WARNING: This story contains details of intimate partner violence.
Johnny Depp testified in his defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard last week. The trial — which is being live streamed on the Internet for all the world to see and consume — has prompted nothing short of a media circus.
Depp is suing Heard for $50 million US, claiming that a 2018 op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post clearly refers to their marriage due to her previous, public claims that he had abused her. In the piece, Heard calls herself a “public figure representing domestic violence.” Depp denies the allegations. Heard has filed a countersuit for $100 million US.
In addition to a live broadcast, celebrity witnesses from Elon Musk to James Franco to Paul Bettany are set to testify both for Depp and Heard, being held in Virginia’s Fairfax County Courthouse. A social media campaign in support of Depp has erupted on Twitter and TikTok.
The case’s high-profile nature, paired with the sensational coverage of unpleasant details, is a remarkable instance of public engagement with the private lives of movie stars — more access than the paparazzi, and far less flattering than Instagram.
That’s what makes the frenzy around Depp and Heard an outlier of celebrity court trials, experts say.
Televised trial leads to ‘performances’
Depp’s defamation case against Heard is being streamed by Court TV, a digital network dedicated to live coverage of legal trials in the U.S. Having a camera present in the courtroom can impact the way that a person behaves during their testimony, according to experts.
“Johnny Depp is giving, literally, a lesson in acting every time he gets up on the stand,” said Paula Todd, a journalism professor at York University and lawyer from Toronto.
The televised trial is a “massive technological amplification” of typical audience interest in the lives of famous people, Todd said, adding that a televised court trial is unusual.
Watching the network’s coverage, it would be easy to mistake the proceedings for a wrestling match. Anchors assure the audience that during a “brief intermission” they’re “not gonna miss a thing.” After a particularly salacious detail, they ask, “Can it get any worse? Tune in later to find out.” Court TV did not respond to an interview request in time.
Though the trial is free and accessible for public consumption, the courts haven’t granted access for entertainment purposes, Todd said.
“It’s being broadcast because we have the right to a public court system.”
The decision to allow cameras into the courtroom is an administrative one that rests with the sitting judge. However, either party can leverage the presence of cameras to their advantage, Todd said.
“I do think it’s helping [Depp],” Todd said. “I do think it’s engendering public sympathy for him, because people like him as a performer.”
While being cross-examined by Heard’s lawyer this week, Depp made several ill-advised jokes.
When asked about drug use, he told the court that he offered singer Marilyn Manson a pill “so that he would stop talking so much.” In response to a video where Depp could be heard acting erratically, he said, “I did assault a couple of cabinets, but I did not assault Ms. Heard.”
Headlines overshadowing assault allegations
Both Heard and Depp have accused the other of physical and psychological abuse. In court filings, Heard said that Depp assaulted her throughout their relationship, and Depp maintains that she was the aggressor.
In 2020, Depp lost a libel suit in which British tabloid The Sun called him a “wife-beater.” Heard was the primary witness in that trial.
“I think it’s very possible that a case like this could have a discouraging effect on anybody who wants to come forward, any abuse survivor,” said Andrea Gunraj, the vice president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
“It’s very important to take a step back and see that a lot of this violence happens in relationships where there’s a power imbalance.”
WATCH | Johnny Depp loses his libel case against British tabloid:
According to a Statistics Canada report published in 2019, 4.2 per cent of women were survivors of domestic violence compared to 2.7 per cent of men. Overall, 80 per cent of survivors said that they did not report their abuse to police.
“These dynamics are often written as passion, written as strong feelings, but they are actually dynamics that are unacceptable,” Gunraj said. In the past, Heard and Depp had referred to their relationship as “passionate and volatile, but always bound by love.”
The Canadian court system — which is friendlier to plaintiffs than the U.S. system, because it puts the onus of disproving defamation on the defendant — should not be judged based on what we’ve seen in the case of Depp and Heard, said Todd.
“It’s important to try to remember that you’re not a bad person when you have been abused,” she added.
“It has everything to do with the people who are trying to maintain their own power, and you just happen to be a part of it.”
Social media amplifying the trial
For Samita Nandy, a Toronto-based celebrity scholar, the case stands out because of the role that social media has played in amplifying it.
“In terms of the social media presence, what really stands out for me is the blurring of lines between the private and public spheres,” Nandy said.
A Twitter hashtag in support of Depp was trending last week and a TikTok hashtag in support of Depp has racked up 3 billion views to date.
Nandy, who is the director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies in Mississauga, Ont., said it reminds her of Britney Spears’s legal efforts to end her conservatorship because of how the pop star used Instagram to connect with fans.
“I think, for this celebrity couple, the engagement with fans was very important.”
About 25 years ago, media began using both regular people for entertainment and increasing its coverage of backstage moments in celebrity life, according to Evie Psarras, a feminist media scholar based in Chicago.
“For decades now, and with the advent of social media, we’ve been conditioned to overshare our own private moments and demand that celebrities do the same,” Psarras wrote by email. She noted that reality TV series have some roots in court television.
For fans who are fascinated by the authenticity of a celebrity persona, the Depp and Heard case is an exceptional instance of highly protected private lives coming to the fore.
“Privacy is considered a privilege today, not a right. This live streaming of the court case is a perfect picture of the state of our relationship to celebrity,” Psarras added.
“I don’t think people are looking for ethics here. They’re not looking for morality … essentially, they’re consuming the celebrity and it has to do with instant gratification.”
Support is available for anyone who has been abused or assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. The Assaulted Women’s Helpline is a 24 hour, 7-days-a-week helpline for women experiencing abuse. The Canadian Women’s Foundation’s Signal For Help is a silent, one-handed gesture to use in a video call to indicate that you are at risk of violence at home. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.