Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
On Wednesday, a jury found that Amber Heard and ex-husband Johnny Depp were guilty of defaming each other. Depp had sued Heard for $50 million for defamation after she wrote a 2018 Washington Post op-ed describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Heard countersued for $100 million, claiming that a statement by Depp’s attorney that her allegations were a “hoax” constituted defamation.
But the jury awarded the largest damages to Depp, giving him $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, while Heard was awarded just $2 million in compensatory damages and no punitive damages.
The outcome of this trial affects far more than Depp and Heard, because it epitomizes just how much our society has regressed since the peak of the #MeToo movement.
In 2017, The New York Times revealed allegations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had been abusing women for decades. It came on the heels of the April 2017 news that Fox News had paid millions to women who had made claims against former host Bill O’Reilly.
For a time, the floodgates seemed to open: A list compiled by Vox found 262 high profile people who have been accused of sexual misconduct since April 2017, including chief executives, celebrities and politicians. This seemed to signal a new era in which victims of sexual abuse had more social support to finally hold their perpetrators accountable. Some, like Weinstein, went to prison, while others like celebrity chef Mario Batali were acquitted and Today Show host Matt Lauer lost their jobs.
But feminists know that every time women make progress, it provokes backlash. “Each time I began to investigate a popular feminist practice or expression, there was always an accompanying hostile rejoinder or challenge,” University of Southern California communication professor Sarah Banet-Weiser writes in “Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny.”
That’s exactly what we saw in this trial. The fact that Depp sued Heard for defamation shows the threat that other women will now have to consider when weighing whether to report abuse: the possibility that they could be accused of defamation.
Depp sued Heard despite the fact that a judge in Britain had already found in a 2020 trial that Depp had repeatedly assaulted Heard and put her “in fear of her life.” Texts introduced in court from Depp to his friend, actor Paul Bettany, in which Depp wrote “let’s drown her before we burn her” and discussed having sex with Heard’s body after killing her arguably provide further evidence of abuse, as did the testimony of the couple’s marriage counselor that Depp and Heard abused each other.
Depp, for his part, claimed Heard’s allegations of physical and sexual abuse were false, testifying, “I have never in my life committed sexual battery, physical abuse.”
The fact that Depp sued Heard for defamation despite the evidence introduced in court and a previous judge’s ruling in the UK is a stark reminder of the very real threat women have to contend with if they accuse powerful men of abuse.
This trial also reminded us of another factor that victims will have to consider when coming forward: the possibility that people will band together to support the alleged perpetrator and make additional threats against the accusers. This case galvanized people online to support Depp and further abuse Heard.
The support expressed for Depp online was orders of magnitude greater than that voiced for Heard. As of last week, #IStandWithAmberHeard had received about 8.2 million TikTok views. By comparison, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp had racked up 15 billion.
But people on social media didn’t just side with Depp. They also actively threatened Heard. “People want to kill me and they tell me so every day,” Heard testified. “People want to put my baby in the microwave and they tell me that.”
On top of this, Heard had to contend with the age-old challenges of not being believed and having her own life and behavior dissected as part of this trial, which demonstrated that she is no saint. (Recall the marriage counselor’s testimony that Heard abused Depp as well. Depp also testified that Heard had hit him. While Heard claimed she only did so in defense, in one audio clip introduced into evidence, she said, “I did start a physical fight.”)
This element of potential mutual abuse made the trial a departure from many other public cases involving one-way allegations of misconduct — but it was also a stark reminder to women that the #MeToo movement hasn’t taught the world to take women’s claims seriously and to support victims even if they’re imperfect.
This lawsuit started when Heard claimed she was a public figure representing domestic abuse. Now, she has become a public figure representing the societal abuse toward women who dare to speak out — and how very far we have come from that glimmer of hope just a few years ago that the #MeToo movement might make it easier for victims of abuse to hold their perpetrators to account.