johnny depp trial

Petty brands and feral TikToks: Why we should all feel ashamed of the Depp v Heard case

A trial rooted in alleged domestic violence deserved more respect

I feel like it’s become cliche to compare snapshots of current events to actual plotlines in Black Mirror. Often, the two are pretty far removed, and people are just grasping at straws because they don’t know how else to voice the absurd, the meaningless, and the baffling. 

That being said, everything about the public’s reaction to Depp v. Heard feels like a fucking Black Mirror episode. Hashtags have turned into memes, memes into TV sketches and sketches into cheap, topical punchlines for comedians’ Netflix specials.

Johnny Depp is suing Amber Heard for £39 million. He claims the actress defamed him in a Washington Post op-ed she wrote, calling herself a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Both have accused the other of domestic violence, and both have spent weeks trying to convince a jury they’re the “real” victim. 

No matter whose side you’re on; no matter who you’ve chosen to believe, the court of public opinion has already demanded “Justice for Johnny Depp” and sentenced “Amber Turd” to a lifetime of being branded an “abuser.”

On 11th April 2022, two Hollywood powerhouses came face-to-face in court with the world eagerly watching. What came next proved that a public trial rooted in such serious themes can never, ever be allowed to happen again:

Twitter and TikTok users started the ‘jokes’

amber turd

Johnny Depp took to the stand on 12th April to give his testimony. As soon as he started speaking, every carefully-formed anecdote, painful recollection and colourful metaphor began drawing headlines all over the world.

His lengthy questioning contained graphic stories about his finger being severed in a bottle fight, Heard allegedly “making a grumpy” on Depp’s bed and blaming it on their Teacup Yorkie, as well as audio clips of the actress insisting she “hit you, I did not punch you.”

Despite Depp’s testimony marking the beginning of the court case – and with the jury yet to be shown any other evidence outside of his own recollection – the public had already made up their minds. Twitter was alight with hot takes, memes and damning hashtags, each seeming to say the same thing about Amber Heard: She was as good as guilty. 

@whenaturecalls SAVE THE BEES FROM AMBER’S DOG😡 #fyp #amberheard #bees #beegees #memes #lol #trial #dog #earth #nature #science ♬ original sound – When Nature Calls

Before long, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp, #MePoo and #AmberTurd were adopted by TikTok, with content creators making “YouTube Poop”-style edits of the trial and speaking about their hatred for Heard. The hashtag #AmberIsALiar has over 100 million views as of writing this article.

The pointed online abuse towards Heard only grew more intense as she told her side of the story. TikTok comedian Caitlin Riley scored 1.3 million views for her impression of Elaine Bredehoft, the actress’ lawyer. A number of creators hopped on the “my dog stepped on a bee” trend, in which people stitch a video of Heard saying the phrase with videos of themselves using rhyming words – like, “my dog stepped on a bee/my dad has to pee.”

When memes go mainstream

johnny depp trial

Photo via NBC

Sadly, the abuse didn’t end with kids making throwaway comments on TikTok. High-profile comedians – in an attempt to keep their material relevant – started to exploit elements of the case as the trial pushed on. 

“Believe all women, believe all women… except Amber Heard. What the fuck is she on? She shit in his bed! She’s fine, but she’s not shitting fine.” According to LADBible, Chris Rock stood in front of a large London audience, and publicly sent up the actress while she was on the stand. “What the fuck is going on there? And they had a relationship after that? It must be some amazing pussy. I’ve been with some crazy bitches, but goddamnit.” Twitter users flooded the comedian with praise. 

On 15th May, veteran US sketch show Saturday Night Live performed a cold open, set in the middle of the trial. Comedian Kyle Mooney sat in the stand as Depp, as Cecily Strong (Judge Azcarate) joked the case is just “for fun.” The skit drew acclaim from publications in the US and UK.

Stans took each allegation personally

amber heard

Photo by Shutterstock

As the trial began to part further from reality, stan groups used it as an opportunity to ignite turf wars online. Suddenly, the trial was no longer Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard – but Depp’s fans vs. Heard’s fans vs. contempt of court. 

Judge Azcarate has threatened, multiple times, to remove Depp’s fans from the Virginia courthouse. Their uproarious laughter at the actor’s jokes earnt them several tellings off, and the vigil they’ve held outside the building every single day of the trial has resulted in a police escort accompanying Heard in-and-out at least twice a day. 

Journalists, charities and news organisations documenting the trial are regularly dogpiled on by fans of both parties. I myself have been branded a “radfem,” “femcel” and “misandrist” (all words for “man hater”) for simply reporting the facts as they happen.

Brands openly began to take sides

@milanicosmetics You asked us… let the record show that our Correcting Kit launched in 2017!👀 #milanicosmetics ♬ International Super Spy – dylan

When brands hijacked the trial – there was no turning back. People no longer saw it for what it was supposed to be: two (clearly) very broken people dragging out their private lives in order to get some semblance of closure. It was now just a viral marketing tool for brands to utilise. A trend to co-opt on a dry ideas day. 

Milani Cosmetics went first, just a couple of weeks after the opening statements. Their TikTok editor mistakenly assumed Elaine Bredehoft lied to the court about Heard using its concealer palette throughout her marriage – despite the fact it ended in 2016, and the kit wasn’t launched until 2017. The video now has 5.6 million views – and Heard herself clarified in her testimony that the Milani palette wasn’t the exact one used during her marriage. 

The brand hasn’t released a statement regarding the mix-up. 

On 18th May, a Duolingo employee was forced to apologise after its official TikTok account was seen making a snide comment about Heard under an NBC News video. The 24-year-old has since privated her account.

This trial could’ve – and should’ve – been a landmark for domestic violence survivors. It could’ve opened up the conversation about male domestic violence, at long last; a way to promote switching off from the media circus for all survivors, no matter their gender; a way to see someone get justice – no matter who the victim is.

Depp v. Heard ends on Friday (27th May) and I’ll be glad to see it go. For the sake of protecting survivors – hopefully the media will think twice before livestreaming such a personal battle, no matter who’s in the middle.

The Tab has reached out to Milani Cosmetics for comment. 

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Featured image via Shutterstock before edits.