Amber Heard Is Not A ‘Perfect Victim’ Because There’s No Such Thing

Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/Getty Images.
Over the last few weeks a troubling and at times harrowing picture of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s marriage has been painted inside Fairfax County Courthouse, Virginia. The union, though brief, was tempestuous. 
Depp is currently suing Heard for libel. He argues that an article she wrote in 2018 for The Washington Post defamed him because she described herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse". Not once does the article in question mention Depp by name but Depp’s lawyers say he was defamed because it is a clear reference to abuse allegations that Heard made against him in 2016 when the couple separated.
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Heard is counter-suing Depp, alleging that his assertions that she is lying about abuse are defamatory and alleging that he, his agents and his lawyers have run a campaign of harassment against Heard, including using fake social media accounts to spread misinformation.
The coverage of this trial has become as, if not more, fraught than Heard and Depp’s relationship itself. Images of restaurant and cafe tip jars with each of their names attached are doing the rounds on social media as passing judgement on the intimate details of their relationship becomes a spectator sport. Misinformation also abounds. One particularly vicious rumour, started on Facebook, is that Heard took a bump of cocaine while on the stand. There is no evidence for this, a defamatory statement in its own right.
Heard has been accused of lying. Her mental health has been used to undermine her credibility. She has become the butt of jokes as the hashtag #MePoo has poked fun at her following Depp's allegations that she soiled bedsheets in their home. Her team say this was actually down to one of the former couple's dogs.
All the while Heard's legal team have shown images of her bruised face, split lip and clumps of her blonde hair on the floor of the former couple’s bedroom. For his part, Depp has admitted to writing threatening messages on the walls of their home in his own blood. 
No matter how compelling the evidence to support the idea that Heard is a domestic abuse survivor, the court of social media continues to judge Heard harshly. She is one of the women who the world doesn’t want to believe. This is in spite of the fact that in 2020 a British high court judge ruled that Depp had assaulted his ex-wife and refused to allow him to appeal the judgement. 
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Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a reporter who covers courtroom proceedings and legal matters for Law360. She is also the author of two books about sexual assault. She explains to Refinery29 that the response to this latest trial should concern us all. 
"I’m really concerned by the response I’ve seen to the Depp/Heard trial and not because I am on her 'side' or believe that all her allegations are true," Osborne-Crowley explains. "What concerns me is the tone and the content I’ve seen of the criticism of her, much of which perpetuates long-debunked myths about domestic and sexual violence. I’ve had so many people say to me that 'real' victims wouldn’t, for example, keep seeking out further contact from the other partner, as we’ve heard in audio of Depp trying to leave a situation and Heard trying to get him to stay. In fact, this kind of behaviour is quite common in certain types of abusive relationships and depends more on the individuals’ attachment styles and history than whether or not there is abuse."
Osborne-Crowley also notes that the criticism and even hatred of Heard speaks to outdated notions of the 'good' victim which imply that a woman who fights back or throws an insult at an abusive partner and then speaks out is not a 'real' victim. 

There is a myth that a person has to be good or moral in order to have been subjected to domestic abuse.

Lucia Osborne-Crowley
"I’ve had people say that 'real' victims wouldn’t mock the other partner, as we’ve heard Heard do," Osborne-Crowley explains. "But the thing I really think we need to remember is that there is not one way to be a victim of an abusive partner and we all respond differently to these situations depending on our life experience and our history."
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"All of this concerns me because it perpetuates the myth of the 'perfect' victim and requires Heard to fit into a lot of — often conflicting — public expectations of how she should behave in order to be believed," says Osborne-Crowley. "But these expectations shouldn’t feed into whether her allegations are proven to be true in a court of law — the evidence should do that."
Beyond the outcome of Depp’s latest legal challenge, the treatment of Heard has wider ranging consequences. Whether she is found by the jury to be telling the truth or not, the explosion of these myths in the public consciousness is really damaging. 
"I think it’s important to remember that her story should be critiqued based on its own merits, not based on ideas about how 'real' victims should behave," says Osborne-Crowley. "It also contributes to the myth that a person has to be good or moral in order to have been subjected to domestic abuse. A lot of the nasty criticism I’ve seen is about Heard as a person but the truth is she can be morally reprehensible in every other way and it’s still possible that she’s telling the truth."
On the legal procedure itself, Osborne-Crowley cautions that we are only halfway through this trial. 
"What concerns me about the social media reaction is that Heard has not had a chance to present her evidence or her witnesses yet. When I cover trials, the judge will typically instruct the jury that they should keep an open mind until they have heard all of the evidence, and the same should apply to the public. Instead, what I’ve seen is a widespread dismissal of her story as patently false before she has even finished telling it. Regardless of what you think of her, anyone making allegations of criminal behaviour should be given a chance to present their evidence before they are dismissed, called names and mocked."
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With that in mind and given that we have only so far seen Depp’s evidence, Osborne-Crowley says: "It’s very normal to lean towards his side of things at this stage in a trial."

