Everyone called this celebrity a slut. She was trashy, a cheater, a liar, and crazy. Her most private and difficult moments were treated as a farce for public amusement, subject to memes and shaming. Making fun of her was fun; mocking her became a national pastime.
I’m talking about Britney Spears, but I could also be talking about Amber Heard. Heard’s ex-husband, Johnny Depp, filed a defamation lawsuit against her for a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, and the trial has become a national obsession. All the same insults that people once used against Spears have been flung Heard’s way. She’s a liar, a slut, and crazy. Her displays of emotion have been mocked, and her testimony about the alleged abuse she suffered during her marriage to Depp has been turned into viral memes on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
But there’s a difference. In our current moment, the public consensus is that Spears was wronged. After the hugely popular 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears detailed the tabloid media’s coverage of the pop star and her allegedly abusive conservatorship, people in seemingly every corner of the globe began to decry the narrative that had been constructed around her for so long. Journalists published somber piece after piece, framing the reexamination of Spears’ treatment as a moment of reckoning for the media, and American society as a whole.
It prompted plenty of self-reflection and debate: How could we have treated a vulnerable woman so cruelly? That would never happen today — we know much better now.
Clearly, we don’t. The online harassment of Heard and skepticism (not to mention flat-out conspiracy theories) about her motives show that maybe we have learned nothing at all. Indeed, it seems that only the medium has changed. In 2007, readers looked to tabloids for evidence of Spears’ troubles, and now people laugh at Amber Heard's court photos set to a zany soundtrack on TikTok and create stan accounts for Depp and hate accounts for Heard on Twitter. Paparazzi made bank in the 2000s by stalking women celebrities and sticking cameras up their skirts; now content creators are pivoting to covering the trial on social media in hopes of striking gold. No groundswell of support for Heard has materialized in response; according to NBC News, an analysis of 2,300 Twitter profiles surrounding the trial showed that 93% of those users were supportive of Depp.
The contrast might well produce cognitive dissonance. After all, the narrative about Spears changed as part of a larger trend in modern media: reexamining the scorned women of the past in countless articles, podcasts, and documentaries. In an article for Gawker last year, journalist R.E. Hawley described the trend as “the cultural revisionism industry,” explaining it as media intent on “debunking false conceptions of the semi-recent past and meditating on the cultural factors which contributed to their initial spread.”
The harbinger of the trend, the popular podcast You’re Wrong About, has devoted several episodes to other once-mocked women who instead deserved some sympathy: Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, and Monica Lewinsky. Some of these women, such as Lewinsky, have also received a redemption arc through television or film.
These sorts of cultural reckonings have done a lot of good. After Spears’ case came back into the spotlight, public sympathy for her skyrocketed, and she eventually won the right to exit her conservatorship of more than a decade. Lewinsky has also been able to reenter the public eye to tell her own story and wrestle back control of her narrative, on her own terms. And the lessons that the You’re Wrong About podcast and other revisionist narratives are intent on teaching the public are ones that need to be heard: that many of these women were treated unfairly, and our attitudes toward the casual and cruel misogyny they endured desperately needed to change.
Like these women, Heard is not what some people would consider a sympathetic victim. For example, she has admitted to not fulfilling her promise to donate a portion of her divorce settlement to charity (she told the court that was “because Johnny sued me for $50 million in March of 2019”) and has been recorded saying she had hit Depp during their marriage. (Heard has argued that this was in self-defense, and most experts caution against using terms like “mutual abuse” to describe partner violence where one party fights back.) Much has been made of a bizarre incident described in court by a former member of Depp’s security team, where Heard allegedly defecated in Depp’s bed and blamed it on their dogs (Heard denied the allegations again in court testimony), and Heard has fought back in court this week against allegations that she had cheated on Depp with James Franco, who she insisted was just a friend.
As Refinery 29 reported, Heard has been accused online of not acting like a “real victim.” All of this is not only damaging to Heard’s public reputation, an expert told the publication, but also to all victims of domestic violence who don’t fit into the narrative of what people believe they should look like.
"All of this concerns me because it perpetuates the myth of the 'perfect' victim and requires Heard to fit into a lot of — often conflicting — public expectations of how she should behave in order to be believed," Lucia Osborne-Crowley, a journalist and author who has written two books on trauma, said. "But these expectations shouldn’t feed into whether her allegations are proven to be true in a court of law — the evidence should do that."
Just like tabloid writers and photographers who used Spears’ pain to advance their own careers, content creators have been using the daily updates from the Depp versus Heard trial as a way to go viral and get engagement. Besides the mocking TikTok audio pulled from Heard’s court testimony, influencers are posting commentary and analysis, polls asking who their followers believe the most, and more.
Media organizations have long profited from their wall-to-wall coverage of these maligned women, selling papers and magazines and dissecting their misdeeds on television. They are now also finding success by giving these women a redemption arc, in Oscar-nominated movies and documentaries reexamining their trauma and the mistreatment heaped on them by the public. These projects are getting greenlit every day, as Hollywood cashes in on the nostalgia of the ’90s and aughts. Only when looking into the past can these women be forgiven, but only as long as we sufficiently rake them through the coals first.
Perhaps in a few years, a streaming service will put out a documentary about how Heard was mistreated, using the negative TikTok videos as horrifying archival footage intercut between interviews with experts about how damaging social media is. Some up-and-coming actor will get an Academy Award nomination for her haunting portrayal of Heard’s testimony on the stand. And we will all look back on the reaction to Heard with disgust, saying, “That would never have happened today.”
Heard’s trial is not a piece of entertainment, staged for our amusement — and yet, that’s what it’s become online. The principles of fairness we’re supposed to have internalized after rethinking how women of the ’90s and ’00s were treated have not necessarily reached everyone for Heard’s present-tense story. And while the cultural revisionism industry is trying to teach us lessons, not everyone is putting them into practice. As Sarah Marshall, the host of the You’re Wrong About podcast, tweeted this week, the point of the content she produces is so we don’t have to have a reexamination of these women later on, but instead learn and treat them better now. We could hold our judgment and look at the facts. We could treat the allegations being thrown around in the trial as serious, and not simply a spectacle to entertain us or to turn into a meme.
But many of us won’t, because those things can’t go viral. ●