Photo: Josh Jensen, CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the things I’ve written about a few times is how to react when you are called out. But one thing that I haven’t written about enough is calling yourself out, or rather taking an internal inventory. Because not all of our failures of feminism, or of allyship, or even of being a good person, are going to be visible to the outside world. Not all of them are going to mean anything to anyone but you. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter, and it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be addressed. So today I’m going to call myself to the carpet, and admit one of the larger failures in my personal ethos that I can remember from the past year. Writing, and then never publishing, a piece supporting Amber Heard regarding her accusations of domestic abuse against Johnny Depp. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that it’s almost the anniversary of me writing the piece or hearing news of Depp’s terrible new movie that reminded me of it, but it’s been weighing on me lately. Almost exactly a year ago (May 29th, to be precise) I wrote nearly four pages on, ironically, a failure in my feminism: my kneejerk reaction when I heard that Depp had been accused of domestic abuse, my initial desire to disbelieve Heard, and a larger discussion of what to do when the artists we admire have been proven to be terrible people in one way or another. Then, even more ironically (or is it not ironic and just sad?) I talked myself out of publishing it, because I convinced myself there was enough doubt about the case, that enough things felt fishy, that it would be better not to jump the gun. Instead of publishing it, I went with this piece on geo-fencing. Which is a perfectly good piece, and still totally relevant to the blog—it just isn’t the piece I should have published that week.
Obviously, in the year since I failed to publish the original piece, more than enough evidence has arisen to give credibility to Heard’s claims. Heard explained that Depp was drunk or high for much of their relationship, and more and more stories were released about his erratic behavior. Screenshots of texts between Heard and Depp’s assistant following a violent incident seem to detail a long history of violent outbursts, and showcase a lot of the assistant claiming that Depp wasn’t responsible for his actions. Video that Heard shot of Depp smashing glasses and slamming cabinet doors while yelling at Heard was leaked, and the video rather terrifyingly ends with Depp realizing that he is being filmed and grabbing the phone, leading to crunching sounds and then silence. Depp also sliced off part of his finger while smashing a different phone, then dipped that finger in paint and used it to paint things about Heard being a slut. After their divorce, Heard promised her $6.8 million settlement to the ACLU and Children’s Hospital, but Depp refused to pay her, wanting instead to donate the money directly and thus likely get a tax break. Depp is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with his managers, that details, among other things, ridiculous spending, a refusal to actually memorize his lines anymore, and multiple lies to the public. He was also so frequently drunk and tardy for the latest Pirates movie filming that the producers had to appoint a “sentinel” to stay outside his hotel and alert the crew when he was actually awake and mobile.
Heard, meanwhile, released a very moving domestic violence PSA and on a mostly unrelated note, has been dating Elon Musk (damn, girl. Way to move on strong.)
But again, it shouldn’t have taken this mountain of evidence for me to believe Heard. I should have believed Heard in the first place. I try to make it my personal policy to always believe the victim, because so few do. And I’d rather be wrong and have someone not be an abuser than be wrong about someone being abused. This time I was just plain wrong.
So, in a small gesture of repentance, and an acknowledgment of my own occasional weaknesses, below is the original piece that I wrote regarding Heard’s accusations. I hope that it serves as a reminder to me to always strive to do better, and to always take a personal accounting of my own successes and failures, and to always do my best to call myself out even if no one else can or will. Feminism is a process as much as it is an ideology. You have to constantly work at it, and this will be one of my reminders to do so.
Johnny Depp is probably one of my favorite actors, if not my favorite actor. I had posters of him in my room as a teenager, and I’ve seen almost all of his movies. And for these reasons, I will admit, when I first heard Amber Heard’s accusations against him, I had a moment where my feminism failed me. Or rather, where I failed feminism. Because my first reaction was, “I don’t want Johnny Depp to be a wife beater, Amber Heard must be lying. She’s a struggling actress going through a divorce with no prenup, this is probably for attention.” As far as knee-jerk reactions go, that isn’t a very feminist one. Whether for good or for ill, for someone famous or anonymous, our first reaction should be to believe the victim, and mine wasn’t. What my reaction did show, however, is the very complex relationship we all have with celebrity, and the difficult time we have separating art from artists.
