Last week, Johnny Depp won his defamation civil lawsuit against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. It was a highly publicized and publicly consumed trial that played out live for weeks on the internet, resulting in a verdict that legal experts called strange and unexpected. “She’s begging for total global humiliation. She’s gonna get it”, Depp wrote in a text message back in 2016. That is indeed what has happened to Amber Heard (who will appeal), the case has been an enormous loss for her, but it’s just as enormous of a loss for victims. As Lexi McMenamin wrote at Teen Vogue last week, “the internet made a spectacle of domestic abuse claims, leaving a despicable landscape for survivors everywhere”.
Amber’s legal defeat represents a major legal victory for DARVO. Coined by Jennifer J. Freyd, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Oregon, Founder and President, Center for Institutional Courage, DARVO is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. She wanted to explore the ways in which people accused of assault responded to accusations, and how it could be utilized as a reaction by an individual as well as an institutional strategy. In layman's terms, it’s a sophisticated form of victim blaming. Freyd’s research “showed that people were less likely to believe the victim when presented with accounts of abuse followed by a DARVO response”. Choosing Therapy describes DARVO as follows:
“While every abuse situation is unique, the strategies abusers use to maintain their status share some similar themes. Many abusers use DARVO ploys to deny their wrongdoing, attack the offended, and reverse roles with the victim to make themselves the victim or harmed person. This form of manipulation is powerful with lasting effects on the victim and society as a whole…”
As Dustin Rowles explained in his piece for Pajiba last week on why “Johnny Depp’s Case Against Amber Heard Was Textbook DARVO”, citing Nicola Heath’s work at SBS, the strategy is effective because of “himpathy”:
“… a term coined by philosopher Kate Manne in her 2017 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny that describes the excessive sympathy shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence - is central to understanding why DARVO is so effective,” says Bedera. "In general, we tend to empathise more with men than with women. We are comfortable asking women to endure sexism - including violence - as part of a feminine gender role and to protect men's reputation and power. DARVO draws on those cultural biases." The media is often complicit. “Every time the media focuses the story on what a man stands to lose by being accused of sexual assault, they are strengthening the power of DARVO.”
Bedera expanded on this case, male abuse, and DARVO on Twitter:
The Depp case has raised a lot of questions about men's claims of abuse. How can we tell when they're real? Or when they're DARVO? As an expert, let me explain how professionals in our field tell the difference.— Dr. Nicole Bedera (@NBedera) May 26, 2022
DARVO requires power imbalance and there is certainly an imbalance of power between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard on multiple levels – from finances to fame – that was mobilised in this lawsuit and particularly effective in a civil trial where the jury was not sequestered. Which means that for all the memes and videos and mocking TikToks that targeted Amber in the weeks leading up to and during the trial, the jury would have been exposed to that, too, with social media completely shifting the trajectory and seeming to shape and control public opinion and the overall narrative throughout the trial.
But the online campaign against Amber had already started for months, even years, before the trial began. There has long been suspicion that the Depp team has been engaging in online manipulation, with some researchers pointing to the existence of an online bot army amplifying support in his favour. These are tactics that were already well-practised by fringe groups and other nefarious agents, including men’s rights groups who made Johnny Depp their hero, adding their toxic encouragement and considerable digital influence to the growing collective against Amber. With that foundation in place, all they needed was the cameras to be turned on in the courtroom.
Virginia law allowed the judge in this case to have full discretion on whether to allow cameras in the court during a civil proceeding. Judge Azcarate signed off on the broadcast, saying she had a responsibility to keep the proceedings open to observers. If cameras were not allowed, she worried that reporters would come to the courthouse, potentially creating a hazardous condition there, claiming “I don’t see any good cause not to do it.”
The hazardous condition, though, that ultimately was created was not in person but online with social media users clipping and editing footage from the trial, adding their own amateur interpretations and in many cases falsehoods and pumping out memes and TikToks and other damaging anti-Amber rhetoric to millions of people around the world.
On the decision to allow cameras, livestreaming, and ultimately the global public consumption of this trial, Michele Dauber, Professor of Law at Stanford Law School said, “Allowing this trial to be televised is the single worst decision I can think of in the context of intimate partner violence and sexual violence in recent history. It has ramifications way beyond this case.”
You may remember Dauber from the Brock Turner trial; she’s the one who spearheaded the petition to recall the judge who gave Turner a light sentence. Dauber has been publicly outspoken about the Depp-Heard trial (so you can imagine how disturbing her mentions are) and its many, many legal inconsistencies. She has called the decision to livestream the trial a “catastrophe”:
Excellent analysis by @ejdickson. To this I would add that none of that audio or video content would have been available had it not been for the horrendous decision of the judge to broadcast the trial. That really set the stage for this catastrophe.#IStandWithAmberHeard https://t.co/k8NKlbmzuH— Michele Dauber (@mldauber) June 6, 2022
And that’s exactly the chaos that Johnny Depp and his team intended to manufacture, having laid the online groundwork as a foundation for their attack, using DARVO as a takedown strategy, the cameras became part of the artillery. As A.O. Scott wrote in the New York Times, “…Depp-Heard wasn’t a criminal trial; it was a civil action intended to measure the reputational harm each one claimed the other had done. Which means that it rested less on facts than on sympathies. In that regard, Depp possessed distinct advantages.”
