The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial attracted record-breaking numbers of viewers who closely followed the heated exchanges between the two celebrities on YouTube and social media.
The trial’s popularity was in odd company.
Historically, murder trials are the most-watched court cases.
Despite a few exceptions, a trial detailing a private relationship hasn’t captured as much live coverage since President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999.
But the legal spectacle of the Depp-Heard trial is actually a return to the norm.
While the public frenzy surrounding the Depp-Heard case may seem linked to social media’s power to make salacious incidents go viral, there is a long history of trials that publicize sexual details of relationships to threaten women with humiliation.
Looking backward and publicizing humiliation
When the Depp-Heard trial verdict was announced on June 1, 2022, I was working my way through salacious accounts of 18th-century divorce trials in a Los Angeles library.
Meanwhile, a jury ruled mostly in Depp’s favor, awarding him US$15 million in damages. The jury also gave Heard $2 million. The verdict came at the end of a six-week defamation trial that unearthed graphic stories of alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual assault.
Many observers, including Heard herself, described the trial’s verdict as a broader loss for women and domestic violence survivors.
But it was the publicity around this trial – the scandal, the spectacle of a celebrity relationship breaking down – that perhaps resonates most with viewers.
There wasn’t television and social media in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But even then, trials focusing on intimate relationships were widely publicized in newspapers and other publications. Readers, including author Jane Austen, who loved to skim newspapers for scandal, were hungry for gossip.
This meant that these trials always uncovered private sexual details – and almost always revealed secrets of the extremely wealthy.
A means to an end
As the Depp-Heard trial emboldened millions to chime in with their takes on Twitter and the short-form video platform TikTok, people similarly took commentary into their own hands before the age of social media.
One self-styled anonymous “civilian” and “faithful Historian” of the 18th century, for instance, attended all public divorce proceedings in London throughout the 1760s and 1770s. This person then compiled witness testimony in the book “Trials for Adultery: or, the History of Divorces.”
Around this time, financial and legal barriers kept most women from pursuing divorce. Married women weren’t allowed to own anything until the mid-19th century in the U.S. and the 1880s in England, making it nearly impossible for them to pay for a divorce.
But the loss of reputation during a trial was also a big factor that discouraged divorce. Being known as an adulterous woman was not only humiliating, but could also be a serious financial threat.
The author of these volumes used this reality to his advantage. The primary objective of this civilian’s pet project was to humiliate his subjects.
He introduces these volumes by stating his hopes that his project will “effect what the law cannot: the transactions of the adulterer and the adulteress will, by being thus publicly circulated, preserve others from the like crimes, from the fear of shame, when the fear of punishment may have but little force.”
Public shaming, this writer is well aware, will reinforce the status quo where the law may fail to do so.
‘It’s been agonizing’
More than 200 years later, Heard reflected on her embarrassment at the trial, after detailing her alleged abuse at the hands of Depp. People on social media who called her testimony a hoax worsened this experience, she said.
“It’s been agonizing,” Heard told jurors in May. “This is humiliating for any human being to go through. Perhaps it’s easy to forget that, but I am a human being.”
Studies show this long-practiced method using public shaming to control people in society can have “unpredictable” outcomes and can “work at cross-purposes with the forces of law,” particularly when this shaming becomes a form of entertainment.
What’s next for #MeToo?
Advocates for the #MeToo social movement, which launched in 2017 as women publicly spoke out about sexual harassment and abuse, have suggested that the outcome of the Depp-Heard trial could harm victims of abuse.
Heard called the verdict a “setback” for women, writing in a public note on social media: “It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly humiliated.”
Some observers have said that Depp’s success in suing his accuser for defamation paves the way for people accused of domestic violence to take similar legal tactics in the future.
Regardless, it’s clear that the widespread exhibition of this particular case multiplied the cost of humiliation in a way that echoes pre-20th-century modes of seeking justice.
Whether news spreads via TikTok or its 18th-century counterpart, widespread exhibition of domestic cases never ends well for women.