From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject The Circus Was Televised
Date June 6, 2022 12:00 AM
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[Johnny Depp’s legal team bet that a combination of subliminal
shots of nostalgia, meme- and sound bite-friendly details, and Depp
being Depp on the witness stand could sway public opinion. They were
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Jen Chaney
June 3, 2022
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_ Johnny Depp’s legal team bet that a combination of subliminal
shots of nostalgia, meme- and sound bite-friendly details, and Depp
being Depp on the witness stand could sway public opinion. They were
right. _

Johnny Depp’s legal team bet that a combination of subliminal shots
of nostalgia, meme- and sound bite-friendly details, and Depp being
Depp on the witness stand could sway public opinion. They were right.,
Photo: Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images


In the op-ed that Amber Heard wrote
[[link removed]] for
the Washington _Post _in 2018, she stated that, “Two years ago, I
became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the
full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

That op-ed, which never once mentions Johnny Depp by name, was deemed
defamatory by a jury
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it implied that Depp had abused Heard during their one-year marriage.
Meanwhile a 2018 article published in British tabloid the _Sun_ that
outright referred to Depp as a “wife beater” was deemed not
libelous in 2020
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a U.K. judge who presided over a separate defamation suit filed by
Depp, who declared 12 out of 14 incidents of assault documented by
Heard and the _Sun _to be credible. Depp has never been criminally
charged in any of the incidents, but the U.K. trial got as close as a
civil case can to finding him guilty.

The disparity between the two outcomes is jarring, but makes sense
when considering how each case was decided and covered. While the
British verdict was determined by a judge, the more recent trial in
Virginia, where the _Post_’s printing presses and servers are
located, was decided by a jury. More importantly, the British trial
was not televised; U.K. law only recently enabled sentencing remarks
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High Court and Senior Circuit judges to be televised, but trials are
never broadcast or streamed in their entirety. In case this has not
become abundantly clear during the past six weeks, the American
version of _Depp _v._ Heard_ did air live, both on Court TV and
via a livestream on the Law & Crime YouTube channel, both of
which reported substantial bumps in viewership
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this messy, often absurd legal battle. And that’s how a trial
prompted, in part, by Heard’s declaration that she had “felt the
full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out” ended
up unleashing the full force of that culture’s wrath again, at an
even higher volume.

Certainly the 2020 trial in England received substantial media
coverage. But if that proceeding was a three-ring circus, the one that
just unfolded here in the States was a double bill brought to you by
Barnum & Bailey and Jim Rose. Memes
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well as mainstream
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pictures of Heard on the stand all over digital media
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freeze-framing her expressions to make her look as grossly distraught
as possible. Video of her touching her nose with a tissue was
characterized by Depp supporters as evidence she was sniffing cocaine
while being questioned by attorneys. All of this is exactly what
Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, predicted would happen during a
pre-trial hearing: “What they’ll do is take anything that’s
unfavorable — a look,” Bredehoft argued at the time, as noted
by _Variety_
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“They’ll take out of context a statement, and play it over and
over and over and over again.”

Depp’s attorneys, on the other hand, encouraged the presence of
cameras, and used them to their advantage. No doubt aware that Depp
has a substantial fan base ready to amplify select moments from the
trial, his team played to that audience, guessing, correctly, that
statements would be taken out of context and played out over and over
again online. They focused time and again on largely irrelevant
issues, like how Depp severed a finger
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his assertion that Heard once revenge-pooped in their bed
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that would surely spark discussion online and distract from more
crucial evidence. If there’s one thing that people will remember
from this trial, it may be all the shit about shit (Heard testified it
was actually excrement from one of their dogs), which sparked its own
subcategory of attempts at comedy — suddenly she was being referred
to widely as “Amber Turd” — and provided the centerpiece of
a _Saturday Night Live_ sketch
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notion that this trial was frivolous but also kind of entertaining.

After the strides made during the Me Too movement, the tenor of public
conversation around the case once again reduced a woman’s
accusations of abuse to fodder for a laugh, and worse, something she
was probably making up. The memeification of Heard during the trial
heightened the sense that what we were watching was performative and
therefore not credible, even though the U.K. judge had already said,
“the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp
have been proved to the civil standard.” The impact of that ruling
got lost in the chaotic, pro-Depp jumble of words spit out on various
platforms as the trial progressed. It also quite possibly was lost on
the jury, who, as Bredehoff noted in an interview on
the_ Today_ show
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was not permitted to be informed of the outcome in the U.K. case.

