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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

I can’t look away from the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial. Not literally, of course: I could look away if I chose. But I’m among the numberless hordes who are gruesomely fascinated by the spectacle unfolding in a Virginia courtroom, and on social-media platforms around the world.

We’re supposed to believe that the trial is a grotesque celebrity sideshow, a media circus, a distraction from the ongoing crises of war and climate change. And perhaps it is. But it’s also something much more valuable: an insight into the way we think about – and, much more often, ignore – intimate partner violence.

Mr. Depp is suing his ex-wife for allegedly defaming him via an article she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018 under the headline “I spoke up about sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” Although she didn’t name her ex-husband in the piece, Mr. Depp’s legal team argues that there was a clear implication that he was the abuser, and these allegations hurt his film career. Ms. Heard’s lawyers say she will outline the physical, sexual and emotional abuse he inflicted on her when she testifies (she had not yet taken the stand as I wrote this).

The trial, which is being carried live on Court TV, has been a feast for gossip gluttons who have strong stomachs. Mr. Depp has accused his ex-wife of revenge defecation in their marital bed, and of throwing a vodka bottle at him, which severed the tip of his finger. Recordings of their bitter fights have been played. Mr. Depp’s texts were read out, with one particular message noting that he hoped Ms. Heard’s “rotting corpse” was decomposing in the “trunk of a Honda Civic!!” Their former marriage therapist described their relationship as “mutual abuse,” which is itself a contentious term. Neither of them seem like particularly pleasant people.

When Mr. Depp testified in the first days of the trial, the headline on Ms. Heard’s article was brought glaringly to light. She has indeed faced the culture’s wrath. On sites like Twitter and TikTok, the actress was branded a “psycho,” a “witch,” a “liar” and much worse. Every facial expression she made was mocked and demeaned. A psychologist hired by Mr. Depp’s team diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. So far, so common: Research shows that women going through the criminal justice system after surviving abuse often find themselves revictimized by a process that is hostile to their interests.

Mr. Depp testified that he, not Ms. Heard, was the victim of domestic abuse. This is also not unusual. Men can of course be harmed by intimate partner violence, and they are deserving of support. But women make up the vast majority of victims, and they experience this violence differently: It is much more severe, and it’s more likely to cause long-term consequences such as when they have to leave a marital home with their children.

So far we’re experiencing a textbook case of what philosopher Kate Manne has labelled “himpathy” – the tendency to extend undue empathy to men, and make excuses for certain behaviours. How much more himpathy is afforded Mr. Depp because he’s the Captain Jack Sparrow and Edward Scissorhands of childhood dreams? You could ask his fans, who are in the courtroom and nearly got kicked out by the judge when they laughed at one of the actor’s drolleries.

Things may change once Ms. Heard takes the stand. It may not make much difference, though. Her abuse was already acknowledged in a U.K. court, in an unsuccessful libel action brought by Mr. Depp against a British newspaper that called him a “wife beater.” (The judge in that case said, “I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying.”) Ms. Heard may win or lose this new trial, but she’s already lost in the court of public opinion.

I often write about intimate partner violence (most recently in an ongoing series with my colleagues Tavia Grant and Molly Hayes), and what’s frustrating is how much attention this trial is sucking up. There are so many other newsworthy stories on this issue: the number of Republican candidates seeking office in the United States who are accused of domestic violence, for instance. Or, in Canada, the pressing issue of training judges to recognize intimate partner violence, which is the subject of a current private member’s bill in the House of Commons. For the past few months, the federal Status of Women committee has been studying the issue of domestic violence, and hearing from dozens of witnesses, but have you read any coverage of that?

I’m always determined to find the silver lining in things, and there’s definitely one here. We know that domestic violence is a hidden epidemic, and is vastly underreported. We also know that one of the best ways to stem this epidemic is through prevention, which requires educating our children very early in their lives about the power of consent and how to conduct healthy relationships.

Teachers understand that when they discuss healthy relationships it’s useful to incorporate cultural hot topics to engage kids’ attention and get them to examine their beliefs. Hopefully, teachers are talking to their students about this trial in Virginia, and maybe getting kids to open up about what’s happening in their own lives. It would be nice if we all learned something from this sordid mess.

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