The Campaign against Survivors: Televising Abuse Myths from Lorena to Amber Heard

By Darby M. Babin

Trauma as entertainment has taken many forms. From early Cold Case Files episodes on A&E to more modern formats like the Serial podcast, to the phenomenon of Dateline (still airing after 31 seasons), the opportunities to tune in are seemingly endless. This true crime/trauma genre, which consists of both non-fiction as well as dramatized re-tellings of real events, has blurred the lines between news and entertainment (O’Brien 2021). When media is based upon fact and then dramatized, people consume traumatic stories as though they are the latest episode of an HBO drama (Horeck and Negra 2021). At the same time, television has told and continues to tell fictional stories that include gender-based violence, such as HBO’s Big Little Lies or Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal and The Luckiest Girl, to name a few. In the early 1990s, Lorena Bobbitt became the center of a tabloid and news media storm as she stood trial for severing her abusive husband’s penis, and since then TV and film have re-presented her story. In 2022, when Amber Heard took the stand in a libel case involving her abusive ex-husband, famous actor Johnny Depp, the boundaries between Hollywood film, true crime documentary, and tabloid media had all but collapsed into one behemoth.

The entire Heard-Depp trial was a spectacle, treated by fans online like a limited series from Showtime or HBO and not a legal proceeding. For example, on TikTok you would see people acting out courtroom scenes, making fan-cam edits of Johnny Depp in court, and chronicling their experience of waiting outside the courtroom like fans waiting for a concert to begin (Garber 2022). People engaged with the trial on social media with the same zeal they save for episodic television releases, as if the courtroom was a set and not a real court of law. Televising high-profile cases can blur lines between true crime media and Hollywood production (lest we forget the dramatics of the OJ Simpson trial), and the fact that Heard and Depp are both actors likely contributed to this perception. It seemed people were unable to separate Johnny Depp “the actor” from Johnny Depp “the man,” and one who had abused his wife. Online content creators pivoted to making content about the trial, analyzing body language, dressing up in costumes to mock Amber Heard, and even generating fake text messages to “prove” that Amber was the abuser while justifying Depp’s abuse as reactionary to Heard (Hess 2022). It seemed impossible for anyone with a working smartphone and a social media app to escape the Amber Heard smear campaign. TikTok in particular became central to the success of Johnny Depp’s claims that Amber Heard was “mutually abusive.”

When survivors of gender-based violence take the stand, they face a hidden set of requirements to fulfill in order to be believed. They are expected to be the ideal victim and to express just the right amount of emotion (Gotell, 2002; Rayburn 2006; Ehrlich, 2012). The way they dress is considered part of this courtroom expectation. If they dress in a way that the jury finds too revealing, it may mean that they are a liar and an opportunist. If they dress too modestly, then they are trying cover up who they really are and therefore must be lying (Rayburn 2006; Ehrlich, 2012). As the Heard/Depp trial unfolded, Depp fans made countless videos critiquing Heard’s courtroom attire while praising Depp’s. Even a cursory Google search for “Amber Heard courtroom clothes” results in numerous think pieces about some hidden ideologies behind her outfit choices, with some folks even suggesting that she was copying Depp’s ensembles in some attempt at a power play.

White supremacy plays a significant role in gender-based violence, so analyses of trials for these crimes must consider racism. Many men who commit acts of white supremacist terrorism previously committed acts of gender-based violence or vocalized a wish to physically harm women (Dhaliwal and Kelly 2020). If women are believed or supported, they are most often white. For example, when Lorena Bobbitt stood trial, the media storm surrounding her, and the narrative advanced by the prosecutor and the tabloids, described her as a “fiery Latina” (Lorena 2019). Her position as an Ecuadorian immigrant became proof that she was lying about her abuse and was only interested in protecting her “American dream” life (Anolik 2018). When Megan Pete (known professionally as Megan Thee Stallion) sat down to speak to Gayle King about her experience of being shot by Tory Lanez, she expressed the fear that if she were to have called the police, she and her friends, all of whom are Black—Lanez included—would have been harmed by the officers. This choice has been used to discredit her experience and is cited as proof that Lanez did not shoot her, or if he did, she must have not been hurt because she didn’t call the police (Komonibo 2022). How survivors behave in the wake of their assault is often used against them as proof that they are lying or exaggerating the abuse they experienced (Sheehy 2012). Black women, like Pete, are forced to reckon with the compounding structures of patriarchy and white supremacy, and the vitriol of misogynoir (Bero 2022; Duhaney 2022). Moreover, when the Lanez trial began in late 2022, social media reframed the story as if Pete were the one on trial. When she wore a stunning purple suit to court, onlookers catcalled her and then cussed at her. Others deemed it inappropriate, leveraging respectability politics against her (Bero 2022). Once again, a victim’s appearance became central to the narrative. Ultimately, Lanez was convicted, but that does not change or undermine the misogynoir and violence that Pete faced both online and in person for coming forward with her story.

