People seem to like a story in which a person we might traditionally think of as a victim is portrayed as the perpetrator. False accusations of rape, female-to-male domestic violence, “anti-white discrimination”; stories like these are shared and scrutinized with a sense of glee that is not really seen in the tens of thousands of cases where the roles are reversed.
One of the most famous examples of this in recent years was the 2019 case of African-American actor Jussie Smollett, who in early 2019 claimed he had been assaulted by two masked men in an alleged hate crime.
Smollett claimed the men had put a rope around his neck and made reference to Donald Trump’s MAGA slogan, painting a clear picture of a racially motivated attack, sparked by a climate of bigotry encouraged by the former president.
While prominent liberal celebrities initially jumped to Smollett’s defense in condemning the alleged attack, it didn’t take long for the truth to emerge: Smollett had faked the whole thing, and instead of seeking justice for the incident, he himself would be brought to justice. on trial for perpetrating a hoax.
Smollett’s case has a surprising number of parallels to that of Amber Heard, who is currently in a legal battle with ex-husband Johnny Depp over domestic abuse allegations.
As with Smollett, there was an initial outpouring of support for Heard, which was quickly replaced with anger when it emerged that she might have been equally, and perhaps even completely, antagonistic towards Depp. And, as with Smollett, Heard’s public image quickly transformed from being a poster girl for speaking out against male violence, to a completely persona non grata among her former fans.
However, the most insidious parallel between the two has more to do with the way public discourse has developed around their respective cases. When Smollett’s deception was revealed, he didn’t really consider himself in isolation. Unlike Heard, Smollett was not particularly famous for his acting work before the incident, so discussions quickly turned from the details of his case to the broader culture of racially motivated violence in America. .
Unsurprisingly, such discussions were often damaging to the cause of social justice. Many used the incident as a stick to bash anyone over the head who suggested that racial violence was a problem, or that hate crimes should be treated as categorically different from other types of aggression. Trump himself even chimed in, tweeting: “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments?”
Hate crime incidents increased under the Trump administration. Of course it happened. Racist and inflammatory rhetoric was his daily bread throughout the course of his presidency. But that didn’t matter, because Smollett had already given him a head start and ample opportunity to paint himself as a victim and call out anti-white racism.
Comedian Patton Oswalt said it best when he responded to Trump, and tweeted: “Well done Jusie. You just handed this racist idiot a ‘Get Out Racial Harassment Free’ card that he’s going to wave like a dirty diaper until he gets elected again.”
We’re seeing something very similar to this in Heard’s case, as there are a lot of people enjoying really and genuinely attacking the star of Aquaman. On forums like Reddit and Facebook, serious discussion of Heard’s case often gives way to threads of people repeating the phrase “fuck Amber Heard” over and over again, or simply using misogynistic profanities to describe her.
Right-wing talking heads like Joe Rogan conveyed to their millions of followers that Heard is “a crazy actress,” thus issuing a premature opinion of a trial that is underway. sites like the DailyWire Y Breitbart they irritate their fan base with endless articles focusing on Heard’s alleged guilt. Depending on how you found this article, you might see something similar in the comments section below it.
Whether or not Heard deserves people’s wrath is not the issue. Whether you think Amber Heard is guilty, or whether you think she’s innocent, she’s ultimately irrelevant (unless she’s on the jury, in which case you probably shouldn’t be reading this).
The problem is that, as in the Smollett case, the discourse around Heard has the potential to become less about a specific actress and more about women and domestic abuse in general. Not every criticism of Heard carries with it the fine print that women are lying about the abuse they face, but enough to make such discourse potentially damaging.
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The most common forms of abuse do not interest us, they are simply tragic. As unpleasant as it is to admit, cases like Heard’s and Smollett’s tend to be popular in the public imagination because they are outliers. Unfortunately, these outliers tend to get such a high level of exposure that they risk creating the impression that cases like these are more common than they really are.
People with secret intentions will happily latch on to these cases, using them as an excuse to attack people who would otherwise be considered vulnerable targets. They’ll keep them stashed away as a “gotcha” for the next time a high-profile abuse case or hate crime makes their team look bad.
Having a point of view on this case doesn’t make you a bad person, or a misogynist, or whatever. But the way it is discussed can have a ripple effect on our broader cultural attitudes towards the issue of domestic violence.
I would like to believe that it will not distort our perception of the problem and will not trap us into unduly giving male abusers the benefit of the doubt in future high-profile cases. But I am not optimistic.