That one of Hollywood’s most famous and most powerful actors—the longtime subject of the world’s swooning crushes—is being accused of allegedly beating his It Girl actress wife is the kind of juicy, salacious, shocking-if-true story that tabloids and media organizations thrive on.
Even juicier, apparently, is the shocking-if-true story that the wife is making it all up.
It’s a confusing narrative that’s playing out in the headline-dominating media saga of the pending Amber Heard and Johnny Depp divorce.
Heard claims that Depp had physically abused her throughout the course of their one-year marriage, including specific and graphic details of the alleged abuse that were made public when Heard filed a request for a domestic violence restraining order. She had a black eye she says Depp inflicted when she arrived at court to file the paperwork.
In the wake of those claims going public and that photo going viral, there has been some shock and awe. A lot of skepticism. Many conspiracy theories that Heard is inventing the history of abuse in order to extort more money in the divorce. An aggressive smear campaign launched by Depp’s friends and family to discredit Heard and her character. And a media culture that is bizarrely hospitable—occasionally even complicit—in this campaign.
On Monday, after a long weekend of accusations that Heard is making the entire thing up, Heard’s legal team has been forced to file a statement to both police and the media in response to what the team says are “vicious false and malicious allegations.”
The statement reads, according to The Wrap: “Johnny’s team has forced Amber to give a statement to the LAPD to set the record straight as to the true facts, as she cannot continue to leave herself open to the vicious false and malicious allegations that have infected the media. Amber has suffered through years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Johnny.”
The record that needed to be set straight, specifically, is in reference to a statement from the Los Angeles Police Department that was released shortly after Heard’s accusations set fire to the internet, in which a police spokesman said that the department had investigated a domestic abuse claim Heard made on May 21, but found no proof of the crime.
In Heard’s request for a restraining order, she submitted photo evidence of a black eye she said she received after Depp had hurled an iPhone at her face on that day, May 21. Video footage of Heard leaving the courthouse last week after filing the paperwork revealed lingering bruising.
Yet the police spokesman said that after responding to a 911 call on May 21, Heard did not insist on a police report. “There was no evidence of any crime,” the spokesman said. “A crime did not occur so the officers left the scene and left a business card.”
The LAPD’s statement, coupled with a photo with friends that Heard had posted on her Instagram later that weekend that did not appear to reveal a bruised face (but did have her hair draped to cover half her face), led to a spate of media coverage and social media conversation insinuating that Heard was not telling the truth about Depp allegedly assaulting her. It’s a suspicion that became even louder after the revelation that the couple had no prenup, and that Heard is seeking spousal support from his $440 million fortune.
Being suspicious of a woman who alleges that she is a victim of domestic violence is perhaps one of our culture’s most grotesque instincts.
No one has been convicted of anything, and the conflation between “accused” and “convicted” that poisons modern media coverage is an irredeemable issue. Evidence is only surfacing; these are allegations. But perhaps the kneejerk reaction when a woman shows up to court with a bruise on her face shouldn’t be “she’s lying.”
Now Heard’s legal team is speaking out against these attempts to discredit her. Part of the statement references the reason she did not insist on a police report the night of May 21. She wanted to keep the details out of the press—possibly to prevent the exact thing that is happening right now.
Also, according to The Wrap, the statement acknowledges the reality that many victims of domestic violence, for several, all valid reasons, choose not to file police reports. “In reality, Amber acted no differently than many victims of domestic violence, who think first of the harm that might come to the abuser, rather than the abuse they have already suffered.”
And while there are anonymously sourced reports from those close to Heard that the actress is startled and aghast at the campaign to discredit her allegedly launched by Depp’s team—including a report in Page Six sourcing someone who says it’s all an attempt to save Depp’s career—Heard’s team pointedly addressed what they call the actor’s attempt to attack her character:
“We took the high road. Unfortunately, Johnny’s team immediately went to the press and began viciously attacking Amber’s character. Amber is simply a victim of domestic violence, and none of her actions are motivated by money. Amber is a brave and financially independent woman who is showing the courage of her convictions by doing the right thing against Johnny’s relentless army of lawyers and surrogates.”
