“She’s not a perfect victim,” Mariska Hargitay says in Law and Order: SVU. Recent headlines say the same about Amber Heard. Heard said as much about herself. “But,” Hargitay says, “she is not making this up.”
I let Law and Order play on TV while I do other mindless things, like scrubbing the floor or scribbling in my journal. Like other abuse victims I know, I find comfort in a TV show that pretends victims can really win. But hearing Hargitay say those words brought my attention back to our less paradisial reality, where Amber Heard, whose name has been like a neon bar sign at the back of my head for the past two months, is still glued to online vitriol. People keep pushing for her to get cut from Aquaman 2 and posting pictures of Johnny Depp wearing a crop top 38 years ago. You can’t do anything online without seeing him smiling, seeing unwarranted hate for her. It feels inescapable, and I feel that people hate imperfect women more than they’re able to state clearly.
No one remembers what the trial was really about, but you couldn’t escape a single gory detail, not on popular Twitch streams orchestrated by cackling gaming personalities, or on TikTok, where Depp worshipers turned Heard’s testimony into millions of likes, or Instagram, or YouTube. It’s everywhere. But contrary to what our information overload would have you believe, this trial wasn’t about who people on Twitter find more personable, or who has been in more nostalgic childhood films, or who looked hotter in the ‘90s. It was a defamation trial about three vague sentences in a 2018 op-ed where Heard references her personal experience with sexual violence and abuse.
She does not mention Johnny Depp in the op-ed, but he sued her for $50 million in damages. Before this trial, Depp tried suing for libel after British tabloid The Sun called him a “wife beater,” a phrase a U.K. judge found to be accurate after deeming 12 counts of alleged assault proven.
It’s unsurprising that the judge ruled this way. You’ve probably seen Heard’s face purple with healing bruises or Depp’s bleeding middle finger, which he gives conflicting accounts on how he severed (Heard threw a bottle? It got smashed in a closing door?), though he agrees that he used its dripping wound to write Heard threatening red messages. He sent vile text messages about Heard that his attorney said were inspired by “literary giants like Hunter S. Thompson,” including a text to actor Paul Bettany that said “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterward to make sure she is dead.” How literary.
Heard lived through Depp’s proven abuse, but her name and the abuse victims she represents—imperfect because we’re crying, because domestic abuse is emotionally knotty and Heard said she still loves him—are thrown away. Our stories are scrutinized, denied because…why? Is it about movies again?
It can’t just be about movies. To me, this reaction to Heard’s imperfections is a deluge of hate that has always existed. Sometimes it gets buried—in the beginning of the #MeToo movement, believing women was more socially acceptable because women banded together, nevermind the fact that everyone already knew Harvey Weinstein was a piece of shit. But then there are darker times in pop culture, like when the world laughed as a broken Britney Spears lashed out at swarming paparazzi with an umbrella, or when GamerGate sneered and drew an ugly line in the sand: Women, especially complex women, aren’t welcome here.
Complex women can’t be perfect. People, including other women, want physical beauty, the virginal porcelain face of Jane Eyre not the wild-haired Bertha Mason (the man locks her in the attic, and somehow she’s the crazy one?), or in video games, the pink Princess Peaches, the curvy Lara Crofts. But they also demand emotional perfection. Quietness, level headedness, no conflicting facial expressions like Amber Heard had, sobbing one second and sober the next. People don’t want to see anything that indicates that this woman, pretty as she is, is really just a human. She makes mistakes. Sometimes she hits back, or she misspeaks.
When a woman misspeaks because the situation she described was so painful she wanted to forget it, because a litigious man with as much power and money as Depp has tried smacking the memory out of her, I want to say the world will come to her aid. We’re supposedly post-GamerGate, post-MeToo. I want to believe that we are all now equipped with the basic understanding that abuse is multifaceted, sometimes subtle, always insidious, and confusing. But Heard continues to be abused in the court of public opinion, and as a result, other real, imperfect victims know for certain that we aren’t supported. Not until we get our stories straight or our tears in line. That’s why I watch idyllic shows like SVU. It’s not real. It probably never will be, but I can’t stop myself from hoping.