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Ideal Victimhood, Misogyny, and the Amber Heard Trial

MDX Criminology and Sociology lecturer Dr Daniel Sailofsky fears that the Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp trial will be a turning point for all the wrong reasons. Here he takes us through his views on why

Female Leading Interview With Journalists Outside (Unsplash)

MDX Criminology and Sociology lecturer Dr Daniel Sailofsky fears that the Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp trial will be a turning point for all the wrong reasons. Here he takes us through his views on why:

If you live in Europe or North America and have a working internet connection, you have probably heard of the Amber Heard – Johnny Depp defamation trial. This was not an accident. The Depp legal and PR team did everything in their power to make sure this case was as public as possible, including filing the case in the state of Virginia, ensuring that it could be recorded and live streamed.

Though Depp already lost a libel case in the UK – a jurisdiction where libel cases are more often successful than in the United States – he won the Virginia defamation case last week. Heard was charged to pay over 10 million dollars in damages, though Depp is also liable to pay two million dollars for his own defamation of Heard.

It should come as no surprise that Men’s Rights ‘activists’, the online ‘manosphere’, and the American political right latched onto this case as ‘proof’ that #MeToo has ‘gone too far’ (it hasn’t) and ‘ruins men’s lives’ (it doesn’t, if they’re talented enough), and that women lie about abuse all the time (90+% do not).

To be frank, I’m not concerned about these groups. I’m concerned about the rest of Depp’s supporters – or perhaps more aptly, those who grew to detest Heard as this case proceeded.

I’m concerned about society’s regression to victim blaming, victim hierarchies, and to unrealistic expectations of how victims of abuse are supposed to act.  

Feminist sociologists, criminologists and more specifically victimologists have long been concerned with how the public and the law treat different victims, especially victims of intimate partner violence. In the 1980s, Norwegian sociologist Nils Christie introduced the concept of the ‘ideal victim’, a crime victim who’s ‘ideal’ characteristics make them more likely to garner sympathy and justice in the courtroom, and perhaps most importantly, more likely to be believed when they recount their abuse.

Even those defending Amber Heard would admit that she is far from an ideal victim. The point, however, is that she shouldn’t have to be.

Christie’s original formulation of the ideal victim (in a courtroom setting) is someone old, weak and vulnerable. They are involved in respectable activities and employment, blameless in their victimization, and victimized by a “vicious” and “unknown” offender. Other characteristics have been added to this formulation over the years, including acting ‘rationally’ to escape victimization, presenting as sincere and thoughtful in court, and being young and naïve (rather than old). Those marginalized along racial, class, and/or sexuality lines are also less likely to benefit from privileges of ideal victimhood.

Heard is not an ‘ideal victim’; almost no one is. Intimate partner violence is messy, courtrooms are stressful, and the real world of violence, abuse, and (attempts at) justice is not a True Crime podcast. Depp, his lawyers, and a deluge of social media content creators presented Heard as a liar unable to tell a coherent narrative, a gold-digger, and responsible for her own victimization due to her behaviour and her own abuse towards Depp. The fact that a judge in another jurisdiction had found substantial proof for 12 of Depp’s alleged abuses, or that he has a history of substance abuse and mistreatment of those on movie sets mattered little, because Heard was not the right victim. She wasn’t a ‘real’ victim.

As sociologist Nicole Bedera explained, Depp’s legal team used a typical DARVO (deflect, attack, reverse victim and offender) playbook in this case, and to great effect. Punching down on someone with lower structural power – in terms of wealth as well as social and cultural capital (aka popularity) – Depp and his team engaged in a takedown of Heard’s character, ignoring and deflecting from years of documented evidence.

These DARVO strategies are common, and are often used in cases of sexual violence on college campuses. Following this highly public trial, they will only become more so. This case will not only push victims to avoid seeking justice from the criminal legal system, but it will silence them from even mentioning their abuse to friends, family, and the public if they have the slightest inkling that they won’t be received as a perfect victim.

Though she is a young, conventionally attractive white woman (more likely, according to some research to be considered an ideal and believable victim), Heard admitted to fighting back against Depp. She admitted that she did not leave right away after the first time she was threatened, or when Depp first behaved in abusive ways. She didn’t have bruises at the right times; she was out to get him; she brought this into the public eye; she deserves this trial and this public execution.

This case got such media traction because Heard was not simply framed as a non-ideal victim, but as a liar, a ‘crazy woman’, and an abuser herself. TikTok ‘investigators’ and social media sleuths showed a misogynistic bloodlust for her every misstep, mistimed facial expression, and any odd courtroom behaviour. Memes were made, including those attributing guilt or blame based on courtroom behaviour and facial expressions, and social media celebrity careers were launched.

Imbibing this never-ending stream of content, observers flipped back and forth from “she’s lying” to “she deserved it”. Those defending Heard were berated and mocked, with Depp supporters taking over social media channels like TikTok.

If the general public needs victims of intimate partner violence to fit a particular cookie-cutter image to be considered a ‘real’ victim, we have seemingly learned nothing about gender inequality, power, and the messy nature of interpersonal violence trials. If defamation cases and (social) media slander await victims of powerful abusers, any progress made on speaking out against this type of violence will come to a grinding halt.

I fear that we will look back at the Depp-Heard trial as a turning point, where Men’s Rights activists, misogynists, and those looking to thwart movement on gender inequality took the narrative and public opinion back. I hope I’m wrong.

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