Depp-Heard Trial: vilifying women and BPD

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In Apr. 2022, the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial, which was televised nationwide, caused many viewers to unfairly criticize Heard, saying she was abusive because she is a woman and has borderline personality disorder (BPD).

In Mar. 2019, actor Johnny Depp, known for his starring roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts franchises, sued his ex-wife actress Amber Heard for defamation after Heard claimed in The Washington Post that Depp had mentally and physically abused her. Fast forward to Apr. 2022, the court trial for the defamation suit would be televised to the nation. Over the course of six weeks, Depp and Heard’s unsavory past was slowly unraveled for millions worldwide and inevitably, viewers began to pick a side. 

During his testimony, Depp claimed his ex-wife threw a glass bottle at him, slicing off part of his finger. Heard also reportedly defecated on their shared bed after an argument. Seeing this, many viewers, most notably male domestic violence survivors expressed online that Heard reminded them of their abusive exes. As a result, the actress fell quickly out of the public’s favor. However, many of Heard’s critics came to base their hatred of the actress on the fact she was a woman and had BPD.                                              

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is one of the most stigmatized mental health disorders, even among mental health professionals. According to Mayo Clinic, a borderline personality disorder is a mental health disorder that affects the way individuals feel about themselves and others. BPD is often characterized by self-image issues, unstable relationships, difficulty managing emotions, inappropriate anger and fear of abandonment. Clinical psychologist Dr. Shannon Curry observed these behaviors in Heard prior to the trial after performing a 12-hour examination on Heard. And when Dr. Curry uttered to the court the words “borderline personality disorder,” the public discovered its favorite new buzzword of the decade after “narcissist.” 

With witness after witness testifying towards Heard’s impulsive and violent tendencies, the Depp v. Heard trial falsely gave viewers the impression that all BPD-affected individuals fall on one end of a spectrum: an inclination toward violence. In reality, a person with BPD lashing out is more of a defense mechanism resulting from a fear of abandonment than any real intent to do harm.

Even so, many are quick to judge those with BPD, especially in comparison to those with a more well-known mental disorder like anxiety. Anxiety symptoms include difficulty controlling worry, irritable behavior, hyperventilation or fatigue. And yet when people exhibit these symptoms, those around them are not likely to attribute every action and aspect of their personality to anxiety, because that would be ridiculous. Yet, because of symptoms like “inappropriate anger” and “having physical fights” present in BPD, it became easy for viewers of the Depp-Heard trial to criticize  Heard based on her diagnosis. BPD created the assumption that Heard was likely to be the instigator even if reality indicated otherwise, the reason being, “It is because she has BPD.”

Because the Depp-Heard trial was highly-televised, Heard has unfortunately been labeled as the standard for all individuals with BPD. As a result, the stigma already associated with the disorder has worsened, causing many members of the BPD community to feel uneasy about sharing their diagnosis out of fear of being unfairly judged as the same as “Johnny Depp’s crazy, abusive ex-wife.”

Dina, who has BPD, expressed her concerns after the trial to the Cosmopolitan, stating, “People might think ‘Oh, Amber Heard has [BPD] and look at how she is meant to have behaved, I guess Dina is going to be the same! Maybe I should not get too close. If I want to leave and get some space, is she going to react badly?’”

Even if people with BPD are receiving treatment or do not exhibit the type of BPD Heard does, the effects of the trial have already influenced how millions of people perceive BPD. Once Heard became associated with BPD, the stigma associated with the disorder followed her as people used it to justify their hatred of her. Because the Depp-Heard trial may be many people’s first exposure to the disorder, the belief that BPD is the reason why Heard abused Depp has had reverberating negative effects on an entire community.

But aside from the weaponization of BPD and its resulting effect on the community, the fact Heard is a woman has also brought the actress unnecessary criticism. There were several instances of sexism throughout the trial that were seemingly unrelated to her history with Depp. 

For one, from the moment the trial started, Heard was criticized for copying Depp’s outfits. She was continuously mocked for the way she dressed, even after her outfits stopped resembling Depp’s. In contrast, rarely was anything mentioned about the way Depp dressed. Heard had not met the unspoken standard for women to dress perfectly and the internet reacted by making fun of her clothing. 

Equal distribution of criticism between Depp and Heard is willfully ignored in favor of putting all negative attention on Heard, despite a couples’ therapist alleging that there was mutual abuse during the trial.

Examples of this are seen everywhere online. Over the course of the trial, several meme compilations have been posted on social media. They usually go like this: clips from the trial of Depp and Heard sitting with text commentary from the person who made the video edited around them. Most of the time, the comments surrounding Heard were critical in nature: moments of Heard taking notes, blinking or glancing in a certain direction would be edited to portray her as manipulative. In contrast, the commentary on Depp typically revolved around his “quirkiness” and sense of humor.  When Heard took notes, it was calculating. When Depp doodled, it was wholesome. As the trial stretched on, this double standard began to take over meme compilations across the internet. 

No matter who is in the right or wrong, it is apparent that the Depp-Heard trial has negatively affected the way people perceive women and individuals with BPD. Although social justice movements have advanced further than ever, women are still being critiqued based on who they are rather than what they did. For Heard, even just writing down notes immediately becomes fuel for mockery on the internet. 

Whether Heard is someone to be sympathetic to or not, it is harmful and unproductive to cite her gender and diagnosis of BPD as the sole reasons she was abusive to her ex-partners. This not only negatively affects Heard as an individual, but also the communities influenced by a trial of this magnitude. Regardless of the verdict, Heard’s gender and diagnosis of BPD were unfairly weaponized against herself and communities belonging to those demographics.

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