THE HERD THAT CANCELLED DEPP

On September 22, 2021, Johnny Depp went on record as ‘a victim of cancel culture’ – a social epidemic and virus so infectious that no celebrity eminence may be immune to its virulence. Its transmission promulgates lepers out of icons formerly merited pedestals, casting them from the heights of social adulation and respective media platforms, to stigmatized bubbles of guilt and shame: JK Rowling, Shawn Dawson, Ellen DeGeneres…Johnny Depp. Depp went on to comment, ahead of receiving the honorary Donostia Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival: “It can be seen as an event in history that lasted for however long it lasted, this cancel culture, this instant rush to judgement based on what essentially amounts to polluted air.”

What surfaces when we put a microscope to the disease? For the last six weeks, one courtroom in a North Virginian courthouse has garnered more investigation, inspection, and cross-examination than a penicillin Petri dish of a Fleming laboratory. All while jurors, lawyers and the public have laboured to discern the pathogenic bacteria from the salubrious as the microcosm of Depp and Heard’s previous lives, misdemeanours, testimonies, and characters have been subjected to veritable scrutiny. Numerous accounts are probed by lawyers – morally unyielding pipettes – their mouths dispensing beads of venom that have gone on to fuel acrimonious external observation and public judgement – a more insidious poison proliferates outside the walls of the court. 

In 2018, following a Washington Post op-ed, a herd of deferential followers blindly united to mount Amber Heard upon an inviolable podium that would amplify the tenuous cries of a ‘self-proclaimed’ survivor from an unassailable summit. Four years on and those crusaders, the fanatics that sought to erect her venerable pedestal – are tearing it down with their own hands. A predicament that echoes Depp’s fall from grace with a mocking familiarity that reverberates with ironic justice, as public scrutiny renders Heard, officially, canceled. The verdict already cast: the jury, judge, and courtroom – redundant components of a superfluous trial, when its audience comprise the solely valid arbiters. Depp never needed a win, hell, he never needed the fifty million dollars, he needed to be uncancelled. And we don’t rescind cancelation through revoke or repeal of defamation. No, the public appetite is insatiable and demands to be fed…we cancel someone else. Heard was sentenced before she had the opportunity to open her mouth. And perhaps this is justice. She’s hardly exemplified the paradigm of innocence so voraciously broadcasted – the face of domestic violence. And yet was it not you, I, the rest of the world who, of our own volition, chose to uncritically endorse that misnomer in the first place?

Op-ed: ‘An opinion piece, written by a person with a unique perspective on the subject.’ An opinion. This was her opinion, her truth, written to inveigle the reader of her prevailing righteousness, but still, nothing beyond an opinion. As in, this was an article uncorroborated by enquiry, tangible facts, empirical data, investigation, scrutiny…evidence. Yet public condemnation was cast against Depp in merciless alacrity. Heard was the catalyst, we threw the stones. There have been numerous testimonies now that expose Heard’s predisposition to violence, to cruelty, verbal, vitriolic rage, the unremitting diatribes hurled at respective partners and employees, the narcissistic impulses…sufficient material to accumulate a plethora of ‘opinion pieces.’ So how did her true character evade us all for so long? We read an excerpt, an op-ed, and sanctioned it gospel truth. Depp and his distinguished career – crucified in an instant, we failed to question or interrogate the legitimacy of any of it…until ultimately the whole thing landed up in court. A product of our own blind acceptance, and our insatiable appetites for schadenfreude. Cancel culture. Do accounts such as these have to reach globally publicised trials before being subjected to veracity? And I know what you’re going to say: WE SHOULD BELIEVE ALL WOMEN WHO CLAIM TO HAVE BEEN SUBJECTED TO ABUSE! Well, should we?…We should listen to all women (and men), sure, we should take all accounts seriously and treat them with empathy, but believe? If we by default validate the victim, we instinctively denounce the accused. Belief…conviction… synonymous, and they generally go hand in hand with retribution – and we have a justice system in place for that.

