The extreme behaviors of people watching the trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard may seem incomprehensible. But this is just the behavior of any fandom, pointed in a specific and scary direction.
Even if you don’t think you know what a fandom is, actually you probably have been in one. It just wasn’t called a fandom. In the early days of the internet, people who were fans of the same TV show or author, like X-Files or Terry Pratchett, coalesced into loose groups that have been now dubbed “fandom,” and the term now denotes all-encompassing communities of fans. But extreme fannishness, to the point of obsession and frenzy, is not a new phenomenon at all. Whether it be the screaming teenage girls at the Ed Sullivan Show or lining up for a midnight book release, devoting yourself entirely to how much you like something can make you do extremely weird things. As an anime-obsessed teen, I once pledged to buy Pop-Tarts because I read online, somewhere, that that’s what you should do if you wanted Toonami to air the next season of Sailor Moon. A few years later, I was among the many Veronica Mars fans who campaigned for the show to be un-canceled—though not among the people who sent CW 10,000 Mars bars.
Especially when there isn’t new material to talk about, watch or read, fandom requires that you demonstrate your fandom at all times. That could mean wearing, say, a Harry Potter t-shirt, or visiting the Universal Studios theme park, or simply talking about the minutiae of the series with other fans. The easiest way to demonstrate your fannishness, though, is to argue for the value of what you’re a fan of—and that’s always easier when you perceive there being someone arguing against you. In the early days of Harry Potter fandom, causing problems for no reason between book releases was mostly harmless fun. There were entire communities dedicated to chronicling “drama” in the fandom for the entertainment of others, because these arguments mostly boiled down to who was the biggest fan of the series. Over time, as JK Rowling’s transphobic politics became clear, liking Harry Potter would also eventually come to mean defending those views, making the harmless fun of arguing online a lot less harmless. While Harry Potter fans creating controversy just because did not used to have political undertones, increasingly, it does. This is the logic by which objects of fandoms become not just political, but politics themselves.
This all brings us to the trial in which Depp is suing Heard, an upsetting yet somehow inescapable juggernaut of a pop culture event. Many fans of Johnny Depp seem to think there’s no better way to demonstrate their fandom right now than to support Depp in this trial, even though he is accused of heinous things, and even if they’re not exactly clear what it’s about or who is on trial in the first place. And beyond tweeting about it a lot and making YouTube videos following the trial day by day, people are performing their fandom in the same ways that fans once tried to uncancel Sailor Moon or Veronica Mars. In modern fandom, often “supporting” something or someone a fan likes results in the harassment of someone who has “wronged” the object of their affection or is trying to make them experience consequences. With Depp, they’re signing petitions en masse, harassing people who support Heard on the internet, and even going so far as to review-bomb the doctors who have testified on Heard’s behalf.
An important aspect of fandom that makes it so easily mapped to political issues is that when you are within a fandom, the object of your fandom is never wrong or bad. At the point in time that Veronica Mars was canceled, I wasn’t a huge fan of where the show was going, and actively disliked many of the episodes that aired week to week. But that doesn’t mean I stopped being a fan, or wanted the show canceled. In order to be in Veronica Mars fandom, you had to be a fan first and foremost, and that meant that when your show was going through a bad streak, it still had to be better, somehow, than every other show on the air.
You can see this in how any piece of media that features queer characters, however minutely, becomes a bastion of representation in fandom. If you like it, and it has gay people in it, then supporting the show is a moral good—and anyone who doesn’t support the show is morally bad. You can see this in the response to the negative reviews for Marvel’s The Eternals, which fans claimed were because the movie had queer characters and people of color in its ensemble cast, rather than because the movie was just not very good. It was even more ridiculous to see this response to the negative reception to Sony’s Morbius.
But these are just big fast expressions of the tendency of fandom to create enemies to fight in the absence of anything else to do. This is how you get to the place where fans of the BBC Sherlock show sent racist harassment to Lucy Liu for playing a female Watson on the completely unrelated American television show Elementary. Sherlock fans, who were convinced that their show’s Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were in love, were offended by the very existence of an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes with a female Watson because they perceived their show as having the capability for queer romance. In that view, a very similar show with a female lead becomes a threat that must be eliminated.
There is a toxic culture that exists in many fandoms, where any perceived slight is a war to be fought, and the object of your affection has no flaws. It is manifesting in bizarre ways, and will probably continue to do so. The ends justify the means in fandom, especially when you convince yourself it’s a moral crusade.