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Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard and the Pitfall of Neoliberal Activism

How Hollywood’s #MeToo movement and faux feminists embraced populism at the expense of Amber Heard.

When the Virginian trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard began, I was, in all honesty, not that interested in following it. I still remember my partner asking me if I had an opinion about their relationship and subsequent legal battles, and my answer then was simple: They are two wealthy people. Why should I care? On the one hand, we had Johnny Depp, a multi-millionaire, charismatic white actor with a recorded history of violence, drug abuse, and racist remarks. On the other hand, we had Amber Heard, a relatively unknown actress whose political stances are, to say the least, not convergent with mine. I had no particular feelings towards one or the other. I initially viewed this case as an individual moment in time: two rich, conventionally attractive white celebrities fighting each other to clear their names. Looking back, I realize I quickly fell into the neo-liberal, appetizing trap of Hollywood’s #MeToo discourse.

Before my criticism of the movement, it must be emphasized that I am strictly referring to Hollywood’s version of #MeToo and not its revolutionary roots. Indeed, MeToo has been around since 2006, founded by Tarana J. Burke to advocate for sexual violence survivors, particularly Black girls who had gone through such brutal abuse. For the past sixteen years, Burke’s work has provided resources and support for thousands of women of various intersections: queer, disabled, black, and poor. The revolutionary nature of this initiative is evident and must not be denied. Unfortunately, what happened post-2017 was, from my point of view, the complete bastardization of Burke’s hard work and vision.

Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse allegations were the starting point for the MeToo movement. After actress Alyssa Milano‘s tweet referencing the hashtag, the expression ‘Me Too’ went completely viral on social media. Thousands of women and men bravely shared their traumatizing experiences with sexual harassment. Male celebrities started to be called on their abusive behavior: Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roman Polanski, Louis CK, Casey Affleck, Dr. Luke… Male politicians also faced scrutiny, such as Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and Andrew Cuomo. Suddenly, demonstrations of support for these victims were everywhere. Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 75th Golden Globe Awards explicitly referenced the emerging movement, stating that “truth is the most powerful tool.” Musicians wore white roses on their chests and wrists at the 2018 Grammy Awards to support abuse survivors. These symbolic gestures and words were grand and eye-catching. They generated heated debates and shined a light on this problem that had long been disregarded. Finally, it seemed that women, men, and non-binary folk were finally heard, understood, and supported. Nevertheless, these gestures were just that – gestures.

Looking back from a 2022 perspective, it is clear that not much has been achieved. Yes, Harvey Weinstein is in prison; R. Kelly is behind bars; Kevin Spacey has not appeared in any notable films; Bill Cosby’s career is in shambles (despite having been released from prison simply due to a technicality). But the systems that supported these men are currently in place. These individual cases produced some negative consequences for the perpetrators for one reason or another. Despite this, Louis CK was recently nominated for a Grammy Award; Dr. Luke continues to receive fat checks from his multiple stars signed to him; Roman Polanski still receives standing ovations in film festivals; Casey Affleck won a Best Actor Academy Award, and many other men have come out on the other side practically untouched.

Unlike Tarana J. Burke’s initiative, Hollywood’s version of the #MeToo movement never had a structural change in mind. Too many “calls for action,” but not much “action” was seen. Instead, activist and resistance movements were merely commodified and turned into a marketable aesthetic that could easily be synthesized by a five-minute speech, pretty white roses, stickers, and twenty-five-dollar t-shirts manufactured in Bangladesh.

Neoliberalism carries many definitions, but if I could briefly describe it in a simple one, I would say that it is the dystopian fascination of the individual self. In other words, neoliberalism defends that society comprises individuals with unlimited liberties, structured by personal decisions and results. Therefore, the success and failure of a person are solely dependent on their actions. Because they carry the privilege of immeasurable freedom of choice, the good or bad results of their decisions are purely influenced by the individual. Problems are not systemic; they are not perpetual, generational, corporate; they are ultimately a result of a few “bad apples” that occasionally disrupt the divine balance of exploitative capitalism. The poor are poor because they are the “problem”: “they don’t work, they don’t study.” Black Americans are the biggest victims of the judicial and prison system because they are the “problem”: “they choose to be involved in crime, they decide not to have better living conditions.” Black trans women are the most vulnerable targets of gender-based violence because they are the “problem”: “they choose to be in precarious situations, they decide to ‘trick’ men into liking them.” On the other side of the spectrum, white men are generally more successful than other groups of people because “they work, study, follow the law, create their advantageous life conditions, get out of difficult situations, and are trustworthy.” Neoliberalism blinds us and makes us think that people’s problems are THEIR problems. Not ours. Not structural. Not societal.

And that was the trap I fell into at the beginning of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s case. This is THEIR problem to solve. Not mine. Not ours. It has nothing to do with the structural issues our patriarchal society carries. Apparently, I was not the only one to be tricked by this narrow-minded perspective. I have seen fellow leftists, who I have considered to have similar political stances as myself, being sucked into this sensationalized circus. I have seen people following into three different positions: not caring about the trial because, once again, it is not their problem and it won’t affect them; finding “nuance” to sound intellectual, and saying, “Well, both sides are equally bad and violent”; or blindly siding with Johnny Depp because “male victims also need support.” This last position is particularly curious because it is true: male victims deserve to be heard and supported. However, people seem to have forgotten that Johnny Depp is not the first man to come out as an alleged victim of abuse. Has anyone forgotten about the male (underage) victims of Kevin Spacey? Or about the young boys accusing R. Kelly of sexual abuse? What about Terry Crews, that shared his experience of sexual harassment by an influential figure in the cinema industry? Hollywood’s #MeToo movement had already given the space for these victims to tell their stories, and they were already being heard. Unfortunately, they were not heard by everyone because some of their accounts were simply brushed under the carpet. But they were always there. So why do people say that Johnny Depp is the physical embodiment of male victims now being heard?

