Probably no other recent event so shockingly gave rise to the widespread ridiculing of domestic violence as the recent trial of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in Alexandria, Virginia.
Culture Reframed is particularly concerned about the message this sends about the seriousness of intimate partner violence (IPV). We were struck by the fact that a good deal of the jeering came from young people themselves on social media. This was distressing, but not surprising. After all, young people today are relentlessly bombarded by images in popular culture – porn, for example, and advertising – that represents women and girls as hyper-sexualized objects to be used and abused by men.
They also are surrounded by a cultural double-standard that privileges men over women, and values what philosopher Kate Manne calls “himpathy” and “herasure.”
These are deeply harmful biases. They are pervasive, powerful, and hard to overcome. That is why we read young people’s social media posts during the trial as a plea for greater discussion about these issues and for assistance in overcoming these deeply-rooted prejudices.
We specifically encourage parents, caregivers, and professionals who work with children to use the trial as a springboard for honest conversations about relational violence, healthy relationships, critical media literacy, trauma, and trust. We do not want young people to further absorb and mirror the harmful narratives so prominent during the trial, and thus to confuse what they see on TikTok for reality.
To assist with these conversations, we offer possible explanations below as to why young people had these reactions to the trial. We put their social media postings into a broader context, and suggest how to counteract the false narratives about the trial in a way that will empower them with strategies of resilience and resistance.
To begin, let’s review. The trial, which was livestreamed, opened on April 11, 2022, and lasted for just over seven weeks. The verdict was delivered on June 1. Throughout, the nation – indeed, the world – was riveted. At challenge was Amber Heard’s accusations against her former partner and movie co-star, Johnny Depp. She alleged multiple outbursts of violence during his frequent bouts of heavy drinking and prodigious drug use. During testimony, Heard’s legal team introduced photos of her bruised and battered face. Heard also reported that Depp called her demeaning names, belittled and screamed at her, smashed drinking glasses, flung objects around their apartment, punched walls, threw an iPhone into her face, repeatedly slapped her, and, perhaps most horrifying, raped her with a bottle. In proven text messages, too, we learned that Depp expressed the desire to kill Heard.
On social media, however, many young people, like many adults, were seemingly swayed by none of Heard’s testimony and evidence. Of course, none of the naysayers who commented on the trial were present with Heard and Depp at the times of the alleged assaults. Nonetheless, people overwhelmingly ridiculed anything Heard said about Depp, and they believed everything he said about her. The jurors in Virginia agreed, finding Heard guilty, after only a few days of deliberations, of defaming Depp.
Even before the jury handed its shameful decision to the bailiff, we heard a clear verdict voiced by boys and girls in school hallways on both sides of the Atlantic: Sexual assault is a joke. That was the upshot of all those sarcastic videos, scornful cartoons, and photoshopped images which circulated on social media that portrayed Amber Heard as a lying fiend intent on destroying the career of an innocent Johnny Depp. We do not blame young people for their reactions to the trial. Nor do we think that they intended to mock survivors of domestic violence. We blame the wider cultural context.
It was that same context that pushed to the background the fact that, even before the trial in Virginia, a judge in England had already ruled in 2020 that Heard’s accusations against Depp were “substantially true.”
In 2016, Heard was granted a restraining order against Depp in a Los Angeles court for various acts of alleged domestic violence. They divorced some months later. Then, in 2018, a British newspaper reported on Heard’s allegations, and criticized author J.K. Rowling for casting Depp in the Harry Potter spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. Depp sued the newspaper for libel and he lost. The judge found that 12 of the 14alleged incidents of Depp’s violence against Heard – including that he hit her, pulled her along the floor by her hair, choked her, suffocated her with a pillow, and threatened to kill her – were, to repeat, “substantially true.” But that verdict was not fully or fairly communicated by the media and adults in general to young people during the American trial.
That certainly helps explain why, during the trial in Virginia, most kids poked fun at Heard. YouTube videos put her testimony to music, as if sexual violence was mere entertainment. Twitter burst at the seams with #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath, #AmberHeardIsMentallyIll, #AmberHeardIsALiar, and more. TikTok exploded with #AmberTurd memes – garnering over 4.6 billion views as of June 20. One user summarized the prevailing opinion well: “She devil.” The only reasonable conclusion is that young people have not been taught properly about healthy relationships and domestic violence.
One of us has years of experience studying relational violence and working with ‘battered women.’ The commentary on the trial by people of all ages, never mind the verdict, caused a well-founded shudder of fear in women’s shelters around the world. Survivors now feel silenced, frightened “that they cannot speak about their violent experiences at men’s hands without the threat of a ruinous libel suit.” The wall of denial built around Amber Heard’s allegations of abuse will also impede efforts to help protect young people — specifically, to curtail the high rates of verbal, physical, and sexual dating violence in middle schools, high schools, and even in elementary schools. Some of the very children who mocked Amber Heard have been victimized themselves. They are survivors, and others will unfortunately be so themselves someday.
