In truth, we love it when celebrities have terrible relationships.
A contentious divorce between two A-listers will sweep headlines for weeks, and cheating scandals will be committed to public memory and alter celebrities' reputations until they "redeem" themselves. But a challenging new iteration is Johnny Depp's response to ex-wife Amber Heard's allegations of spousal abuse by asserting that he was actually the victim of Heard's domestic violence. "I never abused Ms. Heard or any other woman," Depp, 55, has stated in court documents. "She was the perpetrator, and I was the victim." Depp first stunned the public by accusing Heard of "painting on" bruises, and he recounted some of her alleged instances of abuse as reactions to her "pranks" (he wrote to the court that he decided to file for divorce after "Ms. Heard or one of her friends defecated in my bed as some sort of sick prank"). Now audio recordings that allegedly capture the couple's abusive arguments have been leaked to the public, exacerbating the conflict.
With two high-profile celebrities accusing each other of abuse, who's telling the truth? Sure, it feels superficial to pry into actors' personal lives; even considering the matter feels indicative of how voyeuristic and gross celebrity culture is. But in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we also know better than to take accusations of abuse frivolously.
Even with their divorce settled, Amber Heard and Johnny Depp's toxic relationship is one of many models of how we as a society respond to abuse, as public opinion weighs in on who's telling the truth and who's the "real" victim. In March, Depp filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Heard for defamation of character, referring to the 33-year-old actress calling Depp "the Monster" in court documents and alleging that he often threatened to kill her throughout their two-year marriage. Afterward, Complex pointed out, "Some People Are Calling to 'Uncancel' Johnny Depp in Wake of His $50 Million Lawsuit Against Amber Heard." The actor submitted evidence and witness testimony to the court: "While mixing prescription amphetamines and non-prescription drugs with alcohol, Ms. Heard committed innumerable acts of domestic violence against me, often in the presence of a third-party witness, which in some instances caused me serious bodily harm."
In truth, forming an opinion on a public figure's misdeeds is more moral, social, and political than ever. Mere days after Depp first spoke out, Harvey Weinstein reached a symbolic settlement of $44 million with his former studio's board members in response to over 80 women accusing him of sexual harassment. Largely credited with launching the #MeToo movement, the Weinstein case also models how we respond to abuses of power and privilege. As The New Times wrote, "[M]any of those complaints involve sexual harassment, which is a civil violation, not a criminal one. So the details of any settlement—such as whether it includes an admission of wrongdoing by Mr. Weinstein—would carry significant symbolism." While the Depp-Heard divorce is of a separate nature than Weinstein's abuse of power, Depp's step up from denial to cross-accusation tests the limitations of the #MeToo movement.
When high-profile relationships exhibit abusive behavior—the kind that 10 million women and men experience each year in the U.S.—we still struggle with how to talk about it. The public faces a dilemma when hearing conflicting allegations, from Brett Kavanaugh's accusers to the highly publicized scandals surrounding R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and even the late Kobe Bryant. We want to validate survivors' experiences by rightfully celebrating their bravery and strength, but we don't want to identify people solely by their experiences with abuse. To make matters more complex, growing critiques argue that we're supporting a "victimhood culture" that prevents healthy discourse rather than encourages it. Said view isn't only on Reddit and the Intellectual Dark Web; for instance, it was captured by two sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning who researched victim mentality and published The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars. "[Victims] call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders," they write, sounding more like apologists than scientists. "In doing so, [they] also call attention to their own victimization" because it lowers "the offender's moral status" and "raises the moral status of the victims."
At least that's what Depp's lawyers argued when they accused Heard of using the #MeToo movement to enhance her image. In 2016, Heard was granted a restraining order against the 55-year-old actor, and in 2018 she penned a Washington Post op-ed in which she referred to herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse." She recounted receiving "the full force of our culture's wrath for women who speak out" about domestic violence. Heard wrote, "Like many women, I had been harassed and sexually assaulted by the time I was of college age. But I kept quiet — I did not expect filing complaints to bring justice." Heard added, "In recent years, the #MeToo movement has taught us about how power like this works, not just in Hollywood but in all kinds of institutions—workplaces, places of worship or simply in particular communities. In every walk of life, women are confronting these men who are buoyed by social, economic and cultural power. And these institutions are beginning to change."
In response, Depp's lawyers called Heard's detailed account of alleged domestic violence a "hoax" designed to promote her career. Depp's lawsuit reads: "Ms. Heard also knew that her elaborate hoax worked: As a result of her false allegations against Mr. Depp, Ms. Heard became a darling of the #MeToo movement, was the first actress named a Human Rights Champion of the United Nations Human Rights Office, was appointed ambassador on women's rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, and was hired by L'Oreal Paris as its global spokesperson."
Again, is it the American public's business as to whether the Heard-Depp marriage was abusive? Of course not. But bored social scientists have taken pains to prove our brains have adapted to model our behaviors and social beliefs on people with prestige; sure, we know better than to take moral guidance from celebrities, but to some degree, we can't help it. So how public figures address abuse and domestic violence matters. The serious allegations between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard (someone who's taken steps to advocate for survivors of domestic violence as the public face of campaigns) reveal our cultural failings when it comes to discussing and processing abuse. If the goal of #MeToo is to identify the sources of power that prop up abusers, then public opinion on what constitutes abuse measures how successful we are in achieving that goal.
The #MeToo movement fundamentally changed how we view issues like domestic abuse, sexual assault, and unhealthy relationships. Culturally, we tend to believe survivors and aim to cancel every financial and social privilege of the accused. As for Heard, her lawyers condemned Depp's claims as further abuses of his power and privilege: "In light of the important work done by the #TimesUp movement highlighting the tactics abusers use to continue to traumatize survivors, neither the creative community nor the public will be gaslit by Mr. Depp's baseless blame-the-victim conspiracy theories."
However, there is an unintended run-off effect of cancel culture: It perpetuates the belief that abuse does define an individual's entire identity, whether as an abuser or the abused. We assume the lines between those roles are clear and clean. But aside from the clinically debunked myth that abuse victims are more likely to become abusers themselves, in reality, a person can be both a survivor of abuse and have abusive tendencies, just as an abuser can simultaneously be a victim. The true "cycle of abuse" is not when victims become abusers themselves but when individuals fill both roles simultaneously.
As clinical psychologist Sheri Madigan wrote for Vox in the wake of documentaries about R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, "Having an abuse history does not need to define who an individual is or what they become." Counselors and society as a whole are facing the complex, nuanced reality that "sometimes the abuser is also a victim, and sometimes the victim is also an abuser. We have to find a way to work with both parts of the person." While the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements triumph at pointing out that abuse doesn't exist in a vacuum and that cultural institutions of power have condoned vile behaviors, the next step is to make the difficult acknowledgment that abusive tendencies don't comprise the entirety of a personality. We refrain from taking this step out of disdain for apologists and deniers; no one wants to be seen as having sympathy for the devil. But frankly, today's science, our cultural values, and our collective history suggest that some devils deserve sympathy.