After five years of anticipation, it is now clear: the long-awaited and dreaded response to the Me Too movement is here.
On May 2, a draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would precipitate was leaked Roe v. Wade and with it the right of American women to reproductive freedom. On June 1, Johnny Depp won his libel suit against Amber Heard, who claimed to have abused her. Depp’s argument, which the jury apparently agreed with, was that Heard had, in fact, abused him and lied about it. (Heard himself won a count of libel, against Depp’s former attorney Adam Waldman.) It’s only fitting that the cultural moment that began with women speaking out against the powerful men they said they hurt was heralded by the courts. which were in favor of one of those men.
Any wave of feminist activism is greeted with a backlash. The political action of the 1970s met the reactionary work of Phyllis Schlafly and her cohort, who murdered the Equal Rights Amendment. The girl power ethos of ’90s third-wave feminism gave way to the virginity-obsessed purity culture of the Bush era. And now, five years after the Me Too movement entered its most public phase with the demise of Harvey Weinstein in 2017, fourth-wave feminism has had its own repercussions.
This is where the reaction leaves us: Currently, our legal system appears to be on the verge of recognizing neither women’s right to control their bodies, nor women’s right to speak out about the violence that has been done to their bodies. .
Depp’s victory does not stem from a criminal trial. It was a civil matter over a newspaper op-ed. In the Washington Post in 2018, Heard wrote an op-ed titled “I spoke out against sexual assault – and faced the wrath of our culture. That has to change.Heard never mentions Depp there, but she calls herself “a public figure who represents domestic violence”. Depp argued that Heard was clearly referring to him and defaming him as such, and the jury agreed.
This verdict is as much as saying that anyone who says the phrase “I’ve been abused” could be charged as a liar, and will most likely have a chilling effect on other victims of domestic violence who may want to come forward. A recent Rolling Stone article quotes a victim’s attorney describing “hundreds” of domestic violence survivors withdrawing their victim’s statements and withdrawing from lawsuits as a direct response to the Depp-Heard trial. Depp’s fans are already rallying behind Depp’s friend Marilyn Mansonwho was accused of abuse by Evan Rachel Wood.
Depp fans and major cultural institutions alike are responding to this news with a glee that would have been unimaginable four years ago. “THIS WILL BE THE DAY YOU NEARLY CAUGHT CAPTAIN JACK SPRROW,” tweeted a British sports reporter† House Judiciary GOP Official Twitter Account Celebrated With A Victorious GIF of Depp in full Jack Sparrow regalia† Dozens of celebrities who have supported Me Too “liked” Depp’s celebratory Instagram postincluding Taika Waititi, Ashley Benson and Bella Hadid.
We’ve spent the last five years making a cultural reckoning on all the unjust women of the ’90s and ’00s, all the Britney Spearses and Monica Lewinskys and Lorena Bobbits and Tonya Hardings, all the women we treated as punch lines who, in hindsight, were clearly victims of abuse and assault and sexual violence. Meanwhile, when a court ruled that Amber Heard would have to pay $15 million to a man who suggested compelling evidence that she abused her, the hashtag #AmberTurd became trending on Twitter.
Depp’s supporters argue that his victory does not mean the end of Me Too, but an expansion of the movement. According to Depp, he, not Heard, is the real victim of domestic violence in this story, and as such, his supporters argue, he is helping to break the stigma against men who identify as victims of abuse. After all, how can anyone say that real men don’t get mistreated when Captain Jack Sparrow told the world he was a victim of domestic violence? This process, the story goes, is a necessary correction to the #BelieveWomen hashtag that was trending in the heady early days of Me Too: The point is not to believe all women, but to believe all victims, including male victims.
It is true that there is compelling evidence that Heard has behaved violently towards Depp. In the stands, she admitted to hitting him at least once, and there are audio recordings where she can be heard talking about hitting him and apparently belittling him.
There is also compelling evidence that Depp behaved violently towards Heard: photos and contemporary testimony of Depp beating Heard and Heard, covered in bruises after encounters with him going back years, and are corroborated by multiple witnesses.
And Depp always had more power than Heard. When they met, Heard was 22 and Depp 46, and he hired her for a job. He was a household name. He was richer, more famous, more beloved than she ever was. If Heard isn’t a perfect victim, if she sometimes instigated violent encounters with Depp, it doesn’t change the fact that Depp had power over Heard that she didn’t have over him. One of the lessons from Me Too had to be that victims don’t have to be perfect to deserve justice, and people who have behaved badly still don’t deserve to be mistreated. That lesson seems to have disappeared here.
Depp’s win is not an extension of Me Too’s win. It’s a cynical appropriation of Me Too’s rhetoric, now being applied to the end.
It’s worth asking a question: What’s all this backlash all about? The Me Too movement’s signature achievement has been to get Harvey Weinstein convicted of some of his many alleged rapes several years after he was no longer able to reliably supply Oscar winners. Meanwhile, the Me Too movement itself was a response to Donald Trump’s election, which came even after Trump heard on tape that he bragged about sexually abusing multiple women.
It’s as if our justice system has said, “While the most powerful office in the country was held by one alleged rapist, on the other side, another less powerful rapist was sent to prison, so all in all, it’s very important that women stop now have control over their own bodies just to be safe.”
Every wave of feminism is met by a backlash. But it’s heartbreaking that this one should come so definitively or so soon.