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Depp v Heard: The verdict is in ... and we’re all guilty

In the aftermath of the Depp v Heard courtroom drama, Emily Phillips asks how we all became so unashamedly addicted to the super-private lives of the rich and famous

09 June 2022

runken antics. Abusive dynamics. A mixed bag of lust and cruel intentions boiling over into heated sex and what you later realise is egregious, coercive behaviour. There are fingers (severed) and some not-for-the-faint-hearted bodily fluids. And then your ex-girlfriend joins in to ease the proceedings for you.

So far, so sex tape. And yet, instead of watching these salacious images of two hot A-listers on the internet alone in a darkened room, in 2022 when we want our pound of celebrity flesh we can watch live on courtroom TV (or even queue to sit in) as their most intimate details are spilled to the floor. Our new obsession with celebrity court cases has held the news cycle while war and economic crisis battled on behind it. It’s the realest reality TV.

Depp v Heard (round two) has made for an uncomfortably gripping watch. Two Hollywood actors, messy divorce still not in the rear-view mirror, airing every item in the laundry basket. Our basest instincts have had us hooked to the gory minutiae of ‘megapints’ of wine, monogrammed opiate containers and the back and forth he said, she said of what really happened in their marriage. And the jury awarding Johnny Depp $15 million (£12m) in damages from Amber Heard’s libellous op-ed piece, while giving just $2m to Heard for Depp’s lawyer suggesting her claims of abuse were a ‘hoax’, was perhaps the most shocking thing of all.

Once upon a time, you got to see the grainy footage of these wildest of nights leaked to the internet. Whether it was stolen moments from a boat-trip with Pam and Tommy, one night in Paris that Ms Hilton would surely rather forget or Kim K’s pre-reality overshares, sex tapes paved a sordid path to infamy. Loaded with revenge and ripe for moral outrage, they spawned a thousand tabloid headlines, sparked unparalleled celebrity careers but also usually resulted in the female party being dragged through the mud while the men remained a shadowy footnote.

Whether it’s the celebrity court case or the celebrity sex tape, the titillation factor comes from positioning ourselves on a puritanical high ground. The pendulum of public opinion swings between perspectives, as we find ourselves still incapable of unpicking the Madonna/whore dichotomy of women being sexually free and the chance that this can be abused, too. That someone could be an unreliable narrator or a flawed human, but also have been the victim of a crime, violence or just been in a toxic relationship. So court cases make for more complicated viewing than just watching two people have sex and then shutting the laptop. The dynamics of these cases have a lasting impact.

Our UK alternative, the ‘Wagatha Christie’ libel case between Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney, may be closer to a tawdry tabloid kiss and tell, but has equally given two WAGsbeens another paparazzied stride in the large sunglasses of fame. But it has also thrown light on to the inner workings of all of our relationships with social media and our social lives. On the face of it it’s two footballer’s wives arguing over personal gossip, but deeper down it’s two people struggling with what parts of their private lives they want to stay private. It’s the same as a sex tape, or a libel case between a divorced couple slogging it out over how they get to relive their story once the marriage is dissolved.

Our fixation with getting this celebrity hit through bare details, not just bare ass, is perhaps a move-on, but there’s still something of the baying Victorian spectator sport of becoming invested in how horrible people can be to one another. The court of public opinion has ruled. Whether he does or doesn’t get to return to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp’s fans and extremely high profile celebrities have championed his win. Meanwhile, as with the women of celebrity sex tapes, Heard was scorned and moralised by the internet; domestic violence survivors hung their heads at the regression while others lauded the recognition of the violence she also doled out. The path to infamy is open once more, while we all watch on.

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