By Sarah Bates
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Amber Heard-Johnny Depp verdict symbolises sexist backlash against #MeToo

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The result in the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial is an attack on the fight against sexism
Issue 2807
A crowd shot of the Women's March in Washington, with people wearing pink hats, illustrating a story about the Amber Heard Johnny Depp trial

The Woman’s March on Washington in 2017 was part of a growing movement against sexism. The Heard-Depp verdict is a major reverse

It feels like a terrifying time to be a woman. Five years ago a fresh movement emerged, righteously raging against the culture of abuse and harassment women experienced every day. The Me Too movement felt like a clarion call to all women who were sick of being patted on the head and told to calm down.

Now an attack on abortion rights in the US has left women everywhere reeling. And in the last two months the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial has spawned a level of misogynistic fury not seen for years.

Depp was abusive to Heard during their marriage. Yet he took her to court to claim she defamed him in a 2018 comment piece where she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”. Instead of being believed, Heard has been humiliated and vilified on a global stage.

“I’m not sure the outcome at this point matters at all,” one domestic abuse survivor told Rolling Stone. “People who have decided women are liars, and abusers are equal victims, won’t be swayed. And the damage to victims in terms of silencing and scaring them has already been done, so Johnny Depp’s PR machine has won,” she said.

Bigots have seen the Depp case as some kind of corrective against a judicial system that favours women accusers over male defendants. But the system is not structured to believe women.

In Britain, some 90 percent of domestic abuse cases brought to the police in 2020 did not end in a charge or summons. And in 2021, the Crown Prosecution Service’s data shows convictions for domestic abuse have decreased by 35 percent over a five-year period.

Every abuser, every misogynist, and every person who believes that women make up allegations as revenge will celebrate the Depp result. And it will delight every sexist who wants to challenge the central idea of the Me Too movement—that women who speak up about abuse and harassment should be believed.

Another startling reminder of the institutional nature of violence against women came this week from the Met police. It is prosecuting six people for attending the vigil for Sarah Everard on 13 March 2021. Everard was murdered by a police officer, Wayne Couzens. The Met is charging people for allegedly attending the Clapham Common gathering. In dramatic scenes the same night, scores of cops dragged women to the ground and arrested them.  

The six defendants refused to pay the Fixed Penalty Notice issued by the cops and are now being hounded through the courts. One outcome of the Depp trial is that women will be more reluctant than ever to come forward to report crimes. Domestic violence charity Refuge said it was, “extremely concerned that the verdict will mean survivors of abuse are afraid to seek support, and that it will place additional barriers to accessing justice.”

The verdict has meant that some on the right are rubbing their hands with glee at the idea that Me Too might be comprehensively pushed back. And some anti-violence campaigners are declaring that Me Too is “over”.

But the movement has always been bigger than even the biggest players within it. When Harvey Weinstein was jailed in 2020, it felt like a victory but not the conclusion of the movement. And with the attacks on women growing, now is not the time to declare defeat but to redouble our efforts. The surging sense of injustice that drove forward the Me Too movement in 2017 can be captured again. But it will take a fight against all those who seek to oppress us.

Ironically, the headline of Heard’s article in 2018 now ring truer than ever. “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”

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