The messiness of the Depp-Heard saga

June 14, 2022 09:57
Actor Johnny Depp (Photo: Reuters)

I’ve held off from sharing my two cents of worth on the ongoing Depp-Heard saga – in part because I do not think I have anything unique to say, but also in part due to the messiness of the quagmire. To seek truth from facts is a life motto – there are neither enough facts, nor sufficient room for truth-seeking, in relation to the ongoing fiasco.

The Depp-Heard saga revolves around one of the most high-profile and well-known couples in Hollywood history. Both are highly accomplished and virtuosic actors/actresses, with reasonably substantial careers prior to – though no longer in the aftermath of – the unravelling of their relationship. Heard was touted by many to be the “next big Hollywood female lead”, whilst Depp’s legacy in movies ranging from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Pirates of the Caribbean had landed him many an accolade. All in all, they were an impressive duo – one that would often be the talk of town and frequent patrons of the red carpet.

The saga began with the kangaroo court decrying Depp for his alleged transgressions. The popular opinion was determined, cast, and pursued relentlessly… by the self-anointed prosecutors who took it upon themselves to speculate and comb over every speech and act from the man himself. The objective? To castigate a man accused of domestic violence. To pique questions and interest in areas never afore-traversed, with the intention of probing private lives to sell the voluminous details of celebrities for profit. The juicy, juicy inner lives of the couple have become an intensely public spectacle, dragged out into the public for all to see. Heard’s NYT op-ed also played a role, too, in shedding light into the psychological abuse and vitriol she had ostensibly suffered at the hands of Depp.

As I observed the unfolding events, my sympathies naturally went to Heard – it is statistically the case that female victims of domestic violence are more likely to be silenced, erased, and have their testimonies (unduly) disconfirmed and brushed aside by juridical structures that seemingly favoured the voices and interests of men. It would not be erroneous to characterise the contemporary court system as skewed in favour of those who wielded capital – in economic, cultural, and, as certain feminist theories put it, gender forms. Heard’s words appeared genuine, and offered an emphatic rebuking of Depp’s treatment of her in a relationship of which few, even back then, could reasonably deny the frenetic dysfunctionality.

The case against Depp began crumbling, however, as media and court testimonies ‘revealed’ that he had allegedly been a victim of Heard’s abuse too – in the forms of physical assault, gaslighting, and verbal detractions. Much of this, again, was by no means proven, mind you. Instead, what we saw was merely a chorus of voices switching from radically denouncing Heard, to radically advocating Depp’s side of the story. What’s the basis of that? What’s the case for that? Was there even a due process behind this vigilante pivoting? I do not think so – at least, from the looks of it, there is little more than incidental evidence and partially verified circumstantial facts that would support the verdict and conclusions that many in the public are now drawing about Depp: that he was a victim, that he was doubly vilified, that he was tortured and psychologically cajoled by the maleficent Heard. All of this, for a lack of a better word, is speculative balderdash.

As much as I enjoy extrapolating sociological phenomena and trends from ongoing events, I am fundamentally unconfident that I could draw veracious assessments of the matter at hand. The public – myself included – knows far too little. Far too much in the ongoing debate comes down to intuitions and foundationally unfalsifiable claims. Yet what is perhaps most perturbing out of this all, is the lengths to which netizens and online commentators would go, in order to “prove themselves right”, or, better yet, to “exact their conceptions of justice”. The due process exists for a reason: we may not like what it says, but we should seek to reform it, as opposed to launch a parallel ‘enquiry’ (with little to no rigour or scrutiny), a parallel ‘lynch-mob’ in place of proportionate punitive/retributive justice, and a parallel ‘conception’ of matters at hand – one that precipitously and insidiously displaces officially agreed-upon facts and accounts. We live in delirious times.

Don’t get me wrong. Domestic violence is a serious matter. Male-on-women abuse is also a deeply perverse matter. Perpetrators of domestic violence gaslighting their victims through concocting false and unsubstantiated claims that they manage to pull off in convincing others to believe in? That’s a problem, too. Yet there is absolutely no way whatsoever for us, as bystanders and observers, to decide upon who is right – whomever can do so, deserves a Nobel prize and to become the next Agatha Christie. Yet until then, the messiness of this all compels prudence, as opposed to our impetuously jumping to unjustified conclusions.

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Assistant Professor, HKU