The vitriolic social media reaction to Amber Heard’s testimony is reinforcing a damaging stereotype

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

By questioning Amber Heard’s behaviour on the stand during her defamation trial with Johnny Depp, social media users are playing into the idea that victimhood looks and sounds a certain way.  

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the last couple of weeks, you’ll no doubt have seen all the coverage of the ongoing defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

The Pirates Of The Caribbean star is suing his ex-wife for $50 million (£41m) based on an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018, in which she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. 

Depp is never named directly in the article and has always denied the allegations, but his lawyers maintain that he was the clear subject of the piece, and that it damaged the actor’s career and reputation. 

His lawyers have also suggested that Heard’s claims were “fake” and constituted a “sexual violence hoax” – a move that led Heard to file a $100 million (£82m) defamation countersuit. Depp’s suit is the subject of the current trial – Heard’s is likely to go to court later this year.

The ongoing litigation, which kicked off in Fairfax, Virginia, in mid-April, has already proven to be unpleasant, with both Depp and Heard accusing the other party of numerous counts of abuse.

But despite all of the shocking details that have emerged on the stand over the last couple of weeks, one of the worst parts of the whole thing so far has been the online reaction. 

Amber Heard on the stand last week.

The trial is being live-streamed on several major news platforms, and as a result, the case has been transformed from a complicated legal proceeding to a full-on spectacle, with the behaviour and evidence of those who take the stand being opened up to large scale misinterpretation, abuse and mockery.

Of course, some of the most harrowing responses to have emerged over the last couple of weeks have been aimed at Heard – especially when it comes to the veracity of her allegations. 

From TikTok videos re-enacting her testimony to tweets spreading misinformation about her past, the internet has been ablaze with videos pulling her apart. Serious allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault are being made into memes and “funny” videos that have racked up millions of views – most of which are aimed at portraying Heard as a manipulative antagonist whose story is almost entirely fabricated.

No matter what your opinion on Heard and the case as a whole, it’s not hard to see just how toxic the online narrative against her has become. But there’s one part of the reaction to Heard that has proven particularly problematic – the detailed analysis of her behaviour in court and on the stand.

Since Heard took the stand last week, there has been an influx of posts using her behaviour on the stand as a way to question the legitimacy of her claims. From claims that she cried too much or too little to allegations that she posed for a photo or was ‘too animated’, the message behind these posts is the same – that Heard is not behaving how a victim ‘should’ behave, and therefore she’s lying.

This message is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only does the public backlash against an alleged victim of domestic violence have the power to discourage victims from coming forward, but it also reinforces the idea of the “perfect victim” – the mistaken belief that a victim should look, act and talk a certain way, and that acting outside of these parameters is a sign of dishonesty or culpability.

With public confidence in the justice system’s ability to convict perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault sitting dangerously low, these kinds of conversations will only add to the fear that many victims have that they won’t be believed or taken seriously when they come forward – especially if the posts they see are being shared by their friends and family members.  

It’s OK to hold your own opinion about Heard, Depp or the case as a whole, but it’s important to remember that social media posts about the trial can have implications beyond the case at its core. 

The way we talk about allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault matters – and that doesn’t change just because they’re the subject of a high-profile trial or trending on TikTok.  

Image: Getty

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