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The Huge Problem With The Way The Media Is Covering Amber Heard’s Abuse Allegations

Actress Amber Heard leaves Los Angeles Superior Court court on Friday, May 27, 2016, after giving a sworn declaration that her husband Johnny Depp threw her cellphone at her during a fight Saturday, striking her cheek and eye. The judge ordered Depp to stay away from his estranged wife and ruled that Depp shouldn’t try to contact Heard until a hearing is conducted on June 17. Heard filed for divorce on Monday. CREDIT: RICHARD VOGEL, AP
Actress Amber Heard leaves Los Angeles Superior Court court on Friday, May 27, 2016, after giving a sworn declaration that her husband Johnny Depp threw her cellphone at her during a fight Saturday, striking her cheek and eye. The judge ordered Depp to stay away from his estranged wife and ruled that Depp shouldn’t try to contact Heard until a hearing is conducted on June 17. Heard filed for divorce on Monday. CREDIT: RICHARD VOGEL, AP

Actress Amber Heard went public this weekend about abuse allegations against her husband, actor Johnny Depp, filing a statement with the Los Angeles Police Department about what she says was ongoing physical and mental abuse.

Heard, who has received a restraining order against her now-estranged husband, cites one particular incident in December when she “truly feared for her life.” She decided to file for divorce after an incident on May 21 when she alleges Depp threw a cell phone at her face, shoved her down on the ground, and grabbed her by the hair.

Depp, meanwhile, has only responded to requests for comment through representatives. His representative responded to a BuzzFeed request by saying he would not respond to “salacious false stories, gossip, misinformation and lies about his personal life.”

Headlines about the Heard and Depp have dominated the media over the past several days. But — in addition to trotting out many of the same tired narratives that domestic abuse survivors have encountered for decades such as insinuations they’re looking for financial rewards — the reporting has unfairly focused on Heard’s bisexuality.

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In reports about the abuse allegations, the actress is often described as Depp’s “bisexual wife” without any explanation of why exactly that detail is needed. Some publications wrote that Heard is “openly” bisexual or “admits” to being bisexual, which insinuates to the reader that there is something shameful about bisexuality. LGBT activists, and bisexual activists in particular, have voiced concern that the media’s repeated references to Heard’s sexual orientation is a means through which to play into stereotypes about bisexual women being promiscuous, sneaky and unreliable.

CREDIT: screenshot of London Sun headline
CREDIT: screenshot of London Sun headline

HollywoodLife.com references Heard’s “lesbian friends” as putting their marriage “on the rocks.” Depp was “driven insane” by the suggestion that his wife was having an affair, the London Sun wrote, adding, “And his fears cast a huge shadow over their marriage as the actor lost all faith that bisexual Amber, who he wed in February last year, would ever be loyal.” The headline on that piece proclaimed “Bye, bi Amber.”

And the National Enquirer released a slideshow about Depp’s “bisexual bride’s lesbian past” that shows a real misunderstanding of how bisexuality works. Bisexual people don’t go from being lesbian to straight based on who they’re in a relationship with — they’re bisexual the whole time.

The actress Evan Rachel Wood, who is also bisexual, expressed some displeasure with the media coverage on Twitter. Wood quoted a tweet that said “Amber Heard‘s sexuality is only relevant in that bi women are at far greater risk of experiencing intimate partner violence. Bisexuality however is not a reason for violence. It doesn’t mean Heard is somehow immoral or deserving of abuse.” She also retweeted “What does amber being bisexual and having lesbian friends have to do with anything? F*** the media seriously..”

The first tweet has since been deleted, The Independent reported, but they make important points about how Heard’s bisexuality is being received in this context — and Wood is definitely not alone in this observation.

Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, an organization that works to increase bi visibility and that distributes educational information on issues relating to bisexuality, said the coverage of Amber Heard is actively harming other bisexual people.

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“Right now the world is bearing witness to the realities of bi lives,” Cheltenham said. “You can and will be battered because of your bisexuality and when you are, no one will believe you and few will stand by you. Even worse, the world will blame you for that abuse and women in the life of your abuser will stand up for him and never for you.”

The media’s coverage shows not only bias toward Heard’s sexuality, but also how society tends to rush to the defense of white male celebrities like Depp, according to Joanna Pepin, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland.

Pepin has studied the media’s coverage of domestic abuse and its bias favoring white male celebrities. After reviewing 330 news articles covering 66 celebrities from 2009 to 2012, she found that news coverage regularly included “victim-blaming statements, failed to contextualize domestic violence as larger social problem, and commonly portrayed domestic violence as a couple’s problem,” Pepin told ThinkProgress. When reporting on white male celebrities, articles are more 2.5 times more likely to make excuses for their behavior, suggesting there was mutual violence or pointing to drug addition and inebriation as mitigating circumstances, and Pepin has seen those patterns take hold in reporting on Depp.

“I found that celebrity men not only benefited from others making excuses for their violence, but also attempted to frame themselves as good guys. They sought to align their masculinity not with violence and power, but as decent and genuinely good people,” Pepin said. “This finding is consistent with current coverage including reports from previous girlfriends’ that Depp did not abuse them and including quotes from Depp’s daughter that he is a good father.”

Pepin added that references to Heard’s bisexuality fit the pattern of blaming for violence committed against them.

“Claims that the victim was responsible for the violence or somehow deserved to be abused painted a picture of inevitability in the articles I analyzed. The focus on Heard’s sexual orientation fits this pattern,” Pepin said. “It distracts the reader from focusing on the very real social problem of men’s violence against women.”

CREDIT: BiNet USA
CREDIT: BiNet USA

One in four women experience violence in relationships at some point in their lives, and they often encounter doubt from police when they report it. Bisexual women actually face abuse at even higher rates than both heterosexual and lesbian women. Thirty-five percent of heterosexual women, 43.8 percent of lesbians, and 61.1 percent of bisexual women experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Bisexual men also encounter higher rates of violence within a relationship than gay and straight men.

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There is scant research on why this may be the case. But bisexual people’s isolation from both gay and lesbian and straight communities — and the fact that far fewer important people in a bi person’s life know they are bi compared to straight and gay and lesbian people — could make it easier for abusers to separate them from their family and friends.

“Right now the media might as well be accused of battery by extension, for their reporting will lead to much more abuse of bi women and reaffirm the erroneous belief that they deserve it too,” Cheltenham said.