The Hate Speech Directed at Amber Heard Must Unite Women Against Resistance to Our Voices
by: Mary Harrod , June 25, 2022
by: Mary Harrod , June 25, 2022
In the wake of the verdict by a US court finding in favour of all Johnny Depp’s claims against his ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation of character, many in the mainstream press have sounded the death knell for the newfound confidence the #MeToo movement has given women to speak out against gendered violence. Such a reaction itself speaks to the widespread perception, following video footage of the pair and other trial evidence being made publicly visible, that Heard’s public insinuations about the abusive nature of Depp’s behaviour towards her appear far from baseless. This point of view is lent a certain legitimacy by the initial de facto endorsement of them by a British court, which found against Depp prior to the US trial (the actor initially brought a libel case against the paper that had published Heard’s account of being subjected to domestic abuse and lost). From this perspective, the dispute between Heard and Depp can be mapped onto a familiar trajectory, in which a woman’s cry for help is rejected by institutions set up and still dominated by men.
Neither the rights and wrongs of this celebrity liaison, nor even the arcane structures of a US legal system that saw the dispute involving wildly popular A-list veteran actor and pin-up Depp scrutinised by a jury, are of the same magnitude of consequence as the optics of the sorry affair, and more particularly media reactions to it. Symptom and cause of the case’s massive impact have been the social media channels that overwhelmingly turned on Heard. The actor has been held up as an unbecoming if not execrable specimen of not just humanity but womanhood specifically and subjected to vitriol expressed in highly gendered terms (Sharma 2022). Sadly, this kind of persecution has darkened human history since time immemorial, from witch hunts (a cultural metaphor ingeniously appropriated by patriarchy to describe the suffering of men accused of abuse post-#MeToo), to the nineteenth-century pathologisation of indocile women as ‘hysterical’, or the double standards that still equate ungovernable female sexuality with sluttishness—at worst even when men perpetrate crimes against them.  Heard’s subordinate social, cultural and financial status in relation to her much older ex-husband—as an actor who despite a generally positive critical reception and major roles in a number of successful movies (dating back at least to All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, shot in 2006) does not enjoy the same order of mega-watt stardom embodied by Depp—also epitomises perennial gendered inequalities.
At the same time, the rarefied sphere inhabited by the couple renders the Depp-Heard events an unlikely key reference point for ordinary women reporting abuse. Quite apart from the fact that #MeToo’s real achievement was to reveal the widespread nature of sexualised abuses of power and cognate elusive, awkward-to-discuss micro-aggressions across private and notably public spheres, it is to designated authorities, and not the media, that victims of abuse turn when they are not celebrities. Whatever the imperfections of police and justice systems, trial in the court of public opinion is particularly unlikely to turn in women’s favour.
One of the reasons for this is that, as numerous statistics show, women as well as men harbour (internalised) prejudice against members of their own sex.  Schisms in feminism have always dogged the movement and hindered its progress whatever context one looks to, and in fact nowhere was this more obvious than in factional disagreements that immediately grew up around #MeToo. Manifestations of this include intergenerational and intercultural hostility—both inevitably at play in the widespread, if wholly understandable, denigration of the so-called French response to #MeToo, i.e., the letter published in Le Monde in January 2018 and signed by various high-profile women including Catherine Deneuve defending men’s ‘freedom to pester’ women. They also encompass racial and classed disputes that are the flipside of fourth-wave feminism’s admirable desire to privilege intersectionality and a plurality of voices. To take another suggestive example from the French film and TV industries context with which I am most familiar, it has recently been pointed out by the French media that the much publicised walk-out at the César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscars) in 2020 by feted queer director Céline Sciamma and actor Adèle Haenel, following the award of Best Director to the disgraced Roman Polanski, shifted the focus away from actor Aïssa Maïga’s highlighting of the absence of Black faces on French screens (Carpentier 2022). These observations are persuasive and important. Nonetheless, making them positions the white, middle-class woman standing up for social justice as being not-so-clearly in the right after all. Also, since #MeToo, the emergence of the ‘Karen’ label (Negra & Leyda 2021) indexes disdain for relatively privileged women who occupy social space.
While such currents of othering and animus are hardly new (we could look to the female characters Skylar and, especially, Marie in the wildly successful male-focused television drama Breaking Bad for prime examples of Karens nearly a decade before 2017), like any powerfully effective movement for social progress, #MeToo was accompanied, and has increasingly been followed, by a backlash. While the Depp-Heard trial is only indirectly relevant to its central concerns, and there is every reason to hope any impact on the reporting of everyday abuse will be minimal, the social media campaign against Heard—for all that her own behaviour may have been suboptimal—is certainly representative of the way in which not only women who air dissatisfaction but, perhaps most particularly, ‘poor little rich girls’ have of late become a target of renewed hatred in some quarters. That the clamour of condemnation should include many female voices smacks of self-sabotage, given that feminism has often historically occasioned benefit to women as a whole through a trickle-down effect: witness the visibility of educated women positioned with greater social power to speak up in suffragette movements. We would do well to remember that by being our own harshest critics we are also our own worst enemies; and the monstering of Heard is an acute reminder that, faced with the kind of enmity produced by patriarchal systems of power, struggles for parity still need all the friends they can get.
 For relevant academic work showcasing the ongoing legacies of these trends, and rehabilitating such positions for women, see among others Rowe Karlyn 1995, Gill 2007: 113-150, Ahmed 2010, Cooper 2018, Piotrowska 2019, Kay 2019.
Ahmed, Sara (2010), ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 571-594.
Carpentier, Laurent (2022), ‘Une accusation d’agression sexuelle fait imploser le collectif féministe 50/50.’ Le Monde, 4 May, Une accusation d’agression sexuelle fait imploser le collectif féministe 50/50 (lemonde.fr) (last accessed 14 June 2022).
Cooper, Brittney (2018), Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Gill, Rosalind (2007), Gender and the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kay, Jilly Boyce (2019), ‘Introduction: Anger, Media, and Feminism: The Gender Politics of Mediated Rage’, Feminist Media Studies Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 591-615.
Negra, Diane & Julia Leyda (2021), ‘Querying “Karen”: the Rise of the Angry White Woman.’ European Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 350–357.
Piotrowska, Agnieszka (2019), The Nasty Woman and the Neo Femme Fatale in Contemporary Cinema, London & New York: Routledge.
Rowe Karlyn, Kathleen (1995), The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Austin: University of Texas Press.
Sharma, Ruchira (2022), ‘The Depp-Heard Trial Is a Vector for Misogynistic Misinformation.’ Logically, 27 May. Online: The Depp-Heard Trial Is a Vector for Misogynistic Misinformation (logically.ai) (last accessed 14 June 2022).
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