After a recent trend of acknowledging wrongdoing, you might think the mass media would now treat female celebrities with greater kindness than it used to. Whether it’s more feminist coverage about bodies and choices, a reckoning with women’s autonomy since #MeToo, or the discussion around how popstars such as Britney Spears were covered by the tabloids, the past five years could make us look back in horror at how things were in the Noughties – and can assure ourselves that things are much better now.
It’s the kind of social progress we presume is always being made. But beneath the surface, what has actually changed for women in the public eye? Do they truly experience less harassment and receive significantly different treatment? Or is the bad merely packaged and delivered in more covert ways?
The answers to these questions have been glimpsed over the past month, which has been dominated by two highly publicised celebrity trials: the “Wagatha Christie” case, between two footballers’ wives, Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney in the UK, and Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard, a defamation case between the two formerly married actors in Virginia, US. While the severity of the cases being debated differs – Vardy vs Rooney is about privacy and libel, while Depp vs Heard, at its core, is about domestic violence – both touch on serious, life-altering topics. However, if you only consumed coverage via social media or through much of the mainstream press, you’d be forgiven for not having noticed.
On social media, both trials have become the subject of derision and mockery. In Vardy vs Rooney, quotes from the trial have regularly gone viral, not because of a major revelation or due to the weight of the message they contained, but because it made one of the two women look dumb. Articles have been published at a feverish rate, summing up “key” moments that are, too, riddled with details meant to make the subjects of the trial the butt of the joke. While many details have been more salacious or even sillier than most celebrity trials, the message is clear: what’s important is that these women are stupid, and their lives and concerns are only a source of humour.
This response is predictable – that two women fighting over what could be oversimplified as interpersonal beef would, of course, be designated as trashy tabloid fodder. The argument is that, despite years of discussion about how Noughties Wags and female celebrities should be treated with newfound respect, this trial is unserious. Real issues are given the solemnity they deserve. But when we look at the same social media timelines on a subject that is inarguably more serious, such as domestic abuse, is the response all that different?
Despite terrifying admissions from Depp during the six-week trial, including that he painted messages in his own blood on their walls after a fight, the internet and the tabloids have decided that Heard’s testimony is a fabrication. On TikTok, memes and lip syncs mocking her tear-filled stories gather millions of viewers. On Twitter, hashtags such as #AmberHeardIsAPsychopath and #AmberHeardIsALiar trend with tens of thousands of tweets simultaneously. Heard has also been subject to in-person harassment, with Depp fans flocking outside the courthouse to film videos to share online, dressed in costumes depicting her as “Amber Turd” and squealing in delight as Depp drives by, as though it were a celebrity meet and greet.
Through memes, mocking videos and tweet-length oversimplifications, social media has helped flatten out both of these cases into something near-fictional, as though these women are just characters in a story whose lives don’t exist beyond clips and quotes shared online. Avid viewers can keep them at arm’s length, not needing to care that they are real people.
What wins out in these cases, then, is not a person or a side, but instead the machinery that gets built around them: tabloids and platforms. Both cases set a dangerous precedent for social media companies, which are learning in real-time how they can capture an audience as real lives are turned into dramas. As Harry Clarke-Ezzidio wrote about the memeification of Depp vs Heard in the New Statesman: “The brazen coverage and dismissive attitude towards the allegations of abuse and assault in the… trial – exemplified by memes and chaotic TikToks – may form a new and concerning template for how public opinion is formed: one based on borderline tribalism, lacking in nuance and critical thinking.”
Whether you think these cases are worlds apart or have more in common than might be immediately apparent, at the heart of the public response has been the age-old tendency for the media to treat women’s lives as entertainment – as they become the villain, the joke or, more often than not, some perverse mix of both.
On Thursday (26 May), the penultimate day of the Depp vs Heard trial, the latter took the stand; while there, she acknowledged the social media abuse she’s received for the first time. “I am harassed, humiliated, threatened every single day,” she said. “This is painful and this is humiliating for any human being to go through… And perhaps it’s easy to forget that, but I am a human being.”
[See also: Why the Depp vs Heard trial has been more vicious than Wagatha Christie]