Entertainment

What’s Really Driving the Memeing of the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard Trial?


There’s a reason why it’s difficult to describe a meme out loud: Any given unit of these digital artifacts, composed of words and pictures in varying grades of conventional aesthetic value, is almost always so heavily enshrined with niche context and references that it resists verbal translation. Whether said meme is circulated in service of, say, a political ideology, a hit Netflix show, or the lifestyle of a particular subset of skin-care bros, the specificity is the point. Like a face, it either provokes recognition or not; like an inside joke, or a pass code given at the door, it either invites a sense of affiliation or not. Which brings me to the memeification of the Johnny DeppAmber Heard trial.

More than a quarter century post-O.J., we’re strangers to neither high-profile court cases nor the routine dissemination of details from celebrities’ personal lives into mainstream discussion. The monthlong proceedings of the Depp-Heard trial, on hold this week until May 16, was destined to be a spectacle, between the wall-to-wall TV coverage, Depp’s outsize celebrity power as an actor with a notorious fan base (and a career built on, essentially, playing a misunderstood villain), and the steady drip of both old and newly horrifying details from Heard and Depp’s highly public divorce proceedings in 2016. One could slice and dice and divine from this single defamation case a whole host of issues currently au courant: “cancel culture” and/or the potential redemption of a wrongly vilified public figure; the #MeToo and #BelieveWomen movements; mental health awareness and its knotty enjambment with addiction; ’90s nostalgia; and for good measure, the parasocial relationships we form with utter strangers.

Of course netizens began following along with the trial with their own forms of analysis and commentary. Mix in algorithmically rewarded fandom at scale and the everything-is-not-quite-what-it-seems-ness encouraged in online scrutiny, and it was inevitable that we would encounter a deluge of what amounts to—I looked at them so you didn’t have to—memes mocking alleged domestic abuse. They’re not particularly creative. It’s a lot of Jack Sparrow jokes, iterations on reliable meme formats like Clueless Padme, and screen grabs of entertaining moments from the trial, though there’s also an entire genre based on identifying and mocking the supposed flaws in (primarily) Heard’s testimony; you can practically hear legions of true-crime fans activating their Easter-egg-spotting skills with relish as they parse the logistics of whether one specific allegation of assault would be physically possible.

Throughout the trial’s first few weeks, such material has been virtually inescapable on the discover pages of any given platform. A “sad face” Snapchat filter was dubbed the “Amber Heard filter” after it appeared to mimic the actress crying on the stand; the rumor that it had been inspired by the trial was so prevalent that the app was compelled to officially deny it this week. On TikTok, at the time of publishing #JohnnyDepp has 19 billion views; #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has 10.6 billion. The saturation of content has become a point of contention unto itself. In 2020, Heard’s team claimed the scale of her harassment was in part due to the use of bots; last week, Rolling Stone spoke with Cyabra, a start-up that analyzes online conversations and disinformation, to conclude that “almost 95%” of the pro-Depp accounts on Twitter are real people. I found it particularly unsettling to spend my time prior to this week actively avoiding any mention of the trial on social media, but the memes still found me across the major platforms, often amplified by accounts I already followed that weren’t exactly known for any degree of Depp fandom or interest in courtroom procedures before this month.

The level of profusion of these über-viral (again, almost always Depp-aligned) memes into mass awareness is unsettling, particularly for the question their virality poses about the nature of meme affiliation: Are the majority of people sharing these units of content still doing so in order to signal their membership in a particular group—whether it’s Depp stans or men’s rights activists, Heard skeptics, or general all-around skeptics of women? Or have the Depp-Heard memes crossed from a category of niche interest into a kind of free-for-all virality lode to be capitalized on by anyone with basic screenshot functionality? (The trial streamers, it seems, may be the only real winners in this mess.)

The latter possibility, perhaps only marginally less disturbing than assuming everyone in the pile-on truly believes in the if-you-know-you-know subtext of these memes—she’s lying, she’s crazy, there’s only one true victim here—would prompt a reevaluation of our recent history of hashtagged movements and “movements” alike. When #JusticeForJohnnyDepp content can flourish in the same online venues that incentivized #FreeBritney or #BelieveWomen en masse, is much of the underlying ideology behind any given meme actually irrelevant to the form? The meme as a neat container for holding a set of specific signals gives way to the meme as a mere vehicle in an increasingly beliefs-agnostic clout rush. Who cares if something allegedly horrific happened between two actual people, because isn’t it kind of hilarious? And aren’t we clever and provocative for saying so? Don’t forget to like and subscribe!





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