DISCLAIMER: This story contains details about domestic abuse.
Johnny Depp testified in his defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard last week. The trial – which is being streamed live on the internet for the world to see and consume – has sparked nothing short of a media circus.
Depp is suing Heard for US$50 million, claiming that a 2018 op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post clearly refers to their marriage due to his previous public claims that he abused her. In the article, Heard calls himself a “public figure representing domestic violence.” Depp denies the allegations. Heard filed a countersuit for US$100 million.
In addition to a live broadcast, celebrity witnesses from Elon Musk to James Franco to Paul Bettany are expected to testify for both Depp and Heard, who are being held at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Virginia. A social media campaign in favor of Depp has exploded on Twitter and TikTok.
The high-profile nature of the case, coupled with the sensational coverage of nasty details, is a standout example of a movie star’s public engagement with private lives — more accessible than the paparazzi and far less flattering than Instagram.
That’s what makes the frenzy around Depp and Heard a celebrity lawsuit outlier, experts say.
A televised trial leads to “representations”
Depp’s libel case against Heard is broadcast by Court TV, a digital network dedicated to live coverage of court trials in the United States. Having a camera in the courtroom can impact how a person behaves during testimony, experts say.
“Johnny Depp gives, literally, an acting lesson every time he gets up to the bar,” said Paula Todd, a York University journalism professor and Toronto lawyer.
The televised trial is a “massive technological amplification” of typical public interest in the lives of famous people, Todd said, adding that a televised trial is unusual.
Looking at network coverage, it would be easy to mistake the proceedings for a wrestling match. The presenters assure the audience that during a “brief intermission” they “won’t miss a thing”. After one particularly salacious detail, they ask, “Can it get any worse? Come back later to find out.” Court TV did not respond in time to an interview request.
Although the trial is free and available to the public, the courts have not granted access for entertainment purposes, Todd said.
“It’s being aired because we have a right to a public justice system.”
The decision to allow camera access to the courtroom is an administrative decision that rests with the sitting judge. However, either side can use the presence of cameras to their advantage, Todd said.
“I think it helps [Depp]”, Todd said. “I think it generates public sympathy for him, because people like him as a performer.
While being cross-examined by Heard’s attorney this week, Depp made several misguided jokes.
Asked about drug use, he told the court he offered singer Marilyn Manson a pill ‘to stop him talking so much’. In response to a video where Depp could be heard acting erratically, he said: “I assaulted a few cabinets, but I didn’t assault Ms. Heard.”
Headlines overshadow assault allegations
Heard and Depp accused the other of physical and emotional abuse. In court papers, Heard said Depp abused her throughout their relationship, and Depp maintains that she was the abuser.
In 2020, Depp lost a libel lawsuit in which a British tabloid The sun called him a “wife-beater”. Heard was the main witness in this trial.
“I think it’s very possible that a case like this will have a chilling effect on anyone who wants to come forward, any survivor of abuse,” said Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the Foundation. Canadian women.
“It’s very important to step back and see that a lot of this violence happens in relationships where there’s a power imbalance.”
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According to a Statistics Canada report published in 2019, 4.2% of women and 2.7% of men were survivors of domestic violence. Overall, 80 percent of survivors said they did not report their abuse to the police.
“These dynamics are often written as passion, written as strong feelings, but they’re actually unacceptable dynamics,” Gunraj said. In the past, Heard and Depp had referred to their relationship as “passionate and volatile, but still bound by love”.
The Canadian court system – which is friendlier to plaintiffs than the US system because it places the onus on the defendant to rebut defamation – should not be judged on the basis of what we saw in Depp and Heard. , said Todd.
“It’s important to try to remember that you’re not a bad person when you’ve been abused,” she added.
“It has everything to do with people trying to maintain their own power, and you just happen to be one of them.”
Social networks amplify the trial
For Samita Nandy, a famed Toronto-based scholar, the case stands out because of the role social media has played in amplifying it.
“In terms of social media presence, what really stands out for me is the blurring of lines between 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 accumulated 3 billion views so far.
Nandy, director of the Center for Media and Celebrity Studies in Mississauga, Ont., said it reminded her of Britney Spears’ legal efforts to end her conservatorship over the way the pop star used Instagram to connect with her friends. fans.
“I think for this celebrity couple, engagement with the fans was very important.”
According to Evie Psarras, a Chicago-based feminist media scholar, about 25 years ago the media began to both use ordinary people for entertainment and increased its coverage of behind-the-scenes moments in the lives of celebrities. .
“For decades, and with the advent of social media, we have been conditioned to share our own private moments and demand that celebrities do the same,” Psarras wrote via email. She noted that reality series have roots in forensic television.
For fans fascinated by the authenticity of a famous figure, the Depp and Heard case is an exceptional example of highly protected private lives being brought to the fore.
“Privacy is seen today as a privilege, not a right. This live stream of the court case is a perfect picture of the state of our relationship with celebrities,” Psarras added.
“I don’t think people are looking for ethics here. They’re not looking for morality…essentially they’re consuming fame 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 Canadian Association for the Elimination of Violence Database. The Canadian Women’s Foundation Help signal is a silent one-handed gesture to use in a video call to indicate that you are at risk of violence in the home. If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety or the safety of those around you, please call 911.