CARP Debates: Depp v. Heard

Actor Johnny Depp smiles and gestures towards spectators in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Virginia, May 27, 2022. (Getty Images/Steve Helber)

Was Johnny Depp’s recent legal victory over ex-wife Amber Heard a victory the court of public opinion? CARP Facebook group members Nancy Snow and Rod Carveth offer two contrasting perspectives.

By Deirdre Jane Prigge

True crime, dishy Hollywood gossip, and hot-button issues like the #MeToo movement, intimate partner violence, and free speech collided when Johnny Depp sued ex-wife and fellow actor Amber Heard for $50 million dollars in Fairfax County court. The two-month-long civil trial was covered extensively in traditional and new media. More than 500,000 viewers watched the verdict read live on Court TV, while others followed the proceedings through short TikTok videos, Instagram reels, and YouTube channels like Law and Crime Network, where over 3.5 million viewers tuned in for live coverage.

Depp and his legal team charged Heard with three counts of defamation surrounding a December 2018 op-ed published in the Washington Post, in which Heard alleged that she had become a “public figure representing domestic abuse” after facing “sexual violence” from an ex-partner widely understood to be Johnny Depp. Depp, who denies abusing his ex-wife, claimed that her accusations ruined his reputation and caused him to lose lucrative acting gigs in big-name movie franchises like the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series. In another shocking twist, Depp claimed that he was the victim of domestic violence from Heard- and that he had surreptitiously recorded audio evidence to prove it.

On June 1, jurors delivered their final verdict: Heard had defamed Depp and was ordered to pay the actor over 10 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. However, Depp wasn’t entirely off the hook. The jury also decided a public statement made by one of Depp’s lawyers had defamed Heard, and ordered Depp to pay her 2 million dollars.

In the Character Assassination and Reputation Management Lab Facebook group, members Nancy Snow and Rod Carveth engaged in a constructive debate over the trial’s impact on Depp and Heard’s reputations, as well as what the popular reaction to the Depp-Heard saga suggests about American culture. Although both Nancy and Rod agree that Depp finished the trial in a better position than where he started, they differ over whether Depp’s victory in the courtroom has truly restored his reputation. They also discuss cultural perceptions of intimate partner violence as well the trial’s implications for the future of the #MeToo movement. Nancy and Rod’s discussion highlights two contrasting perspectives on the trial’s impact on Depp and Heard’s reputations and career prospects, as well as what the public’s reactions to the trial says about broader cultural attitudes towards men and women who level accusations of intimate partner violence.

Nancy Snow: A Huge Victory for Depp

It’s a huge victory for Depp. Depp’s win against Amber Heard reinforces his reputation as a cool guy/bad boy, musician, and great actor, who also revealed his inner demons as an addicted self-abuser of drugs and alcohol, but most notably, an intimate partner abuse victim. His trial team lawyers were outstanding, and their short and sweet statement after the decision was a perfect cap to giving credit and the spotlight to their client, with whom they had complete faith and support. It was even a win that he wasn’t in court. No gloating. Across the Great Pond, going back to his life and his first love, music.  

On the stand, Depp came across as completely believable. He’s sympathetic and the public and the jury did not believe Amber Heard. That sentiment grew over the course of the trial. Depp rectified his legacy. It did plenty for his charge from the start that he’d been through years of lies and physical and emotional abuse from his ex-wife. A big win for Depp, but a bigger win for those who know the truth and believe enough in it to take the risk of airing all one’s dirty laundry to reveal it in public.

The cultural backlash against the #MeToo movement preceded this trial by years. It was sickening that Heard tried to ride the wave of #MeToo, only to have that backfire too. Too self-serving and manipulative.

Rod Carveth: A Victory for Depp’s Bank Account, Not His Reputation

I disagree that this is a huge win for Depp. I think the first thing that the jury did when it got home was to take a shower. Even if you don’t believe he physically abused Heard, the level of verbal abuse Depp leveled against her (which the Depp side did not present much of a defense against) was way over the line. That being said, Depp has a much better chance of having a career after this than Heard, which may say more about the remaining level of misogyny in the culture than anything else.

Two thoughts on the Depp-Heard case. First, Depp may have won money, but the case did nothing for his reputation. Still, in a world where DeShaun Watson can get a team to pay him $30 million per year while 23 women have suits against him for sexual assault/harassment, anything is possible.

Second, Amber Heard had poor legal advice. Her team’s focus should have been on whether the op-ed clearly identified Depp, or whether it was Depp himself who identified himself. Once into the back and forth over the abuse allegations, Heard was vulnerable to being picked apart. I also wonder if this case reflects the beginning of a cultural backlash against the #MeToo movement. I hope not, but it’s something I am pondering.

Conclusion

For students of character assassination and reputation management, the Depp-Heard saga has been something of a real-time look at the process through which public reputations are damaged and rebuilt. Will Depp’s victory in court benefit his reputation in the long run? Right now, it seems that the jury is still out.

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