The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial is bringing out the worst in all of us

No matter which way you slice it, the trial has been a surreal scene we probably shouldn’t be consuming.

(Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

This week — on the last day on the stand in his highly publicized defamation case — Johnny Depp declared that he was a victim of domestic violence from his ex-wife, Amber Heard. After playing an audio clip, Depp’s attorney asked the actor, "What did you say in response when Ms. Heard said, 'Tell the world, Johnny. Tell them, Johnny Depp, I, Johnny Depp — a man — I'm a victim, too, of domestic violence'?"

"I said, 'Yes. I am,'" Depp responded.

It was a predictable and yet nevertheless discomforting conclusion to Depp’s time under cross-examination in what has been a wild trial: one in which both sides are suing for defamation, both sides have presented a mountain of evidence of abuse, and both have offered the world a trove of trauma porn that has been chopped up into clips of simultaneously salacious and banal entertainment.

In case you’ve successfully avoided any details: after Heard wrote an op-ed about being a victim of domestic violence (without naming Depp) in 2018, Depp sued her for $50 million for defamation, to which Heard has countersued for $100 million. Yet by now, even if you’ve never dug into the specifics, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a thing or two from the trial across social media. And it’s likely capturing something outlandish (and likely shared by Depp’s rabid defenders who have flooded the internet with #JusticeForJohnny content) that, in the rapid churn of the internet, has turned frightening situations into voyeuristic fodder or jokey memes: the severed finger incident, the pooping incident, Depp’s snarky jokes on the stand, taking drugs with Marilyn Manson, etc.

Regardless of the truth (objectively, a lot has been revealed to be unsettling for both sides), it’s been surreal and troubling to see the way the trial has been hashed out: two mega-stars have posed dueling and vivid pictures of assault that, for the public, has turned into a gross exercise in side-taking and bite-sized content. What we know is that there was undoubtedly violence and volatility in this relationship, but again, regardless of the truth, it feels like something we shouldn’t be watching.

Of course, there’s nothing to be done about it and there’s nothing new about it, either. Watching celebrities who were once lovers recall scenarios of drugged-out abuse is irresistible for media consumption — just another iteration of the true-crime content that we continue to eat up, despite feeling somewhat queasy about enjoying. This isn’t to finger-wag — this very piece is part of the cycle — but it is simply an unfortunate fact that regardless of the truth, these private, messy, and scary situations become some distant and abstract thing for us to clumsily pick apart out of context and project our own prejudices onto.

Regardless of the truth, it feels like something we shouldn’t be watching.

We’ve seen a similar thing happen to Megan Thee Stallion, who has had to constantly be on the defensive, fighting campaigns of online attacks for being literally shot by Torey Lanez. “I’m the victim. I’m not defending myself against anything. Something happened to me,” Megan Thee Stallion told Gayle King earlier this week, amid a prolonged circus in the incident’s aftermath that will likely become more unhinged when the trial begins in September.

Megan was emphasizing the absurdity of the idea that as the indisputable victim, she would need to explain herself. But what was perhaps even more telling was the simple fact of the statement of that final line — something happened to her. It was a lived reality. It was something she went through, and something she will continue to have to reckon with in its aftermath.

In Depp and Heard’s case, it’s the same, no matter the he-said-she-said of it all. Even if they might be disturbed individuals themselves, disturbing things occurred. They were real and traumatizing. But online and in the public arena, it’s all just another clip to consume.