Ryder, who started dating the actor in 1990, was tellingly asked to comment by a reporter whose “editor would kill me if I had you here and didn’t ask you about the recent allegations.” The Reality Bites star, who was 17 when the relationship began, insisted that it was “a very, very long time ago.” She continued, “I can only speak from my own experience, which was wildly different than what is being said. I mean, he was never, never that way towards me. Never abusive at all towards me. I only know him as a really good, loving, caring guy who is very, very protective of the people that he loves.”
While the ’90s icon repeatedly stressed that she could only speak to her own experience—careful wording allowing for the fact that two women can have vastly different interactions with the same man—her lengthy response is already being reduced to another defense of the accused.
The media’s clear intention to tally up the experiences of Depp’s exes, and to confuse “he didn’t do it to me” with “he didn’t do it,” is hardly unbiased. Relaying the stories of women like Winona Ryder and Vanessa Paradis conveys an undeserved assumption of innocence. The narrative has been one of bolstering a defense, of fact-finding—as if you need to have a history of abuse to be an abuser, or as if a victim’s testimony (let alone pictures of her bruised face) aren’t proof enough.
Boiling this case down to a list of exes and allies who support Depp and/or don’t believe his ex-wife, Amber Heard, is anything but fair coverage. In an effort to report every facet of the story, Heard’s gruesome accusation that, “During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me” has been buried under the victim-blaming rhetoric of Depp supporters, many of whom are literally on the movie star’s payroll.
Doug Stanhope, who’s currently peddling a book with a forward written by Jonny Depp, insisted that the allegations were “bullshit,” and that Heard was a blackmailer and a manipulator; The Wrap proceeded to publish this unsubstantiated gossip as if it were actual news. Depp’s personal bodyguards, unsurprisingly, refuted Heard’s story. Terry Gilliam, who has frequently directed Johnny Depp and is a close friend of the actor, posted, “Like many of Johnny Depp’s friends I’m discovering that Amber is a better actress than I thought... if only the ‘bruise’ would stay in one place.” Benicio Del Toro, who worked with Depp on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, admitted that he didn’t “know the specifics”—but that didn’t stop him from sharing what he did “know”—that “there’s a lot of trouble from the girl that sounds a little manipulative. It sounds a little bit like there’s something really twisted about that girl.”
Of course, you can’t throw a rock at an abuse allegation without hitting a diehard bro apologist. Equally, if not more disheartening, are the responses of the Hollywood elite who don’t care about maligning Amber Heard, so much as they care about protecting the status quo. Take Disney CEO Bob Iger, who told The Hollywood Reporter that he was “not worried about” the allegations, because “we have Jack Sparrow.” Iger’s confidence that abuse allegations against the celebrity wouldn’t touch his personal profit margins isn’t unfounded. From Christian Slater to Chris Brown to Charlie Sheen, a myriad of male stars have managed to maintain their careers in the face of egregious accusations. And while Bill Cosby has finally been stripped of his Teflon reputation, it’s almost comical how high the victim count had to be, and how clearly the assaults had to fit into a textbook definition of rape, in order to get any sort of media traction. It took decades as a serial rapist for Cosby to be tried in the court of public opinion, let alone found guilty—a rare example of a male celebrity paying any sort of price for assaulting a woman. If Bill Cosby is the standard of culpability, then what chance does one woman stand against a Hollywood heavyweight, armed with a singular story of domestic abuse?
Just ask Amber Heard. The actress’s decision to share her story, which could have been a step forward for the widespread acknowledgment of this perpetually underreported crime, has only served to illustrate the perils of speaking up. The icky rhetoric that surrounds this case could be found under the dictionary definition of victim-blaming. But while lazy celebrity journalism isn’t a crime, it’s no laughing matter. A 2016 study of celebrity domestic violence cases found that media coverage regularly included “victim-blaming statements… failed to contextualize domestic violence as larger social problem, and commonly portrayed domestic violence as a couple’s problem.” Additionally, “When reporting on white male celebrities, articles are 2.5 times more likely to make excuses for their behavior, suggesting there was mutual violence or pointing to drug addiction and inebriation as mitigating circumstances.” That means E! News headlines like “Johnny Depp Never ‘Laid a Hand’ on Amber Heard While Sober” and “Why Amber Heard Finally Left Johnny Depp: ‘His Problems Got the Best of Him,’ Source Says.”
While opinion pieces like Doug Stanhope’s paint Depp as the victim of false accusations, these articles allege that Depp fell victim to his own demons. Both takes ignore the real victim, Amber Heard, and scrub the alleged crime of any trace of deliberate wrongdoing or criminality. But while these narratives allow for the possibility that Depp is ultimately innocent, even if he hit his wife, Heard isn’t granted this degree of good faith. Instead, articles are riddled with subtle accusations that the actress is to blame for her own abuse, from The Mirror’s claim that “Johnny Depp’s Marriage to ‘Alpha Female’ Amber Heard Was Destined to Fail,” to Hollywood Life’s shady interrogative, “Did Amber Heard’s lesbian friends have an impact on her marriage?” The relentless inclusion of Heard’s bisexuality in the coverage of her divorce intimates, sometimes overtly, that her sexuality triggered Depp’s distrust, and eventually drove him to violence. Referring to Amber Heard as Johnny Depp’s “bisexual wife”—as opposed to, you know, using her real name—contributes to her casting as an archetype, a sexually promiscuous, lying manipulator. Tragically, given the A-list status of the man she was brave enough to call out, this may be the last big role Hollywood will ask Heard to play.
This story shouldn’t be about Heard’s bisexuality, unless it’s to draw attention to the fact that bi women are at a far greater risk of experiencing intimate partner violence than their straight counterparts. It shouldn’t be about how great of an ex-boyfriend Johnny Depp is, or how much his daughter loves him—although, if we insist on this approach, let’s talk about how Depp spent a few hours in jail after getting into a hotel room brawl with then-girlfriend Kate Moss, and has a history of being “jealous beyond words.”
If we’re going to talk about something other than the actual facts of the case, or Amber Heard’s story in her own words, then let’s talk about our shared culpability in a culture of victim-blaming. Instead of just being shocked and outraged when the Brock Turner’s of the world don’t get their comeuppance, let’s talk about how our refusal to treat allegations with good faith means that victims often feel like they’re the ones being punished. Let’s talk about the myth of false allegations, and the fact that one in four women will be victims of severe violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Instead of drumming up a defense that fails to actually exonerate another famous man, let’s consider that only 25 percent of physical assaults perpetrated against women are reported to the police. And why would they come forward, given the cold reception that Amber Heard, an incredibly privileged, famous white woman, received?
Even if they did speak up, would we hear them?