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We Need To Talk About Johnny Depp

05/07/2017 17:00
Ian Gavan via Getty Images

Last week at Glastonbury Johnny Depp flippantly suggested assassinating President Donald Trump. The media erupted. The backlash was quick; so was Depp's apology. But, tasteless jokes aside, this outraged reaction concealed some other significant news.

Last year Depp's ex-wife Amber Heard filed for divorce on the grounds of domestic violence, citing multiple incidents of intense anger and violent outbursts. "I am extremely afraid of Johnny and for my safety," Heard claimed in court documents. "His relationship with reality oscillates, depending on his interaction with alcohol and drugs. He is often paranoid and his temper is exceptionally scary for me."

Distrustful media and disbelieving public

Heard submitted photos, videos and text messages supporting her claims of abuse. She had witnesses. She called the police and filed a restraining order, which was granted - meaning that a judge found her evidence convincing. She filed for divorce. She did everything a victim is 'supposed' to do, yet public opinion was sceptical at best.

The consensus when Heard's allegations surfaced was that Depp, with his sad eyes and quirky character, couldn't possibly be abusive. Instead, Heard was depicted as a lying, manipulative gold-digger. But last week, Depp's former managers filed court documents supporting Heard's claims, alleging that he physically abused her on several occasions, and then tried to cover it up. Only now, after his management of 17 years corroborated her story, are we prepared to maybe, just maybe, believe Johnny Depp abused Amber Heard.

So what does it take for a woman to be believed? In this case, the copious evidence made no difference; it was glibly dismissed. When photos of Heard's bruised face appeared, the suggestion was either that the bruises were faked or she inflicted them herself. Text messages from Depp's assistant saying that the actor was sorry for violently kicking Heard must be fabricated. Even the video of a drunk, belligerent and aggressive Depp smashing glasses wasn't significant, because "Heard was goading him."

"He didn't beat her that hard"

The unwillingness to believe Depp's allegedly abusive nature is at odds with comments the actor has made about his "hellish temper". He used to get into fights and would "stop at nothing... sucker punch, bite the ear, gouge an eye out". He went on: "Rage is never very far away. There's been many times when I've teetered on the brink of absolute madness." These statements underscore the explosive anger Heard testified to - as does Depp's prior arrest for trashing a hotel room during a fight with ex-partner Kate Moss - but it wasn't enough.

Propagated by the media, Heard's evidence was repeatedly dismissed as either malicious invention or a fuss over nothing. The Daily Mail (the world's biggest online news site) wondered why Heard was "pictured smiling" hours after an alleged attack - as if having the audacity to crack a smile undermined her claim of abuse. Readers agreed: the top-rated comments were a mix of victim blaming ("I wonder what she did to provoke him"), justifications ("His mum had just died, cut him some slack!"), or outright disbelief.

Chris Brown's 2009 assault of Rihanna was frequently referenced, with people comparing Heard's "barely visible" bruises with images of a severely beaten Rihanna. "This is what a real abuse victim looks like," they wrote. According to the police report, Chris Brown beat, bit and strangled Rihanna until she almost lost consciousness. Is this how far domestic violence needs to escalate before we deem it as 'real', or worthy of condemnation?

What does an abuser look like?

The unwillingness to believe Depp was capable of abuse centred on how he didn't "seem" like an abuser. That all abusers are ferocious monsters is a harmful myth; perpetrators of domestic violence are complex human beings. Still, this erroneous sentiment was echoed by some of Depp's famous friends. "Known Johnny Depp for years," the actor Paul Bettany tweeted. "He's the sweetest, kindest, gentlest man I've ever known. Just saying."

But Bettany isn't "just saying": this was a subtle attempt to undermine Heard's account with his own narrative; that because Depp is gentle, he can't also be abusive. The idea that people who abuse their partners aren't nice to their friends needs to go, and now. Violent behaviour can exist in one relationship and not another. It's perfectly conceivable that Depp is a kind friend and was also abusive to his wife. Neither has any bearing on the other.

Three women a day are killed by their partners in the U.S. alone. One in four women will experience severe physical violence from a partner. Most of this goes unreported. We lament these facts, and yet, when a woman does come forward, we don't believe her. This case is not unusual. It merely underlines how normalised victim blaming is within our culture, and what stunning ignorance there is surrounding the insidious nature of abuse.

We didn't want to talk about how a beloved public figure might be capable of abuse. But this is a conversation we need to have. Because while public opinion of this case might change, the memory of the mistrust, of the victim blaming, and the vilification of Amber Heard will remain.

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