The cultural wrath against Amber Heard sets a scary precedent

There’s a scene in Anatomy of a Scandal, Netflix’s recent, rather clumsy political thriller-meets-courtroom-drama, in which her legal counsel helps Olivia Lytton, a parliamentary researcher who has accused her boss, the suave politician James Whitehouse, of rape, reconstruct the events leading up to the moment of the assault. The minister had been upset over a news article that had called him arrogant and had asked her if she subscribed to that view, too. Lytton did, and had said so, but she had also told him that arrogance could be “terribly attractive” sometimes. What had she meant? And, why did she follow the man who’d recently broken up with her after a consensual affair, into an elevator?

Lytton confesses she doesn’t quite have the answers. “But I did want to know what he wanted, and if he missed me,” she says, to the palpable consternation of the jury. Lytton is young, attractive, talented and ambitious. Was her allegation payback for a breakup she should have known was coming? Was it a case of lovemaking gone wrong? In following her former lover into that elevator with the hope that their relationship might resume, was she equally culpable?

The line between consent, manipulation and power is often so fine as to be indiscernible. While the OTT series makes a labored point on the issue, it gets one thing right: Lytton is a woman that society finds hard to slot. And, as a real-life courtroom drama that played out over the last six weeks in the US has shown, for women deemed flawed by society, it continues to remain difficult to make themselves heard, MeToo’s watershed impact notwithstanding.

The Johnny Depp-Amber Heart trial has arguably been one of the most high-profile cases of our time, in which the Hollywood superstar sued his former wife for defamation for a December 2018 opinion piece she wrote in The Washington Post, describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” without naming Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean actor has won the suit emphatically, but even if he hadn’t succeeded in the court of law, the besmirching of Heard’s reputation through the course of the trial would have ensured that she faced the full force of a culture’s wrath anyway.

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Indeed, what the manic consumption of the unsavoury details of the case and the virulent pillorying of Heard show is society’s continued inconsideration towards “imperfect women”. The inequities of gender are so deeply ingrained in us that, at the best of times, the onus of making herself credible and normative lies with the woman. But, like the fictional Lytton, Heard, 36, was that difficult thing — a “bad victim”. Irrespective of country or culture, women who do not play by the rules, who want it all and who can claw their way back into the center continue to be viewed with apprehension. It is easier to believe that bad things happen to bad people — the ones who deviate from the norm, who return verbal abuse with abuse, hit back when pushed around — than to accept the universality and unpredictability of violence against women, no matter how many women from how many starkly different circumstances come forward and say “Me too”.

Was Heard telling the truth? There is no way of knowing. Love can turn toxic, and a marriage gone sour is, if nothing else, seamy. But there is little ambiguity in the fact that the balance of power was never quite in Heard’s favour. Depp, a partner 23 years her senior, had the backing of fame, financial success and clout that far outweighs Heard’s.

One of the successes of the MeToo movement was the recognition that consent is a spectrum made elusive to women in societies rooted in patriarchy. Through their lonely, unequal but no less harrowing battle against misogyny, it created an overarching sisterhood. Yet, despite a 2016 restraining order against Depp, despite his loss in a 2018 libel case against the tabloid Sun that had referred to him as a “wife beater”, women have been among Heard’s strongest critics through the course of the trial. The triumph of Depp signifies many things, the power of social media to perpetuate harassment being just one aspect of it. But most of all, it signals how the MeToo movement could be unpicked by that one thing it had hoped to change — the obduracy in not recognizing the many ways in which abuse, and trauma, work. Heard may or may not have been a victim, but in refusing to give her account any dignity, in withdrawing the solidarity that had set off tidal waves of change, this case has set a scary precedent for outliers and anarchists who hope for acceptance, if not for justice.

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