That army of surrogates include Depp’s ex-wife, Lori Anne Alison, who has defended her ex-husband as a “soft person” who never laid a hand on her during their marriage from 1983-85. (Which would therefore mean that 33 years later he wouldn’t behave differently with someone else?)
It includes, most visibly, comedian Doug Stanhope, who penned a lengthy, free-wheeling essay for The Wrap in which he accused Heard of manipulating his friend, Depp, throughout their marriage. He wrote that Heard, in telling Depp that she was leaving him, was “threatening to lie about him publicly in any and every possible duplicitous way if he didn’t agree to her terms.”
Director Terry Gillam, who has worked with Depp in the past, tweeted Stanhope’s essay with the note, “Like many of Johnny Depp’s friends, I’m discovering that Amber is a better actress than I thought.”
Stanhope admitted early in his essay that he is dismayed that Depp is being portrayed as guilty “without due process” after being accused of a crime. It’s similar, one might say to the character assassination and rampant suspicion, again “without due process,” that is being lobbed at Heard.
The difference is that only one of these parties is the one claiming to have been abused over the course of a 15-month marriage. Only one showed up to court with a bruise on her face.
It’s problematic—a word that is used too often in online culture to label any news story that tends to offend—that a media organization would participate in the witch-hunt skepticism that Stanhope’s essay lent pitchforks to when it was published. Heard’s team said, “It is highly offensive and disturbing that you would choose to publish it in the first place.”
But it’s not just The Wrap. TMZ’s aggressive coverage also pursues tenuous leads aimed at discrediting.
There’s the “ear-witnesses” who say “she’s a liar,” and that Heard was screaming at Depp during an argument as a “badly executed attempted setup.” Context-free photos of Heard smiling over the weekend were posted on the news site after a legal meeting. “Nice to know you can meet your lawyer and come out happy,” TMZ’s (tasteless) caption reads. (All women who allege domestic abuse are condemned to a future of never smiling.)
The site has also questioned the legitimacy of her claim that Depp threw a cell phone at her face because she did not tell cops about the incident.
There’s also the questionable way other media organizations are characterizing the controversy when writing about the two actors.
In a box-office summary reporting the dismal earnings for Depp’s weekend release Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Hollywood Reporter writes, “In a public relations nightmare for Johnny Depp, Alice Through the Looking Glass hits theaters just as the actor’s wife, Amber Heard, is granted a restraining order after alleging Depp previously assaulted her.”
Perhaps ruling that a woman’s domestic abuse allegations is a “public relations nightmare” for the accused is not the most sensitive way of covering.
There’s a tenet in our country that says you’re innocent until proven guilty. That is true in the case of Johnny Depp as well, as critics of a spate of media coverage that has vilified Depp in the face of these allegations have made abundantly clear. The actor has not been convicted of domestic abuse, but the allegations against him are alarming.
They are alarming and they are being filed in an official, documented capacity. It is those official reports that people are reacting to—including, and rightfully, reports that originally seemed to contradict Heard’s claims.
But there’s also a thing in our country called victim-shaming, and it seems to be our instinct.
Kudos to tenacious reporters eager and willing to get down to the truth of allegations that could be damage the reputation of a public figure. (Again, innocent until proven guilty.) It’s rare and important to remember that accusations should not be taken on face value. But there is still a misogynistic ickiness—an institutionalized one, even—to the way we react to news like this: “What’s her motive?” “How will she profit from this?” “What if she’s lying?”
Both sides of the coin—the crucifying of Depp based on allegations and not conviction, and the victim-shaming discrediting of Heard—are undeniably a byproduct of our current trial-by-media culture. Facts blur with rumors, inklings, and deep-seeded fan beliefs. Judgments are made immediately, passionately, and unequivocally.
At The Daily Beast, we’ve written about how domestic abuse allegations and even convictions have no negative effect on an actor’s career in Hollywood. The accusations against Depp were the catalyst for the piece, which took a strong stance in reaction to the nature of the accusations and the lack of response the industry—in our view, inexcusably—has to them.
Based on the way the current Amber Heard and Johnny Depp saga is being covered and reported, it may not just be Hollywood that has an institutionalized issue when it comes to claims of domestic violence. It’s the media enablers as well.