, a druggie, a drunk, a harlot, a charlatan.

Some people say the only perfect victim, the only victim that will truly be believed, is a dead victim. Maybe this is true for women who aren’t Gabby Petito. For women who aren’t Nicole Brown Simpson.

Some people say uplifting Depp is a way of uplifting male victims of domestic violence or sexual assault (the laughable hashtag #MenToo solidifies this as an act of #MeToo backlash rather than an act in good faith). But maybe this is true, for men who aren’t Brendan Fraser. For men who aren’t Anthony Rapp.

The reactions to Heard and Jolie and Wood and Megan aren’t acts of valiant truth revelation. In fact, cries against them are largely inaccurate and don’t hold up to a respectable fact check. They aren’t retribution. They’re a way of looking at women emboldened to speak up about their own abuse and spitting, “Stay in your lane. Stay where you’re meant to stay. Suck it up and take it.”

As for Depp and Heard, CinemaBlend reported in October that she’s quietly living in Spain with her daughter. Her neighbors say she’s kind, comment on how she speaks Spanish with a Mexican accent and wish to respect her privacy. Depp makes headlines with his concerts and his Savage X Fenty promotions and his award show appearances.

It might seem silly to contrast social media followings, but in a trial so influenced by the internet, it feels prescient. At the time of writing, Depp has 27 million followers on Instagram. Heard has a little more than 5 million. His statement has 19 million likes. Hers barely breaks 500 thousand.

His post about the trial ends with a line, first in Latin and then in English, that reads “veritas numquam perit.” Translated, it reads “truth never perishes.” 

Perhaps not for men — for white men, for rich men. Perhaps not for Depp’s version of the truth, which I doubt he himself even believes.

But for women, truth can’t even be threatened with that perishing. You can’t lose something that doesn’t exist. There’s no time of death, there’s no epitaph in Latin or in English. Being believed isn’t something that can be taken from you if you’ve never been granted the privilege of having a truth be seen as possible in the first place.

There’s no way for this article to stick the landing. There’s no satisfying conclusion to any of this. There’s no solution, other than a large-scale takedown of the institutions that protect the patriarchy and the men who abuse their power within it. There’s no happy ending. Many of the cases mentioned in this article have not seen the inside of a courtroom.

It’s hard to remain optimistic about when they do.

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