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The Actual Malice of the Johnny Depp Trial

by News Desk

The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial was, from gavel to gavel, a singularly baffling, unedifying and sad spectacle. Now that it has ended with the jury finding in favor of Depp on all questions and in favor of Heard on only one, it’s clear that the confusion was the point.

Why did Depp, who had already lost a similar case in Britain, insist on going back to court? A public trial, during which allegations of physical, sexual, emotional and substance abuse against him were sure to be repeated, couldn’t be counted on to restore his reputation. Heard, his ex-wife, was counting on the opposite: that the world would hear, in detail, about the physical torments that led her to describe herself, in the Washington Post op-ed that led to the suit, as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”

Even before the verdict came in, Depp had already won. What had looked to many like a clear-cut case of domestic violence had devolved into a “both sides” melodrama. The fact that Heard’s partial victory, which involved not Depp’s words but those spoken in 2020 by Adam Waldman, his lawyer at the time, can be spun in that direction shows how such ambiguity served Depp all along. As one commenter on The New York Times site put it, “Every relationship has its troubles.” Life is complicated. Maybe they were both abusive. Who really knows what happened? The convention of courtroom journalism is to make a scruple of indeterminacy. And so we found ourselves in the familiar land of he said/she said.

We should know by now that the symmetry implied by that phrase is an ideological fiction, that women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault have a much harder time being listened to than their assailants. I don’t mean that women always tell the truth, that men are always guilty as charged, or that due process isn’t the bedrock of justice. But Depp-Heard wasn’t a criminal trial; it was a civil action intended to measure the reputational harm each one claimed the other had done. Which means that it rested less on facts than on sympathies.

In that regard, Depp possessed distinct advantages. He isn’t a better actor than Heard, but her conduct on the stand was more harshly criticized in no small part because he’s a more familiar performer, a bigger star who has dwelled for much longer in the glow of public approbation. He brought with him into the courtroom the well-known characters he has played, a virtual entourage of lovable rogues, misunderstood artists and gonzo rebels. He’s Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow, Hunter S. Thompson, Gilbert Grape.

We’ve seen him mischievous and mercurial, but never truly menacing. He’s someone we’ve watched grow up, from juvenile heartthrob on “21 Jump Street” to crusty old salt in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. His offscreen peccadilloes (the drinking, the drugs, the “Winona Forever” tattoo) have been part of the pop-cultural background noise for much of that time, classified along with the scandals and shenanigans that have been a Hollywood sideshow since the silent era.

In his testimony, Depp copped to some bad stuff, but this too was a play for sympathy, of a piece with the charm and courtliness he was at pains to display. That he came off as a guy unable to control his temper or his appetites was seen, by many of the most vocal social media users, to enhance his credibility, while Heard’s every tear or gesture was taken to undermine hers. The audience was primed to accept him as flawed, vulnerable, human, and to view her as monstrous.

Because he’s a man. Celebrity and masculinity confer mutually reinforcing advantages. Famous men — athletes, actors, musicians, politicians — get to be that way partly because they represent what other men aspire to be. Defending their prerogatives is a way of protecting, and asserting, our own. We want them to be bad boys, to break the rules and get away with it. Their seigneurial right to sexual gratification is something the rest of us might resent, envy or disapprove of, but we rarely challenge it. These guys are cool. They do what they want, including to women. Anyone who objects is guilty of wokeness, or gender treason, or actual malice.

Of course there are exceptions. In the #MeToo era there are men who have gone to jail, lost their jobs or suffered disgrace because of the way they’ve treated women. The fall of certain prominent men — Harvey Weinstein, Leslie Moonves, Matt Lauer — was often welcomed as a sign that a status quo that sheltered, enabled and celebrated predators, rapists and harassers was at last changing.

A few years later, it seems more likely that they were sacrificed not to end that system of entitlement but rather to preserve it. Almost as soon as the supposed reckoning began there were complaints that it had gone too far, that nuances were being neglected and too-harsh punishments meted out.

This backlash has been folded into a larger discourse about “cancel culture,” which is often less about actions than words. “Cancellation” is now synonymous with any criticism that invokes racial insensitivity, sexual misbehavior or controversial opinions. Creeps are treated as martyrs, and every loudmouth is a free-speech warrior. Famous men with lucrative sinecures on cable news, streaming platforms and legacy print publications can proclaim themselves victims.

Which is just what Depp did. And while he accused Heard of doing terrible things to him in the course of their relationship and breakup, the lawsuit wasn’t about those things. It was about words published under her name, none of which were “Johnny Depp.” In a sentence the jury found false and malicious, after describing herself as “representing domestic abuse” Heard wrote that she “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” This time she surely has.

Misogyny isn’t the subtext of American political rage and social dysfunction; all too often, it’s the plain text. The links between domestic violence and mass shootings are chilling and well documented, though rarely cited in arguments about policy and prevention. The mobs of social media mobilize against women with special frequency and ferocity, often using the language of righteous grievance. Gamergate, a campaign of harassment directed at women who wrote about video game culture, pretended to be about “ethics in journalism.” The alt-right in the months before the 2016 election and its post-Trump progeny specialize in targeted misogyny. The TikTok hordes that went after Amber Heard over the past few months took a page from that book.

Depp’s victory is also theirs. The rage of men whose grievances are inchoate and inexhaustible found expression in a 58-year-old movie star’s humiliation of his 36-year-old former wife. I have to wonder: Are men OK? That’s a sincere question. Does the blend of self-pity, vanity, petulance and bombast that Depp displayed on the stand represent how we want to see ourselves or our sons? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is yes.

Not all men, though. Right? Now that the trial is over, we’ll find new things to be ambiguous about, new venues where indeterminacy can serve as an alibi for the same old cruelty, and for its newer iterations. Johnny Depp is being embraced as a hero in some quarters, but his victory extends even to those who will allow themselves to feel troubled by the outcome of the trial and then move on. Some of us may wince a little when we watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Donnie Brasco,” but we’ll probably still watch. They’re pretty good movies, and it’s not as if they can be expunged from the collective memory. That hasn’t happened to Louis C.K., or Woody Allen, or Michael Jackson, or Mel Gibson, or even Bill Cosby. Some of them have gone to court, some have faced public censure and disgrace, but they all remain woven into the fabric of the culture, and their behavior is too. We may not entirely forget, but we mostly forgive.

Let’s at least be clear about what that means. It means that we value the comfort and self-regard of men, especially famous ones, more than we value the safety and dignity of women, even famous ones.

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