Where Heard’s defence have resorted to some of the most outlandish, ridiculous even, sources, calling tabloids ‘The Sun,’ and ‘The Daily Mail’ out at the stand, Depp’s lawyers have rebutted with a ‘are you seriously going there’ side-glance. Way to undermine your own credibility, guys, because these sources have none. And that’s totally valid, we’re supposed to take stories that litter tabloids with a pinch of salt…they’re not peer reviewed, they’re hearsay, or “Heardsay,” let’s say. Still, this sensationalised propagation of Heard’s fabricated bruises, Moss’ tumble down-the-stairs, the salacious bedroom specifics, Depp’s volatile relationship history…all this tabloid trash has accumulated a gravity of intrigue. A substantial amount of this unsubstantiated drivel has found itself at the forefront of the trial…and that’s ultimately because the public gobbled it up with a greed and sightlessness that rendered Depp cancelled in the first place. We invested in this tabloid debris; we attributed it the credibility that steeped Depp in lawsuits for years, Heard was just the facilitator. We’ve seen an influx of articles now that rail against the misogynistic implications of vilifying Heard, instead of criticizing the onslaught of this online cruelty, they fixate on the imminent threat of interminable misogyny afflicting our society and deterring other victims from coming forward. They decry ‘misogyny’ all whilst alluding to Heard’s prevailing innocence on the mere basis of her gender…feminism advocates for equality though, not female hegemony – that’s misandry.  We are rarely exposed to balanced perspectives – if it’s not polarising, it ain’t getting a platform. Surely a feminist perspective would support Depp to an extent…not on account of the abuse that has been testified to, but on account of the evidence provided exposing Heard’s shrewd malice in defaming Depp, through what appears to be a calculated exploitation of the upsurge of the ‘me too’ movement. It feels as though we have lost sight of the fact that this is a defamation case though, not an abuse case, and Depp is not responsible for the hateful and pejorative commentary, we are.

Our societal perception of abuse is extremely binary, with minimal negotiation between oppressed and oppressor, it’s a reductionist approach that negates what system’s theories and numerous social-science studies have elicited for decades; that duality exists in all of us to an extent. And that dichotomy is exhibited throughout this trial. Fanaticism does not yield balance though. It’s clear that both Depp and Heard engaged in destructive, cruel, and toxic behaviour, Depp himself does not deny this. Yet here we are again, drowning in a public cry, but one now that rallies blindly for Depp’s exoneration, and he can do no wrong, as far as the public are concerned. Heard has driven him to drugs, hindered his sobriety and plagued his mind with jealousy, while some of the commentary has descended to the realms of the ridiculous in its claims – she is responsible for his profanities, his weight gain, his ageing, his thinning hair, his eyelashes have lost their volume and his ears have grown – a Darwinian defence against the perpetual threat of glass bottles hurled at his skull, no doubt. The woman literally cannot blink an eyelid without being subject to public scorn. Is Amber Heard not a victim in her own way, of mental illness, at least? Her behaviour undeniably congruent with cluster B personality types, so we’ve heard. We’ve witnessed testimony to her lack of impulse regulation, emotional instability, her inexorable struggles with dysfunctional relationships and addiction. Mental illness is only sympathised with when it’s socially palatable. Public opinion consigns its compassion to mental illness cases that conform to neat packages of vulnerability, hosts that are unpolemical and do nothing to infringe on the security and well-being of the majority. We have no humility for a blemished character. And yet, mental illnesses typically manifest themselves in ugly, socially repugnant ways…that’s usually what warrants a diagnosis in the first place – poor and socially non-conforming behavioural choices. But the virtue signalling won’t cease; the indefatigable ambush of moral slurs we wake up to everyday employed by brands, corporations, and public figures, conceptualised to lure us all into a collective sense of awareness surrounding the sanctity of mental health. And the general consensus pertains to this idea that we’re all suffering, to some extent. If we’re all saddled with mental health issues though, what are the implications for people suffering from BPD, bipolar, anorexia, schizophrenia, ASPD…PTSD? They’re put into the same boxes, the same waitlists and afforded the same degrees of tolerance and compassion as everyone else…divergent perspectives and feelings remain invalidated, and deviant behaviour ostracised.

