Amber Heard-Johnny Depp case revealed more about those avidly watching its every twist and turn

Over the six weeks that the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial took place in the US, the former couple leveled several serious ones against each other. Details about physical and sexual abuse, verbal threats, substance addiction, trashed rooms and broken bottles were brought forth in their testimonies, painting a picture of a marriage in which both parties hurt each other. While the jury ponders over the evidence that was presented in the courtroom before it pronounces its verdict, there is one thing that is already clear: Those following the trial online treated the stark frames of the breakdown of a marriage as a spectacle to be pruriently consumed .

The marriage had come apart and ended in 2017. Everything that happened later — Depp’s libel suit against the UK tabloid The Sun for calling him a “wife beater”, Heard’s Washington Post op-ed in which she described herself as “a public figure representing” domestic abuse”, and the defamation case that resulted in a highly-scrutinised trial — resulted from personal decisions made by two individuals in contexts that no one outside of their relationship will ever fully know. But that didn’t seem to matter at all to those watching.

Even before the opening arguments were made, the fact that both Depp and Heard are celebrities — Hollywood actors with starring parts in major film franchises — indicated that the case would be closely followed by the public. How closely only became evident once the trial began and was live streamed on screen all over the world, particularly in the vicious trolling of Heard, the less famous and powerful of the two. Millions of memes, TikToks, and hashtags crowded timelines, revealing, in all its starkness, an ugly obsession with being entertained at all costs, including at the cost of the dignity of the two people in the marriage and the courtroom.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on June 1, 2022 under the title ‘The reality show’

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