On Saturday, Warner Bros. took control of Hall H at San Diego Comic Con to promote their major upcoming blockbusters. Primarily, this was a time for Godzilla, Harry Potter and the DC Extended Universe, although the offerings this year were slimmer than many had predicted. While Comic Con is primarily a fan event, its standing as a major promotional and marketing tool for the so-called geek properties has greatly risen over the years. Apparently, Comic Con is something major multi-billion dollar corporations need to ‘win’ now. Whatever you thought of Warner Bros. and their offerings last weekend, it was tough to ignore one moment and its implications.
During the panel on the next Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, The Crimes of Grindelwald, the eponymous villain himself turned up to deliver an evil speech and be booed at. Given that the man is played by Johnny Depp, it was tough to tell if the booing was directed at the character or the actor. His appearance came after he and his legal team reached a settlement regarding lawsuits made over his finances, as well as a newly filed suit by a crew member on the film City of Lies who claims Depp punched him in a drunken tirade. It’s only been a couple of weeks since Rolling Stone published their profile of Depp, revealing him to be a desperate and drunken mess, so if Warner Bros. thought this moment would be a PR salve to their wounds, they didn’t read the room. They didn’t think of the logistics of this set-up either. Shortly after this panel, the DCEU panels started, and appearing to promote Aquaman was Amber Heard. Depp’s ex-wife, the woman who accused him of domestic violence and provided plenty of evidence to prove it, had to share the stage with him, shortly after he gave an in-character speech as a Nazi wizard.
To say Amber Heard deserved better would be the understatement of the week.
The media and public have never really known how to deal with Amber Heard: A stunningly beautiful and proudly bisexual actress whose range has never grown beyond middling and who found the ‘homewrecker’ label tough to remove following her transition into Mrs. Depp. In her early years, she seemed more akin to a sex symbol than an actress, one to follow in the footsteps of Megan Fox as a woman who would be everywhere then disappear once her shelf life expired in the business. Now, post-divorce and in the #MeToo era, the media and entertainment world still struggles to give her the credit she’s earned, torn between letting her speak and losing out on the dregs of clout her ex-husband apparently still possesses. Even as she is given an opportunity to be the main female player in a massive blockbuster, she still has to do so in the shadow of the man who treated her so horribly.
From the earliest points in her career, Heard has been talked about in entirely physical terms. A USA Today piece from 2007, when she was 21, opens with the paragraph, ‘When 21-year-old Amber Heard first sits down on the back patio of the Elixir coffeehouse in her super-skimpy green mini, flashing her long eyelashes and sipping iced tea with full glossy lips, an impressive intellect is not the first image that comes to mind.’ Later, it is revealed that she dropped a noticeable amount of weight between the pilot and second episode of her show, Hidden Palms, on which Heard says her bosses ‘her not to comment.’ The short piece ends with a description of a scene Heard filmed, ‘wearing only a wet white negligee.’
While Heard has worked steadily since she arrived in Hollywood, it’s notable how many of her roles could easily be categorized as ‘the hot one’. It’s not Heard’s fault, and she’s certainly not struggling for work like some of her contemporaries. Being as gorgeous as she is offers better career visibility but it’s not a route to longevity or legitimacy. I can already hear the derisive groans of ‘aww poor pretty girl’ and I don’t want to discount the obvious privilege that comes with being thin, beautiful, blonde, white and sexy according to society’s narrow confines of attractiveness. But like her most obvious fore-bearer, Megan Fox, all of those things don’t make being an actress in Hollywood perfect or without dangers. Being the sex symbol du jour has always been a thankless task.
Heard pointed out the impossible standards for women’s roles in Hollywood in a 2015 interview with Elle:
‘I get a stack of scripts, like, once a month, and most of the time, you find these placeholder girls that are there to provide a bounce for the male character. So we know he’s funny because she’s serious and she’s mad at him. We know he’s strong because she needs saving. So really her job is to validate this personality trait of our hero or male. I mean we’re trying to imitate life, and it seems to me a deeply saddening injustice that we are so uncreative and uninterested in developing representations of female life.’
Some of Heard’s roles were better than others, but for every Syrup, where she’s clearing having the time of her life, there’s The Playboy Club. It’s Syrup that may have the best summary of the ‘types’ women find themselves defined by and how men often struggle to see us beyond easily categorizable tropes like ‘slut’ and ‘mother’.
As Heard’s career began to reach mainstream heights, Heard came out at a GLAAD event. While she has never specifically called herself bisexual, preferring not to label herself, it was still a major leap forward for any actress, much less one so frequently positioned as a sex symbol for horny dudes, to be publicly queer. She attended events with her girlfriend of four years, Tasya Van Ree, and didn’t shy away from questions from an eager press. While I have problems with the way she dismisses the need for labels in the LGBTQ+ community - I disagree with her claim that such thing are limiting - it’s hard to deny the nerve it took for an actress on the rise, under the age of 25, to go against industry advice that she keep a lid on her private life.
Then she met Johnny Depp.
It’s not hard to find articles about Amber Heard’s marriage to Johnny Depp that position her as a harpy, a gold-digger, a homewrecker, or some other variation on the word ‘slut’. The 23 year age difference was viewed more favourably on the man’s side, as if he had ‘glowed up’ from his last partner, although even the more tragic readers were still sympathetic to Depp. It was easier to categorize Heard as a Medea-like manipulator of weak men than someone who fell for a guy who left his family for her. Their relationship happened during something of a downturn in Depp’s career. The work wasn’t as good, the reviews were tepid, the box office receipts dwindling, and Depp’s appearance had begun to wane. For those who preferred that narrative, such things made it a lot easier for Heard to be smeared as the cause of these ills. Before, the media and industry had no clue to how view her beyond ‘the hot one’. Now, she was boxed in as ‘Mrs. Depp.’
Upon the announcement that Heard had filed for divorce from Depp, the mood of the public seemed more in favour of him than her. That wasn’t a surprise. After all, she was the younger woman they’d spent years claiming she’d only married the guy to get a boost on her career. Her filing shortly after Depp’s mother’s death felt callous without context. Then the news leaked that she’d filed a restraining order against him due to verbal and physical abuse during their marriage. Soon came an image of her bruised face, then video of Depp drunkenly berating his wife as he downs glass after glass of wine then throws things around the room. TMZ took an oddly pro-Depp stance from the beginning and it wasn’t tough to find others who considered Heard to be a straight-up liar. They’d already spent years insisting Heard had ‘ruined’ Depp, so why would they believe otherwise?
The disheartening thing is that Heard did everything that patriarchy tells us to do when it comes to dealing with domestic abuse: She provided the receipts on every level and she refused his money in the divorce settlement, instead donating it to charity. Yet she was still shamed. There’s no right way to be a victim and it is not the responsibility of the accuser to provide a veritable ledger of evidence to satisfy the media. No matter what you do, your life is worth less than the reputation of a man.
Heard works consistently. She campaigns for various political causes and recently wrote a piece for Refinery29 on growing up on the Texan border and opposing the Trump administration’s immigration policies (this came shortly after a misguided tweet that implied undocumented people only worked as housekeepers and nannies). There are good things in her future but there may be no better metaphor for the state of Hollywood than Amber Heard being forced to follow her abusive ex-husband in front of a cheering crowd.
Regardless of what you think of Amber Heard as an actress, this is a woman who has consistently deserved better than what she has endured, and if Hollywood is so insistent on continuing to hire her shitty ex-husband, the least they can do is listen to her.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)