Looking to fiction, in the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes, protagonist Idgie Threadgoode’s distance from ideal femininity and closeness to Black community members functioned as an excuse to undermine her credibility. When Idgie’s best friend, Ruth Jamison, is abused by her husband—a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan—Ruth and Idgie fight back, resulting in the husband’s death. At the trial, not only is Idgie instructed to wear clothing that is more feminine than her usual trousers and dirty boots but the credibility of her testimony is questioned because of her friendship with a Black man. Across all these stories—the feature film Fried Green Tomatoes and the real experiences of Lorena Bobbitt, Amber Heard, and Megan Pete—how the women presented themselves in court was integral to the narratives created about and around them, including whether the court would believe them. Importantly, the myth of “mutual abuse” was mobilized against Heard and Bobbitt. This myth is central to a “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender” (DARVO) narrative. Both the courts and tabloids argued that these women were themselves guilty of abuse and violent behavior because of how they responded to the gender-based violence they experienced.

Building on my background as a sexual violence prevention educator and my previous MA work on feminist pedagogy, I demonstrate the importance of drawing connections between the media we consume and the real-life events that often inspire or influence them, and how this media can be detrimental to a broader social and cultural understanding of the myths and realities of gender-based violence.

Notes on Pedagogy, Epistemology, and Classroom Safety

This lesson plan includes both academic articles as well as online news sources. This is in line with a feminist epistemology that prioritizes accessibility and knowledge in lived experiences. Keeping in mind that students are embodied beings with whole lives and traumas that traditional education models require them to leave at the classroom door, I value students’ lived experiences. There also must also be space for the difficult emotions that can arise given the subject matter. Although it is impossible to create a space that will feel entirely safe for everybody, students need to be able to process their reactions to the material covered. There must be room for students whose lived experiences are reflected in this sensitive subject matter to be sad, hurt, and potentially angry.

Lesson Plan Activities

Seminar Activity: Roundtable
I begin by splitting the class into groups of 5-7 people and assigning each group a text from that week’s readings. On a large sheet of paper they write down (or illustrate) their initial thoughts and understandings of that text, including any themes or questions they may have. The sheets of paper are then rotated to the next group, and so forth, so that groups can then add their perspectives to the previous groups’ notes. Because each group looks at a different reading and writes down their thoughts, when the pieces are passed around, students can see what other students thought about the readings that may have been different than their own insights. Pedagogically, this helps students who may be more shy and anxious about participating verbally in class. It also teaches students to learn from one another and instills a collaborative approach.

After the small groups are done, we come back as a large group to discuss. I encourage instructors to jot down the connections being made, which helps to identify themes across readings.

Assignment Option #1: Creative Expression
Consistent with a feminist pedagogy, I encourage students to embark on new and creative ways to learn. Through this option, students can choose any creative medium (poetry, drawing, painting, podcasting, etc.) to demonstrate their understanding of the blurred lines between Hollywood media and real-life events. This must include a brief written summary to demonstrate how their creative piece connects to the course material.

Assignment Option #2: Myths and Facts
This assignment may be best suited to students who are interested in working in the field of gender-based violence. Students who choose this assignment identify abuse myths in the films presented (such as “real victims would have left”) and then locate the appropriate research that debunks that myth (e.g., the dangers people face when they leave abusive situations). They then use this information to develop a brief workshop that would help a group of people understand the roots of these myths and the facts that prove them to be incorrect.

Guiding Questions
Educators can adjust the following questions based on subject matter that came up through the roundtable discussion. The material presented here could also connect to prison abolitionism, reproductive justice, queer theory, and more. Drawing connections between systems of oppression is a valuable tool for knowledge production.

Works Cited & Suggested Readings

Scholarly Books and Book Chapters

Bailey, Moya. 2021. “Introduction: What is Misogynoir?” In Misogynoir Transformed: Black      Women’s Digital Resistance, 1-35. New York: New York University Press.

Butler, Judith. 1993. “Introduction.” In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex,” 1-23. New York: Routledge.

