Johnny Depp and Amber Heard settled their very public divorce on August 16—and as with most most high-profile breakups, you’d think it would be only a matter of time before some new drama vies for our attention and the details fade into the celebrity ether.
But there’s something distinctly different about this divorce. By now, you’ve likely seen the leaked video, released by TMZ last Friday, showing an erratic and briefly incoherent Depp smashing a wine bottle and glass. The following Monday, photos emerged suggesting Depp went all angry Picasso, sliced his finger tip, dipped it in blue paint and smeared accusatory messages on a mirror.
But the next day, it appeared they were putting the ugliness behind them, releasing a joint statement to Us Weekly that left many of us in the FLARE office with our jaws on the floor.
The statement read: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm. Amber wishes the best for Johnny in the future. Amber will be donating financial proceeds from the divorce to charity. There will be no further public statements about this matter.”
It’s the first sentence that really sticks out—like a sore, sliced finger. When phrases like “intensely passionate,” “at times volatile” and “bound by love” all appear in the same breath, alarm bells ring, especially for anyone well-versed in the power of language when it comes to domestic abuse disputes.
So we reached out to Anuradha Dugal, the director of violence prevention programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, to take a closer look at what these words might mean and the broader implications, especially to younger generations who may be navigating first loves.
“I think that while many people may describe relationships as passionate, we should never make the mistake of talking about abuse or abusive behaviour within the context of love. A healthy loving relationship does not include abuse, and should not cause another person pain,” Dugal says.
“It is especially confusing to young people when these two are put together as if they can co-exist, and leads many young people to believe that abuse is actually a sign of love.”
Months before the video or the bloodied mirror images, Heard had filed for divorce and obtained a temporary restraining order. It was late May, and she alleged Depp had assaulted her during a drunken argument in their L.A. home. She said she had photographs showing her bruised face and broken wine bottles. This wasn’t the first time, she said.
Friends came forward to support her. Among them, iO Tillett Wright, who wrote “Why I Called 911,” an essay for Refinery 29—about two-and-a-half weeks after Heard was issued that temporary restraining order. Wright never directly called out Heard or Depp in the essay, but Wright’s name was mentioned in some relevant court papers. “I called 911 because she never would,” Wright opened the essay. “Because every time it happened, her first thought was about protecting him.”
Wright continued by explaining how we may understand that domestic violence is bad, “but as a culture, we create the most fertile breeding ground for it to thrive.”
While we might never know the true meaning of the joint statement, and who wass behind the exact wording, we can at least start a conversation about what it means for us as consumers of celebrity culture, and what happens when we become participants in it. They may have said there will be no further public statements about the matter, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss what they chose as their last words.
“There are many reasons why a statement might be retracted, and we often do not know why,” says Dugal. “I think anything that seems to confuse the issues and makes women seem like they have invited the violence they experience discourages women from coming forward.” While Dugal is not directly commenting on Heard-Depp statement, she explained how retractions like it might discourage other people from speaking out. “Re-victimizing language in the media, negative reactions from friends and family, saying we don’t believe women, all these things stop women from coming forward.”
Dugal adds, “There are many conflicting images and representations of love and passion in media, in popular culture and in fact throughout the ages—just think back to fairy stories. The message we should be sending is that a healthy relationship is one where both partners show empathy, communicate well in an assertive way with each other, establish boundaries mutually and are able to resolve conflict without harming another person.”
Using words like “intensely passionate,” “at times volatile” and “bound by love” us confusing at best, because these words at odds with one another, and irresponsible at worst for what they imply. That’s why Wright’s essay got it right with its haunting ending: “Whether we loved him or not has nothing to do with it. When it comes to violence, ‘love’ is no longer part of the equation.” —with files from Carlene Higgins
The Canadian Women’s Foundation provides many helpful references and fact sheets about violence against women. Visit their site for more details.
UPDATE: Heard announced on August 18 that she will donate her $7-million divorce settlement to charity, splitting it between the American Civil Liberties Union (“with a particular focus to stop violence against women”) and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.