The Memeification of Amber Heard
When misogyny is masked as moral righteousness
One of the biggest advancements for the way Americans understood domestic violence wasn’t a feminist awareness campaign or legislation: it was the polaroid camera. Suddenly women could take instant snaps of their injuries, give the evidence to the police or simply hide the pictures away for future use.
Today, technology isn’t so kind. Tools that abuse victims once counted on to bolster their credibility (because a woman’s word is never enough) are now being used against them. Pictures of blackened eyes are no longer evidence of violence, but proof of manipulation. Photos and videos of celebrity bruises or disclosures of abuse are poured over online for inconsistencies, posted to Reddit and Twitter, or made into TikToks with music playing over them.
We are at a dangerous impasse.
Plenty of smart people have written in depth about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, so I won’t rehash the details of the trial. What’s inarguable, however, is that the outcome will be devastating for abuse victims—who now have to fear being sued if they talk about their experience, even if they don’t name the person who hurt them.
What I can’t stop thinking about, though, is the overwhelming cultural reaction to the trial. The hashtags and videos, the tweets and the memes. The online response to the trial was not about domestic violence or free speech. It wasn’t about male victims of violence or the stigma against them.
It was about misogyny—and making Amber Heard a completely dehumanized stand-in for all the hate people have towards women but can’t find a way to justify.
Suddenly, it’s cool to be a sexist bully again.
To be clear, men weren’t the only ones doing the piling on. I watched video after video of other women making content vilifying Heard, or—in a best case scenario—shying away from the conversation by claiming that the issue was complicated, or posting a vague hashtag about men being victims of abuse, too.
Heard’s memeification provided an opportunity for women to prove they were ‘reasonable’, not like those other feminists. (I wonder how much of that, though, was really about just not wanting to be harassed. Another column coming soon on why your complicity will not protect you.)
What was also striking was just how young some of the people were doing the meme-ing. The same generation who are horrified by their parents believing and sharing anti-vaccination Facebook memes, and who roll their eyes at the QAnon ‘do your own research’ crowd, had no problem falling prey to the very same groupthink and misinformation when it came to hating women.
The absolute virality of this case, and the broad swath of people who participated in it, is revealing. It means that the memeification of Heard, the way she was turned into an online super-villain, could happen to any woman. It’s a mistake to believe this will be one-off, or limited to women in the public eye.
After all, the groundwork has already been laid by the ubiquity of revenge porn and online mobs; and we’ve already seen everyday girls and women who come forward about abuse be harassed online so severely that they kill themselves.
How long do you think it will be before a high school girl who comes forward about being raped is made into a meme about being the next Amber Heard that is passed around her school? How many times do you think an abuse victim will keep quiet rather than suffer the humiliation of an online pile-on?
The people who hash-tagged and memed the trial will say that their content creation and obsessive posting was just about revealing the facts. We will be told it was all in service of the truth. It just so happens that the truth people find online is always that women are lying.
We are watching misogyny mask itself as moral righteousness. And that’s what I find most terrifying: Think of all the harm sexism does. Now imagine the exponential impact of that harm once people believe that it is morally justified.
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