One popular video on YouTube was simply titled "Fake tears". Another was equally dismissive: "Worst. Performance. Ever." A third warned of "brand new lies about Johnny". To a certain extent, you can expect this sort of overreaction and clickbaity headlines on YouTube. But I think something else is going on.
The Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial is possibly the most talked-about and memed defamation case of recent years. Even someone like me, who tried to pay as little attention to it as possible, has not been able to avoid it. The discussion, videos and memes are everywhere.
My colleague Clemence Michallon wrote about the trial’s memeification last week. "If anything, this online mess has made me grateful that social media wasn’t around during the infamous criminal trials of our times."
The social media coverage of the trial is shaping our perceptions of what’s happening in a subtle way. Take YouTube – the most popular videos on the trial are about Depp making the courtroom laugh. Most of the images and videos of the trial have two things in common: Johnny Depp is always pictured as smiling, happy or making other people laugh, and in contrast, Amber Heard is always pictured as angry or crying. There’s even a popular Tiktok video of a woman imitating Heard by slowly contorting her expression into a big sad face and batting her eyelashes.
Supporters of Johnny Depp, who seem to outnumber Amber Heard’s side 100-1, which isn’t really surprising as he’s a much bigger celebrity, have portrayed him as amusing and affable. By contrast, Amber Heard is almost always painted as angry and unstable.
TV and radio presenter and DJ Jimmy Savile also entertained a nation while he was sexually abusing children across the UK. I’m not saying Depp is like Savile. It’s more that being an entertainer doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good person. And yet many simply cannot get their head around this idea – Johnny Depp may have been extremely funny and lovable as an actor, while being perfectly capable of abusing his wife.
It’s worth noting that in 2020, Johnny Depp lost his libel case against The Sun newspaper over an article that called him a "wife beater".
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I’m also not trying to say that there’s a concerted conspiracy to portray Johnny Depp as a nice guy. It’s more that a lot of people clearly remember him that way from his movies – this happy-go-lucky chap just trying to entertain everyone. But that is spilling over into something entirely unrelated – his personal life.
There clearly isn’t a gender divide here either. A lot of women have taken Johnny Depp’s side, and a lot of vocal men are on Heard’s side. To be honest, I’m not on either side. But it can also be true that social media coverage of this case has subtly played into traditional, sexist tropes about men and women. About how women who complain about domestic violence are just unstable and vengeful gold-diggers, while men who commit such acts are wronged nice guys.
This seems obvious but worth restating: just because Johnny Depp was a great entertainer, and has continued to entertain people during the trial, does not mean he is innocent of all he is accused of. It does not mean he should automatically win his civil case. Let the judge decide that, based on the facts not memes.
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