This is a lot to digest, we know. When sitting down with young people, we at Culture Reframed think the best tactic is to unpack the assumptions behind the public stoning of Amber Heard. Do not shame or blame your child for anything they posted during the trial or anything they might say now. They are, in most cases, simply reflecting what they have learned from the culture, peers, and other adults. Rather, try to guide them to understand why they and their friends might have responded as they did. We offer some talking points, organized around five themes:
- Critical Thinking.
- Personalize what happened.Many young people posted and reposted memes that laughed at Heard’s tears, testimony, injuries, and everything about her. Ask your child how they would feel if the same thing happened to them – in school, say, after they accused someone of bullying? Or if they witnessed a friend victimized by violence, and the adults laughed when they reported it? Use the trial as an opportunity to talk about compassion and empathy as a vantage point from which to understand how their own reactions might impact others.
- Social media and messaging.Young people today create, share, and repost memes on social media with hardly a moment’s thought. So do adults. Talk with your child about the different ways people can interpret memes on social media. How might one’s intentions – to be funny, for example – have unexpected consequences that could harm, exclude, silence, and make other people fearful? If they posted or reposted about the trial, what might those memes say about them to other people? Is it sometimes better to not share or repost – say, if one doesn’t have access to all the relevant facts? Perhaps the best choice in situations like the trial is to focus on what one does know for sure, such as, no one should be in a relationship where they don’t feel safe.
- Pseudo-psychology.During the trial, it often seemed that everybody on social media suddenly became a qualified psychologist with expertise in reading body language. Typical comments on TikTok were that Amber Heard “blinks a lot so that means she’s lying.” “She doesn’t have any direct eye contact when answering.” They commented on the length of her responses, how often she turned her head, how deeply she breathed, her every facial expression. “ALL of her body language points to the fact that she’s lying.” These comments might seem reasonable, but popular opinion doesn’t always rest on a firm foundation. Arecent scientific study, in fact, stated that “Several decades of empirical research have shown that none of the non-verbal signs assumed … to be diagnostic of lying vs. truthfulness is in fact a reliable indicator.” Equally important is to talk to young people about why most social media users scrutinized only the body of Heard, but not Depp.
- Cultural Bias.
- Truth and lying.Even though both Depp and Heard offered contrary testimony, the default truth-teller on social media was the man. Explain to your child that it is difficult to grow up in a culture and not internalize many of its biases and outlooks. Does your child believe that women are more prone to lying? Or that women lie about men? They will probably say no. But explain that our culture still privileges men over women, as the online jeering at Heard’s allegations made clear. Memes about the trial, too, show that many young people of all genders, like many adults, seemingly subscribe to what researchers call “rape myths.” It goes something like this: that whatever a woman alleged to have happened, she either lied or asked for it.
- Assume honesty.During the trial, social media made Heard and Depp into stand-ins for all women and men. This way, memes that ridiculed Heard had the effect of undermining the credibility of all survivors of sexual violence. In talking to young people, it is important to stress that we should grant everybody, especially those who claim to have experienced abuse, an equal presumption of honesty. That was certainly not the case on social media during the trial.
- False accusations almost never happen.Underneath many of the memes about Amber Heard was the assumption that women often falsely accuse men of relational violence. But studies have shown again and again that untrue accusations by women of sexual misconduct areextremely rare. It is far more likely that a woman doesn’t report a sexual assault. If your kids are old enough, you can also tell them that men are many times more likely to be raped by other men than to be falsely accused of rape by women.
- We at Culture Reframed fear that the popular image of Amber Heard as a wicked harpy intent on bringing down a ‘great guy’ will fuel misogynist trolls in the manosphere, who are always looking for an excuse to blame women for whatever irks or ails them. Throughout the trial, Depp became a hero to men who blame the f-word, feminism,for just about everything. Amber Heard and women in general were made into scapegoats. Some men certainly suffer domestic abuse. But ask young people if they think that the people on social media who supported Depp were truly interested in helping male survivors of violence – or were they more interested in simply “discrediting women”? Take this opportunity to also teach young people that the goal of feminism is equality, not bashing men or installing matriarchy.
- Who’s next? As one columnist rightly said, “The Depp-Heard trial has just trained millions of people to discard their own empathy … in exchange for the gleeful mockery, rejection, and belittlement of a woman making herself vulnerable in public. If you don’t think that training will be weaponized against vulnerable targets,you haven’t been paying attention.” Ask your child what they think will happen next, now that so many people on social media so viciously turned against Amber Heard. Can they imagine other people and groups – based on their religion, skin color, nationality, gender, or some other aspect of their identity – being next in line? And how can they help those people feel safe?
- Trauma and Victim Blaming.
- Memory after abuse is hazy.The memes which circulated on social media suggested that many young people misunderstand the intricacies of responses to trauma. Most adults don’t understand trauma, either. It is common to think that memory is only valid if it is pin-point accurate; otherwise, she lies. But that is false. It also goes against science. Tell young people that trauma has a profound negative impact on the brain. It is almost impossible for survivors of sexual assault and relational violence to remember all the details.