The person who presents first will always have that advantage and indeed I found much of Depp's evidence very compelling. But I also know that that could change when Heard presents her witnesses.

LUCIA OSBORNE-CROWLEY
"I’m worried that people are confusing that natural inclination with the truth," she continues. "The person who presents first will always have that advantage and indeed I found much of his evidence very compelling. But I also know that that could change when she presents her witnesses. If people still believe she is lying at the end of the trial, that’s a different story. But the adversarial trial system depends on both parties being given a chance to present their case, and she hasn’t been given that chance at all in the court of public opinion."
Osborne-Crowley has serious concerns about the way people are wading in with their opinion on social media. 
"I’m also very concerned by the fact that so many social media users are making jokes out of her testimony. There are viral TikTok videos in which Heard describes a sexual assault by Depp and these have been turned into videos about users wanting to have sex with Johnny Depp. Again, it doesn’t matter if you believe her or not – jokes about rape, especially jokes whose premise equate it with consensual sex, are never appropriate or necessary," she explains. 
"I wish people would critique her evidence and her story without making a mockery of what are very serious allegations of criminal behaviour. An Australian bakery created a now-viral TikTok about sending Heard a package with a vodka bottle – a reference to a vodka bottle that Heard alleges Depp sexually assaulted her with. That kind of behaviour is offensive and truly revolting."
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Finally, Osborne-Crowley says we must pay attention to the way in which evidence of Heard being physically aggressive herself is being used to undermine her account of her marriage to Depp. 
"It’s concerning that people cite evidence of Heard being physically aggressive – for example, an audio clip in which she says: 'I was not punching you, I was hitting you' – as evidence that she cannot be a victim of domestic abuse, as stated in her Washington Post article," she explains. "This conflates individual acts of violence with the legal concept of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is defined by Virginia’s Attorney General as 'a pattern of behaviour, and a method of control. It is a means of establishing a hierarchy of power within a relationship, in which one partner dominates the other through use of physical violence and/or psychological abuse.'"
"Legally, domestic violence is not about the fact of one or other violent incident but rather about the power dynamic inside an intimate relationship and which partner is using that dynamic to maintain control. And again, we have not yet heard all of her evidence and witnesses about this dynamic so it is simply too early to make a judgement about what really happened and who held the power."
The key issue here is that any dismissal of Heard’s claims based on evidence about her being violent implies that victims of domestic abuse never fight back – which we know they do. 
"This is another myth about abusive relationships that is being perpetuated by the coverage of this trial," says Osborne-Crowley.
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In a court of law, everyone has the right to a full and fair trial. Nobody, particularly people who have never met her, knows exactly what happened between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard but their social media posts could well deny her a fair hearing. The vitriol being levelled at Heard feels regressive because, whatever the truth, this was clearly a very damaging and traumatic relationship. That ought to be taken seriously in and of itself and give people pause for thought before they post about the trial or throw a like at something which not only insults Heard but potentially libels her by saying things that are untrue. 
Sadly, the reaction to this trial tells us one thing and it’s not about Heard and Depp’s relationship. It’s that in our society, women are still undermined and disbelieved when they speak out about abuse. Conversations about domestic violence are still an uphill battle for nuance and understanding. 
"Heard is the defendant in this trial and everyone has the right to a full and fair defence," Osborne-Crowley concludes. "From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like she won’t be given that opportunity."

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