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The Question of Reputation Over Safety: A Follow-Up to “Talkin’ Johnny Depp & Amber Heard”

Like most of the country, Branches advocates have been closely following the defamation Depp v. Heard case and thinking about what this will ultimately mean for domestic violence survivors and victims. In fact, you might have already checked out our recent Root for Each Other episode “Talkin’ Johnny Depp & Amber Heard”—if you haven’t, give it a listen here. Now that we’ve seen the end result of the case, with the jury holding each party accountable but moreso Heard over Depp, we thought it might be worthwhile to follow up our podcast commentary with some thoughts about what this decision might mean for the future of domestic violence advocacy.

Heard made her opinion, that this ruling is a setback for the violence against women movement, known in her statement about the trial outcome, while many other social media users have noted that it’s a win for male victims and ultimately will inspire men to come forward when they’ve been abused. From this advocate’s perspective, it’s up to us to decide what this outcome can mean for domestic violence survivors. It’s up to all of us to decide where we go from here.

First and foremost, it’s really important to reiterate that this case was not predominantly about domestic violence, it was a case about reputation—and it’s worth asking why it was able to capture the collective attention of so many people when domestic violence cases –even those that involve the rich and famous—so often, cannot. The answer to that question might be rooted in our cultural resistance to acknowledge intimate partner violence in a direct way which in turn makes us susceptible to victim-blaming and looking for alternative, more pleasing narratives to justify that resistance. To be clear, this is not an analysis of the behaviors exhibited by Johnny Depp or Amber Heard, all of which are narratives that we have been inundated with for the past few weeks. This is, instead, an observation about why we respond to stories of intimate partner violence with a collective conscious decision to prioritize reputation over safety.

Second, though it would be naïve to believe that this case will not have any long-term implications for domestic violence victims & survivors in the future, it’s equally important to acknowledge the intimate, wildly diverse experiences of those who have felt the impact of domestic violence. Based on the details made public in this case, it would seem that the involved parties have intersecting experiences of substance use disorder and/or extenuating mental health circumstances, both of which can alter and complicate an experience of intimate partner violence. Every person that experiences intimate partner violence will engage with it differently which means that there is no one solution for any person. So, will this case inspire more male victims to come forward? Maybe. Hopefully. But, it depends. Those male victims that have an intersecting experience of strictly enforced toxic masculine values in their homelife or families may have a more difficult time disclosing abuse and be less influenced to come forward by a public case. Will this be a setback for women experiencing domestic violence? I hope not. But so much depends on their total, wholistic experience.

Finally, the subject of a person’s wholistic experience leads me to one of the most important unspoken factors of this case. Because this story comes to us from the stage of the criminal justice system, we have discussed to the point of redundancy the subject of justice, but so little has been mentioned about advocacy. Buried within that distinction, again, we can see the instinct to prioritize reputation over safety. As the dust settles around public opinion of this case, both of the individuals involved are safe and free from the physical and emotional danger of the other. In the words of our Director of Client Services, this is a best-case scenario for victims of domestic violence. And so for the advocates that work within the daily moments of survivors’ lives, those folks who will continue to take hotline calls and provide shelter for men and women fearful for their lives in the days following the court decision, we must resist the urge to ask ourselves what does this mean for whether male victims will come forward or now female victims won’t. We must resist the urge to create from this media story a parable that suggests a binary equation between male and female victims and instead embrace the prioritization of safety that demands we acknowledge that all victims regardless of gender or experience deserve peaceful, non-violent relationships and loving, meaningful connections.

If you are a person that finds yourself inspired by this case to learn more about domestic violence advocacy and resources, we hope you’ll visit our Resources Library and consider getting involved through a training, volunteering, or a donation.

If you are reading more about this case because you are experiencing domestic violence, we hope you’ll consider one of the variety of ways to reach out for help that we offer here at Branches. We operate a completely free, 24/7 hotline at 304-529-2382, please call to speak to an advocate, or access our virtual domestic violence support group option by filling out this easy form.

Safety is the priority. While our heads are turned to the insidious impact of domestic violence from the attention generated by this high-profile case, I hope we will all use that momentum to work toward stronger, lower barrier services, and transparent compassion for all survivors.

We get to decide what comes next for the anti-violence movement.

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