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The looking glass

Reaction to Amber Heard and Johnny Depp domestic abuse story has the makings of folklore

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard arrive at Southport Magistrates Court in Australia, 18 April 2016. EPA/AAP

In 1957, Sylvia Plath wrote in her diaries about the love tangles of some Hollywood greats:

Liz taylor is getting Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds who appears cherubic, round-faced, wronged, in pincers and house robe – Mike Todd barely cold. How odd these events affect one so. Why? Analogies?

Of course, Plath herself was not to know that her own drama would one day take on a mythical dimension. The characters of Plath and Ted Hughes, once real people, are now elevated to archetypal giants: the wronged wife, the bad husband, and the new, prettier, younger bride. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides could ask for more.

In Ancient Greek theatre the faces of the actors were always concealed by masks, a dramatic convention that seems strange by our modern standards but which reminds us, perhaps, that the actors were nothing more than a screen for our own projections.

So it is with Amber Heard and Johnny Depp who have occupied both column inches and trending bandwidth with their unfolding – and increasingly public – dramas. First there was public (read: social media) consternation over the allegation that Heard had filed for divorce from recent spouse Depp just days after the death of his mother.

Further dismay was generated by the fact that, though childless, she had filed for spousal support – whereas Vanessa Paradis, Depp’s former long-term partner and mother to his children – had made no such claims to the Depp fortune.

The drama then took a darker turn when allegations of domestic abuse surfaced, causing the internet chorus to up arms in judgement, either of Depp for being an abuser, or of Heard for being an opportunist. This prompted Paradis herself to appear: a deus-ex-machina, descending onto the stage with mechanical wings blazing to defend her former partner.

Media analysis was quick to slide into the predictable gender-based arguments, decrying the fact that women victims are frequently disbelieved when making claims of abuse. (In fact, while statistically women are far more often victims of domestic and sexual abuse than adult men are, both genders are typically disbelieved and subjected to projected feelings of shame and humiliation when reporting abuse; male victims are statistically far less likely to report abuse at all.)

Nonetheless, anyone who has had the misfortune to experience domestic abuse either personally or within their families will know it to be a messy, dysfunctional business – the complexities of which are seldom made available for mass-consumption, and which are equally seldom reducible to a one-size-fits-all analysis.

But the masses do not heed complexities: while the internet chorus provides a steady commentary of judgement that occasionally rises to a shriek, the characters assume their mythic forms.

Heard vs Depp: the drama

Either Depp is the benevolent but weak father, preyed upon by a young and beautiful bride shaping up for a role as evil stepmother; or, depending on which voices in the chorus are loudest, he is a Bluebeard-like tyrant whose crimes, thus far, have been concealed in his own, personal chamber. This particular drama, like most others, also demands that we decide whether Heard is one of two such archetypes. Either she is the gold-digging, manipulative siren, or she is the innocent female victim.

The fact that Heard and Depp are real people – not Greek masks or fairy-tale characters – has seemed to make most people forget that these stories we tell are in fact driven by archetype and therefore stereotype.

In Euripides’ Medea, which was subjected to – in my mind – an unpalatable and unflattering interpretation at the National Theatre last year, Medea is cast aside by Jason who prefers to marry instead a younger and more beautiful princess. Medea was far from saintly – after all, she killed her own children – but she did have the gods to back her up and so escaped earthly retribution.

Consider also The Little Mermaid, originally written by Hans Christian Andersen. The Little Mermaid is beautiful, saintly and pure but cannot compete with the evil sea witch, who steals the mermaid’s voice and assumes the form of a beautiful young woman. The witch marries the prince, consigning the poor mermaid to a fate worse than death; she dissolves to nothing but sea foam.

The Little Mermaid and the Prince, Edmund Dulac.

In real-life, of course, these dramas are not archetypes. But we relate to them – and identify with them at a personal level – as if they were.

This effect is amplified today due to the amount we’ve simplified these mythic characters. In traditional myth and folklore, stock characters include the “good” (usually dead) mother, the benevolent but clueless father, the malign stepmother, and a saintly female heroine. Cinderella is a classic case in point. But the fairy tales that remain popular nowadays tend to be precisely the one-size-fits-all variety, the versions that best fit our mass cultural assumptions and preferences. Nobody nowadays wants to remember, for instance, that countless folk versions of Cinderella that are explicitly concerned with escaping incestuous parental abuse.

So we may chastise ourselves for gossiping, but when it comes to irresistibly public figures like Depp and Heard, or indeed Plath and Hughes, or even Taylor and Fisher, we remain fascinated because they provide us with a way to navigate and articulate our collective human experiences.

Put simply, they satisfy our need for myth.

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