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On social media, Johnny Depp is winning public sympathy over Amber Heard

Actor Johnny Depp waves to the gallery as he leaves for a break Monday during his defamation trial in Fairfax, Va. against his ex-wife, Amber Heard.
Steve Helber
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Actor Johnny Depp waves to the gallery as he leaves for a break Monday during his defamation trial in Fairfax, Va. against his ex-wife, Amber Heard.

On Monday, actor Johnny Depp is scheduled to return to the stand in the defamation trial between him and his former wife, Amber Heard, that is taking place in Fairfax County, Va. Depp sued Heard over an op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post in 2018 about being a survivor of domestic violence. Heard did not name Depp in the Post essay, but Depp says his professional reputation was hurt nonetheless. Closing arguments in the case are expected to begin this Friday.

On Weekend Edition Sunday, sociologist Nicole Bedera, who specializes in sexual violence, spoke to NPR about the trial and its implications for discussions about intimate partner violence — and why social media seems to have far more sympathy for the former Pirates of the Caribbean star than for his ex-wife.

Public opinion appears to be weighing far more heavily in favor of Depp than Heard. On TikTok, as of Monday morning, #IStandWithAmberHeard has garnered about 8.2 million views, while #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has earned about 15 billion views. Why is there such a disparity?

"I think there are a lot of reasons for that," Bedera said. "One of them that's really simple, and that we cannot overlook is, in a defamation case, Johnny Depp gets to go first. And so his side of the story has been told in full. And a lot of people made up their minds after week one of the case or day three of the case. But the other reason is that in online spaces, we often see that men's rights groups and other anti-feminist groups are better organized. We know that men's rights activist forums, for example, have been following the Heard case pretty carefully."

Could it be possible also that the public might be more sympathetic toward Depp because he is such a big movie star, and so well-liked on screen for decades?

Yes, Bedera responded. "This is something I say a lot," she continued. "We all think that sexual violence is wrong and say that we will believe and support survivors, up until the perpetrator is someone we know and like. You don't want to feel like you're a bad person if you continue to like Pirates Of The Caribbean."

During the trial, Depp has also accused Heard of assaulting him, and claimed that he is a victim of domestic violence as well. It's been something of a catalyst for men's rights groups to rally around Depp.

"In our society," Bedera said, "we expect that victims fit a specific mold. We call it the perfect victim trope. And often we confuse victims' self-defense as a form of aggression. And this is really common in cases like this, where perpetrators will claim that they are the true victims. They do something that psychologists call 'DARVO.' 'DARVO' is an acronym that stands for deny, attack and reverse victim and offender. And we're seeing it on display really clearly in this case, where Johnny Depp is denying — not that he was violent, he actually is still admitting that there was violence coming from him in this relationship. But he's denying that Amber Heard's story of it is trustworthy, and instead saying that she drove him to violence." (In a series of 2016 texts, Depp and fellow actor Paul Bettany discussed the idea of killing Heard, which he said on the stand was "abstract humor." He also claimed on the stand that it was Heard who turned their fights physical.)

Bedera also says that she is concerned about the impact this trial could have on victims of intimate partner violence and their willingness to come forward.

"This is my biggest concern about this case, and I think it's something that's really gotten lost in the sensationalism around the trial," she added. "Right now, [Depp's] team is alleging that if a woman comes forward and identifies as a survivor in public, that that could count as defamation."

That could pose risks to accusers who are not as high-profile as Depp and Heard.

"Absolutely, it's already happening," said Bedera. "According to a Know Your IX report from 2021, they found that of the survivors that report to their universities, 23% are threatened with defamation lawsuits by their perpetrators, and 10% face some kind of a retaliatory complaint on campus."

Depp's reputation in Hollywood has already taken a hit. Last Thursday, Depp's former agent testified that studios were less willing to work with him because of his "unprofessional behavior" and rumored substance abuse.

"One question I have right now, in our sort of post-#MeToo moment," Bedera commented, "we're trying to decide what the consequences should be for intimate partner violence. And the reality is that Johnny Depp is facing a lot of consequences for committing acts of violence, not just to Amber Heard but also for volatile behavior on set. And people who work alongside him have a bit clearer of a picture than somebody who's watching it on TikTok and doesn't know any of the people involved in this case. Both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard admit that there was violence in this relationship. The question is whether or not there should be consequences for that violence. And that's the fight we're having in public right now."

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento and Matthew Schuerman produced and edited the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.