Many fans redeemed Depp as a tarnished hero and cast Heard as the evil Medusa.
Archetypal patterns quickly cast Depp and Heard’s roles.
Already condemned by cancel culture, Depp chose to challenge Heard publicly.
The trial underscored how pervasive gender stereotypes influence perceptions of behavior.
Johnny Depp has emerged as the victor in the infamous Depp vs. Heard trial. Many Depp fans are ecstatic, their commitment to Depp gratified by an official ruling. Heard fans are disappointed but primarily because of the potential fallout on the issue of domestic abuse. Advocates worry that the #MeToo movement has suffered a severe setback. However, the bottom line is that this was a trial of archetypes. Archetypes are like super-charged metaphors that create a lens influencing the meaning of what we see and think. Archetypes are universal patterns that tap into our own beliefs and experience and frame how we process information. Archetypes fill the stories we hear and tell. They guide how we make sense of the world. Archetypes create expectations about how a story will unfold because archetypes—heroes, villains—embody qualities, intentions, and roles that clarify good versus evil. Clear archetypes define a narrative and, as cognitive psychologist George Lakoff (2008) has pointed out, whoever controls the narrative wins. The Depp vs. Heard trial was a trial of archetypes. The only question was which archetype would emerge on each side to dominate the story.
Depp Tackled Cancel Culture on Court TV
Depp challenged Heard’s claims in as public an arena as possible. Heard’s claims she was “a public figure representing domestic abuse” meant that, by implication, Depp became labeled as an abuser due to their notoriety. Cancel culture and the #MeToo movement have an uneasy partnership. Challenging abuses of power takes courage, given our history of blaming the victim. Social media has unleashed voices previously unheard, and these voices can be loud. Not to ignore the systemic problems of the legal system in cases of trauma and abuse, cancel culture may have damaged the #MeToo movement by violating the “innocent until proven guilty” premise of the legal system. Moral outrage, while often justified, has replaced evidence and is impatient, demanding an immediate response.
This trend has become increasingly problematic as we deal with an information space rife with misinformation, disinformation, and lack of trust. Opinions are easily fueled by beliefs and emotions. Archetypes can reduce complex issues, focusing on a shared understanding of core patterns, and creating more binary and digestible narratives. Businesses, media projects, and brands face a serious dilemma, as they fear consumer backlash by not acquiescing to moral outrage, independent of official evidence of guilt. Depp’s publicized substance issues and general bad behavior didn’t help, and it was easy to transform his rebel bad-boy archetype into a villain. Entertainment projects that rely on ticket sales, especially franchises in family entertainment like Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts, don’t want the financial risk or social stigma from the taint of abuse.
Armed With Fandom
Depp paid the cost. He was as good as guilty by public opinion and accusation, and he took the battle public. How much worse could it get if he lost? Not much. Social media’s cancel culture undermined his professional viability. When he went public, however, social media became an ally. Depp has 40-plus years of fans. Fans often have parasocial relationships and emotional attachments to celebrities with personal meaning. Some fandoms are built around Depp and follow his career; others are built around the iconic (and archetypal) characters he created. Fandoms create a sense of social connection with the celebrity as well as with the fan community—both of which can impact self-definition. When Depp was legitimately under attack, the fans felt attacked as well. His rebel archetype emerged from the ashes of villainy and took on the patina of heroism.
#MeToo’s Warrior Turns Into Depp’s Medusa
Heard, by contrast, seemed to cast herself as a warrior archetype, the courageous victim. Up against the millions of Depp fans with the sordid behaviors reported by both sides, that archetype was impossible to maintain. The support of the #MeToo movement faded a bit as testimony about her behaviors emerged. Still, the real damage to Heard came from the multitude of memes and fancams that moved her from warrior to destroyer—half Circe the temptress, half Medusa with her head of snakes.
Gender Stereotypes Prevail
The other clear and depressing outcome is that women fare worse than men in these confrontations. A double standard driven by gender stereotypes was evident in the memes that went far beyond fan allegiances. Like most women under fire, Heard would have needed to be nearly spotless to win in the public forum. In contrast, Depp benefited from the greater unacknowledged acceptance of bad behavior in men.
Media Psychologist Needed
I have no idea what happened between them, other than it was ugly. I do know that Heard’s team could have used a media psychologist when building her strategy to avoid activating unnecessary social norms and anticipating the power of fandoms to drive archetypal narratives. An appeal might save her some money, but it won’t alter the powerful narrative that accompanied the trial. Heard’s professional recovery will be more difficult as she tackles an unwelcome archetype in an industry that tends to shy away from “problems” among those who can’t drive box office receipts.
Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.