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How the “Manipulative Victim” Trope Shaped the Depp-Heard Trial

Why were so many people so ready to believe that Amber Heard was lying in Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against her? Does the answer actually have something to do with our popular storytelling tropes? Stories about women being deceptive or manipulative have been embedded in our culture for millennia, dating all the way back to Adam and Eve. And they’ve become crystalized in the figure of the devious “female mastermind,” who can lie and control others at will. Here’s our take on how our narratives around the Depp-Heard trial draw on the tropes of the perfect victim and the devious manipulative woman, and how both of these fictional ideas fuel dangerous societal misogyny.

TRANSCRIPT

Why were so many people so ready to believe that Amber Heard was lying in Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against her? Does the answer actually have something to do with our popular storytelling tropes?

Stories about women being deceptive or manipulative have been embedded in our culture for millennia, dating all the way back to Adam and Eve. And they’ve become crystalized in the figure of the devious “female mastermind,” who can lie and control others at will. That narrative was certainly visible throughout the trial, when a huge number of people became fixated on the idea that Heard was not only being deceitful, but had even carefully orchestrated an intricate series of events in order to tarnish Depp’s reputation.

Jodi Kantor: “There was kind of a weaponization of reputational warfare online. There was almost this hate machine built against her.”

Whatever your opinion on Heard’s ultimate veracity, there was very little evidence suggesting she was pulling off some kind of elaborate “hoax” (as one of Depp’s lawyers Adam Waldman directly accused her of). But many found it easy to cast her in the “manipulative female mastermind” role because she wasn’t the flipside to this figure: the so-called perfect victim.

The irrefutably blameless perfect victim – like the supernaturally manipulative female mastermind – is so rare that she might as well not really exist. And still, in deciding who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, we so often refer to these tropes. It’s a big reason many women don’t come forward – because they assume they won’t be deemed believable. Here’s our take on how our narratives around the Depp-Heard trial draw on the tropes of the perfect victim and the devious manipulative woman, and how both of these fictional ideas fuel dangerous societal misogyny.

The Lying Woman

The manipulative woman who’s deceiving or using her romantic partner in her cold, evil plots is a trope that dates all the way back to Lady Macbeth. Pop culture is full of conniving women like Cersei Lannister, Wendy Byrde, and Claire Underwood, who are more than comfortable lying to get what they want. But there’s one example that defines this character in the modern consciousness, and has basically become a template: Gone Girl.

Gone Girl follows Amy Dunne faking her own kidnapping, planting false accusations of rape and abuse, murdering her ex-boyfriend, and trapping her husband into becoming a father. Gone Girl shows how a woman like Amy is talented at justifying her actions – and despite how repugnant her deeds are, the story manages to make us potentially identify, root for, or at least enjoy watching her by putting us inside her head.

Amy Dunne: “You think I’d let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No fucking way. He doesn’t get to win.” - Gone Girl

This is an updated version of the classic Lady Macbeth, one that’s interested in exploring her psychology center stage – just like we see in Wendy Byrde on Ozark who uses her own kids in her criminal enterprises, or Sherry Palmer on 24, who is willing to do anything to ensure her husband wins the presidency, including getting him to sleep with another woman.

While these characters may be a little terrifying, they’re undoubtedly fascinating. And our interest in these women has led to a surge of fictional depictions of real people who lied or pulled off elaborate deceptions, like Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna, Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout, and even Gypsy Rose Blanchard in The Act, who was a victim of her mother’s abuse but (some speculate could have also been) a criminal mastermind. House of Gucci depicts the real-life scheming of Patrizia Reggiani, who married into the Gucci family and spent her life trying to take it over, up to and including taking out a hit on her ex-husband Maurizio. Patrizia has her own Lady Macbeth in Pina, who encourages her to go to any lengths necessary to get what she wants. The Girl From Plainville dramatizes the story of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Conrad Roy after she seemingly manipulated him to commit suicide over texts.

Michelle Carter: “I loved him and he loved me, he loved all of you guys” - The Girl from Plainville

Still, these stories are so noteworthy precisely because it is less common for a woman to be the perpetrator of a nationally-recognized crime. And unfortunately, the characteristics of the manipulative female perpetrator can also be projected onto female victims who don’t actually bear those traits. The idea that women frequently lie about being assaulted is a gross misconception. The percentage of false reports of sexual assualt is estimated to be between 2% and 10%, and is likely even lower (because that figure includes allegations that weren’t seen as having sufficient evidence to prosecute, which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t true).

So why is the devious female mastermind trope so popular when it’s in tension with the evidence? For one thing, the trope is narratively satisfying, precisely because it goes against the current of power in our society. Most of us do know that, in the vast majority of abuse cases, women tend to be the victims of men. But imagining the reverse is surprising, and allows a movie like Gone Girl to build up its suspense by subverting our expectations.

