Before Deep Heard’s Trial, Celebrities Shaped Abuse Story

aThe defamation trial between actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard continues in Fairfax, Virginia, and the main case raises awareness of domestic violence, as the two accuse each other of abuse. It’s too early to say where the trial is in the subject’s history, but experts who study domestic violence say the lawsuit has the potential to help shape the national and global conversation about abuse — just as it has in a number of high-profile incidents that have been done previously.

The recent history of this development begins with O.J. Simpson. Although he was acquitted in the 1994 murder of ex-wife Nicole Simpson, Simpson’s trial — during which prosecutors provided details of the violence she experienced — is seen as “a watershed moment in the understanding of domestic violence,” says Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor. in Criminal Justice at Sacramento State University studying media portrayal of criminal justice. Domestic violence has long been seen as a private matter, about which both abusers and sufferers remain silent; The nationwide televised trial broke that wall of silence, asking viewers to consider the consequences of violent behavior in a relationship.

“There was a lack of understanding about domestic violence before the case, and now it’s common for people to understand what domestic violence is,” says Slakov.

The increase in awareness led to a tangible policy change: President Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) into law on September 13, 1994.

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Says Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No visible bruising: What we don’t know about domestic violence can kill you. “And so, all of a sudden, victims in the communities had a place to go – they had a phone number to call, and they had some resources for counseling. [The trial also] It led many media organizations and small newspapers, for the first time ever, to report domestic violence and to report domestic violence in their communities.”

A few weeks after Nicole Simpson’s murder, TIME magazine published a cover story on the topic, “When Violence Strikes the House.” The magazine described the outpouring of calls to domestic violence shelters:

However, many high-profile domestic violence cases are not dealt with in the courtroom. Says Jackson Katz, author of The Manly Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. “There is very limited public understanding of domestic violence issues, and so there is all sorts of bad information circulating constantly about domestic violence.”

One instance of celebrity violence that has yet to go on trial, but still sparks conversation, was the February night of 2009 when Chris Brown punched his then-girlfriend Rihanna in the face in the back of a Lamborghini. In June of that year, Brown pleaded guilty to one of the assaults on Rihanna, agreeing to a plea agreement for community service and a five-year probationary period.

The incident raised awareness about how unmarried young people are at risk of intimate partner violence, leading to conversations about safety at younger ages.

“The Rihanna case has really changed the national conversation about dating violence,” says Emily Rothman, a professor at Boston University who researches intimate partner violence and sexual assault. “The whole issue is about people being in dating relationships and potentially subjected to physical abuse and extreme violence – which has really come to the fore because of this condition. [The case] It started a whole national conversation about dating abuse that didn’t exist before… When this event happened, and it was so public, it got teachers talking, getting parents talking and getting young people talking about dating violence. It was a really pivotal event.”

Read more: Amber Heard testifies that she wants to move on from Johnny Depp: ‘I want him to leave me alone’

Social media has also provided a whole new platform to talk about celebrity issues of domestic violence. This became apparent in 2014 when a video emerged of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Rice punching his then funder Janay Palmer in the face in an elevator. In 2015, a judge dropped the domestic violence charges against Rice after he paid a $125 fine and completed his anger management training.

“His actions were depicted on film, and that changes everything because many of the cases – whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault – are basically ‘he said’ in Reno.”

“The Ray Rice incident started a national conversation about why women (or survivors of any sex) stay in a relationship even after experiencing physical violence,” Rothman says. “There has been tremendous public interest in domestic violence because of it. People really wanted to talk about how it feels about domestic violence survivors who have chosen to remain in relationships with the people they abuse. Because of the incident, we got one of our first hashtags about domestic violence: #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft.”

Each of these cases represented an opportunity for outside observers to expand their previous assumptions about domestic violence, and the sudden rise in awareness also tends to translate into greater support for organizations that support victims. But experts in the field of domestic violence say that while celebrity cases can start a new conversation, maintaining interest in the cause can be difficult.

Ray Rice, Chris Brown, [after] All those high profile cases, we definitely saw an increase in calls and donations. But to be very clear, it’s too short — maybe a month, says Ruth Glenn, chair of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I wish there was a way when these celebrity cases happen, we could find a way to continue that conversation.”

As for Deep Heard’s trial, how long the interest will remain after the verdict (expected some time after closing arguments begin on May 27) isn’t the only thing defenders are wondering. While celebrity cases often provide a useful opportunity to raise awareness, the thrust of the conversation about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – where Depp’s fans took to the courtroom before sunrise, often in costume, some in alpaca – suggests that perhaps not all awareness raising necessarily useful.

“The case wasn’t a good case. And by that, I mean, we haven’t seen donations,” says Glenn. “I think public discourse has gone down this weird path of being an entertainment show.”

“The two sides have revealed things that are far from complete,” Gruys says. “We are in the midst of confusion. Someone will go away cleaner than the other. We just don’t know who.”

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write to Olivia B. Waxman at [email protected].