Is Sexual Hysteria the New Communist Threat?
Johnny Depp's clever strategy; Laura Kipnis on Title IX and Reactionary Feminism
I must apologize — I feel I lost the thread a bit in my last piece. I somehow wasn’t able to address what motivated me to write about the Depp / Heard trial in the first place. My intention was to situate this saga in a larger context: The ongoing reframing of sexuality and female agency happening across American society in the post #metoo era. This is a huge topic, and it may take a number of essays to unpack.
I got distracted by the sordid details of the case, plus background articles on Depp’s recent life, like this unflattering 2018 Rolling Stone profile which portrayed him as a dissolute wreck, and accounts of his huge financial outlays. Temporarily blinded by my hatred of Capitalist excess, I forgot that a mega-star on that level is a like a corporation in him- or herself — a global brand — and may require a big support team. Even Depp's $30,000 monthly wine expenditure could be seen as fitting with his brand’s PR strategy, his rock-and-roll “message,” in some sense.
Most persuasively, a commenter on my post noted that Depp is probably not pursuing this case thinking that he will win in court. What matters to him is the court of public opinion, and there, he is already triumphing. Even before cross-examination, Heard’s lies and exaggerations seem blatant and obvious. In fact, if this is his goal, his strategy makes great sense. I had not considered this — that he might win while losing.
In the last piece, I mentioned that I had a relationship that was similar in some ways, where a former partner made constant threats and false accusations of abuse against me. On a smaller scale, she did a lot of damage to my reputation and career. Much like Heard, who mocked Depp for imagining he might be seen as a victim of abuse, my former partner seemed certain that, as a woman, she would be viewed as blameless while I would be judged as guilty. I didn’t know how to handle this at the time. I didn’t (and still don’t) have the financial resources to pursue a legal challenge. And, as with Depp’s case, my situation was murky. Even though my partner was abusive, I made many mistakes, both in that relationship and earlier ones.
I think a lot of people are delighted that Depp’s trial is bringing to light the darker aspects of female psychology. This is important and illuminating — not just for individuals but for the evolution of our collective consciousness, with larger social import. Cultural shifts over the last fifteen years have led to a situation where the burden of proof, in cases involving sexual impropriety, harassment, or assault, often falls on the accused. In universities, all that is required to dismiss an untenured professor from their post is a vague “preponderance of evidence.”
These days, the accused — almost invariably men — tend to be seen, in the eyes of the world, as guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around. As Zerlina Maxwell wrote in a 2014 Washington Post editorial: “We should believe, as a matter of default, what an accuser says.” This meshes with the new wave of reactionary feminism that is increasingly prevalent.
Laura Kipnis has written an important book, Unwanted Advances, that I can’t recommend highly enough. A Professor at Northwestern University and a feminist, Kipnis analyzes what she calls the “sexual hysteria” that has gripped academia over the last decade or so. This wave of institutionalized persecution, she believes, bears similarities to the Communist hysteria of the 1950s (which resembled, as Arthur Miller famously explored in The Crucible, the Salem witch trials of the 17th Century. Such bursts of collective paranoia seem an inherent American tendency).