After five years of anticipation, it’s now clear: The long-awaited and much-dreaded backlash to the Me Too movement is here.
On May 2, a draft leaked of a Supreme Court opinion that would strike down Roe v. Wade and, with it, American women’s rights to reproductive freedom. On June 1, Johnny Depp won his defamation suit against Amber Heard, who alleged that he abused her. Depp’s argument, which the jury apparently agreed with, was that Heard had in fact abused him and lied about it. (Heard won one count of defamation of her own, against Depp’s former lawyer Adam Waldman.) It’s only fitting that the cultural moment that began with women speaking out against the powerful men who they say hurt them announced its end by the courts finding in favor of one of those men.
Every wave of feminist activism is greeted by a backlash. The political action of the 1970s met the reactionary work of Phyllis Schlafly and her cohort, who killed the Equal Rights Amendment. The girl-power ethos of ’90s third-wave feminism gave way to the virginity-obsessed purity culture of the Bush era. And now, five years after the Me Too movement entered its most public phase with the 2017 downfall of Harvey Weinstein, fourth-wave feminism has met its own backlash.
Here is where the reaction leaves us: Currently, our legal system seems to be on the brink of recognizing neither women’s right to control their bodies nor women’s right to speak about the violence that has been done to their bodies.
Depp’s victory does not come from a criminal trial. It was a civil case about a newspaper op-ed. In the Washington Post in 2018, Heard wrote an op-ed titled “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” There, Heard never mentions Depp, but she refers to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp argued that Heard was clearly referring to him and as such was defaming him, and the jury agreed.
This verdict is as much as to say that anyone who says the phrase “I was abused” can be sued as a liar, and is highly likely to have a chilling effect on other victims of domestic violence who might want to step forward. A recent Rolling Stone article cites one victim’s advocate who describes “hundreds” of domestic abuse survivors retracting their victim’s statements and pulling out of court cases as a direct response to the Depp-Heard trial. Depp’s fans are already rallying behind Depp’s friend Marilyn Manson, who was accused of abuse by Evan Rachel Wood.
Both Depp fans and major cultural institutions are reacting to this news with a glee that would have been unthinkable four years ago. “THIS WILL BE THE DAY YOU ALMOST CAUGHT CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW,” tweeted a UK sportscaster. The official Twitter account of House Judiciary GOP celebrated with a victorious GIF of Depp in full Jack Sparrow regalia. Dozens of the celebrities who supported Me Too have “Liked” Depp’s celebratory Instagram post, including Taika Waititi, Ashley Benson, and Bella Hadid.
We have spent the past five years undertaking a cultural reckoning about all the wronged women of the ’90s and ’00s, all the Britney Spearses and Monica Lewinskys and Lorena Bobbits and Tonya Hardings, all the women we treated as punchlines who, in retrospect, were clearly victims of abuse and assault and sexual violence. Meanwhile, when a court found Amber Heard should be required to pay $15 million to a man who compelling evidence suggests abused her, the hashtag #AmberTurd trended on Twitter.
Depp’s supporters argue that his victory represents not the end of Me Too but an expansion of the movement. According to Depp, it is he, not Heard, who is the true domestic violence victim in this story, and as such, his supporters argue, he is helping to break down the stigma against men identifying as abuse victims. After all, how can anyone say that real men don’t get abused when Captain Jack Sparrow told the world he was a victim of domestic violence? This trial, the narrative goes, is a necessary corrective to the #BelieveWomen hashtag that trended in the heady early days of Me Too: The point is not to believe all women, but to believe all victims, including male victims.
It is true that there is compelling evidence that Heard behaved violently toward Depp. On the stand, she admitted to hitting him at least once, and there are audio recordings in which she can be heard talking about hitting him and apparently belittling him.
There is likewise compelling evidence that Depp behaved violently toward Heard: photos and contemporary witness accounts of Depp striking Heard and Heard covered in bruises after encounters with him that go back years and are corroborated by multiple witnesses.
And Depp at all times had more power than Heard. When they met, Heard was 22 and Depp was 46, and he was hiring her for a job. He was a household name. He was richer, more famous, more beloved than she ever was. If Heard is not a perfect victim, if at times she instigated violent encounters with Depp, that does not change the fact that Depp had power over Heard that she did not have over him. One of the lessons of Me Too was supposed to be that victims do not have to be perfect in order to deserve justice, and that people who have behaved badly still do not deserve to be abused. That lesson seems to have vanished here.
Depp’s victory is not an expansion of the gains of Me Too. It is a cynical appropriation of the rhetoric of Me Too, applied now to its end.
It’s worth asking a question: What is all this backlash lashing out at? The Me Too movement’s signature achievement is getting Harvey Weinstein convicted for some of his many alleged rapes, several years after he stopped being able to deliver Oscar winners on a reliable basis. Meanwhile, the Me Too movement itself was a response to the election of Donald Trump, which came even after Trump was heard on tape boasting about sexually assaulting multiple women.
It’s as though our judicial system has said, “While the most powerful office in the land was held by an alleged rapist, on the other hand, another less-powerful rapist was sent to jail, so all things considered it’s very important that women stop having control over their own bodies now just to be safe.”
Each wave of feminism is met by a backlash. But it’s heartbreaking that this one would come so definitively or so soon.