The term “Your fave is problematic” is our 21st century way of acknowledging something that has troubled our enjoyment of entertainment basically since there has been entertainment: the people who make the things we love are human, and therefore fallible. They are human, and therefore they are occasionally monstrous. So what are we going to make of the art that these artists make? Can we, should we, enjoy their work, reward their efforts, and keep supporting them financially if they are, in some way, terrible people? Can we read and enjoy Ezra Pound’s poetry, knowing that he was an anti-Semite? Should we have bought that ticket to Ender’s Game knowing that the buzz from the movie is going to support a virulent homophobe? Should we be having as much fun playing Call of Cthulhu as we are, knowing HP Lovecraft wrote a poem called “On the Creation of N***ers” (only he didn’t use asterisks)? Should we giggle over a Dilbert cartoon knowing that Scott Adams is a champion of men’s rights activists? Things become even murkier when the artist in question has been accused of specific, personal abuse of individuals: Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Bryan Singer, and now, Johnny Depp, have all been accused of either sexual abuse or physical abuse against individuals. Can we go to their movies or watch their television shows knowing that we are essentially supporting rapists and abusers, and essentially telling their victims that our enjoyment of their abusers’ work is more important than the pain of the victims?
I don’t have easy answers to these questions. I know that we don’t like to admit that the people we admire have done wrong, because we are implicated by association. “I like Woody Allen’s films” becomes “I like films created by a child abuser.” We are tainted by the sins of our stars. I’ve come to an uneasy truce with the idea that great things can be made by terrible people. Talent and conscience don’t always occur simultaneously. And I find ways to make peace with my own conscience. I try not to spend money on projects that benefit abusers—I’ve probably purchased my last ticket to a Johnny Depp film. If I’m weak and absolutely can’t resist the newest X-Men extravaganza, I try to donate as much money to organizations like RAINN as I spend on the price of a ticket. (Who says that indulgences went out with the Protestant Reformation?) But most importantly, I think it comes down to two things: always remember, and discuss, the context of the artist’s deeds, and believe and support the victims. We shouldn’t discuss Lovecraft’s influence on the horror genre without also keeping his racism in mind. I shouldn’t let my affection for Johnny Depp’s work mean that I do the work of Johnny Depp’s lawyers for them by trying to discredit Amber Heard.
In the case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, it’s worth reposting Laurie Penny’s discussion of the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”:
“Innocent until proven guilty” is the cry that goes up every time a woman, then two, then five or ten or twenty women come forward to accuse a powerful man of abuse. What this means, in practice, is that we should always assume that women are lying until a judge says otherwise. In other words: shut the hell up. In other words: don’t rock the boat.
The reputation of men has historically been valued higher than the safety of women. If it’s a case of he said/she said, and nobody can ever know the truth, it’s tacitly understood that it’s better for fifty women to suffer in silence than for one man to lose his career.
If it does turn out that Amber Heard is lying about being abused, then I’ll feel bad. But not as bad as I’ll feel if her claims are proven correct and I took part, in my own way, in trying to silence Heard because of my fondness for the work of her abuser.
And that’s where the piece ended, originally. And guess what: I feel bad! Damn past me for predicting future me. I thought it even ended fairly well, even if I was wishy-washy and allowed for the possibility that Heard was lying. But it at least would have been a voice in her defense, and an example of the kind of feminist I want to be. It’s a shame that I bought into tired stereotypes about young women who marry older, successful men, let myself be blinded by my own affection for Depp and his work, and took part in a culture that doesn’t believe victims as much as it protects their perpetrators.
Now I won’t lie: doing this piece was Uncomfortable as Hell. Reading over my words and the way I was chastising myself for what would turn out to be the smaller sin of initial doubt while writing a piece about the larger sin of sustained doubt did not make me feel good. Going through old news articles and finding instance after instance of Depp’s terrible behavior did not make me feel good. Watching Heard’s PSA, and seeing her cry while she explained how important it is to have someone in your life who believes survivors did not make me feel good. Nothing about this process was pleasant. But it was necessary. Glass houses, and all that. And in its own way, it was cathartic. None of us are perfect, but we can always try to be better. And now, with this in the open, I do feel as if I’m doing better. So, painful as it is, I encourage all of you to take inventory, too. Find those dark places you marked “Times I failed to Be Good” and see if you can bring them out to the light, or at least reconcile what you failed to do with what you’re going to try to do in the future. It’s wretched, but it’s important.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not calling herself out as a way of modelling feminism, she studies gender in popular culture.
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