Johnny Depp v Amber Heard

Amber Heard faces ‘culture’s wrath’ at trial: Death threats, taunting Depp fans, shirts branding her a liar

In 2018, Amber Heard wrote about ‘culture’s wrath’ for women who speak out about sexual violence. More than three years later, that wrath is playing out both within and outside of the courtroom, writes Rachel Sharp

Thursday 26 May 2022 13:41 BST
Actress Amber Heard at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia
Actress Amber Heard at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

His fans heckle her outside the courthouse.

Companies are selling merchandise branding her a liar.

Social media users express desires to kill her.

The public backlash Amber Heard now faces is the very same “culture’s wrath” she wrote about more than three years ago.

Back in 2018, she penned an op-ed for The Washington Post titled: “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”

In the piece, she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” and told how she had “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out”.

Those words are now at the centre of a multimillion-dollar defamation trial between Ms Heard and her ex-husband Johnny Depp that is being closely watched all across the globe.

Mr Depp is suing his ex-wife for $50m accusing her of defaming him in the op-ed.

The Pirates of the Caribbean actor is not named in the article but claims that it falsely implies that he is a domestic abuser, something that he strongly denies, and that it has left him struggling to land roles in Hollywood.

Ms Heard is countersuing for $100m, accusing Mr Depp of orchestrating a “smear campaign” against her and describing his lawsuit as a continuation of “abuse and harassment”.

The trial began on 11 April with explosive testimony playing out inside the courtroom.

Mr Depp himself took the stand for several days in his case before Ms Heard testified for her defence on 4 and 5 May.

But while their two legal teams continue to go head-to-head over the words in the op-ed, it’s undeniable that the “culture’s wrath” Ms Heard spoke of back at the height of the MeToo movement in 2018 is still very much alive in and out of the courtroom in 2022.

“Too often, when a woman is abused and keeps quiet, people criticise her with ‘Why didn’t you say something?’” a source close to Amber Heard told The Independent prior to her testimony.

“Well, she did. And now she’s being attacked for it.”

Actor Johnny Depp reacts to fans in the courtroom on Thursday
Actor Johnny Depp reacts to fans in the courtroom on Thursday (AP)

It began on day one as Mr Depp fans arrived at the Fairfax courthouse bearing signs reading “Justice for Johnny” and bouquets of flowers for the movie star.

Then, just four days into the trial, two such fans were removed from the courtroom after officials learned that they had previously made violent threats against Ms Heard on social media.

The two women were escorted from their seats in the gallery by courthouse guards after they had managed to secure coveted wristbands to watch the trial in support of Mr Depp, reported the New York Post.

One of the women had allegedly called Ms Heard a “c**t” and written “I Can’t Wait For The Day I Kill Amber Heard” in a social media post.

“My legs are strong enough to break your face… Threaten Johnny Depp again and you’ll see what I mean,” read a social media post from the second woman.

Hordes of other social media users following the trial have also made violent threats towards Ms Heard, while the hashtag #JusticeforJohnny has been trending in support of Mr Depp.

“Someone kill that b***h Amber Heard,” one person tweeted.

“I have the ability to kill Amber Heard,” wrote another.

“It’s that age old question. If you were given one go in a time machine would you go back in time and kill a baby Amber Heard?” another person wrote.

Outside the courthouse, Ms Heard has also come under attack.

Supporters of Mr Depp have been seen chasing cars transporting Ms Heard and her legal team away from the building.

Meanwhile, footage shared online showed Ms Heard being booed and heckled by a crowd with one person heard calling her a “witch” as she left the courthouse.

With concerns mounting for Ms Heard’s safety as her defence prepared to present its case, reports emerged that she had hired an elite security team to protect her while at the courthouse building and when traveling to and from the trial.

The security detail, many of them former military and government officials working undercover, has been told to be on the lookout for “lone-wolf supporters trying to gain access to the [Fairfax] County Circuit Courthouse grounds, vehicles, or entrance to the facility”, according to a memo seen by the New York Post.

Fans wait for the arrival of Johnny Deep on day one of the trial
Fans wait for the arrival of Johnny Deep on day one of the trial (EPA)

Ms Heard’s appearance has also become a source of criticism, with social media going into overdrive making a mockery of her purportedly “unnatural” facial expressions in the courtroom.

When she began her testimony, online critics were quick to accuse her of putting on a show as she described alleged physical abuse and sexual assaults by Mr Depp.

In one viral clip, after Ms Heard told the jury that Mr Depp allegedly forcibly penetrated her with a vodka bottle, the couple were seen nearly crossing paths in the courtroom. They made eye contact and Ms Heard appeared to shudder - a gesture social media detractors claimed was a fake show of terror.

The court entered a week-long break beginning 5 May, after which Mr Depp’s team issued a statement saying Ms Heard had delivered the “performance of her life” in her first two days on the stand.

A spokesperson for Ms Heard responded by telling the The Independent that “as evidenced by the statement just released, Mr Depp’s defamation claim is falling apart so rapidly that his counsel are turning from prosecutor to persecutor”.

Another bizarre trend, social media users claim, is that the actress is copying her ex-husband’s wardrobe choices.

“I’ve been watching the Johnny Depp trial and noticed that Amber Heard is mirroring him through outfits,” one person wrote.

