When it was first reported that Johnny Depp had been hit and pelted with crockery by his slight, blonde then wife, Amber Heard, I’m afraid my first reaction was disdain. Johnny and Amber recorded their rows on their mobile phones (as you do) and a ‘reliable source’ leaked the recording: ‘I was hitting you, it was not punching you,’ Amber says to Johnny. ‘Babe, you’re not punched.’ Then, exasperated: ‘You are such a baby. Grow the fuck up Johnny… I did not hurt you, I did not punch you, I was hitting you.’
At first my sympathies were with Amber. C’mon Johnny, c’mon Captain Jack Sparrow, can’t a lady throw a plate or two? Surely a slap, under provocative circumstances, is OK? The TV of my youth was full of ladies with shoulder pads slapping men. Barely a week went by on Dynasty without Joan Collins, as Alexis Carrington, clipping some cowering chap. Very satisfying it was too.
It’s worse for a man to hit a woman than the other way around. You might think you disagree — most millennials are bound to disagree — but think of Hollywood, that mirror of all our souls. Think of the hundreds of jolly romcoms in which the girl gets to swat the guy — he’s come on too strong maybe, or there’s a misunderstanding. No big deal. Now just imagine a romcom in which the male protagonist loses his rag and smacks his love interest.
A week after the recording was leaked, another window opened up into the Heard/Depp love nest; another demented recording found its way to the Mail, and after this one, the affair can be seen in a very different light. My whole gung-ho approach to women slapping men looks different and I’m having to rethink my prejudices, which is uncomfortable.
‘Tell the world, Johnny, tell them: I Johnny Depp, a man, I’m a victim too of domestic violence…’ This is Amber taunting Johnny, hissing at him, daring him to go public. ‘You’re bigger and you’re stronger. I was a 115lb woman… You’re going to get up on the stand, Johnny, and say “She started it’’? Really? Just see how many people believe or side with you.’ It was as if the whole drama suddenly changed genre, from a portrait of a rock’n’roll LA marriage into something more like Single White Female.
After recording two, I was not Team Amber anymore. Worse: I wasn’t even on my own team. Amber Heard was right. No one had thought to believe Johnny for a second, no one had questioned her version of events, not because she had a watertight case — but because she was a woman.
To understand how crazy that last recording is, you have to understand something of the history of the Depp/Heard affair. In the summer of 2016, after just a year of marriage, Amber accused Johnny of hitting her. She posted photos of her slightly bruised right eye on Instagram, and as she filed for divorce she took out a restraining order. There really wasn’t much in the way of evidence, but Amber looked the very picture of a 21st-century victim: beautiful, fragile, bravely out as pansexual. The world rallied round and anyone who even considered questioning Amber’s account of events was quickly labelled a misogynist.
Both Depp’s ex-wives seemed confused. Vanessa Paradis said: ‘In all these years I have known Johnny he has never been physically abusive with me and this looks nothing like the man I lived with for 14 wonderful years.’ Depp’s first wife, Lori Anne Allison, agreed, saying he was a ‘soft person’. Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose Depp defended him too, and was attacked by Grazia magazine as a result: ‘Heard’s voice counts and our insidious, doubting voices do not.’
Johnny believes the furore caused him to lose his most lucrative gig, the role of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, and no one thought it unfair. I didn’t think it unfair, I simply assumed that Johnny was a cad. It never occurred to me or to the usual activists against abuse that Johnny could be the one who needed help. He’s a man, part of the patriarchy, how can he be a victim?
In 2015, just after Amber and Johnny tied the knot, the UK outlawed ‘coercive control’ — the attempt by one partner to bully and dominate another. But when the law was announced by Karen Bradley, the then minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, she made it quite clear who needed protecting: ‘No one should live in fear,’ she said, ‘which is why this government has made ending violence against women and girls a priority.’ In 2016, The Archers ran the story of timid Helen and Rob, her controlling husband, and for a while after that no women’s magazine was complete without a ten-point checklist: ‘How to tell if you’re dating a male narcissist.’ Diagnostic jargon spilled over from psychology into ordinary marital arguments, which was useful for a while. ‘Don’t gaslight me,’ I once said to my husband mid-row. It felt very empowering. ‘I’m not gaslighting you, I’m just disagreeing with you,’ he said. ‘There’s got to be a difference.’
I’m not suggesting that Amber has a personality disorder — who knows what the next episode of the Johnny and Amber show will reveal? He’s currently suing her for defamation and loss of earnings over the Pirates of the Caribbean affair. Amber says Depp is trying to ‘victim blame’ her and the recordings are being ‘twisted’.
But as we Archers fans know, it is textbook narcissist to accuse your partner of the crimes you yourself have committed — domestic violence, say — and to taunt them with the fact that no one will listen. It’s textbook narcissist to pose as the victim when in fact you’ve been the bully all along.