The culmination of my DV trial landed my ex in prison: GBH, ABH, rape, and wounding. Those are concrete, legitimate terms, speculation does not enter the equation, this is what he was charged with and prosecuted for, it just is what it is. There was an additional charge, to which he was found not guilty, so I exclude it from mention. If his name or an allusion to was mentioned in a published article, I would be expected to substantiate those claims with proof. Throughout this trial, we have been barraged with commentary plagued with – ‘look what Heard’s done to ACTUAL survivors of domestic abuse!’ – I don’t know if she has done all that much to me, personally, to be perfectly candid. I didn’t really take much stead in her whole spiel in the first place…perhaps the reason for all this vehemence is that so many of us did. The comments on the other hand, the ones where we deride her fragile state of mental health, memes of her getting slapped, the general ridicule propounded against her displays of emotion, yeah those are pretty cutting, perhaps triggering even. I know of other survivors who similarly look upon accounts of victimhood with an invariable skepticism when they are void of tangible evidence. They find it acutely uncomfortable to read or hear accounts that are elusive as to what actually went on…this term ‘abuse’ – holds an amorphous ubiquity that is contentious – because what do you mean, when you say ‘abuse’, it’s vague, what are you referring to? – Malicious communications, verbal…assault – common, actual? Aggravated, grievous, battery, false imprisonment, wounding? – An official terminology for this stuff, that varies by jurisdiction, exists, and if you’re not even loosely exercising it, what moral authority do we have to arbitrate? A perpetrator of common assault does not receive as punitive a sentence as a person found guilty of grievous bodily harm. I was listening to a podcast recently on the topic of workplace violence and survivorship, the hosts were mollifying an actor who claimed to have been abused on set, the whole account was extremely obscure, but referred to a ‘truly horrific incident, a violation of the worst kind.’ The language being used seriously insinuated that a rape or some kind of sexual assault had occurred. The victim later went on to claim that ‘there were witnesses who heard what he said too’ – I mean, why do this? Why broadcast ‘abuse’ and not substantiate it with anything, no context was given, the listener just expected to take everything said at face value. It’s not fun for rape survivors to listen to accounts of survivorship that align verbal abuse with ‘a violation of the worst kind.’ When someone resonates with the term ‘survivor’ it’s not for me to refute or invalidate that, but it’s frustrating to have public attitude blindly endorse it. What do accounts of survivorship, when they vary so significantly in the severity of abuse inflicted, do for other survivors?

