Fashion magazine

Depp v Heard and the Cult of Fandom

Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Fans positioned Johnny Depp as the misunderstood victim and Amber Heard as the villain to end all villains. And it becomes cult.

I don’t know Johnny Depp. I mean, I know he’s an actor, but I don’t know him as a person. So why, since I was completely consumed by the lawsuit between him and his ex-wife Amber Heard, do I feel like I do?

The court case, part of a long-running legal battle between the ex-spouses, has turned into a cesspool of internet chaos. And it’s been hard to keep track of what’s real, especially since the obsessive fandom surrounding this lawsuit has developed a life of its own.

Briefly, Johnny Depp is suing Amber Heard for defamation over an essay she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018, where she spoke about being abused, without mentioning Depp’s name. Prior to that, Heard received a restraining order against Depp after accusing him of domestic violence when she filed for divorce in 2016 (they married in 2015).

Since the lawsuit revealed new details about Heard’s alleged abuse of Depp, the internet pendulum has swung in his favor. My social media feeds are full of compilations, hot takes and memes about the case – the majority of which either praise Depp or berate Heard, or do both. Throughout this affair, a huge cult community of idolatrous Depp fans has emerged, with their own jokes, sleuthing tactics and weird fanfiction.

There is a fine line between cults and fandoms. Both groups can provide a sense of belonging, identity, and comfort, and people are especially drawn to them during times of stress. With the volatility of the Depp v Heard trial, there is an underlying pressure to fully side with one side, despite the fact that neither has been proven entirely innocent. While there have been reports of alleged abuse from both sides, all nuance has been lost in the overwhelming #JusticeForJohnnyDepp movement that has taken over social media. And it’s moving into cult territory.

The daily live streams of the Depp v Heard trial, which are posted on Twitch and YouTube by channels like LawandCrimeNetwork, have become the online meeting point for the most ardent fans. As comments appear on screen in real time, Johnny Depp supporters are positioning themselves as the actor’s best friends and confidants, including making assumptions about what he is thinking and believing those assumptions to be facts.

With Depp’s overwhelming support, Heard has become the internet’s favorite villain. Fans cling to every detail of her presence in the courtroom, leading to theories that portray her more as a fraud. Some are just plain silly, like the claims that she used a tissue to take a puff of cocaine, or that she copied Depp’s outfits as a method of psychological intimidation.

Others are downright disturbing, like the thinly veiled misogyny that pokes fun at her appearance and the blatant disregard for her graphic allegations of violence. Popular memes include people romanticizing her account of an alleged sexual assault and exaggerated recreations of his tearful testimonies.

Perhaps the weirdest part of this intense fandom is the romantic fanfiction surrounding Depp and his lawyer Camille Vasquez. On TikTok, there are millions of views on video compilations of the two of them in the courtroom, some of which feature heart emojis and love songs. These hypotheticals have gained popularity, despite the fact that Vasquez works for Depp and is said to have a partner.

The monstrous fandom surrounding Depp has been a defining aspect of this case. During weeks, #JusticeForJohnnyDepp trended on Twitter, fanatics dominated online spaces, and the Virginia courthouse where the Depp v. Heard trial is taking place was packed with fans. The pro-Depp movement has grown so big and powerful that the truth has become moot. But did it ever matter in the first place?

In 2016, months after Heard’s sexual assault accusations, John Semley, writer for The Globe and Mail, attended a Johnny Depp rock show. In an article titled “Inside Johnny Depp’s Cult of Celebrity,” Semley described intense interactions with Depp supporters who affirmed the star’s innocence with absolute certainty.

“It’s as if all these fans, who are openly and proudly obsessive in their devotion, have come together in solidarity for a man they refuse to admit they don’t really know,” he wrote. Although we’re in a post-#MeToo era, it seems like we’re seeing that same unwavering endorsement today on a much larger scale.

This lawsuit united Johnny Depp fans. And along the way, the compassion for the seriousness of these allegations disappeared. By becoming TikTok’s biggest form of entertainment, fan memeification of this case does a disservice to all victims of violence.

Abuse is never acceptable. Amber Heard’s innocence has not been proven. But neither does Johnny Depp. All of these things can exist at once. As we continue this essay, a touch of nuance goes a long way. Because the thing is, neither of us was in that marriage, and even if we get a front row seat until it breaks up, it would do us good to remember that we don’t really know Depp or Heard at all.