A shadow box above Rebecca’s dining-room table has held an autographed copy of the Pirates of the Caribbean script since 2006, and it has been signed by Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, and Johnny Depp. Rebecca, 36, says she keeps the script on her wall as a conversation starter even though she is no longer a Depp fan. If she’s asked about it, she might tell the whole story instead of pretending she never liked Depp. “It’s also not like it’s his smug little face,” she added.
Because of Depp’s ongoing and highly public lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard, that face is everywhere right now. The case is complicated, and the testimony is filled with scandalous, upsetting details. In short, Depp has sued Heard for defamation after she published an essay in The Washington Post in 2018 identifying herself as a victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Heard also filed for divorce from Depp in early 2016, alleging abuse, and was granted a restraining order against him.
Rebecca felt betrayed by Depp when Heard revealed her story, and she has since abandoned her fandom. But she’s been positively horrified by Depp’s other fans’ behavior, who have spent the last several years trying to discredit Heard as a “gold digger” and a “monster.” (Because Rebecca was concerned about harassment from this community, I agreed to identify her only by her first name.) When fans’ efforts gained traction in April, Rebecca launched a Twitter account called @LeaveHeardAlone with the intention of documenting and refuting the ridiculous claims made about Heard by the #DeppfordWives, as she and others refer to them. When images of Heard wearing gruesome face makeup circulated, for example, these supporters claimed that the images revealed a plot to frame Depp. Rebecca refuted this. She also wrote to Snopes, a fact-checking website, requesting that it address the grotesque conspiracy theory that Heard murdered her own mother in 2020 in order to prevent her from testifying in support of Depp in the U.K. trial. (Snopes has addressed several other trial-related rumors, but not this one.)
Rebecca’s new Twitter account has fewer than 500 followers, indicating that she is vastly outnumbered by the opposition. The pro-Depp, anti-Heard stance is now the dominant social media trend. Heard’s alleged lies have spawned a slew of memes and, in the case of one cosmetics company, a piece of marketing material. Couples have been acting out violent scenes described in Heard’s testimony on TikTok in order to highlight their alleged absurdity. Depp fans continue to spread the debunked claim that Heard plagiarized part of her opening statement from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley on Tumblr. On Twitter, I was surprised to see that many of the Harry Styles fans I follow are vehemently anti-Heard for whatever reason. “Listening to Amber Heard makes me sick,” one user wrote. “Amber hearing is the plague,” wrote another.
This hatred has a twisted logic, according to Rebecca. She told me that for Millennials in particular, fans’ sense of morality is inextricably linked to fandom. “We hang so much of our identity on the things we love,” she explained. “So, if those things are threatened, you have to either admit that you’re a bad person for liking them or convince yourself that everyone else is wrong.”
It’s tempting to blame “the Deppford Wives” for all of these online smears, but that’s not entirely accurate. Some of the most active commenters are anti-Amber Heard rather than fans of Johnny Depp.
Hilde Van den Bulck, a Drexel University professor of communication, has studied the version of fandom that inverts its practices and creates a community of denigration. Whereas fandom is motivated by a positive emotion (I like this actor; I like that character), anti-fandom is motivated by the polar opposite and fosters negative feelings toward a famous person or character. Fans and detractors alike express themselves through online sleuthing, hanging on the object of their obsession’s every word and scrutinizing every detail of that person’s wardrobe, hairstyling, and self-presentation. “Anti-fans know as much about their anti-fandom object as fans do about their fandom object,” Van den Bulck said. Their dislike for the celebrity is “often very deep, very emotional.”
Some anti-fans are former fans who have become disillusioned (I used to love celebrity X, but now…) Others’ hatred may be unjustified (I simply despise celebrity X and resent their position in public life). As Van den Bulck explains, anti-fans and fans often overlap in many situations: The anti-fan of celebrity X despises celebrity X because celebrity X harmed celebrity Y, who is a fan of the anti-fan.
This latter group is not new to me. In 2020, I wrote about fandom communities obsessed with theories that male fandom objects were being manipulated and tortured by less-famous female romantic partners. Some Benedict Cumberbatch fans suspected that his wife, Sophie Hunter, was involved in an international crime ring and had fabricated all of her pregnancies. (This is not correct.) One Direction fans believed that band member Louis Tomlinson was gay and had been forced to close down by the entertainment industry, and that his ex-girlfriend and child’s mother, Briana Jungwirth, was central to the conspiracy. (This is not correct.) The anti-fans I wrote about attempted to prove their claims by examining hundreds of photographs and video clips, just as Depp fans and Heard anti-fans are now doing. They also looked for proof that their favorite celebrities were winking at them and offering small, hidden rewards for revealing the truth. Fans of One Direction claimed that Tomlinson would post things on specific dates or times so that the digits would form a coded message just for them. Similarly, Depp fans look for indications that he appreciates their support and is attempting to entertain them from inside the courtroom.