Has Heard made it harder for DV victims to come forward? Has she taken the ‘me too’ movement back…by decades? Personally conflicted on that one – it feels too much a sentiment wielded for the justification of the diatribes and hostility spurned at her. We read and champion enough editorials written by champagne socialists who release excerpts that bleed in victimhood…and hypocrisy, while they carouse and run around in their playgrounds of fast cars and luxury. And that’s not to suggest a celebrity status is any more capable than the rest of us plebs in evading abuse, perhaps it just feels more wounding somehow. To read the accounts of these paradigms of aesthetic beauty, altruists, do-gooders, and immaculate perfection, imploring for change and for justice from the cavernous realms of their sanctimonious, golden-lined lungs. So as a survivor, I never appreciated her article in the first place. She never epitomised the pillar of model survivorship for me. Socially, we pander to it all though, we provide the platforms…but only to the ‘righteous,’ and it’s ironic, because I’m not reckless or brave enough to actually supply examples (MANY come to mind)…someone might actually read this one day, and cancel my ass. My survival heroes have been the women I’ve encountered on tenuous recovery paths, usually amidst poverty, although that shouldn’t be a prerequisite. But they are women who’ve wrestled with their own demons in the aftermath of the clutches and wrath of shame and PTSD. A PTSD that drove them to abuse substances, commit inordinate and inexcusable mistakes, socially marginalise them and ostracise them from their loved ones as result of their own poor choices. Abuse is cyclic, PTSD has repercussions, hurt people – hurt people, and all too often the victims become the perpetrators. And they are my heroes, my heroines, because in spite of all the humiliation, the human error, the hurt committed unto others in the wake of their PTSD, they acknowledged their mistakes, their wrong-doings and they strove to change and to redeem. I’m not interested in entertaining articles penned by picture perfect archetypes of survivors, who claim to be entirely faultless in the face of the wake and wrath of PTSD. Victims of DV are not homogenous, but surviving violence and abuse carries its own implications, most of us didn’t wake up from our horror stories brimming with boundless love and care for humankind. For a lot of us, our self-esteem was down the pan, we disregarded our health, our hygiene, our skin broke out, our hair was ravaged, we were distrusting and confrontational, we didn’t smile demurely at passersby, we weren’t warm, approachable, or endearing. I never wanted to see this perfectly-put -together woman – no misdemeanours, flawless conduct, unblemished character parading on the cover of magazines as the ‘face of domestic violence.’ When you’ve worked so hard just to be able to trust people, to look people in the eye, to smile at people, to eat food, to sleep, to exercise, to nourish your body, to forgive yourself for the hurt inflicted upon others, to redeem for it, to address a lack of impulse control and emotional regulation, to love others and allow them to love you back, to be kind…that “bar” of survivorship makes you feel like a failure. Because it’s women like Heard who get the badge, the survivor badge. This is how the public want to perceive victimhood. And that’s not Heard’s fault…it’s a product of our society’s binary-bounded mentality. We don’t have to start denying self-confirmed survivors of their marque, we don’t have to deride or debase their choice of lexicon. But we can still choose how we interpret it. We can choose to discern between the accounts and the language put before us, to not jump to conclusions, we can choose to challenge our pre-determined biases or indulge them. To rush to unite in cancelling mass hysteria, or to…what’s the antithesis? – By default, if we don’t cancel, we endorse?…Our social positionality has become so binary, and we are culpable of that – it’s our responsibility to recalibrate, to confront the parameters of our own ‘herd fragility.’  We don’t have to conflate unquestioned, unchallenged compassion of domestic violence, survivorship and mental illness with understanding of it. Heard’s words only take the ‘me too’ movement backwards if you, if we allow her too.

Heard threw Depp to the wolves, knowing they would take the bait. A cancelled Depp, a then vilified, ‘had-been’, maligned underdog, unleashes his bark and the pack turn. We turn on the hand that fed us the succulent kernels of celebrity moral turpitude, we bite at Heard’s heels, ravenous for blood, easy prey for she is muzzled now, and her words hold no meat. She is ousted, finished, cancelled. And perhaps that’s the way it should be. Just providing we come to accept – we’re the predators, the wolves…or perhaps, more aptly, sheep.

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About Laura Denmar

Artistic Director of Elysian Productions; Laura is a British writer, producer and researcher based in Toronto, Canada. She is currently completing the final components of her PhD with the University of Birmingham, UK. Laura has written prolifically for stage and for screen, preserving a nuancedly feminist voice as a writer. Her Canadian-based innovative praxis ‘Theatre for Emancipation’ exists as an evolution of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed paradigm, adapted most notably for western contexts. The emphasis of her work attempts to address the systemic social, political, and economic inequities that Indigenous communities within Canada have been subjected to, whilst her methodology interrogates the adequacy of current measures employed by Canadian policymakers in pursuit of reconciliation. TE attempts to subvert hegemonic, fundamentally neoliberal ideologies and practices that have dominated settler discourse, rhetoric, education, and policy succeeding colonialism, subjecting post-colonial social constructs to a dialectical scrutiny that aims to counter further ensuing marginalisation. Through providing platforms that amplify the voices of communities who have typically been relegated to the margins of society and rendered silent, TE advocates for derivatives of theatre praxis that foster positions of allyship amongst settlers. Inspired by the poetics of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, TE galvanises an aesthetic that transcends the traditionally passive nature of spectatorship, rallying participatory audiences to action, or rather, ‘spec-activism.’
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