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It may seem that every TikTokker, cable news commentator and chatterbox neighbor has an opinion about the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard defamation trial that concluded Wednesday in Virginia. But for many sexual violence survivors, there has been a noteworthy absence from the conversation: Hollywood. While major stars and the industry activist group Time’s Up mobilized around other high-profile #MeToo cases like Harvey Weinstein’s and Bill Cosby’s, there has been no such movement around the Depp-Heard trial, which involves allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault. (Depp said multiple times on the stand that he has never struck a woman, denied Heard’s allegation of sexual battery and called himself a victim of domestic abuse by Heard, which she denies.)
“Every single person who wore a Time’s Up pin on the red carpet of the Golden Globes, my question to you is, where are you and why are you not supporting Amber Heard?” says Alison Turkos, an activist and sexual assault survivor who organized an open letter to Time’s Up last August when it was revealed that former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought advice from top Time’s Up officials after he was accused of sexual harassment. “Why are you not willing to risk your power or privilege? It is very easy for your stylist to put a pin on your outfit and for you to walk the red carpet. Now is the time for you to show up for survivors.”
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The Depp-Heard case differs from the Weinstein and Cosby ones in key ways: Depp has alleged that he, too, is a victim of abuse in the relationship; Heard is a lone victim, not part of a group who came forward; and Depp’s fan base has been vocal online, creating memes and hashtags that criticize Heard and cast doubt on her testimony. Nevertheless, Depp was widely expected to lose the case.
Time’s Up is also no longer the force it was during those trials. Its board has dissolved and two CEOs resigned last year in the months after the Cuomo scandal exploded. And while the group had provided pro bono PR for victims during the Weinstein trial and supplied press with information about sexual assault, it has not so much as tweeted about Depp and Heard. Neither have women who were among Time’s Up’s most notable members, like Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes.
The Depp-Heard defamation trial began April 11, and for several weeks prominent activists stayed largely silent about it. On May 28, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke issued a statement on Instagram saying that the cause was being co-opted and manipulated during the trial and calling press coverage “one of the biggest defamations of the movement we have ever seen.” In the caption, Burke said she and her organization “have been harassed nonstop about [the trial] — mostly by people wanting us to ‘pick a side’ in the case.” A longer statement posted on the organization’s website said that the Depp-Heard trial was “not about sexual violence at its core.”
“The stunning silence says it all,” says singer and actress Melissa Schuman, who alleged in 2017 that Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter raped her in 2003 when she was a member of the teen-girl band Dream. Carter denied the allegation, the Los Angeles district attorney declined to prosecute because the statute of limitations had expired, and Schuman became the object of online vitriol from Backstreet Boys fans, similar to the type that Depp fans have unleashed on Heard. “[The silence] is used against Heard, like, ‘Look, she is not believed.’ Nobody is willing to put their life on the line. There’s no benefit to speaking up in support of a survivor speaking out against power.”
Another entertainment industry woman who was on the brink of coming forward with an allegation of sexual assault against a man who works in Hollywood says watching the trial has given her pause. “What this shows me is that all my worst fears are true,” she says. “The reason I don’t ever want to go public is that I’m afraid I’ll be treated like Amber Heard.”
Depp’s filing of a defamation lawsuit against Heard is an increasingly common legal tool in #MeToo cases, one that is replacing the nondisclosure agreement, which new laws in states including California have begun to limit. “The use of defamation lawsuits has become a perfected art in certain industries,” says former California State Sen. Joseph Dunn, a lecturer at the University of California at Irvine School of Law and an attorney who handles clients with sexual assault allegations. “It frankly is just another tool of cover-up.”
Many who work with sexual assault victims say the Depp-Heard trial, and the public’s reaction to it, may have a chilling effect on victims’ willingness to speak out about abuse.
“What I’m seeing played out is an imbalance of power,” says Louise Godbold, a Weinstein accuser and executive director of the nonprofit group Echo, which conducts training on the subject of trauma. “[The power imbalance] created conditions ripe for abuse, it gave rise to the defamation suit to threaten and silence the victim, and is now being used to manipulate public opinion and gaslight the world into believing the abuser is the victim. And it’s working.”
After the jury issued its verdict Wednesday finding both Heard and Depp liable for defamation, but awarding significantly more damages to Depp, one prominent entertainment industry group did issue a statement.
“We are deeply concerned the Depp-Heard decision will set precedent exacerbating barriers victims face in coming forward,” tweeted Women in Film, an entertainment industry advocacy organization founded in 1973. “The trial and its reception demonstrated a regressive trend of retaliation against those who speak out about violence or abuse perpetrated by those in power.”
The group shared the phone number for its helpline, offered resources for people of any gender who have experienced sexual harassment or misconduct while working in the entertainment industry, and said, “We’re here for you.”
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