Campaigners from leading UK charities and experts told The Independent viral online responses to the lawsuit between Johnny Depp and Ms Heard shed light on how many people assume women who report domestic abuse and sexual violence are lying.
Mr Depp, a Hollywood actor, is currently embroiled in a high-profile defamation lawsuit against fellow actor and ex-wife Ms Heard in Virginia in the US. Mr Depp sued Ms Heard in March 2019, claiming a column she wrote for The Washington Post about domestic abuse was defamatory and requested $50m in damages. Ms Heard submitted a $100m countersuit.
Although the article does not include any reference to Mr Depp, his legal team argues the piece contains a “clear implication that Mr Depp is a domestic abuser”, which they maintain is “categorically and demonstrably false”. Ms Heard is giving testimony on Monday after the trial took a week-long hiatus.
Charlotte Proudman, a prominent family law lawyer who specialises in gender-based violence, told The Independent: “The jokes, memes and abuse of Amber Heard shows how deeply entrenched misogyny is in our society. These people aren’t incels, they are your brothers, your friends, even your father.”
An incel, which stands for a combination of the words “involuntary” and “celibate”, is a heterosexual man who desperately wants to have sex with women but fails to do so, consequently heaping blame on women for their own inability to form sexual relationships. Jake Davison, a self-proclaimed Incel, shot six people dead in Plymouth last August - with his mother and a three-year-old girl among his victims - before aiming the gun at his own head.
Dr Proudman added: “It is never acceptable to laugh and mock a complainant of sexual violence. Let’s not forget that Amber Heard was found by a High Court Judge in the UK to be a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Depp.
“The memes serve to undermine her, and in doing so, they send out a strong message to survivors that if you speak out, you could be laughed at, and ridiculed, this might discourage women from seeking support from friends or family and they might be reluctant to report abuse to the police.”
Dr Proudman argued the memes mocking Heard “are driven by misogyny” and “a deep hatred towards women” as she argued people are conditioned and “socialised to hate women”.
“To believe that women lie, to support men and feel empathy towards abusers,” she added. “The Depp case shows this in a microcosm.”
Twitter and TikTok have been inundated with memes and lip-syncs mocking Heard’s testimony about the alleged violence and abuse she suffered at the hands of Depp - as well as seeking to prove she is lying. While misinformation about the case has abounded on YouTube where one-sided videos have provided an unbalanced depiction of the trial.
Hashtags about the Depp Heard case have clocked up billions of views on TikTok - with hashtags titled “AmberHeardIsAPsycho” or “AmberHeardIsALiar” gaining a great deal of traction. Memes have also surfaced that actively salute the harrowing, violent messages which Depp sent about Heard.
In a message to Paul Bettany in 2013, Depp said: “Let’s burn Amber.” He added later: “Let’s drown her before we burn her. I will f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”
Discussing the response to the Depp Heard case online, Jessica Taylor, a prominent psychologist who specialises in sexual violence and victim-blaming, told The Independent: “The disinformation videos are in part deliberate.
“And in part a by-product of televising an entire hearing whereby millions of people can watch clips and shots of Amber and scrutinise every breath she takes, often using totally debunked techniques which claim to be able to use body language and eye contact to detect deception and manipulation.”
Dr Taylor argued the body language being wielded “to condemn and scrutinise” Heard is “being used to defend and support” Depp.
Dr Taylor, who examines the pathologisation of women in mental health settings, argued the case has “really has brought out the worst in people” and exposed the stark “reality of contempt towards women” as well as revealing the trivialisation of domestic violence.
The psychologist, previously a senior lecturer in Forensic and Criminological Psychology at the University of Derby, added: “It’s been televised as if it is a reality TV show, like entertainment.
“People are revelling in the details and the scrutiny. Every misogynistic trope possible has now been utilised - and every woman who has ever been abused or been through a court process like this - or is awaiting a case hearing - is watching on in horror.”
Dr Taylor explained thousands of women have got in touch with her about the case - noting the trial has fostered a “sense of disbelief”.
“Even some leading domestic abuse campaigners and feminists have relentlessly mocked Amber Heard, and created narratives of ‘real victim’ versus ‘not real victim’ which has scared many women,” she added.
“They look at Amber and think ‘but, I would cry like that too’ or ‘but I would probably be like that in court too’ - and realise that they don’t fit the ‘perfect victim’ stereotype either.”
Dr Taylor noted women who are currently awaiting case hearings in family court and criminal court have told her they are considering “retracting or pulling out” after witnessing the online abuse and harassment of Heard.
“They are frightened by the way amber has been pulled apart, mocked and humiliated,” she said. “They realise that if that could happen to a millionaire actress with a legal team, anything could happen to them as just normal women trying to navigate a court process.”
Dr Taylor argued the “cruel memes” about Heard stem from the fact “society doesn’t believe women, never has, and this trial has revealed those real biases and lack of compassion still exist and still motivate millions of people whilst they pretend to support victims and women.”
A spokesperson for Women’s Aid, a leading domestic abuse charity, told The Independent domestic abuse should never be laughed about.
The representative added: “A domestic abuse case being used as entertainment for memes and jokes is likely to have a long-term impact on how seriously people take domestic abuse.
“We know that domestic abuse is experienced by 1.6 million women a year in England and Wales, and we only ever know the tip of the iceberg, as many survivors never tell anyone what has happened to them.”
Between two and three women are murdered each week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales.
Ruth Davison, chief executive of Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, said: “When large numbers of people are seeking to discredit or mock a woman talking about her experience of alleged abuse so publicly, concerns survivors may have about not being believed will be amplified.”
While Rape Crisis England & Wales told The Independent generating memes and mocking an individual’s experience of sexual assault “minimises, trivialises and normalises sexual violence”.
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