While following the trial’s live stream, I was constantly shocked by the arguments used by Depp’s legal team and supporters: Heard had photos of her bruises? Well, those are just makeup. Heard did not have pictures of bruises? That is because she never had bruises in the first place. Heard expressed concerns about her physical safety to her friends? She was just lying to them. Heard did not cooperate with the police about her abuse? She didn’t have reason to tell them she was being abused. Heard called Johnny Depp names and fought back? She is a manipulative abuser. Heard never fought back? Well, maybe the abuse she was suffering wasn’t that bad then. No matter what she did or didn’t do, she always ended up being a liar. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So there she was, a woman with unimaginable resources to the average human being getting brutally victim-shamed because she did and didn’t have the “correct” evidence (whatever that means). I kept wondering: “What about the survivors who don’t have these resources? What about poor, marginalized folks that don’t have six million dollars to spend on legal fees? Because Amber Heard, amid such injustice and vicious attacks, still has her privileges associated with her class. Other people don’t have that blessing. Those survivors that watched this trial horrified are the ones that I am most worried about.

In the desperate attempt of neoliberal feminists to find “the” male victim (“See? Men can be victims too! We don’t hate men, we support men, please don’t hate us!”), they gleefully constructed this marvellous theory that conveniently explained everything in this case: Amber Heard was a gold-digging serial-cheater who only wanted Depp’s fortune. So she masterfully orchestrated a years-long plan with her friends and ex-friends and photographed manufactured bruises throughout the years. All of this careful planning just to ultimately win…seven million dollars in a divorce settlement? Seven million dollars from the multi-million fortune of Johnny Depp? It is confusing to me but seemingly comforting to others to think that a Machiavellian years-long plan is the most logical explanation and reasoning for all of this. It certainly is the explanation that far-right platforms such as The Daily Wire and Fox News have been promoting these last few weeks. About their interference in the pro-Depp campaign, Alison Stine’s article “Boosted by Candance Owens, The Daily Wire spends thousands on ads to discredit Amber Heard: report” (May 20th, 2022) and VICE’s piece “The Daily Wire Spent Thousands of Dollars Promoting Anti-Amber Heard Propaganda” (May 19th, 2022) explain this situation in detail. The far-right is already taking advantage of a domestic violence case to push forward a narrative that women should not be believed. We should question rape victims, we should discredit domestic violence survivors.

The goal of this never-before-seen campaign (at least on this scale) is not to support male victims. In fact, this only hurts men that would like to come forward and share their experiences. Why? Because the verdict of the defamation case just opened Pandora’s box: your abuser now has every right to sue you for defamation, even if you never reference them by name and never actually mention details of your experience. And the worst of it, they will very likely win, whether they are a man or a woman. This is not about “male victims.” This is about a charismatic white actor that has been a significant and nostalgic cinematic presence amongst Millennials and Gen Zs. We simply don’t want to believe that Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissor Hands, and Willy Wonka can sexually assault a woman with a vodka bottle. We don’t want to think that this beloved and talented actor who has visited sick kids in hospitals dressed as a funny pirate has said he wanted to fuck the burnt corpse of his partner. That is just too much to handle. Unfortunately, abusers are often unbelievably charming. That’s why they get away from their actions so frequently.

It is tough to believe those horrifying accusations when the victim is “no angel.” Amber Heard is not a virginal, angelic, and defenseless prey. She is an openly bisexual white woman with a “femme fatale” aura surrounding her. She is rich, she is sensual, she is young. Amber Heard fought back. She threw punches and slaps, pushed Johnny Depp back, threw bottles to escape him, and called him horrible names. She did not just sit down and get degraded; her mental and physical state was utterly shattered, but she did not go away without an ugly fight. And that makes us uncomfortable because we are conditioned to hold sympathy for crystal-clean victims. The minute we find flaws in them, we start to question: “Maybe they deserved that slap, that punch, that kick in the back. Maybe they deserved to be mistreated because they had a foul mouth and allegedly flirted with other men and women”. Our sympathy quickly evaporates because now it requires more work to defend them. And who wants more work? Who wants resistance, activism, and change with work? That is just too much to handle.

Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard is not an individual case. It is the visual representation of how quick society changes its position once action actually needs to be taken. Within a neoliberal #MeToo, we want to hold up cute signs with “#JusticeForJohnnyDepp” written on them. We want to carry white roses. We want to design aesthetically pleasing InstaStories to prove to our followers that we are so “woke.” However, if we genuinely desire real change, beautiful gestures are not enough if dismantling a patriarchal society is the goal. It will require work. It will require forcing our perspective to shift from an individualized point of view to a communal, holistic, and intersectional one. This is not about two celebrities and the media circus surrounding their painful and abusive relationship; this is about the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is much more demanding and tasking of us. But is the only one which will actually lead us to some meaningful change.

About the author

Beatriz Alves

Academic researcher in Material Culture and Museum Studies. Also that annoying friend that likes to put politics in everything because our very existence is a political matter, after all!

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