By EJ Dickson
May 9, 2022
“I was walking out of the bedroom, [he] slapped me across the face, and I turned to look at him,” the voiceover recounts in a TikTok that has been viewed 13.5 million times. “And I said, ‘Johnny, you hit me. You just hit me.’”
The above is a snippet from the testimony of Amber Heard, the ex-wife of Johnny Depp, who is currently on trial in a $50 million defamation case brought against her by the actor, for a 2018 op-ed in which she wrote about being a domestic violence survivor (Heard does not explicitly name Depp in the piece, and Depp has denied that he ever hit Heard, instead accusing her of physical abuse during their relationship).
But in the video posted by @heyitsgingerandpepper, an account with 900,000 followers, Heard’s emotional testimony about alleged abuse at the hands of Depp is being reenacted by an adorable marmalade cat in a blond wig, who later plays Depp’s role by donning a black wig and a Pirates bandana. In the opening frame, the cat dressed as Heard is being lightly slapped by a finger with a rubber hand on it.
Tiktok’s primarily Gen Z user base is believed to be uniquely active when it comes to social justice, with much of the platform’s most popular content focused on issues like abuse prevention and trauma. Yet the comments for the video, which was posted yesterday and has almost 14 million views, are almost all light-hearted and adulatory. “This couldn’t be any more creative! Love it! They are better actors than Ms. Amber,” says one top comment with more than 10,000 likes. “Objection: that’s purrsay,” says another comment with 59,000 likes.
The audio of Heard testifying to her abuse at the trial in Fairvax, Virginia, last week is currently going viral on TikTok, with nearly 15,000 videos using the sound. Most disturbingly, the top videos under the sound — many of which have more than 10 million views — appear to be literal reenactments of the abuse Heard describes in her testimony, with people in the videos (mostly men) seen mimicking slapping women across the face. In one of the top videos, a man dressed as Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean pretends to slap a woman dressed in Heard’s courtroom attire. That video has five million views.
Most of the videos appear to be pointing out perceived inconsistencies in Heard’s testimony, particularly her claim that she “turned to look at [Depp]” after he allegedly hit her: “Don’t you have to be looking at someone in the face to be able to slap them across it?” reads the caption of the original video using the sound, a clip from the trial with 10 million videos. But the effect of watching so many of these videos is that they appear to be making light of an alleged abuse survivor’s testimony, showing staged acts of violence in the process.
Such videos have been up for at least four days and in the process have racked up tens of millions of views in total, despite appearing to violate TikTok community guidelines preventing content that “promotes, normalizes, or glorifies extreme violence or suffering on our platform.” When reached for comment by Rolling Stone, TikTok said it had removed the videos we sent them on the grounds that it violated the platform’s anti-bullying and harassment policy, which prohibits “content that disparages victims of violent tragedies.” Yet the cat video is still up, as are 14,800 videos that have been posted using the sound.
Maureen Curtis, the vice-president of criminal justice programs at the victim assistance organization Safe Horizon, says all of the videos mocking Heard’s testimony by depicting violence should be immediately taken off the platform. The trend is “totally demoralizing and demeaning to all survivors, to all people, to everybody who believes all survivors should be treated compassionately and fairly,” she tells Rolling Stone. “To put that on TikTok in a joking way is insulting.”
While disturbing, the popularity of the trend reenacting Heard’s testimony is part and parcel with the general memeification of the Johnny Depp trial on the platform, much of which has been directed in support of Johnny Depp. The trial marks the second time Depp has sued over public allegations of physical and sexual abuse leveled by Heard; a 2020 U.K. trial which focused on the Sun’s characterization of Depp as a “wifebeater,” ruled against Depp, finding 12 out of 14 of the allegations that Heard made against him were proven to “the civil standard.”
Specific moments of Depp’s testimony have gone viral on the platform, with the #justiceforjohnnydepp hashtag amassing more than 9.7 billion views as of Monday morning. As Rolling Stone previously reported, one video showing a Starbucks with competing tip jars for Depp and Heard — with Depp’s full, while Heard’s remained empty – went massively viral on TikTok, and content creators are directly profiting off the trial by selling merch on Etsy and Instagram in support of Depp. And Depp appears to be appreciative of the support, if recent viral videos of fans congregating outside the courthouse begging him to sign merch are any indication.
The pro-Depp sentiment that has been percolating on the internet since before the start of the trial is “not surprising,” says Curtis. “When you have a celebrity, particularly one who’s as well-liked like Johnny Depp, accused [of violence], it makes it harder for a survivor to want to come forward, and to be believed,” she says. “People don’t want to believe a well-liked man [could] do things like this.”
The fervor over the trial has reached a fever pitch on TikTok in particular, due to the algorithm prioritizing content that’s likely to get more engagement, regardless of the impact the anti-Heard discourse may have on actual people who survive abuse. The antipathy for Heard and the sympathy for Depp may have the effect of dissuading future survivors from speaking out about abuse, Curtis tells Rolling Stone. “There’s no doubt this could lead to fewer survivors coming forward,” she says. “They don’t want to be put through what she is being put through.” She refers to the trend on TikTok as “just another way of silencing survivors.”
To make matters worse, many of the creators covering the trial and making memes on TikTok have not watched the trial in full. One of them, who asked to stay anonymous, says she has not watched the trial much at all, nor does she have a strong opinion of the case: “All I see on the internet was all the evidence is that Johnny Depp is actually the one that got abused. I don’t know if it’s true. I’m not 100 percent sure,” she says.
Yet when she saw the audio trending, she knew it was the perfect opportunity. “I’m not a fan of domestic violence,” she says. “I’m a creator and this is for entertainment. I don’t mean anything. Creating content, you have to be on top of the trends.”
Most of the feedback — 99 percent, she says — has been uniformly positive, though she has gotten a handful of comments scolding her for making light of domestic abuse. “I didn’t think [I could be hurting anyone’s feelings] when I was doing that video,” she says “I just follow up with the trend and I keep my pace going.”