Women can be abusers. Men can be victims, and vice versa. Welcome to equality. If the Depp vs. Heard trial is showing us anything thus far, it’s that men and women can be equal in many things; including being the victims of abuse.
Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for $50 million dollars, claiming defamation and that she falsely accused him of domestic violence in a 2018 op-ed article for the Washington post. Although Depp was never mentioned by name in the piece, his lawyers claim that he was defamed nevertheless because the article makes a clear reference to abuse allegations by her husband, which Heard levied in 2016.
Depp has recently testified that he never perpetrated domestic violence against Heard, and claimed that she in fact was the abuser in the relationship. Amber Heard is also counter suing Johnny Depp for $100 million dollars, claiming that he defamed her when his lawyer publicly stated that she lied and had created a hoax, regarding the initial abuse allegations.
Although the trial is actually a defamation case, the details that have transpired as part of the testimonies and evidence have ignited conversations and debate regarding the treatment of male and female victims of domestic violence.
Mutual Claims of Abuse
Both parties in the case claim that they experienced domestic abuse during the marriage. The couple’s marriage counsellor, Laurel Anderson, testified that in her opinion they were both engaged in a “mutually abusive relationship”. Amber Heard has made several allegations of abuse towards Johnny Depp; while he maintains that he indeed was the victim; not the perpetrator.
An audio clip played during the current trial, appears to show Ms Heard admitting to “hitting” and “starting a physical fight” with Mr Depp. Another audio clip played in a previous libel trial against the UK’s Sun newspaper, in 2020, appears to show Depp admitting to “head butting” Ms Heard, but in the U.S. trial Depp elaborated that it was accidental as he was holding Amber by the arms and trying to prevent her from punching him.
Regardless of the outcome of this case, it has drawn attention to the issue of intimate partner violence (IPV) in general, and sparked some healthy debate, particularly around society’s bias and judgement of men who speak out as victims of domestic violence.
A Divisive and Revealing Public Spectacle
The trial at times has seemed like art imitating life, with these two actors cast into the gender stereotypical roles of villain and victim. It’s almost like a theatrical performance of gender biases being played out on a public stage. And society is the audience that’s dividing into segregated seating areas: Team Depp or Team Heard.
At times, the media has portrayed Heard as a vulnerable, female victim, and Depp as an egocentric, drunk, abusive man. Then other articles seem to reverse those roles, depicting Heard as a seductive, vixen and villain, with Depp as the victim of not only abuse, but also sexism and gender discrimination.
Although the trial is officially about defamation; it somehow doesn’t feel like that’s really what’s being examined here. It almost feels like it’s a battle of gender narratives and stereotypes.
It’s as if society is wrestling with itself about the ideas of male victims, female perpetrators and vice versa. The actual verdict of this trial seems to be of little consequence.
According to Johnny Depp’s supporters, Heard’s allegations have been believed just because she is a woman, and he has been assumed guilty just because he is a man. Many have spoken out in defense of Depp, accusing Heard’s supporters of sexism and invalidating men’s experience of intimate partner violence (IPV). Social media is saturated with memes and hashtags supporting Depp’s side, such as #MenToo, #JusticeforJohnny, #AmberTurd and #MePoo (relating to Depp’s allegation that Heard left fecal matter in his bed).
On the other hand, supporters of Amber Heard have claimed that the defamation case is the attempt of a powerful abuser to stop a victim speaking out; with the hash-tag #IStandWithAmber trending on Twitter. Furthermore, Team Heard appears to support the claim that the loss of Depp’s film contracts was down to his own drinking and drug taking behavior, and not anything that can be attributed to Heard herself.
Society’s Invalidation of Men’s Experience as Victims of Domestic Violence
Part of the public speculation on this case revolves around the fact that rarely before have we seen such a high profile man publicly declare that he has been the victim of domestic violence. The very act of Depp openly making such a pronouncement has provoked conversations and debate around the stigma that men face for speaking out against domestic abuse.
Before Johnny Depp brought this defamation case against Heard; public opinion was stacked against him, and it was as if he had already been judged by the public, the mainstream media and the film industry. The actor was cast out from Hollywood, losing multiple film contracts, including his role as the infamous, Captain Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Caribbean. A forensic accountant, Michael Spindler testified that Johnny Depp has lost an estimated $40 million dollars in earnings in the wake of the publication of Heard’s op-ed in the Washington Post.
The trial seems to be uncovering the fact that many gender tropes, biases and stereotypes still exist around men’s experiences as victims of domestic violence. Conversations in the media and online indicate that society still has some draconian beliefs around the validity of men’s experience as victims.
Historically, there has been unspoken assumptions that only men are the perpetrators, not the victims of domestic violence, when this is not the case. While research does show that women are more likely to experience domestic violence, men also still do experience it. Statistics show that 23% of females experience domestic violence at least once in their life, but 19.3% of males also experience domestic violence at least once in their life. Furthermore, some evidence actually indicates that men experience an even higher rate of domestic violence. However, due to the stigma and embarrassment that they face on the subject, it is thought to be massively under-reported.
Why is it that Society Struggles to See Both Genders Equally, as Potential Victims of Domestic Violence?
The answer really lies within the mass socialization of previous generations where masculinity was constructed to be aligned with physical strength, power, dominance, violence and aggression; while at the same time, opposed to, softness, vulnerability or victim status; which were more aligned with the construct of femininity.
This skewed socialization of men, and women, meant that society evolved to see men as more likely to be the perpetrators of violence; not the victims of it. Furthermore, it also created an environment where men felt and still feel shame around being seen to have experienced violence at the hands of a woman; for fear of being seen as weak, or called derogatory terms such as “a wuss”, “a pussy”, or asked things like; “what are you; are man or a mouse?”, and ultimately being emasculated by society.
When people look at Johnny Depp, they literally see the personification of this skewed construct of masculinity. For the last four decades, many of Depp’s film roles have served to reinforce society’s gender biases towards masculinity. He has regularly been cast as the hero, the strong man, the funny, cheeky chap with swag and confidence; not as the victim, or as a vulnerable person who could be abused. Therefore, people have struggled to see how Depp the actor or the man could ever be the latter.
Regardless of what comes of this trial, it has highlighted the fact that on a wider scale, society appears to still hold sexist, biased and stereotypical views around men as victims of domestic violence.
An Opportunity for Change
No matter who the judge rules in favor of in this case, one good thing that might potentially come out of it is that it has flagged a need for greater understanding and balance in society regarding what victims and perpetrators of domestic violence look like.
Maybe this trial has provided an opportunity for domestic abuse organizations that support both males and females to start educating society about the equality of victim status. This would hopefully then decrease the stigma around men experiencing and speaking out about domestic violence. Enabling male victims to also receive support and validation.
Society needs to be educated that an abuser can look like anyone. It’s not limited to just one gender. Victims of domestic violence can be a man, a woman or a gender fluid individual. And everyone who is a victim of domestic violence, whether male, female or gender fluid, deserves to be supported as a human being, regardless.