Sunday, 29 May 2016

What Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp Tells Us About How Society STILL Sees Abuse...

Most of you have probably heard all about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's marriage break-up, amid rumours of domestic violence.  Most of you have probably got an opinion on it.  A lot of you - whether you realise it or not - will have had that opinion shaped by the media and by societal beliefs when it comes to abuse.

Don't believe me?  Just Google it.  That's what I did, when I decided to write this blog piece and I was pretty horrified.  The top stories - predictably - were referencing Depp's ex wife Vanessa Paradis, who recently made the decision to wade into the controversy by proclaiming Johnny to be a gentle soul who would never hurt anyone.  Below those stories, were headlines about how poor Johnny had been "driven insane" by the thought of his wife cheating on him.  And of course, you can find stories about how the actor's family had never liked Amber Heard anyway and how she was almost certainly making up these "lies" about domestic abuse in order to make millions out of one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Why?  Why is the media so quick to jump to conclusions?  

We don't know what really happened, yet.  I, personally, always choose to believe someone who claims to have been abused, because I know from experience how atrocious it feels to go through any kind of abuse and have people claim that you're making it up.  It's a lonely, frustrating, frightening place to be.  I've been in the position of being told I was "lying for attention" when I was trying to open up about what I'd experienced with my ex.  It was HELL.  When a person has been abused, they need support, they need empathy and they need people to tell them that what they're saying is being taken seriously.  So, despite the fact that we don't know all of the details yet and despite the fact that Johnny Depp has always been amongst my favourite actors (and Hollywood crushes...), I refuse to start slinging mud at Amber Heard and accusing her of lying.  If she is, then it's a despicable lie to tell.  If she's not, then we need to seriously look at media coverage of this, because it shows up just how far we still have to go, when it comes to public understanding of abuse.

The photo Amber Heard submitted to court, of the injury she alleges Johnny Depp to have inflicted on her.

Regardless of whether or not Johnny Depp did subject his wife to a dreadful and vicious assault, the reaction from the press and some sections of the public have shown - yet again - that we haven't a clue how to deal with accusations of abuse.  Nor do we seem to understand how abuse even works.

Rather than report on the facts as we know them - that Amber Heard filed for divorce and has since been granted a temporary restraining order against Depp - the press have, in typical fashion, gone down the route of dragging up Amber Heard's sexual past, insinuating that her abuse claims are motivated by money (Depp's divorce lawyer has stated as such and the press seem to have run with it) and providing what look frighteningly like excuses for any potentially abusive behaviour that Depp may have displayed.

"He was driven insane with fear that his bisexual wife was cheating on him." - The Daily Mail

"Amber filed for divorce just three days after the death of Depp's beloved mother." - The Mirror

"He found it difficult to cope with the amount of female friends his wife, who had previously admitted being bisexual, surrounded herself with." - The Mirror

"As (Amber & friend Cara Delevingne) spent more time partying and flaunting their friendship, Johnny, 52, is said to have become increasingly infuriated by their behaviour." - The Sun

Now, I am NOT going to sit here and claim that Johnny Depp absolutely 100% abused his wife, because I can't do that without having a much greater inside knowledge of the situation than I have (I can say I believe Amber Heard, but I can't say "yep, he definitely did it").  BUT, considering that the press are reporting on hugely serious claims that a very famous Hollywood actor left his wife fearful for her life, due to his abusive outbursts, should they really be interested in Amber's sexuality, or her friendships with women?  Because, regardless as to whether or not it's their intent, in doing so, the press are providing readers with an excuse.  If they choose to believe that Depp did hit Amber in the face with his phone, causing the bruises seen above, they can also write it off as the action of a man driven to extremes by his wife's behaviour.  The unspoken message is: If he did it, he did it because she made him.

I've not used my big NO in a while, but it seems appropriate, here.

The press may genuinely believe that they're providing important context, or striving for a balanced view, but they're actually making the common mistake of forgetting one, vital thing:  THERE IS NEVER AN EXCUSE FOR ABUSE.  In providing their readers with one - again, whether intentionally or not - the media are suggesting that certain behaviours cause a person to abuse their partner, and all that suggestion does is further the culture of victim-blaming and misconception that already surrounds the subject.

Bolstered by the phrasing used in the papers and in online reports, Depp's fans took to social media to attack Amber Heard for her behaviour, stating that her flirting with female friends and her love of partying wound poor Johnny up to the point where it's almost understandable that he snapped.  And sure, maybe it would be understandable if he merely snapped in as much as he shouted "hey, I'm sick of the way you're behaving" and suggested that they split.  But that's not the accusation, here.  The accusation is that he swung a glass bottle around, screaming, damaging property and eventually hitting Amber in the face with his phone, leaving a visible bruise.  The allegation is of abuse.  That abuse - if it took place - would have been a conscious choice, as abuse always is, and that is NOT okay.

