Since filing for divorce on May 23, actress Amber Heard's public split from Johnny Depp has gotten nastier by the day. On Friday, Heard filed a restraining order against Depp, submitting a photo of herself with a black eye to court and accusing her now-estranged husband of physical abuse. The allegations of intimate partner violence have elicited a widespread response — and, naturally, much of the response assumes that Heard, the alleged victim, is making everything up out of spite.
In what's quickly becoming a he-said-she-said war of accusations, backlash against Heard has been swift, with parties close to Depp and distant onlookers demonizing the actress online. While Depp has remained mostly silent on the matter, a number of people have spoken out in his defense, including former partners Lori Anne Allison and Vanessa Paradis, with whom he has two children.
Others have publicly condemned the actress. In a strongly worded piece for the Wrap, comedian Doug Stanhope, a personal friend of Depp's, asserted the actor is not only innocent of the accusations, but the victim of Heard's blackmail.
"My girlfriend, Bingo, and I have known Johnny Depp for a few years now. We have watched Amber Heard [fuck] with him at his weakest — or watched him at his weakest from being [fucked] with — for the entire time we've known him," Stanhope wrote.
As is wont to happen online, internet commenters have been quick to weigh in on the matter. Although the hashtags #WeAreWithYouAmberHeard and #ImWithAmber started trending on Saturday, skepticism and downright disbelief of Heard's claims have also started to dominate social media. Supporters who proclaim #ImWithJohnny haven't just raised questions about the basis for the actress's restraining order against Depp, but blasted her for purportedly attempting to extort spousal support.
Unfortunately, this is a fairly typical response to accusations of intimate partner violence. As writer Karen K. Ho pointed out in a series of tweets on Sunday, "We are conditioned to respond the way the press has towards [Heard]," which is to say, with "skepticism," "scorn," "disdain" and "concern for Depp's career and immense wealth."
It's reasonable to note, as Ho did, that "things are different behind closed doors." Although it might be true that every relationship has its own complexities, that the dynamics between a couple are inevitably complicated and that we don't know what happened between two celebrities like Depp and Heard, this isn't a case where "we don't know what happened between them" counts as a valid reason to butt out entirely. Unlike allegations of adultery, allegations of physical violence in a relationship do warrant a wider conversation about what it means to believe accusers — particularly because it's something the public is historically terrible at doing.
The photos of bruises Heard submitted as evidence, not to mention the marks that appeared on her face in court, don't exist in a vacuum. While onlookers might not know the particulars of her and Depp's relationship, we do know people like her — people who accuse well-known men of violence — are routinely criticized for so much as hinting at foul play, or blamed for any abuse committed against them. It happened to the women who accused Jian Ghomeshi of assaulting them; to Janay Rice when her then-fiance, Ray, attacked her on camera; to Christy Mack when her ex-boyfriend, Jon "War Machine" Koppenhaver, allegedly nearly killed her.
We also know it takes dozens and dozens of people telling the same story about the same person to make us accept, or even simply conceive the idea that a beloved public figure could be capable of any horror. The lesson we should have learned from the gut-wrenching number of women who accused Bill Cosby of abuse is not that we should listen only to a chorus, but to every individual voice — even when it involves disconcerting accusations about a celebrity who's long been admired.
The idea that those we revere could be brutal in their personal lives still doesn't seem to be sitting well with the public, though. The idea that a scorned and malicious woman would say anything to take down her partner, however, has proven more than a little appealing over time. Indeed, the number of people on social media blasting Heard for her accusations against Depp reflects our tendency not only to blame victims for whatever attacks might come their way, but to disregard the possibility they might just be telling the truth in the first place.
However, there's no small chance an accuser is telling the truth: In cases of intimate partner violence in particular, only about half of all cases are ever reported, according to the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and when they are, it's often in the face of various factors that coalesce to keep survivors silent, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Regardless of the crime, when victims accuse those in positions of power of abuse, they typically face swift backlash — or, at the very least, a hashtag that's used not merely to rally support for the accused, but to diminish accusers' credibility. That response isn't just a refusal to believe one particular victim, in this case Heard; it's a manifestation of the victim-blaming culture that makes it so difficult for survivors of violence to speak up in the first place.
It doesn't matter what we do or don't know about Heard's relationship with Depp, or about the circumstances of their separation. When someone claims they've been brutalized by a person in a position of greater power, whether that authority exists in the relationship or in the public eye or both, the very least we can do — short of simply believing them — is assume they're not operating in bad faith. Yet when it comes to allegations leveled against a man who's highly regarded, we've proven once again we're not ready to give anyone except the accused the benefit of the doubt.