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On Dreading Netflix's Upcoming Depp v. Heard Documentary

A few weeks ago, Netflix announced its new documentary, Depp vs. Heard, set to premiere later this month. The promises made were lofty: to re-examine the trial, to analyze the mass hysteria it provoked online, and more philosophically, to “question the nature of truth and the role it plays in our modern society”, whatever the fuck that means. Upon seeing the trailer, which I could barely get through, all I could think was: Oh God, not again.

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Content warnings: graphic discussions of rape, misogyny, and domestic violence

 

A few weeks ago, Netflix announced its new documentary, Depp vs. Heard, set to premiere later this month. The promises made were lofty: to re-examine the trial, to analyze the mass hysteria it provoked online, and more philosophically, to “question the nature of truth and the role it plays in our modern society”, whatever the fuck that means. Upon seeing the trailer, which I could barely get through, all I could think was: Oh God, not again.

It has been one year now since the infamous libel trial by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard opened the floodgates on a tsunami of savage public misogyny, the likes of which I had never seen before, even on the social media cesspools I frequented. One year, since a woman who had ample evidence to support her claims of physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse against a man with a documented history of anger issues and violent outbursts was dehumanized and humiliated on a global scale. It frightened me the way no social media phenomenon ever has, and I have thought about it frequently since.  

I know many will disagree, but this I have always firmly believed: Amber Heard was a clear-cut victim of prolonged and severe domestic abuse. The courts have already affirmed this; Depp’s first libel case found enough evidence to substantiate 14 separate incidents of violence by him against Heard. The evidence presented included photographs of bruises, witness testimonies from friends, medical professionals and Depp’s own employees, texts and recordings where Depp himself alludes to the abuse and contemporaneous communications from Heard to multiple friends and family members. The public nature of Depp and Heard’s lives, as well as Heard’s active efforts to document the abuse, had resulted in a veritable mountain of evidence, far more than what most victims can ever hope to produce.  

The evidence tells a tale as old as time: older, more powerful man (46) meets young, up-and-coming woman (23). From the very first, his anger and alcoholism cause issues. He is drunk out of his mind when he hits her for the first time, in response to a throwaway comment that he perceives as an insult. He hits, kicks and shouts obscenities at her on a plane. He sexually assaults her. He calls every vile, demeaning name imaginable (ugly cunt, idiot cow, flappy fish market, cum-guzzling whore), and texts friends about what he wishes to do to her (burn, rape corpse, smack around, drown).  Their relationship becomes depressingly cyclical; periods of respite, which Heard terms the ‘warm glow’, followed by violence. When she divorces him, then obliquely alludes to having experienced abuse, without ever mentioning him by name, he promises ‘total global humiliation’ for her.  

This is Amber Heard’s version of events. It is well-corroborated, and a version of the same sorry, textbook tale that plays out in a thousand relationships. As a woman, and a survivor of domestic violence, I found it more than believable. 

And yet, one year ago, I watched Depp's legal team, and an army of pitchfork-wielding netizens, obfuscate Heard’s narrative beyond recognition. Heard was immediately branded a liar. Instead, Depp’s convoluted counter-narrative–that Heard had created “an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity… and advance her career,” was blindly accepted by broad swathes of the internet. His evidence was scant and his claims implausible, but he received the benefit of the doubt nonetheless. And despite his history of violence and misogyny, he of course maintained the reputation of angelic victim throughout.

For you see, the public discourse around domestic violence only permits two categories of women; Perfect Victim who turns the other cheek, and Psycho Bitch who accuses innocent men for sport. And Heard was no perfect victim. Like many women caught in abusive situations, she had engaged in a degree of retaliatory violence, and behaved in morally complicated, unlikeable ways. And so, Psycho Bitch it was. But the minute public sentiment branded Heard as such, she was relegated to persona non grata. Heard became the archetypal Traitorous Whore whose right to basic dignity is revoked, and a modern iteration of the medieval ritual–strip naked, march through town square, pelt with excrement–began. 

One year ago, a thousand attention-seeking influencer wannabes, garden-variety misogynists, and right-wing ghouls who had long been salivating for an effigy to burn in response to the #metoo movement, generated a flood of online content mocking and discrediting Heard. ‘Body language analysts’ branded her demeanor as sociopathic. Audio of her recounting her sexual assault became a viral meme. Brands hopped on the hysteria-train; Milani Cosmetics alleged she had lied about using a product of theirs. Starbucks stores handed out tip jars labeled ‘Depp’ and ‘Heard’, turning tipping into a wager. A sex toy shop released ‘Amber’s Mark Liquor Bottle Dildo’, based on her testimony of being raped by Depp with a broken liquor bottle. Some participated in this smear campaign because they genuinely hated women, feminism, and everything else they believed Heard represented. Others did so because it brought them attention, the most valuable commodity in our dopamine-addled culture. 

The trial even spilled into real life. My sweet, liberal aunt with her PhD and two daughters, expressed disgust about Heard. My father casually called her a bitch. (Pretty girl though, he added as an afterthought.) A tutor made us discuss the ethics of a psychiatrist diagnosing her with ‘Histrionic Personality Disorder’ on the stand. The trial, and the misogyny surrounding it, were inescapable. And as a survivor of domestic violence, I found it deeply distressing. Even hashtags such as #AmberHeardLied and #IStandWithJohnnyDepp were a knife to the heart, because if a wealthy, attractive white woman with ample evidence could not get the world to believe her, who could?   

Now, one year later, Netflix stands poised to stir it all up again for profit and entertainment. And frankly, I don’t have high hopes. Netflix’s true crime documentaries tend to be soapy and exploitative; its series on the death of Elisa Lam, for example, entertained many outlandish, offensive conspiracy theories about ghosts and demonic possession before presenting the most plausible explanation–that Lam had been mentally unwell, and off her psychiatric meds, leading to erratic behavior that resulted in her death.

So, I do not expect Netflix to consult domestic violence experts, or carefully review all the available evidence, or deconstruct the bad-faith arguments made by Depp’s team. I do not expect them to respect Amber, or provide nuanced, feminist takes on how social media and sexism collided to create the perfect storm around her. Instead, I predict a sensationalized, both-sides-were-equally-problematic approach that uncritically popularises the Depp team’s claims, and platforms contrarian voices who reinforce misogynistic stereotypes about Heard, all for the sake of a ‘balanced narrative’. 

And this is what I also know. Amber Heard, who seems to have built a new life for herself in Europe, and has often been photographed looking radiant with her child and partner, will be thrust into a hurricane of online abuse. Her name will again be dragged through the mud for content. There will be discourse, and counter-discourse, and counter-counter-discourse. Misogynists and incels will have a field day online, while survivors will be re-traumatized.

Perhaps I am just being cynical. But given everything that happened a year ago, I doubt it. 

 

 
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