TW: This article discusses topics such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault which some readers may find upsetting.
Throughout April and May 2022, the world was exposed, willingly or not, to the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard court case. As a reminder, the former was suing the latter on charges of defamation regarding an op-ed Heard had written where she alluded to being a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Johnny Depp. Depp received an immense amount of support throughout the case, and Heard a lot of hate and trolling. When Heard was found guilty, the general public was quick to demand she be blacklisted from Hollywood.
Now as a parallel, on the 29th of June 2022, news broke out that R.Kelly would be sentenced to 30 years of prison after being found guilty of 9 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in September 2021. R.Kelly had already been tried on counts of child pornography in 2002, and arrested again in 2019. When this was announced, the public once again took to social media to share their opinions. Surprisingly or not, in this case, many expressed that although the things he did were awful, it was a shame that RnB was losing one of its best talents and even, in a lot of cases, explained the verdict would not stop them from streaming his music. Throughout the years, from when the rumours first emerged to when he was found guilty, R.Kelly amassed immense support from his fanbase as well as within the music industry.
R.Kelly, although the most recent, is far from being an isolated example. We also have people like Dr.Dre who assaulted a woman in the late 90s, an assault which resulted in her being blacklisted from the music industry rather than him. Earlier this year the rapper headlined the Super Bowl halftime show despite the many accusations of domestic abuse and sexual assault made by most his ex-partners, including, most recently his ex-wife Nicole Plotzker in 2021.
Chris Brown famously assaulted Rihanna in 2009. Since this incident, about 10 people, including 7 women, but also Drake and Frank ocean have accused him or pressed charges for things going from physical to sexual assault as well as threatening behaviour. Some of the accusations were yes, found to be untrue, but there is nonetheless a clear pattern of violence here, predominantly towards women. Yet, Brown, despite losing some popularity and support, is still performing all around the world, headlining festivals and supported by a vast proportion of his fanbase. Once again here, despite the charges and accusations made against a male celebrity, they were still more or less comfortably able to bounce back with little consequences.
The argument for separating the art from the artist or not is a very divise debate. I personally believe it is essential that we stop separating the art from the artist as a matter of accountability. Separating the two allows not only them, but abusers in general to continue to abuse. It allows for more violence and harm and for minorities to continue to be oppressed at the hands of people that clearly see that actions don’t always have consequences.
But my opinion on the matter does not even matter that much here, or what Heard, Kelly and others have done. The purpose of this article is simply to draw attention to how public perception changes from one person to another, seemingly depending on a few arbitrary factors.
For years we have seen abusers and alleged abusers, whose art continues to be created, valued and consumed. For years, victims, activists and allies have been fighting and making the unpopular case that cancel culture in certain instances is needed, that we could not continue to separate the art from the artist. These claims were mostly rejected and overall, not a lot of celebrities have been boycotted for their actions, or at least not for very long.
Now with the Depp v. Heard case, this seemed to change. Here, the vast majority of people were calling for Amber Heard’s career to end. But seeing that this is one of the first times that people have been so vocal about not separating the art from the artist makes me wonder if it is really about social justice and standing with victims.
For all of the men stated above, endless debates have taken place, on and off social media, between fans, consumers but also in offices and within those industries. Now I’m not implying that the people that called for Amber Heard to be blacklisted from Hollywood were the same that supported and continue to support R.Kelly, or the many more that have been accused of all kinds of abuse. But the proportion of people that claimed the art could not be separated from the artist in each case is what speaks volumes. For example, R.Kelly’s streams went up by 22% and album sales by 517% within a week of his guilty verdicts, showing where the public stood. But before Amber Heard was even found guilty, petitions were circulating all over the internet for her to be removed from movies she was in.
When a woman accuses a celebrity of some form of abuse, the pattern we have often seen is her being discredited immediately, with a lot of people spending more time trying to prove she is a liar than listening to her. But when Johnny Depp makes accusations, which again did not include actual accusations of abuse, hashtags and support are the top conversations on all social media platforms. Now, this is not to say that Johnny Depp, or any victim of domestic abuse, no matter the gender and including men, is not deserving of support and justice. No one should be able to get away with abuse of any kind, and the victims should always be supported and listened to. Male victims undoubtedly have a place within these conversations, which can be harder to have for them due to expectations and gender roles. But this is exactly the issue, this is rarely the case, and one of the first times it does become the case is when the accuser is a man and the defendant a man.
Domestic abuse, no matter who the victim and the perpetrator are, can be discussed in an inclusive way, male victims belong in those conversations and deserve support just as much as any other victim. The public’s perception of Heard and demands for consequences show that as a society, we are capable of looking at things critically, believing the victim rather than immediately incriminating them. But what it also shows is the double standard and hypocrisy of society as it seems the support shown to the victims and argument of separating the art from the artist depend widely on the gender, fame and power of the accuser and defendant.
The problem here is that, to a certain extent, male domestic abuse is being used to discredit female victims, and feminist claims that a power imbalance exists between genders, which harms mostly, anyone that is not a cisgender, heterosexual male. Hashtags like #MenToo or #NotAllMen do not help bring an essential point of view to conversations surrounding violence and abuse, they only reinforce the lack of accountability and questioning that men as a social group need to have.
Considering all this, it would not be completely irrational to think that the support towards Johnny Depp had very little to do with him, allyship or social justice. The support for Johnny Depp as a victim but also R.Kelly as an abuser confirms the very existing power inequality between genders. Comparing the public perception and reaction to both cases shows what seems to be more of an attempt to sustain this oppression and protect the group that benefits from the patriarchal ways that our societies, institutions and systems are built on.
If it was about justice and standing with victims, R.Kelly would have been found guilty back in 2002 and many careers would have been paused from the moment accusations were made, and ended when the abusers were found guilty. Demanding that Amber Heard be blacklisted and her art not be separated from her acts is not the problem in itself, but having those opinions and making those arguments just for her is. A true supporter of domestic abuse would objectively boycott and demand a boycott of all celebrities that have been accused and/ or found guilty of any form of abuse. If you really feel so strongly about domestic abuse, stop listening to music made by abusers, stop watching movies produced, directed or starring abusers, stop buying abusers’ products and stand for all victims.