“When Johnny wore a grey suit… the next day she wore the same thing. Then he wore a Gucci ensemble and then she wore it the next day,” added another.

Businesses are now also profiting off the growing anti-Heard sentiment, selling merchandise such as T-shirts and mugs featuring slogans hitting out at the actress or quotes celebrating Mr Depp’s courtroom testimony.

Urban Dictionary’s ecommerce platform is selling a $33 “Amber Heard” mug, printed with a description of Ms Heard as “an actress that can’t even act and is known best for divorcing Johnny Depp and then lying about her relationship with him to the media”.

On another site, “Don’t be an Amber” and “Team Johnny” feature on T-shirts and banners, some of which have been worn by Mr Depp’s fans outside the courthouse.

In an unlikely turn of events, a make-up brand also waded into the trial by posting a TikTok refuting a claim made by Ms Heard’s legal team.

In opening statements, attorney Elaine Bredehoft showed the court Milani Cosmetics’ All In One Correcting Kit saying that Ms Heard used the makeup to cover up her bruises from the alleged abuse she suffered from Mr Depp.

Milani Cosmetics took to its official TikTok account to say that its product was not launched until 2017, after Ms Heard and Mr Depp divorced in 2016.

In the TikTok, which amassed millions of views, Milani said: “You asked us… let the record show that our Correcting Kit launched in 2017!

“Take note: Alleged abuse was around 2014-2016, got divorced 2016, makeup palette release date: December 2017.”

Hours later, one Mr Depp fan headed to the courthouse to try to hand the information to his legal team.

The op-ed is displayed on screen as evidence in the defamation trial
The op-ed is displayed on screen as evidence in the defamation trial (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, calls are also growing for Ms Heard to be dropped from the upcoming Aquaman movie.

A petition, titled “Remove Amber Heard from Aquaman 2”, had topped three million signatures.

The petition calls Ms Heard a “known and proven domestic abuser”.

By contrast, Mr Depp fans are rallying behind the actor outside the courtroom and on social media.

Even inside the courtroom, Mr Depp has drawn laughs with jokes that every hour is “happy hour” when asked about his issues with alcohol and drugs.

He also earned laughter when he predicted a hearsay objection from Ms Heard’s lawyers, telling the court “I’m learning”.

The glaring difference in the public’s treatment of the two actors raises questions about how far society has truly come since Ms Heard first wrote about the “cultural wrath” facing women who come forward with allegations of sexual violence.

“I’d say the reactions that are negative now are probably very similar to what they were back then,” Erinn Robinson, director of media relations at anti-sexual violence organisation Rainn, tells The Independent.

“Both times, there’s visibly been an online backlash.”

The backlash that survivors continue to face when they speak out is proof that there is “more work to do”, she says.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand that survivors face many barriers to coming forward.

“I definitely think it signals that we have more work to do in terms of understanding trauma,” she says.

“And every survivor who comes forward should be believed and supported and have their experience validated.”

When a survivor is accusing a powerful individual there is also an “added layer” to the backlash and their fight to be believed, she says.

“Power dynamics can play into a survivor’s ability to have their experience validated and believed and those power dynamics certainly play into a survivor’s decision to pursue criminal justice or not,” says Ms Robinson.

The power dynamics in this case are complex as both Mr Depp and Ms Heard are famous, wealthy actors.

However, in Hollywood, Mr Depp has a more well-established career and larger fan base as he has been a household name across the globe for more than four decades – which is perhaps reflected in his larger public support so far during the trial.

On 1 May, it emerged that Ms Heard had dropped her crisis PR team at Precision Strategies and enlisted Shane Communications to try to combat negative coverage surrounding the case.

But, for Ms Robinson, the lasting impact of the anti-Heard sentiment stretches far beyond Ms Heard and her legal fight with Mr Depp alone.

She warns that it may discourage victims from coming forward with their own stories.

“Any time we see a public case like this particularly with famous individuals it’s common to see a backlash against survivors coming forward,” she says.

Amber Heard is expected to take the stand as soon as Monday
Amber Heard is expected to take the stand as soon as Monday (EPA)

“And for other survivors weighing the decision of whether or not to come forward, they see reactions on social media to people in court and that can have implications on their individual decisions to come forward and pursue [charges in] the criminal justice system or to decide that there is too much scrutiny and potential for ridicule that they don’t want to.”

“It can also have a chilling impact beyond the case.”

Such public attacks on sexual violence victims who speak out about their experiences often “reverberate and ripple beyond the one individual case or moment in time”, she explains.

“It very much indicates to survivors how they may be perceived if they come forward and sets a tone so I can imagine that the words and reactions we are seeing are definitely having implications,” she says.

Despite concerns that the treatment of Ms Heard could negatively impact the willingness of victims to speak out about sexual violence, Ms Robinson insists that it is not a sign that the MeToo movement is already over.

“What I think MeToo really did is shed light on how pervasive this problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence is,” she says.

“I think we’ve made great strides in understanding the scope of the problem.

“But now the question is: OK, we know how widespread and pervasive it is so where do we go next?

“And this is where the public needs to understand that we’re still at a very rudimentary level of understanding this type of trauma.”

All of the people who came forward to share their stories have started a powerful conversation, she says.

“But it is a conversation that is actually only just starting,” she adds.

“We’ve scoped out the problem and now we need to keep going.”

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