For his part, Depp spent the trial leaning into his image as a
non-mainstream non-conformist, the same image that established him as
an actor blazing an unconventional path through Hollywood and that
made his turns in Disney’s _Pirates of the Caribbean_ movies seem
like subversive acts. He often seemed bemused
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as if he found the whole trial ludicrous, even though he was the one
who instigated it. On the stand, he cracked jokes about his friend
Marilyn Manson (also accused publicly of abusing women) and made light
of texts he exchanged
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actor Paul Bettany in 2013 in which he said of his then-future wife:
“Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will fuck her burnt
corpse afterward to make sure she is dead.” He explained the
comments, apparently a joke about how to determine whether Heard was a
witch, as a darkly comic riff on a scene from _Monty Python and the
Holy Grail_. Ironically, the scene in question
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bunch of primitive men who are so eager to burn a real witch that they
dress up a woman to look like one. Context is important, and often
during this trial, it was overshadowed if not completely absent.

It also worked to Depp’s advantage when his exes, who have never
accused him publicly of abuse, entered the narrative. Ex-girlfriend
Kate Moss testified in his defense, and even discussion about whether
he struck Heard after she made fun of his famous “Wino Forever”
tattoo — ink that originally said “Winona Forever,” in honor of
former fiancée Winona Ryder — sparked memories of the Depp we first
grew to know and like back in the 1990s. That’s what this trial was
really about: Johnny Depp making everyone like him again so he can get
hired instead of fired from movie projects. His legal team bet that a
combination of subliminal shots of nostalgia, meme- and sound
bite-friendly details, and Depp being Depp on the witness stand could
sway public opinion. They were right.

Even those who say they stand with victims will sometimes look for the
most tenuous excuse to let abusers off the hook when those abusers are
famous people they admire. It’s why there are still staunch Woody
Allen fans who claim he was framed by Mia Farrow, and why it took
30-plus women to accuse Bill Cosby of rape and assault before those
accusations were taken seriously. Even people who aren’t hardcore
enough to show up at a Virginia courthouse dressed as Jack Sparrow
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may have hoped that Depp, whose work they love, whose posters once
adorned the walls of their adolescent bedrooms, did not do the things
Heard said he did. Any hints on social media that he was not an abuser
were embraced and amplified, which made them seem socially acceptable.
Once those pro-Depp sentiments were deemed acceptable, they became the
norm, and it’s really easy to mistake the norm for the truth.

In an essay for Embedded
[[link removed]],
the Substack by Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci, an anonymous former
Depp supporter says she changed her mind about the case after noticing
how far some Team Johnny folks were willing to go to maintain their
stance. “I even saw one Reddit commenter confidently assert that he
could tell Amber is a narcissist, because — I kid you not — her
handwriting is too nice,” she wrote. “This is QAnon 2022, with the
Q drops being daily TikToks analyzing the secrets hidden in Amber’s
body language.”

But most supporters did not take the time to dig deeper or question
the story that Depp’s team proposed as fact, and in doing so played
into a legal strategy known as DARVO — deny, attack, and reverse
victim and offender — that can be incredibly effective in a TL;DR,
scroll-and-seek online world. Republicans have built a playbook
around DARVO
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which is perhaps why some of them were so celebratory over Depp’s
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It also may explain why the American case bent in Depp’s favor and
the U.K. one didn’t. As an international media lawyer told the
Washington _Post_
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“We find that DARVO works very well with juries but almost never
works with judges, who are trained to look at evidence.”

The jury in the Depp/Heard case was never sequestered. They were told
not to absorb media coverage about the proceedings, but if you’re
living in this world, how could you not? It was impossible over the
last month-plus to log on to Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or any news
website without being smacked in the face with a headline or an image
related to the very public feud. Even a casual glimpse at a GIF or
YouTube video could have provided a sense of public sentiment and
consciously or subconsciously swayed a juror’s perspective.

Much has been said already about the effect the rulings in Depp’s
favor could have on other survivors of abuse, who may feel even more
reticent to say something, especially when powerful men are involved.
But it’s just as chilling to think that this case may be
precedent-setting proof that as long as one person in a contentious
lawsuit can win the fight for public sympathy, whether it’s based on
facts or not, a jury very well may follow. At the end of this six-week
ordeal in Virginia, what’s indelible in the hippocampus is the idea
that, thanks to the way we absorb information in 2022 — either
dismissing details because anything involving celebrities is deemed
trivial, or assessing them based on the skewed assessments that enter
our carefully curated information bubble —  we’ve only begun to
feel the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.

* domestic abuse
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* Violence Against Women
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* Culture war
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