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What the Depp vs. Heard Trial is REALLY About!!!

Posted by Steve Turley ● May 2, 2022 7:44:53 PM

            Many of you have been following the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial that's been taking place over the last couple of weeks, but either way, it's a case trial that's dominated the headlines of late. You are either following it or ignoring it. Regardless, the actor Johnny Depp has brought a 50 million dollar lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard; they were only married for 15 months. Still, we're quickly finding out that it was an incredibly toxic relationship. Depp adamantly denies ever physically abusing Heard, but that, unfortunately, is what people have been led to believe, given that that's what Heard claimed in a Washington Post article. An op-ed claimed she was the victim of domestic violence, which Depp is arguing sank his career! After the op-ed was published, Disney severed their ties with him and the Jack Sparrow franchise. And so, Depp is suing Heard for 50 million dollars. The emerging details about the couple's life together are frankly shocking, if not downright sad! Details include everything from feces left in the bed to Depp losing part of his finger when Amber allegedly threw a glass at him. Sadly, drug and alcohol allegations are in the mix, and tens of millions of on-lookers have viewed videos of furious drunken exchanges between the couple. As the trial has progressed, there's been no shortage of assessments as to who was in the right and what a horrible person Amber Heard is. 

           What I find most fascinating in the midst of all of these pontifications is a slew of pieces that have been written of late on the Depp vs. Heard trial that is actually bringing an end to the whole modern notion of 'celebrity.' Take a look at this headline from The Guardian: 'Depp v Heard:  second week of trial takes sheen off celebrity glamor' Or this one from The Wrap: 'Johnny Depp Just Killed the Hollywood Celebrity (With a Little Help From Will Smith)' and here's the bi-line: 'Movie stars have been shrinking for decades but never before have they sunk quite so low. Is fame finally over?' These are fascinating pieces in that they both recognize that the Hollywood celebrity, or celebrities in general, once considered an icon of modern life, are indeed beginning to wane! Their allure and their splendor is disappearing as we speak! 

           The Depp-Heard trial and the Will Smith slap are only hastening a process that's been happening for some time now. The slow but sure demise of the Hollywood celebrity! Now, as far as these pundits are concerned, this demise is happening because the mystique of the Hollywood celebrity has been declining. In earlier decades, the persona of Hollywood celebrities was carefully guarded, and the images of stars were closely managed and protected by studio chiefs and publicity agents. There have been scandals before for sure, but the scandals were highly and effectively managed by the PR team of the celebrity! Those days are gone! We know everything about a celebrity, and as the Depp vs. Heard case illustrates, we often know more than we want to! TMI, as they say: too much information! But again, as these pundits note, for fame to work, it requires a particular mystery, a certain mystique; that's because film stars are supposed to be larger than life both on and off the screen! 

            This is particularly important given what the cultural critic Christopher Lasch pointed out in his book 'The Culture of Narcissism' written decades ago but was so prescient: Lasch noted that while most people in the modern era would still define success as riches, fame, and power, nevertheless, it became apparent that people were not particularly interested in HOW one became rich and famous! Back in the day, one was famous because one did something of note, there was substance to his or her achievements, but Lasch noticed increasingly the rise of the celebrity created a different kind of fame. Fame once depended on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history. Celebrity became the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves. These are the ones who are famous for having made it to the latest gossip column! They haven't necessarily achieved anything of note. Instead, they are simply famous for being famous! And what these pundits are nothing here about the Depp and Hearn trial is that, for a modern celebrity to work, precisely because it's not built on anything heroic or historical that the person has done, a celebrity needs the veneer of mystique and of being larger than life to work. Still, that veneer is precisely what's being pulled away, and as such, the Hollywood celebrity icon is shattering right before our very eyes! 

           While I appreciate this analysis, I think what's happening here goes a lot deeper than what these analysts have observed, and therefore what's happening is even more profound! Lasch didn't seem to answer the question: why are we so fascinated by celebrities? Why are they so meaningful to our lives? Well, to answer that we have to understand what a Hollywood icon is! Cultural anthropologists and critics have long recognized that modern celebrities are akin to secularized 'gods.' After all, film stars have been talked about as goddesses since Hollywood began. We are all very familiar with the term diva (meaning divine) for female opera singers. We often talk about "rock gods" or "pop idols" or "American idol." Nowhere do we see this kind of celebrity worship more on display than when a pop celebrity dies. When celebrities like Princess Dianna or Michael Jackson suddenly passed away, people took to the streets. They expressed a level of grief that many see as a kind of religious outpouring. The English writer and columnist Julie Burchill called Princess Diana, after her death,  a "sexy saint." Now what's important here is that obviously, the kind of infatuation with celebrity that's characterized so many in the modern world is not, strictly speaking, a religion; but scholars have noted that celebrity worship, for lack of a better term, is what some have called a 'functional equivalence' to religion, in that pop culture has largely filled the void left by religion in the midst of our secular age!

             Celebrity culture, and popular culture more generally, is seen as performing several functions previously fulfilled by religion, particularly when it comes to providing a source of identity and meaning. In this sense, celebrities are akin to the Greek gods or the saints. They exist in a mythic world of stories and tales. Celebrity stories are kind of like tales from Mount Olympus. When we read about celebrities in the Scriptures of gossip columnists, they are like us and yet not like us. They live in a parallel world, which is real and yet unreal. Like Greek mythology, celebrity stories are about people with the incredibly beautiful and hopelessly flawed, angels and demons, saints and sinners, and venerable and venal. I'm tempted to say Depp and Heard, but I'll refrain! If this is the case if celebrities are the secularized functional equivalent of religion, of gods and saints, and if the cult of celebrity is beginning to wane, as all of these pundits seem to see, then what does that say about the secular age in which we've found ourselves these last several decades? Could it be that that secular age is waning as well? That's precisely what a growing number of scholars are indeed predicting! For many pundits and commentators, the Depp-Heard trial is all about the end of celebrity culture, the end of celebrity worship, and in many respects, the end of a secular age. What replaces this waning celebrity worship is anyone's guess. Still, given the rise of a post-secular world, I, for one, am hoping that these artificial deities and saints will be inevitably and inexorably eclipsed by ones far more enduring and far more beautiful than what we find in the latest gossip column! 

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