Amy Dunne: “The abuse. The fear. The threat of violence. And Nick thought he was the writer.” - Gone Girl

Dramatically speaking, a complicated, semi-villainous female character gets to have some of the fun of all those charismatic male antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White who’ve been dominating our screens for decades. But that doesn’t mean it should automatically be taken as fact, indicative of many real women’s behavior. The Depp-Heard trial was consumed like entertainment, so it could be very easy to conflate it with familiar entertainment narratives, like a mini-series about a femme fatale who needed to be defeated with a guilty verdict. Countless people have continued to widely describe Heard’s claims as a “hoax,” and they’ve engaged in groundless “analysis” of body language that evokes conspiracy theories more than science to supposedly “prove” that she was lying. Even the jury seemed to perceive Heard’s testimony as a performance because they were quote-unquote “uncomfortable” with her account.

Anonymous Male Juror: “The crying, the facial expressions that she had, the staring at the jury. All of us were very uncomfortable.”

Part of our fascination around real-life manipulative women is that they’re ultimately opaque—people we want to know more about and understand what might drive these individuals to such extraordinary lengths, but in the end these stories can’t do more than guess at their true interior lives. The real Michelle Carter was still a minor when she sent those incriminating texts, and she had been struggling with serious mental health issues for years. And Gypsy Rose Blanchard suffered for her entire life at the hands of her mother’s Munchausen syndrome. The reality in some of these situations could be more complicated or muddier – but it’s easier to slot these examples into the expected, hyper-real narrative of the manipulative woman: someone with vast, nearly supernatural powers of elaborate deception, one-dimensionally driven to do anything to take down a man.

The “Perfect Victim”

The opposite of the lying mastermind woman is the perfect victim—another figment of the collective imagination that people very much want to believe in. In cases where someone comes forward with allegations of harm, we often demand that the victim not only has an airtight case, but also that they have seemingly never done anything wrong.

Ruth Glenn: “It sends the message that… unless you’re the perfect victim, a victim that is palatable to society and fits within whatever that stereotype is, it’s probably best that you not speak.”

Of course, there’s a long history of men arguing that women who are dressed a certain way or who simply agree to be around men are somehow “asking for” abuse. But even beyond straight-up victim blaming, women’s allegations are called into question if they’re suspected of ever having done something questionable or less than ideal in their entire lives.

In fact, while the past few years of #MeToo accusations have made allegations of abuse more visible, they’ve also brought with them a much higher degree of scrutiny on women coming forward—women like Gabby Petito, who was originally labeled as the “aggressor” in her relationship before it became clear that her boyfriend Brian Laundrie was, in fact, the aggressor—and her murderer.

Even in cases where women do everything right—leaving their abusive partner, going public, trying to rebuild their lives—they still aren’t guaranteed safety and can actually find themselves punished. The Netflix series Unbelievable dramatizes a real instance of Marie, a young victim who was discredited by skeptical and uninterested police. It’s not hard to see why people don’t come forward, expecting they’ll be disbelieved or blamed – and all that was before the Depp-Heard trial set the precedent that they might be sued by their attacker with a reasonable chance of being found guilty.

Jodi Kantor: “I do think women will look at Amber Heard and say ‘I am not equipped to go through something like that.’”

Throughout the Depp-Heard trial, lawyers argued that the abuse was mutual, a concept that experts on domestic violence reject. While Heard was found guilty on all three accounts of defamation and it was clear that she had behaved badly in their relationship, this doesn’t disprove the possibility that Depp had been abusive.

Ruth Glenn: “There are other things that are present, or were present in their relationship. I don’t think that negates the fact that Ms. Heard was a victim of domestic violence.”

The idea that women need to avoid any possible shred of misconduct before coming forward is, ultimately, a specific version of the way we expect people from marginalized groups to be perfect in order to be taken seriously. Sometimes, that applies to victims of police brutality like Michael Brown, who The New York Times described as “no angel” even after he was murdered by police officer Darren Wilson. And it’s even worse for people who are the least likely to be believed. Very few victims are perfect, because almost no people are – yet we still collectively cling to this imaginary black-and-white binary between the faultless perfect victim, and the supernaturally evil manipulative woman.

Ironically, as invested as we are in the idea of the manipulative woman, we frequently miss one of the lessons from this kind of female character: That she’s responding to men. The reason Amy is so good at manipulating people and plotting schemes is because she’s spent years forcing herself to play-act as a fictional “cool girl” to keep her husband interested. She’s far from a perfect victim, but catering to a man’s world has made her the perfect chameleon.

Conclusion

So why are we so fixated on the trope of the lying, manipulative woman? In part, it’s because having to fully confront the culture that created the trope is too difficult and challenging. It’s easier to become fascinated by individual women who somehow rise out of the system and enact their own will like some kind of magnetic quasi-supervillain. And it seems likely that we’ll continue to have to grapple with this hypothetical woman, especially as other celebrities respond to the Depp-Heard verdict by suing their own accusers. But when it comes to real-world abuse, it’s important not to let over-the-top entertainment dictate our appraisal of reality, leave the fictions to the storytellers, and listen to the facts.

Gayle King: “Some argue that this verdict could have broader implications for the #MeToo movement and discourage women from coming forward.”

SOURCES

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