There is something about a celebrity’s world falling apart — it gets us all deeply interested and pick sides. Most often it is pure, unadulterated voyeurism. But the recent court battle between beleaguered Hollywood star Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, which started out as a mere celebrity feud, turned into a cautionary tale or even a defining moment if you may call it.
Thus far, even in the narrative of celebrity life, we are often accustomed to seeing men as the chief perpetrators of wrongdoings. However, in this instance, as details of the Depp-Heard relationship were peeled off layer by layer, what was revealed was an Alpha-male celebrity victim — Johnny Depp.
Playing Russian roulette
Depp, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars with a quirky repertoire of work, had sued his former wife actress Amber Heard for defamation for an Op-ed article she wrote in The Washington Post about domestic abuse. Heard, in her response, countersued him for defaming her.
In suing Heard, Depp did play Russian roulette with his life. In the sense that he did something unheard of, something that could well have been a professional Harakiri for a celebrity. Keen to protect his reputation, to tell his side of the story, he laid himself bare — warts and all — before the world in the hope that he would be judged fairly. It was such a long shot and without any spin doctors controlling the narrative, it could have gone horribly wrong for him.
As the much-chronicled and live-streamed case trundled on in court with dirty linen being washed in public, the ugly minutiae of the Depp-Heard marriage were paraded in every unflattering detail with recordings, messages and their own testimonies played out for the world to watch. With an overwhelming quantity of damning evidence on both sides, determining who had wronged whom seemed almost impossible. The jury sure did have their work cut out for them.
Public opinion on the other hand formed rapidly. From the comments on social media, it was rather evident that no matter the legal outcome, Heard was definitely losing in the popularity stakes. But Depp, despite his wide fan following and their support, was not coming out smelling of roses either. Media commentators and experts termed it a mutually toxic relationship. Clearly, as the end drew near, neither party was looking good.
What the verdict holds
When #YesYesYes began trending on Twitter, there was reason to believe that the Jury verdict on the long-drawn out courtroom drama that the world witnessed over the last few weeks had gone in favour of Depp.
And for the same reason, the final verdict is worth examining for the ramifications it may hold for men and women.
After the six-week trial, the jury concluded that the Op-ed article written by Heard for The Washington Post in which she described herself as ‘a public figure representing domestic abuse’ was defamatory. But the jury also held that one of Depp’s former attorney in calling Amber Heard’s abuse allegation a hoax, had also defamed the actress.
If you think about it, based on the evidence presented, the arguments and the various testimonies in court, the jury verdict seems rather balanced.
If one were to look at it arithmetically—awarding a $15 million to Depp’s $50 million lawsuit and $2 million to Heard’s $100 million countersuit for damages, the verdict clearly acknowledges the damage done to both parties albeit to different degrees.
The verdict has inevitably drawn mixed reactions—applauded and criticised in almost equal measure. But it truly is a landmark judgment that will have an impact far beyond celebrity divorces, for it also draws attention to the larger issue of victimhood.
The present era of wokeness does allow a very one-sided version of wrongdoing and victimhood amplified by social media. All it takes to blame and shame a party is for someone to put forward a uni-dimensional version of the truth. And if you can adequately make yourself look like a victim, chances are that the worldwide web will amplify and propagate that version. Before you know it, a half-truth or lie as the case may be becomes the gospel truth, which cannot be questioned because even merely questioning it makes you an offender. With such a lopsided approach, truth, despite the best intentions, is often the biggest casualty. It is precisely this aspect that the Depp-Heard face-off has put sharp focus on.
In striking a balance between Depp’s and Amber’s versions of their individual truths and not declaring either’s versions to be the whole and absolute truth, the Jury has shown great wisdom and compassion. The rap on the wrist to both concerned is an acknowledgement that in a conflict situation, it is possible that both parties involved may be out of line, albeit to different degrees. This is a fact that needs to be acknowledged as such.
The jury’s decision in the said case seems to convey that blame cannot summarily be laid on just one party without acknowledging all relevant facts and evidence concerning both parties in entirety.
The verdict signals that mere gender, race, colour or any such factor cannot be proof of guilt or innocence by itself. Most specifically, the verdict also has a subtext — that in an equation such as this, one where the relationship is between two people of a more or less equal celebrity or power, a claim of victimhood must be backed by solid and palpable evidence and not merely by unsubstantiated allegations.
To many, this whole Depp-Heard affair may just be another salacious chapter in the life of a celebrity, but in reality, it is a major step forward in showing balance and fairness when considering contentious personal conflicts — critical markers of civilised conduct in the rapidly evolving post-truth era.
Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior editor, author, and content strategist who comments extensively across Bollywood, celebrities and popular culture. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)