This is the power of celebrity. Johnny Depp had a 30-year blockbuster advantage on Amber Heard that had nothing to with evidence but on familiarity. From film to television, almost everyone has watched Johnny Depp on screen and here he was in a courtroom, with the cameras pointed at him, tapping into that recognition through cameras connecting to other cameras connected to devices with even more cameras and filters and editors and all of those connected to social media platforms.
That it was a civil trial and not a criminal one didn’t seem to matter. Neither did the fact that Depp lost his defamation lawsuit in the UK against The Sun newspaper for publishing that he was a “wife-beater” in 2020, where the judge found 12 incidents of domestic violence had occurred and The Sun had to prove, ultimately successfully, the accuracy of their coverage of him. But then again, even though there was more than enough evidence to support Amber Heard’s defence case, perhaps this was less about the law than it was about public relations, as many legal experts remain confused about why this went to trial in the first place:
Yes. This is why people who actually understand the law say that this case should have never gone anywhere: those sentences in the op-ed were objectively true. https://t.co/3R4CJ7AAuR— Dr. Mary Anne Franks (@ma_franks) June 4, 2022
Legal experts and survivor advocates are now deeply concerned about the far-reaching effects of this verdict establishing a precedent for abusers having the ability to use defamation freely in a civil legal strategy when domestic violence has occurred. There’s also discussion (like on The View last week) about whether this is the end of the #MeToo era. Of course it is not, and the founder of the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, issued a statement to refute that, but many want it to be and have been waiting for some time for a case like this. So it doesn’t even really matter what the facts are, the narrative is so out of control and rife with anti-women (disguised as anti-Amber) rhetoric. I agree with Burke that the Me Too movement is alive, but we have to admit to some fundamental setbacks for the movement and stark truths about public discourse and misogyny following this trial. One only has to search Twitter or YouTube and see that both men and women have taken Johnny’s side and seem to truly believe they know Amber is lying. There is so much projection, so many assumptions being made, it’s devastating to see how ignorantly people discuss abuse.
On what we ask of survivors:
We continuously ask so much of survivors. We ask them to start filming before they know they’re going to be hit, we ask them to go get medical attention, we ask them to document every interaction they have before they know it’s abuse, we ask them to know it’s abuse before they start talking to someone. We ask them to report and when they do, we tell them they’re crazy and it’s all in their head. We ask them to document it but when they do, we say that’s not true, that photo is doctored. So both with Amber Heard and Megan Thee Stallion, we have photos of the harm and both times people question the validity.
On conspiracy theories being intensified even in the face of real evidence:
Because we have a proliferation of people invested in true crime, people think they know the truth in a court case, and think about cover-ups.
We are seeing in real time people saying things like “finally someone gets to say the truth- men are harmed just as much as women, or more.” As if anti-violence organizations and advocates have been falsifying this data that we have that clearly shows that women more than men will be attacked and harmed in intimate partner relationships. The most dangerous place for women is often in their home.
On women not being believed:
Intimate partner violence affects everyone, but people’s ability to access support, be believed by the legal system and seek healing is also shaped by their social location.
On my pet peeve: People who say, “I believe women, but not her.” I truly think this line of thinking means the opposite and they were waiting to not believe someone.
We expect survivors to be perfect humans, they are messy, they are complicated, they are people. They are us. The most dangerous time for women who experience intimate partner violence is when they leave. How does an abuser regain control? By weaponizing the legal system.
Think of all the harm sexism does. Now imagine the exponential impact of that harm once people believe that it's morally justified. https://t.co/lI37V0heBF— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) June 2, 2022
Johnny Depp has undoubtedly used his power, celebrity, and money to silence a survivor of abuse, and we cannot forget that bottom line. The court of public opinion and the media was weaponized against Heard in real time during an already traumatizing and weaponizing legal procedure. The verdict symbolizes not only a bad legal precedent, but a terrible social one as well. The vitriol and violence that is freely being thrown Amber’s way is an unhealthy and dangerous way to talk about women and survivors of assault, and we saw it spread like wildfire and go viral throughout this process.
Misogyny is painful to witness, but it hurts everyone, even those who perpetuate it. If we are going to imagine a better world where people truly believe women, we are also trying to build a world that eradicates the harm in the first place, and we need everyone for that. Having survivors learn through this case that it is ok to humiliate them if they speak out will almost certainly result in more silencing, and it’s by design. On the Me Too movement, and the untrue rumour that it has canceled men or ruined their reputations, this Twitter thread proves the opposite. We have not reached a culture of true accountability, and there is so much more work to do. And so much to UNDO. What happened last week in Virginia could have very damaging consequences for an entire generation.