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Johnny Depp’s domestic abuse allegations deserve as much attention as his assassination joke

Premiere Of Disney's 'Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales' - Red Carpet Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Over the past few days, Johnny Depp has found himself in the news for two different reasons — one that’s being treated as a potentially career-ending mistake, and another that’s been greeted with a nearly universal shrug.

On Thursday at the Glastonbury arts festival, Depp jokingly suggested assassinating President Trump. “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?” he asked, adding, “I want to clarify: I’m not an actor. I lie for a living. However, it’s been a while, and maybe it’s time,” in what seemed to be an allusion to John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. The statement drew immediate and widespread outrage, with many calling for a general Hollywood boycott and many major news outlets reporting on the controversy. The White House issued a statement condemning the joke, and Depp made a public apology.

Earlier this week, Depp’s managers filed court documents alleging that they witnessed Depp being violent toward his ex-wife Amber Heard, and that they can confirm the statements Heard made to the police and in court were correct. (Heard and Depp settled their divorce suit out of court, with Heard dropping all charges.) The story was picked up by a few gossip outlets and small news sites, but it was largely ignored until after news of Depp’s assassination joke broke and it became rhetorically useful to be able to refer to Depp as a “drunk” and a “wifebeater.”

Depp seems to have weathered the domestic violence charges while taking minimal damage to his career — he’s still the face of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and he still has a major role in the Harry Potter spinoff franchise Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — but the Trump assassination joke may have finally crossed a line. Almost everyone, regardless of political affiliation, agrees it is in poor taste and completely unacceptable. That was not the universal opinion when Amber Heard accused Depp of hurting her; fans and gossip tabloids roundly accused her of being a lying gold digger, and studio executives shrugged and put Depp in major franchises anyway.

The reaction to Depp’s controversies mirrors a larger problem: As a culture, we have a tendency to treat domestic violence as violence that “doesn’t count,” certainly not the way politically motivated violence does. Domestic violence is nothing to ruin a man’s life over, the idea seems to be, but even a joke about political violence? Well, that’s serious business.

But studies have shown that the gunmen who commit mass shootings are likely to have a history of domestic violence — and if we as a culture took domestic violence seriously, we might have much better luck in stopping political violence before it ever happened.

There’s no reason to think Depp will actually try to assassinate Trump. But the culture’s attitude toward his two crimes is telling.

None of this is to suggest that we should take Depp’s joke about assassinating President Trump to be a genuine threat. There is no real reason to think that Johnny Depp is actually planning to leave acting behind to become an assassin, and it would be absurd to treat his terrible joke as the expression of a concrete plan.

But there are multiple credible allegations explicitly stating that he beat his wife.

Our attitude toward Depp’s two crimes — a documented history of abuse that’s met with a shrug on one side, and a tasteless joke about assassination met with mass outrage on the other — mimics our larger cultural attitude toward domestic violence. We generally don’t consider violence against women to be a big deal until it leads to political violence. And ironically, that attitude means we don’t notice when perpetrators of domestic violence are ready to move into the sphere of political violence.

It’s time to recognize that violence against women is violence, full stop, and to take it just as seriously as we take bad jokes about political violence.

Domestic violence can be a training ground for political violence

As Amanda Taub has pointed out in the New York Times in her article on the correlations between domestic violence and terrorism, about nine times more people die from domestic violence every year in the United States than have died from terrorism in the US over the past decade. Domestic violence is so overwhelmingly common, in fact, that it is rarely considered major news: Man-hurts-woman is generally treated as a dog-bites-man kind of story.

But domestic violence can be an early warning sign for terrorism. The gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety studied all of the mass shootings that took place in the US between 2009 and 2015, and found that 57 percent of the shootings were directed at or involved members of the perpetrator’s family.

Many of the perpetrators of the most high-profile mass shootings of recent years have had domestic violence in their pasts. James T. Hodgkinson, the gunman who shot Republican Congress members at a baseball park last week, was arrested for domestic violence in 2006. Omar Mateen, the gunman behind last year’s Pulse nightclub shooting, had been accused of beating his wife. Robert Lewis Dear, who attacked a Planned Parenthood in 2015, was accused of physical abuse by two of his three ex-wives and of sexual violence by another woman. But these men only came to be considered major threats to society once they had committed politically motivated mass violence.

Taub argues that there’s an emotional link between political terrorism and domestic violence, which some experts call “intimate terrorism”: Both stem from a desire to impose one’s control over the world by force, and a profound need to perform hypermasculinity through violence. She writes:

Intimate terrorism … rests on a broader spectrum of violence meant to preserve the traditional dominance of heterosexual men, and coerce those who are perceived as threatening that order. That spectrum, at the extreme end, includes mass shootings.

Domestic violence, she concludes, can act as a “psychological training ground” for large-scale violence.

If as a culture we truly valued women’s lives and well-being, we would take domestic violence seriously. We would understand that violence against women is real violence, and that a person who is capable of enacting violence against women is also capable of being violent toward other people.

Update: This piece has been updated to acknowledge the White House’s statement regarding Depp’s joke, and Depp’s public apology.

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