Ehrlich, Susan. 2012. “Perpetuating—and Resisting—Rape Myths in Trial Discourse.” In Sheehy 2012, 398-408.

Gay, Roxane. 2014. "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion." In Bad Feminist: Essays, 147-53. New York: Harper Perennial.

Phillips, Nickie D. 2017. “‘Hey TV, Stop Raping Women.’” In Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media, 69-98. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sheehy, Elizabeth A., ed. 2012. Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice, and Women’s Activism. Ontario, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Turner, Graeme. 2014. “The Cultural Function of Celebrity.” In Understanding Celebrity, 2nd ed., 99-120. London: SAGE.

Westmarland, Nicole. 2015. “Sexual Violence, Celebrity Culture and Public Institutions.” In Violence against Women: Criminological Perspectives on Men’s Violences, 147-55. London: Routledge.

Scholarly Articles

Dhaliwal, Sukhwant, and Liz Kelly. 2020. “Intimate Partner and Family Violence.” In Literature Review: The Links between Radicalisation and Violence against Women and Girls, 14-16. Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University.

Duhaney, Patrina. 2022. “Criminalized Black Women’s Experiences of Intimate Partner Violence in Canada.” Violence against Women 28, no. 1(September): 2765-87.

Gotell, Lise. 2002. “The Ideal Victim, the Hysterical Complainant, and the Disclosure of Confidential Records: The Implications of the Charter for Sexual Assault Law.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 40, no. 3/4: 251-95.

Harsey, Sarah, and Jennifer J. Freyd. 2020. “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender (DARVO): What Is the Influence on Perceived Perpetrator and Victim Credibility?” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 29, no. 8 (June): 897-916.

Horeck, Tanya, and Diane Negra. 2021. “Reconsidering Television True Crime and Gendered Authority in Allen v. Farrow.” Feminist Media Studies 22, no. 6 (Summer ): 1564-69.

Merken, Stacie, and Veronyka James. 2020. “Perpetrating the Myth: Exploring Media Accounts of Rape Myths on ‘Women’s’ Networks.” Deviant Behavior 41, no. 9 (Spring): 1176-91.

O’Brien, Patricia. 2021. “Wild Colonial Boy: Errol Flynn’s Rape Trial, Pacific Pasts and the Making of Hollywood.” Australian Historical Studies 52, no. 4 (March): 591-610.

Rajiva, Mythili, and Stephanie Patrick. 2021. “‘This Is What a Feminist Looks Like’: Dead Girls and Murderous Boys on Season 1 of Netflix’s You.” Television and New Media 22, no. 3 (March):281-98.

Rayburn, Corey. 2006. “To Catch a Sex Thief: The Burden of Performance in Rape and Sexual Assault Trials.” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 15, no. 2 (June): 436-83.

Tinsley, Yvette, Claire Baylis, and Warren Young. 2021. “‘I Think She’s Learnt Her Lesson’: Juror Use of Cultural Misconceptions in Sexual Violence Trials.” Victoria University of Wellington Law Review 52, no. 2 (September): 463-86.

Film and TV

Fried Green Tomatoes. 1991. Directed by Jon Avnet. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures. 136 minutes.

Lorena (TV series). 2019. Directed by Joshua Rofé. Seattle: Amazon Studios.

Online Magazine and Blogs

Bero, Tayo. 2022. “Megan Thee Stallion Isn’t The One On Trial.” Refinery29, December 19.

Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “White Men.” Feminist Killjoys (blog), November 4.

Anolik, Lili. 2018. “Lorena Bobbitt’s American Dream.” Vanity Fair, June 28.

Garber, Megan. 2022. “The Amber Heard-Johnny Depp Trial Is Not a Joke: Why Are So Many People Treating It Like One?Atlantic, May 26.

Hess, Amanda. 2022. “TikTok’s Amber Heard Hate Machine.” New York Times, May 26.

Komonibo, Ineye. 2022. “Megan Thee Stallion’s Bombshell New Interview Reveals Devastating Details about Alleged Tory Lanez Shooting.” Refinery29. April 27.

Darby M. Babin (they/them) is a PhD candidate in feminist and gender studies at The University of Ottawa. They have a background in legal studies, feminist pedagogy, and gender-based violence education and support. Their current research explores feminist epistemology and memoir with a focus on fatness and queerness. They have also published work on music and feminist theory, specifically about what Tracy Chapman teaches us about abolition and borders. Their work is informed by their passion for embodied knowledge and breaking down traditional models of knowledge production.