One Depp fan claimed on Twitter that Amber's behaviour during her marriage to Johnny was tantamount to emotional abuse and therefore Depp was acting in self-defence and should not be punished.  OKAY, LET'S GET VERY REAL:  Almost five years ago, I was in an emotionally/psychologically abusive relationship.  For over a year and a half, I was cheated on, put down, mocked, threatened, used and generally put through the worst Hell of my life.  If I wanted to "get my own back" on my abuser, perhaps it would be understandable.  But if I actually beat him up, I would still have committed abuse.  I would still therefore be an abuser, myself.  I couldn't claim self-defence, unless he had physically attacked me first and emotional abuse is notoriously hard to prove.  And despite knowing the anger and frustration being emotionally abused can create in a person, I know I could never have actually beaten up my ex.  Why?  Well, for a start, he was bigger and stronger than me.  I was afraid of his temper.  Johnny Depp is bigger and, arguably stronger than Amber Heard.  Even if she was behaving cruelly towards him, physical violence was totally and completely unnecessary.  Whatever she did, however she behaved, Depp had the option not to assault her.  If Amber's allegations are true, he made a choice to beat her face with his phone.  No amount of being scared that she was cheating on him, or feeling as though she didn't respect him makes that alright.  But when these facts were pointed out to said Depp fan on Twitter, she claimed that "Amber supporters" were casually excusing her behaviour, whilst criticising Johnny's.  That's not the case; all anyone is saying is that abuse isn't the answer to anything and that it's wrong to make excuses as to why someone might choose to physically assault their spouse.  

Emotional abuse is wrong.  Physical abuse is wrong.  ANY abuse is wrong.  Why am I still having to say that in 2016?!

The press have this vile habit of looking for reasons whenever a celebrity makes an allegation of abuse.  It fuels those water-cooler conversations, where people at work natter about serious topics such as abuse, as though it's flippant gossip.  "Oh, I heard she cheated on him.  Poor bloke, watching his wife flirt with other women in front of him.  I bet he was just so gutted and upset, he couldn't help but snap.  And he's proper gorgeous, isn't he?  I still would, you know!  *nudge, wink*"

And that leads me neatly on to the other thing that society still continues to get wrong, when it comes to abuse.  We STILL seem to believe that abusers are ugly-looking types in stained vests, outwardly creepy, openly unpleasant and probably on low incomes.  No matter how many times it's proven, over and over, that abusers can come from anywhere, look as gorgeous as an angel and be as charming as it's possible to be, we still cling to the belief that it could never, ever be someone we know or like.  Oh, no.  We'd be able to tell.  Abusers are horrible.  Actors, musicians. respected writers... We like them.  They're funny in interviews!  They look incredible on the red carpet!  They have talent!  How can they possibly be abusive?!  Don't be stupid.

And just to further compound that ridiculous belief, the friends and family come rushing out in defence, just as they have in the Depp case.  "He's lovely; I've seen him with his romantic partners and he's adorable."  Except...  Well, nobody knows what's going on behind closed doors, besides the people who are actually living behind them.  When I walked away from my abusive ex, I lost a friend I'd had since I was twelve years old, because she just couldn't believe that the man she knew - and had been out with herself - could possibly have treated me the way I claimed he had.  But here's the thing: abusers are great at portraying themselves well in public.  They have to be charming.  They have to be good at manipulating people.  They wouldn't be able to abuse at all if they weren't, because nobody would fall for the act.  My ex was funny, intelligent, seemingly sensitive and up for a laugh with his friends.  If I had asked around after I left him, I can say with almost 100% certainty, that not one of those friends would have labelled him as abusive.  Because they weren't there when he was abusive.  That was all for me.

This utterly stupid notion that people who seem clever, witty and who look good can't possibly be nasty in private is one of the major reasons that people who experience abuse don't speak out.  They fear they won't be believed.  And all too often, we see that fear realised.

Amber & Johnny.  Getty images.

What really happened between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp may never be known.  It could turn out that Amber did make up her allegations, in which case Depp was right to refer to her as "an affront to real victims of domestic violence."  Equally, it could be proved that Depp was abusive towards her and, regardless of the "reason," that is despicable and cannot be justified.

Whatever happens, the unfortunate fact is that this case has yet again proved that as a society, we have a very long way to go before we can say we understand abuse, or report on it with anything remotely resembling sensitivity or responsibility.  And that continues to shame us all.


  1. The way detractors of feminism and rape culture talk, you'd think as soon as a woman accuses a man of assault (in whatever form) that the masses immediately flock to lynch the accused without trail or need of proof.

    And yet here we are again with undeniable evidence that THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN. Amber Heard isn't being met with quiet support and neutral listeners, she's being hassled and called a liar by the media and by consumers. It's disgusting.

    (Side note: and given my own history, I am inherently suspicious of men who date women two decades younger than them. I'm not saying all relationships with large age gaps will lead to abuse. But I am saying it's a little fragment to consider in the scheme of things).

  2. Spot on - we are SO often told that whenever an accusation is made, the accused is immediately hung, drawn and quartered, whilst the accuser is coddled, but it's simply not true. Time and time again, the person brave enough to speak out about their experiences of abuse is branded a liar and has their personal life and behaviour unfairly scrutinised. It's awful and it really needs to stop!


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