The Meme-ification of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Trial

TikTok fancams and #megapintofwine memes inspired by Johnny Depp's court case with Amber Heard are just the tip of the very troubling iceberg.

“Johnny gave us all so many memories with the movies he made. He simply deserved more.” Scout Robert, a 24-year-old from Northern California, is one of many TikTokers who have dedicated their account to documenting the $100 million defamation case between Hollywood actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. In court, both Depp and Heard claim that they were the abused partner, and have vehemently denied accusations that they were the abuser.

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On TikTok, every moment of the subsequent trial has been dissected and remixed since it began on 11th April – thanks to the fact that it has been publicly televised and livestreamed on YouTube channels run by, among others, Sky News, Fox and specialist outlets Law & Crime and Court TV. 

Some of the clips on these channels have been watched millions of times. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Ashley Kaye, another TikTok user posting content about the trial, tells VICE. “Every single day a new layer is exposed, like peeling an onion, and I could not believe how insane it was.”

Depp and Heard’s highly-publicised split in 2016 involved domestic violence allegations from the start, with Heard filing for a temporary restraining order against Depp before the divorce went through. She later penned a Washington Post op-ed in 2018 describing herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse”, though Depp was not mentioned by name. That same year, an article in the Sun referred to Depp as a “wife beater”. He unsuccessfully sued the Sun for libel but is now suing Heard for $50m over her WaPo piece, with Heard counter-suing for $100m. 

The verdict is expected to be handed down on 19th May, but many viewers appear to have already made up their minds. The overwhelming majority of TikTok clips – like many of the comments on the livestreams – are pro-Johnny Depp. Livestream footage has been flipped on TikTok for analysis videos, Depp fancams and compilations of his “funny moments” and “savage” zingers to Heard’s lawyers. The tags #johnnydepp and #justiceforjohnnydepp have already amassed 11 billion and 6 billion views on TikTok; one comedic video edit of Depp “being fed up with Amber’s lawyers” has been watched 23 million times. Even the recorded audio of Heard’s lawyer asking if Depp poured a “mega pint of wine” has become a popular TikTok sound, with 4.8 million views on clips tagged #megapintofwine

The uproar around a celebrity court case on TikTok may feel unprecedented, but as Dr Jenna Drenten, a marketing professor at the Quinlan School of Business points out, this is not the first time a court case has captured the public attention in this way. “In 1993, Americans were glued to their televisions watching a white Ford Bronco be tailed by police on a Los Angeles highway,” she says, pointing to the spectacle around the OJ Simpson court case. 

The OJ trial was one of the first court cases ever to be publicly televised, and with it, “shifted how fans engage with celebrity trials,” Drenten says. According to her, the TikTok trend of fans “remixing” the Johnny Depp case is just “an offshoot of media sensationalism” that already existed in mainstream broadcast journalism. The difference is, this media sensationalism is “now in the hands of fans”. 

It’s important to note that fan culture in itself has evolved significantly and spilled over into the mainstream. “Genres and practices that were once relatively confined to smaller, more contained fan communities have become highly visible and commonplace,” adds sociology professor Dr Briony Hannell, pointing to “fannish practices” like compilation edit-style fancams, originally designed and used by in the K-pop fandom, now being used by stans of all kinds of celebrities and public figures.   

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The Depp fancams and supportive video edits are best understood in the context of his decades-long career as an actor. The 58-year-old has played some of Hollywood cinema’s most recognisable characters, including Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and Edward Scissorhands, making him an “easy target for meme-ification”, according to Dr Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist. “While there are serious domestic abuse issues being contested, Depp’s persona, well-known roles and reputation lend the proceedings a surreal quality that contributes to fancam content.”

Hollywood, fandom culture and tabloid sensationalism aren’t the only things shaping people’s response to the Depp and Heard case. Amanda Brennan, a meme librarian and trends expert, believes the popularity of true crime shows and legal dramas also plays a role in the unfolding trial. “Instead of seeing the real people in these scenarios, we see one-dimensional pieces of a story that people want to watch like a TV show,” she said. “We empathise with whomever their parasocial relationship is with, cheering them on like their favourite ship on a teen drama.”

In the same way Twilight fans used to declare themselves Team Edward or Jacob, TikTok users now pledge themselves to Team Johnny Depp. The TikTok hashtag #teamjohnnydepp has over 77.4 million views. VICE even found dozens of TikTok accounts all sporting the same profile picture: a black and a white graphic reading: “Justice for Johnny Depp”.

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Some experts have expressed concern that the “meme-ification” of the Depp case and its attendant fancams and TikTok remixes, will have implications on how we treat the issue of domestic violence. It’s why domestic violence specialist Evie Muir finds the pro-Depp rhetoric behind these TikToks so concerning: “We’re consistently seeing examples of people being so quick to defend, vindicate and support a celebrity whom they’ve never met, and we know this mirrors the ways survivors are treated when it’s a family member, friend, colleague or acquaintance that’s been accused,” she says. 

“What we should be worried about is the message that reactions to the Depp/Heard trial are sending to survivors of gendered violence across the world; that we will be disbelieved, questioned and ridiculed.”

Needless to say, the TikTok creators who spoke to VICE don’t feel the same way. @MCULokii, an anonymous TikToker who has racked up millions of views with their comedic TikTok compilations about the case, says that the purpose of their content is to “lighten the mood”. 

“I believe the edits or videos are all in good intention. Nobody is here to make light of such a serious topic like domestic abuse,” they said. “After all, Johnny Depp makes jokes and laughs [in court] so we should be allowed to laugh too!” 

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Fellow creator Kaye says she was “inspired to continue” posting TikToks about the case after her first video, which included alleged audio of Heard saying she hit Depp, prompted users to message her and thank her for raising awareness of domestic violence. Others believe Depp is innocent of the charges and want to help clear his name. “Fighting for equality is never in bad taste,” Scout says.

But the kind of content we’re seeing around the trial only serves to “ dilute the importance of Depp’s claim and his former wife’s counterclaims,” says Dr Carla Manly, a practising clinical psychologist who specialises in trauma and relationship issues. Regardless of the verdict, she warns that this can have dire consequences for both Depp and Heard, as well as all victims of domestic violence: “When we turn important issues into spectacles rather than honouring them for the significance they hold for the people involved, we are setting the stage for further devolvement in the future.”

Their motivations for making the videos may vary, but what is obvious is that these clips are the first taste of viral fame for many TikTokers. As Drenten points out, the sheer number of views and followers that come from this content can be alluring. “Fancams on TikTok enable fans to celebrate their own moment in the spotlight,” she explained.”Remixing celebrity trials through TikTok fancams is a mechanism for everyday people to gain clicks, likes, and followers of their own.”

Whether or not these creators creators intend to contribute to the spectacle around the trial, it’s clear that their videos have become a source of macabre entertainment – and it’s questionable if flattening a complex case of alleged domestic violence into minute-long clips and fancams is the best way to raise awareness of the issue. As Hannell puts it: “When any and all cultural artefacts are up for grabs, ready to be remixed and remade, where do we draw the line?”

@colombochar

Tagged:

domestic violence, Memes, johnny depp, fandom, domestic abuse, amber heard, TikTok, fancams

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