The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Depp-Heard verdict is a gag order for women

Amber Heard waits for the ruling to be announced at a defamation trial involving the actor and her former husband, actor Johnny Depp on June 1 in Fairfax. (Evelyn Hockstein/PoolAFP/Getty Images

Charlotte Proudman is a barrister specializing in violence against women and girls, and a fellow in law and sociology at Queens’ College, Cambridge.

We lost. We’ve lost before. But this one hurts like an open wound.

On Wednesday, Amber Heard was found by a jury in a Virginia court to have defamed her former husband, Johnny Depp, in an op-ed whose point this case has loudly proved. The result is gutting for individuals who watched the trial, anticipating a victory that could empower them to speak, in belief that the justice system would protect them.

The jury in that courtroom was asked to consider whether three statements in a 2018 Post op-ed were defamatory. This included Heard’s claim that “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.” Not once did the article mention Depp’s name.

Yet the jury found that Heard had defamed Depp and acted out of “actual malice”; she has been ordered to pay him $10.35 million. It also found that Depp’s lawyer had defamed Heard, by saying her account of abuse was a “hoax.” For that, she was awarded only $2 million.

This comes two years after a High Court judge in England and Wales dismissed a libel claim Depp had filed against the Sun newspaper — for an article that had called him a “wife beater” — ruling that it had been “proved to the civil standard” that Depp had assaulted Heard on 12 of 14 alleged occasions. (Depp has consistently denied that he abused Heard.)

With the American verdict, Heard has faced more than the culture’s wrath — she has faced global humiliation.

The entire case has been like a “Black Mirror” episode. A dystopian nightmare in which TikToks of a distraught woman detailing an alleged sexual assault were devoured with popcorn and laughter. Twitter hashtags — #AmberIsALiar, #AmbersAPsychopath, #TeamJohnny — made it a trial by media.

Those supporting Heard received death threats, rape threats, a constant bombardment of hate for simply saying, “I stand with Amber.” I know: I got them in bucketloads.

We saw tired, misogynistic methods used again and again to discredit a woman trying to stand up for her rights. Blaming Heard for not leaving, for fighting back, for not being bruised enough, for not having enough evidence. And when she did have evidence? Depp’s team portrayed her as a manipulative liar — and the jury appears to have found this credible.

Heard’s psychologist, Dawn Hughes, testified that Heard had post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of domestic abuse. Psychologist Shannon Curry, a witness for Depp, diagnosed Heard with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder — despite having never treated her.

As a barrister, I have witnessed the pathologization of survivors become a go-to tactic to discredit them. Slamming a woman’s mental state has always been a quick and easy way to gaslight them — “Oh, she’s crazy,” “she’s so unstable” — “medicine” as a misogynist’s handmaiden.

Many women who watched this trial will recognize this, the classic DARVO playbook in action: deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. And they will fear that they could be next.

The trial reinforced the notion that those who speak out must look, sound and act a certain way. They must conform to the stereotype of the “perfect victim,” one who cowers in a corner, voiceless and powerless. That woman doesn’t speak or fight back.

This is a trope. It rarely exists.

I’ve seen victims behave in all manner of ways in abusive relationships and in the courtroom. Perhaps the only time we see the “perfect victim”? In movies written by men.

As the verdict came, abuse survivors expressed their devastation online. One psychologist told Rolling Stone that “hundreds” of survivors had contacted her to retract victim statements or pulled out from court cases as a result of watching the trial.

The biggest losers here are the U.S. justice system and the women who might otherwise have put their faith in it. Women have been told that if we have enough evidence, we’ll be believed. The truth is, it doesn’t matter how much evidence we have. The system is rigged against women.

Do you think it’s fair that a woman had to testify before a man she says abused her, while that man sat there, smirking? Do you think it’s fair that, throughout the trial, the most intimate and traumatic details were broadcast for the world to see? Do you think it’s fair that Heard was ordered to pay millions of dollars for writing an article that didn’t even name the man who has prevailed in this case?

Heard had the PR team. She had the legal team. Still, she couldn’t win. All we got during weeks of painful testimony was a woman being treated like a villain, a famous man showered with adoration and a justice system failing to protect what it supposedly promises to defend.

The Depp-Heard trial was a circus. The verdict is a gag order.

Loading...