These anti-fans subject the women they despise to body shaming and wild criminal accusations, and skewer them with sexist tropes. In general, the targets of their anti-fandom are manipulative and ambitious, but also stupid. They are glamorous and seductive, but they are also secretly repulsive. When I interviewed a Cumberbatch fan who was a firm believer in his wife’s conspiracy theories, she identified as a feminist. Hunter, she claimed, was “reversing women’s rights and making everyone look bad.” Many Depp supporters are now making the same case. They insist that they are not a reactionary movement out to undo the work of the #MeToo movement, and that challenging Heard’s claims does not make them misogynistic. In fact, she is the one who is making a mockery of #MeToo and making things more difficult for “real” victims of abuse. Lady Victoria Hervey, a small-time British model and socialite with approximately 300,000 Instagram followers, wrote that Heard “sounds like she would be more at home in a psych ward,” and referred to “girls like these that constantly make things up” in a recent Instagram story. “So many are sick of these fake me too movement victims ruining it for real domestic abuse victims,” she wrote in an email, declining to comment further. (Hervey has also advocated for “New World Order” conspiracy theories and referred to the pandemic as a “eugenics program.”)
Online events as vast and bizarre as this one can be difficult to comprehend while they are still unfolding. However, the history of the social internet provides precedents. Mary, a 34-year-old Tumblr user who has been involved in fandom since the late ’90s and has requested anonymity due to harassment, recently published a lengthy post about her experiences with misogyny in fandom. She described a sexist outburst among Loki TV show fans who were outraged that a character played by Sophia Di Martino had become Loki’s love interest. Fans falsely accused Di Martino of transphobia “in order to justify online abuse and harassment,” Mary wrote, comparing this to how fans turned on Heard and weaponized whatever they could find or make up about her. “It’s always the same but has so many specific, annoying details to it,” she explained. The language of social justice is frequently twisted to support whoever the fandom has chosen to support. The Loki meltdown framed opposition to Di Martino’s continued presence on the show as allyship with trans people. Support for Depp is now seen as a sign of solidarity with male victims of abuse.
“The idea is that #MeToo came along and then Amber Heard saw it and was opportunistic about it,” Mary explained. “This is a narrative that completely falls apart when you remember that she divorced before #MeToo even happened.” However, contemporary celebrity fandom encourages fans to seek out the narrative they want to see. There are hints everywhere, and new source material is constantly being added. If, as I believe, fandom has become more conspiratorial, it must be due in part to the way social media has created immediate incentives for amateur sleuthing. It also reflects a loss of faith among some fans in mainstream media’s practices and motivations. Maybe regular journalists aren’t looking hard enough for these extremely compelling stories, the thinking goes.
On Instagram, for example, pro-Depp and anti-Heard supporters, including Hervey, have gathered around Jessica Reed Kraus—a former lifestyle influencer who has built a massive following by providing narratives about pop culture and true-crime stories that are more interesting than those provided by traditional media outlets. She has called the current trial “a movie in and of itself” as well as “the great Shakespearean tragedy of our age.” She intersperses her opinions on publicly available information with allusions to insider details obtained from mysterious “sources” while live-blogging it on her Instagram Stories. ” “I’m working around the clock,” she recently posted. “That means no sleep, dehydration, nonstop digging, and a little wine.” It’s time-consuming and exhausting, but it’s important.”
These are characteristics of a new paranoid style among fan communities, which already has many distinguishing features. Kraus recently mocked Heard for appearing to pause while wiping her face with a tissue, ostensibly so photographers could get a tearful shot. This theory, that Heard’s Kleenex was a false flag, is strikingly similar to one that has circulated among One Direction fans for years, that Louis Tomlinson’s ex-girlfriend would stage events for paparazzi in order to fabricate evidence in support of her lies. Depp supporters have also suggested that Heard’s daughter, Oonagh, who was born via surrogate last year, is secretly Elon Musk’s child, and that Musk plays a larger role in a massive conspiracy. Many fan theories include a superpowerful person in the celebrity’s orbit, as well as paternity lies.
People who participate in this type of speculation frequently mention unexpected fields of expertise, such as special-effects makeup, which could be used to create fake swelling under someone’s eye. Fans of Cumberbatch appealed to insider knowledge of government document storage, such as birth certificates. When we spoke, Mary pointed out another parallel between Sophie Hunter’s and Heard’s critics: the former was accused of being photographed with cocaine all over her clothes (she wasn’t), and the latter of sneaking a bump of cocaine while testifying in court (she… didn’t).
These are usually complicated theories, the better to debate for months or years, but they’re all linked by something simple: rage at a public figure. Rebecca told me that the Depp fans had seemed to lose interest in defending Johnny Depp at some point. “We’re just using him as a platform,” she explained. They’ve become obsessed with someone else, and they’re not about to give up on her.
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