The Amber Heard–Johnny Depp Trial Is Not a Joke

Why are so many people treating it like one?

Steve Helber / AFP / Getty; Jim Watson / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

The first time it happened, she said, she thought it was a joke. On the stand in her defamation trial a few weeks ago, the actor Amber Heard shared her account of the first time her now-ex-husband, Johnny Depp, allegedly hit her. She’d asked him about one of his tattoos: the one on his bicep (the one he’d famously had edited) that to her looked like a muddle of black ink. The tattoo spelled out wino, she said he told her. Thinking he was kidding—Depp had publicly struggled with substance abuse, and Heard claimed he’d been drinking that night—she laughed. And then, she alleged: “He slapped me across the face.” Her response, she testified, was to laugh some more. “I didn’t know what else to do. I thought, This must be a joke. This must be a joke. Because I didn’t know what was going on.”

Depp has denied ever hitting or assaulting Heard. And the trial is not directly litigating whether he did so. Instead, the proceedings center on a Washington Post op-ed that Heard wrote in 2018 about the wrath survivors of sexual violence face in a culture that prefers them to stay silent. Heard did not name Depp in the article, instead calling herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse”; still, Depp sued Heard for $50 million, claiming that the article harmed his reputation and consequently his earning potential. (She countersued him for $100 million.)

The trial, in some ways a repetition of Depp’s failed libel suit against a U.K. newspaper, has been hard and sad to watch. Both parties have made claims of violence and psychological abuse against the other, and have described their allegations in bleak and often graphic terms. Watching the testimonies can feel like rubbernecking past the wreckage of people’s lives. So it has been striking how often laughter has been a part of the proceedings, both in the courtroom and in the flurry of public conversation that the trial has provoked. Heard’s description of her response to that first alleged act of violence was prophetic: Many people, taking in the trial, have contended with its dismal complexities by insisting that this must be a joke.

One of the first and most consequential decisions that the judge, Penney Azcarate, made in the case was to allow the trial to be broadcast in real time. It has aired on TV and on livestreams, which sometimes have accompanying chat functions: a legal proceeding with a comments section. And it has been treated, by many, as a TV show: part soap opera, part true-crime procedural, part sporting event, part sitcom. While cross-examining Depp last month, one of Heard’s lawyers read a text message that the actor had sent about his former wife: “Hopefully that cunt’s rotting corpse is decomposing in the fucking trunk of a Honda Civic,” it said. A YouTube livestream erupted in digitized laughter. “LOL Honda Civic,” someone said.

Standard stuff, yes, for such a forum: an anonymous user laughing violent language away. But the logic of the comments section, cool and cruel, has worked its way into the broader discussion of the trial as well. A popular trend on TikTok has found people repurposing Heard’s tearful testimonies, converting her allegations into playful memes. ’NSync’s Lance Bass, in a since-deleted post, mugged melodramatically to the audio of one of Heard’s abuse allegations. (“Lance Bass might have a career in Hollywood ahead of him,” went the New York Post’s approving review of the performance.) Another TikTok user offered a similar mash-up, this one superimposing Saturday Night Live footage of Kim Kardashian outfitted in a judge’s robe over video of Heard’s testimony: “Ew, this is so cringe,” the faux jurist pronounces. “Guilty.” The video currently has nearly 6 million likes.

This trial has come with a laugh track, and that has given way to a paradox: For all the attention it has garnered, the Heard-Depp trial has been, ultimately, a study in apathy. Jokes make light of things in every sense. They offer levity, yes, but they can also offer tacit permission to disregard other people’s pain. Jokes are, effectively, motions to dismiss. And that is precisely how they have been used as the trial has aired allegations of abuse. What are the facts of the case? What has Heard been saying on the stand? What has Depp been saying? How might contextual information—about the way trauma can influence memories; about the way alleged abusers can undermine their victims—affect their claims? Jokes make those questions irrelevant. They make evidence itself irrelevant. The genre of this trial is comedy, they insist, and comedy’s obligations begin and end with laughter. LOL Honda Civic.

That strain of callousness—lol nothing matters, applied to a legal case in which things very much matter—has been a feature of pop culture’s treatment of the trial as well. Two weeks ago, Saturday Night Live devoted its cold open to an attempted satire of the case. It begins with Kate McKinnon as a reporter introducing coverage of what a chyron calls the “Depp v. Heard Cuckoo Trial”: “With all the problems in the world,” she says, “isn’t it nice to have a news story we can all collectively watch and say, ‘Ooh, glad it ain’t me?’” The sketch goes on to mock the trial’s circus-like atmosphere. (“I’ll allow it,” SNL’s Azcarate, played by Cecily Strong, says at one point, “because it does sound fun, and this trial is for fun.”)

The show, ostensibly, was criticizing the way the trial’s tragedies have been repackaged as spectacles. But its jokes merely furthered all the nihilism. SNL took care to highlight two of the trial’s most sensational elements: a contested incident involving fecal matter left in a bed that the couple shared, and Depp’s claim that Heard threw a vodka bottle at him in a manner that ultimately severed the tip of his finger (she denies this, and a medical expert cast doubt on the claim in the trial). What the sketch glossed over, however, was another element of Heard’s testimony: She alleged that Depp had threatened to “carve up” her face with a broken bottle—and that he had sexually assaulted her with a bottle during a fight. “I didn’t know if the bottle that he had inside me was broken,” she said on the stand. (Depp has denied that he ever hit or assaulted Heard.) Heard also testified, “I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

That SNL would process a current event as comedy—or that its attempt would not be funny—is not remarkable. What is notable, though, is all that the show had to ignore in its effort to turn alleged domestic violence into a joke. SNL, in its sketch, was doing roughly the same thing that internet audiences have done as they have claimed the trial for their own amusement: It applied the assumptions of stagecraft to a legal proceeding. It treated Heard and Depp as characters, and expert witnesses as guest stars, in an ongoing show. On Tuesday, the psychiatrist Richard Shaw took the stand. As he introduced his credentials in a British-inflected accent, the chat that flows next to one of the trial’s livestreams exploded. “Likable guy! Brits are the best!!” one comment said. “I just feel like this guy is so honest,” declared another. “I trust him,” said another. Soon, the positive reviews of the performance that had yet to take place took a turn toward the comparative. “johnny depp’s witnesses look honest and sincere while amber’s looked like a bunch of liars,” one announced. Another: “No one on Amber’s side is decent.”

Little wonder that conspiracy theories about Heard have flourished as the trial has gone on: Good plots require their villains. And fan service is good business. Last week, Vice reported that The Daily Wire, the right-wing media outlet, spent tens of thousands of dollars on Facebook and Instagram ads that largely “promote one-sided articles and videos with a clear bias against Heard.” The trial, in that way, has taken the dimensions of a political campaign: propaganda, image management, hard evidence subsumed into vague partisanship. The case, the news and analysis site Puck’s Matthew Belloni suggests, is a bellwether. With it, on top of everything else, “the dark arts of media manipulation for political gain have come to Hollywood disputes, and there’s no going back.”

The jokes have served that manipulation. They have demeaned not just Amber Heard, but also those who see in the trial’s allegations shades of their own experiences. Survivors watch and learn. They see the emoji that cackle across the livestreams. They see the memes. They register the lols. They watch as a culture that can’t tell the difference between horror and humor has, and makes, its fun. The trial will soon come to its conclusion. But its outcome, in one way, is already clear. When allegations of abuse become fodder for national comedy, that is its own evidence—and its own verdict.