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The Problem With Saying That the Depp-Heard Case is About “Mutual Abuse”

Calling the Depp-Heard relationship one of “mutual abuse” fails to take into account the power imbalances that govern heterosexual relationships and the impunity with which cis het men behave.

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Calling the Depp-Heard relationship one of “mutual abuse” fails to take into account the power imbalances that govern heterosexual relationships and the impunity with which cishet men behave. The assumption is that Depp and Heard start at the “same level” when they speak about their relationship in court. The reality is that they don’t. Depp’s words carry a lot more weight than Heard’s. Apart from his obvious celebrity stature, patriarchal and sexist norms give him a huge advantage.

The misogyny and hate directed towards Heard on the internet is in itself a reminder of the inequality of their social standing. Heard’s testimony of sexual assault is dismissed and her pushback framed as violence, while Depp’s addiction, violent behaviour, his language in texts and even his entitled behaviour in court are not judged harshly and even applauded. Depp’s aggression is received differently. It is accepted and normalised and therefore rendered invisible.

Of the two, Depp is the “bigger star”. He has been in Hollywood for more years, has more wealth, a lot more fans, and enjoys a solid network. Most people involved in the case, including the couple’s doctors, were under his payroll. In all likelihood, he is physically stronger than Heard. Most are likely to see Heard as treating Depp as the “catch” therefore seeing her as having a diminished stature in the couple.

Defamation trials are regularly used by perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual harassment to shut down women who try to speak out against them. The very fact that Depp moved for defamation in Virginia, a state notorious for its lacking anti-SLAPP* legislation should be contentious. Heard didn't even name Depp in her op-ed and yet he launched an attack on her.

*Anti-SLAPP laws are intended to prevent people from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.

Heard has spoken of sexual assault, taken pictures of Depp breaking things, scrawling graffiti, being violent on camera, passing out on several occasions. There is evidence of Johnny Depp’s aggression in the texts the court has seen, including one conversation where Depp talks about wanting to drown and burn Heard, while suggesting he would rape her afterwards to make sure she is dead. Depp has already lost a libel case in the UK, where he sued a newspaper for calling him a “wife-beater”.

While none of the evidence against Depp or his own claims of being the victim have invited any scrutiny, there is a persistent drive to frame Heard as ‘equally abusive’ because there is some audio and other evidence of her sounding aggressive or pushing back with violence. In any situation of abuse, there is always one person who has the upper hand, who controls and dominates.

Anyone who is familiar with intimate partner violence knows that victims “fight back”. This can include behaviours that can sound like abuse but are not: shouting, pushing, shutting doors, calling names, or even apologising. None of this is the same as exerting control. It is not ‘mutual abuse’. “Self-defense is not being abusive it is surviving.” ( “Does Mutual Abuse Exist? If Someone is Reacting to the Abuse is that Abuse?” by Dr Betsy Usher.)

The manifestations of Depp’s support are grotesque. On live streaming platforms, the deluge of comments against Heard appear at a frenzied speed. It is constant and overwhelming. On the internet, several videos of Depp laughing as Heard gives her testimony have been circulating. Videos of Depp smirking and retorting at Heard’s lawyers’ questions are being watched as entertaining highlights.

To call this “mutual abuse” or to say this was merely a “toxic” relationship where both parties suffered, is a form of gaslighting of survivors everywhere. It is the abuser’s narrative that shifts blame to the victim in surreptitious ways. To accept that abuse has a “perpetrator” and a “victim” is the bare minimum that can be afforded to survivors and it should not be up for debate.