- In addition to poor memory, victims during their abuse have a different sense of awareness than in everyday normal life. After trauma, they may experience a whole range of reactions, including: anxiety, numbness, detachment, helplessness, disorientation, denial, difficulty concentrating, withdrawal, depression, mood swings, shame, emotional detachment, difficulty making decisions, and more. More and more, in fact, police departments and courts (but not the one in Alexandria!) are learning trauma-informed procedures. In this sense, you can tell young people that science speaks against jumping on the bandwagon that is now transforming #MeToo into #SheLies.
- There is no typical victim.One Twitter user said this about Amber Heard’s appearance at the trial: “This is NOT the face of someone who has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and was abused.” Please tell your child that there is no typical “face” of abuse or trauma. Survivors look like everybody. Too many people berated Heard for not looking innocent. But most survivors don’t resemble Cinderella. Expecting them to do so trivializes interpersonal violence and drives survivors back into their trauma and shame. Memes about the trial communicated the message to young women in particular, but also to young men, that you speak of abuse at your own peril if you don’t look angelic. That is why, you should tell children, it is so important to listen to victims of domestic violence, focusing on what they say, not whether they look the part.
- Healthy Relationships
- Don’t normalize domestic violence.Amber Heard was widely derided as a fake victim who was just as violent, if not more so, than Johnny Depp. When she said that Depp raped her with a bottle, it largely passed unnoticed. But when he accused her of defecating in their bed, it stuck to her like a Scarlet Letter. Underneath much of the social media postings from young people (and adults) was an alarming normalization of unhealthy relationships. Kids need an urgent lessonin what a healthy relationship looks like – a relationship in which partners talk through their differences, commit to honesty, treat each other with dignity, and never resort to violence, coercion, or, as Depp did in his text messages, vile name calling and threats. In fact, what social media postings really should have said was, as mentioned above, nobody should ever stay in a relationship where they do not feel safe. That is the one truth on which everyone can, or should, agree, especially regarding the trial. Help your child understand that it is important for them to never make someone feel unsafe and that, if they ever feel that way, they can come to you for help.
- People are complicated.This is a tough concept for younger children. But all people, as adults know, are rarely wholly good or wholly evil. Yet that’s exactly how social media presented Depp and Heard. Kids need to know that we are all complicated individuals. But nobody deserves to be treated violently in a relationship, even if they come across as abusive or mean to the other person.
- There is not always safety in numbers.A lot of young women joined in the social media fray, siding with the boys in taunting Heard. We believe that many girls did so for the safety of conformity and to avoid social ostracism. Many adult women who supported Heard werethreatened and abused online by menduring the trial. (We doubt that many men quieted their support for Depp because they feared an attack by women.) Many girls, too, we believe, turned against Heard because they themselves were once victims of violence and harassment. Survivors of trauma, science shows, may try to bond with their assailants. They may also seek to re-enact their trauma by traumatizing others. Both are ways ofcoping, that is, re-experiencing what happened, in an effort – this time – to overcome it. Survivors, too, sometimes identify with their victimizers to reject their own status as a victim and to deny their lack of power during the abuse. Tell young women that a good way to counteract their feelings of disempowerment is to join with other women in standing up for the ideals of equality.
- Therapy is a sign of strength.It also is important to tell young people that a proven way to overcome trauma is to speak with adults who will listen and, more important, guide them to appropriate therapeutic services. If a young person of any gender in your charge ridiculed Heard, or was deeply bothered by the trial and social media memes about it, we suggest scheduling a conversation with a school counselor or therapist. Always communicate to young people that seeking help is a sign of empowerment and strength, not weakness.
- Critical Media Literacy
- Bias in the media.It is a good moment to talk about partisanship and partiality in news and information, whether it comes from the internet, television, or rumors in the school hallways. Help kids begin to learncritical media literacy – how to think about sources, verification, bias, language, and connecting what is reported as ‘true’ with wider but unstated goals.
- Money and the media.It also is an apt opportunity to discuss the role of money in shaping public discourse. Social media companies earn their revenues largely from advertising. The more eyeballs on the meme, the more the platform can charge for its ads. Controversy, scandal, and heated emotions are good for business: they drive more users to watch, post, and share on social media. Really, the only people who benefitted from the nastiness about the trail on social media were the social media companies!
- Who stands to gain? A conservative news outlet with a long track-record of vile comments about Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and people who are different from them spenttens of thousands of dollars promoting ads on social media that denounced Heard. Why might that be so? Ask your child whenever they see social media and advertisements on it, “Who stands to gain from spinning a news event in this way?”
Last, be sure that you communicate to your kids that they can always come to you for help regarding violence, sexuality, and relationships – and that you will respond not with shame, blame, or judgment, but with guidance, suggestions, and help. Whatever you say about the trial to young people, please tell them, especially the girls, to be brave. For they will need courage when, as we hope they do, they stand up to claim their own voice.
Feature image by https://thehill.com/blogs/in-the-know/3498459-johnny-depp-amber-heard-trial-enters-final-week-what-weve-heard-so-far/