On April 25, I went to see Canadian writer Sheila Heti talk about her new book. At the time, we were two weeks in the maelstrom of the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp courtroom (it’s set to end on May 27, God help us). In the first celebrity TV trial in what seemed like ages, we saw Heard looking photogenically pained and Depp looking smug and determined as the details of their volatile five-year relationship – including the physical abuse , free-flowing substances and… free-flowing bodily fluids – spilled in the courtroom. Nobody really seemed to care that it was a libel suit (Depp is suing Heard for $50 million for writing an op-ed in The Washington Post survive a violent marriage). The resounding sentiment around the trial from everyone I spoke to seems to be: Oh. A kind of abrupt lamentation, intended for us rather than them. For this reason, I did not expect the trial to burst into the walls of the living room where we were listening to the author of How should a person be? talk about his job. But then Heti was asked what she does between projects. “Well, I’ve been sick all week, so the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp lawsuit is the only thing I’m interested in,” she said. “I wish I had a better answer.” Heti seemed to indicate she had sunk even in her own self-esteem, and even then she had no patience for Depp, only for Heard. “She’s so beautiful,” she said, “but it changes when you hear her scream.”
This seems to be the crux of the trial in the public consciousness – a veneer of scandal, a kernel of ambiguity. The headlines emanating from the Heard-Depp uproar are salacious in a way reminiscent of a bygone era, delivering “bombshells” and “shocking moments.” Body language experts have been redeployed, celebrities have been removed, even a fart on the witness stand has been debated. On top of all that, there’s a lot of moral outrage at the army of Depp supporters who have flooded social media apps like TikTok to excoriate Heard. This all seems miles away from what I remember to be the relatively sober media coverage around the Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein trials. Of course, this particular lawsuit is tailor-made for the tabloid treatment, with two Hollywood stars, a sizable age gap between them, a hint of adultery, and the kind of excessive wealth that makes not just opulence but lust. so much more and more debasement. The ambiguity arises from the fact that in various ways and to varying degrees both parties appear here as both victim and perpetrator. What reads like a surprisingly regressive discourse around this lawsuit, five years after MeToo, becomes less surprising when we realize that the movement is not really ambivalent.
Believe All Women, the slogan that came out of MeToo, had good intentions – that women rarely lie about abuse – but it became a bit of a Catch-22 almost immediately. Believe All Women implied that you either take everything a woman says at face value without questioning, or you don’t, and so MeToo is dead. “The real weakness of social feminism is not that it encourages women to be overly sensitive to discomfort, but that it is so broad,” Moira Donegan wrote in the Guardian. “The call for women to unite can overlook the kinds of pain and conflict that can exist between them.” This inability to build in a sort of gray area meant that MeToo became particularly susceptible to backlash. The main one being the feminist divide characterized by Donegan as the divide between those who believe in the individual empowerment of women – this one works well in capitalism, which is why conservatives tend to like it – and those who believe into collective liberation, which is more of a threat to the status quo (which is why I like it).
In the case of the Heard trial and its army of vocal Depp supporters, the backlash is fueled by the perception that MeToo has sidelined the men. In particular, men like Depp, whose own accusations of abuse by Heard have become a symbol of the movement’s fallout. “At the end of the day, we’re so passionate about this, not because we like Captain Jack Sparrow,” a member of Depp’s online support system told Slate, “but because we want to raise awareness of a very real problem that often gets swept under the rug.” In the online space, where it’s easy to perform assistance without doing much, misogyny presents itself as anti-misandry. The idea that Depp and Heard could be both the abused and the aggressor is impossible to consider here, as it involves keeping two conflicting thoughts in one’s head It is easier (and more impactful), especially online, to simplify it – Depp is right, Heard is wrong.
While online stan culture has reduced litigation to the easy question of who is right and who is wrong, the mainstream press faces a more complicated dilemma: how should it handle the type of litigation that was traditionally dismissed as a mere scandal, which used to be relegated to the tabloid press, knowing what we know now – that the gossip has time and again proven to be as factual and rational as the official discourse? In other words, how do you legitimize gossip as testimony? Especially when it’s so hot? Alongside MeToo, a better understanding of how whisper networks have historically and privately protected women from abuse, providing additional legitimacy for gossip. You can even see the downstream effects of it in the incitement article of the lawsuit. What would have been a bunch of juicy dirt filtered through anonymous sources a few decades ago was instead a compelling op-ed written by Heard herself.
Depp accused Heard of writing the op-ed to advance her career (she recently fired her publicity team), while claiming he sued to save hers (he’s a man who owns a island, remember). This kind of gossip storytelling was de rigueur in the 1930s and 40s, the golden age of Hollywood when movie studios used gossip columns for publicity purposes. Timely leaks about the actors’ private lives kept them in the public consciousness, and the box office benefited. It also worked the other way around: scandals (affairs, drugs, arrests) could hurt a star’s financial power. With the advent of looser libel laws in the 1960s – a lawsuit must prove the publisher of the supposed lie did it maliciously, which is why Depp’s case is so hard to win – the tabloids and gossip reporters were essentially given carte blanche, and the columns proliferated in magazines. and newspapers in the 80s and 90s. Then Court TV came along in 1991.
The TV celebrity trial, granted its first big break by OJ Simpson, has become something of an IP machine in its own right, creating countless stories and various other showbiz opportunities. Relatively rare show trials like Michael Jackson’s have become their own tabloid ecosystems and, in their wake, even non-televised celebrity court cases – from Winona Ryder’s infamous Saks robbery to Anna’s custody battle. Nicole Smith – were forensically deconstructed by the tabloids, capitalizing on the public’s thirst for the most vulnerable stars. Moving on to homework, blogging made everyday people gossip columnists, and then social media made it a free game. The rolling non-stop news cycle and associated social media that Court TV relaunched into in 2019 – after languishing for the past decade – only begged a certain unhinged A-lister to get into litigation. Jack Sparrow more than filled the role.
With fewer tabloids, fewer publications in general, one would think the response to a celebrity TV trial in 2022 would be more subdued. But the constant need for content online and the constant need to react on social media means this is even less the case. All aspects of the essay are analyzed, the difference now is that even the analysis is analyzed (hi). Increasingly aware of intersectional oppression, the savvy media online is also willing to place everything, even one-off celebrities — from a slap in the face to an abusive marriage — in a systemic context. What emerges is an academically tinged discourse, lacking depth due to the lack of actual information (hence the yen for more details – perhaps the next photo of Depp passed out on his hotel room floor will open the door). ‘case!) media users toss around academic terms like “internalized misogyny” and “mutual abuse,” a clever-sounding gloss with no real insight. Much like the courts, just like the mainstream press, neither MeToo nor the social media in its wake can handle human subtlety.
Sometimes the reason a celebrity hurts another celebrity is obscure even to them, and even if it isn’t, there isn’t always more meaning to be extracted from such events. It’s not the type of gossip that has a social function. It’s schadenfreude, there for ordinary people to thank God we are not them. Maybe that’s the goal. That in a culture collapsing under the weight of the elites, they can still be brought down so low that the people no longer have to admire them (which they continue to do in spite of themselves). Perhaps that’s why Heti was willing to admit on that scene, knowing it was embarrassing, that she was watching Heard and Depp flounder – as a self-reflective writer, she knew that the only reveal promised by this trial was that of itself.