For several years, the film career and public image of actor Johnny Depp have been tarnished by allegations of verbal and physical abuse toward ex-wife Amber Heard — who reaped praise as a survivor and champion of abused women, especially with the rise of the #MeToo movement. Now, material disclosed in Depp’s defamation suit against Heard seems to back his claim that she was the aggressor. Yet many of the same media outlets that trumpeted her charges are ignoring these revelations. While this sordid saga is still unfinished, it should raise much-needed questions about societal attitudes toward domestic violence toward men.
Heard’s accusations first emerged in May 2016 during her divorce from Depp; widely publicized photos showed her bruised face, allegedly from being hit by a phone thrown by Depp. Several months later, Heard withdrew the charges as part of a divorce settlement.
Still, when Depp was cast in the “Harry Potter” prequel, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” major publications such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast castigated Hollywood for “giving Johnny Depp a pass.” Meanwhile, Heard spoke out about being a victim of abuse and became a women’s rights and human rights advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations. (Her public statements which did not name Depp but implied his guilt led to the defamation suit.)
Two audios of conversations between Depp and Heard, from 2015 and 2016, were released earlier this month as part of the litigation. In these recordings, Heard admits hitting Depp and throwing soda cans, bottles and other objects at him. She appears to acknowledge that one such assault caused the top of Depp’s finger to be sliced off by shattered glass. (Her lawyers had claimed the injury was self-inflicted.) Heard also mocks Depp for walking away from fights.
Depp’s attorneys say they have much more evidence of Heard’s violence; her attorneys say there is ample proof of Depp’s abuse toward her. It’s quite possible both were violent, as is often the case.
Female violence toward male partners is a fact that seems counterintuitive yet is documented by nearly half a century of research. Some feminist critics have responded by claiming that women are violent only in self-defense or that the studies are flawed. But the 2010-2012 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the Centers for Disease Control, designed to address some of those issues, still found that 45 percent of those reporting serious violence by a partner in the past year were men.
Obviously, physical differences between the sexes are relevant. Generally, a man punching a woman in the face or grabbing her neck will do far more damage than the reverse. But women sometimes compensate by using weapons (such as bottles!), and men can be held back by taboos against using force toward women. Studies find that between one-fifth and one-third of injuries from domestic violence are to men.
Ironically, traditional chivalry and the feminist focus on women as victims often combine to create a blatant double standard. In one of the audios, Heard jeers at the idea that she could be an abuser, pointing out Depp is bigger and stronger. “Tell the world … I, Johnny Depp, a man, I’m a victim too of domestic violence,” she says. “And see how many people believe or side with you.”
But if feminism is about equality, isn’t this double standard wrong, too? Let the media give Heard equal time as an alleged abuser and Depp as an alleged victim. Moreover, even mutual abuse should disqualify Heard as a victim advocate.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.