Our celebrity trial obsession sets a dangerous precedent

via Instagram (@ethics_centre)

From Wagatha Christie to Depp v. Heard, the media circus around trials means the public exonerates the stars it chooses to side with. But what are the consequences of us playing judge?

Once there was this guy, Jack. Maybe you heard of him. Jack had a rough childhood: abuse, neglect, time spent in a government home. Jack grew up. He drank a lot. He slept around a lot. He stole a lot. He did crime, got arrested, did more crime, and escaped from jail, repeatedly. After his fourth escape, he was caught and hanged on Tyburn Hill in November 1724.

But here’s where Jack Sheppards three-hundred-year-old miscreant life and capital death becomes relevant. Jack wasn’t merely a criminal. He was a celebrity – indeed, his criminality made him a celebrity. Paintings, poems, songs, novels and plays depicted his life. At his trials, women packed the stands; at his hanging, women lined the streets and cried. Female admirers carried fans with Jack’s face long after his death. Jack was a pickpocket, a highwayman, a robber, and a prison escapee. He was also hot, and people (namely, but not exclusively, women) loved him.

Celebrity trials are nothing new; as long as there has been media and a consuming public, jurisprudence and celebrity have enjoyed an uneasy marriage, one that has attained a frenzied, omnivorous status in the United States. The apogee of the phenomenon is probably O.J.’s 1995 trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, but trials like Errol Flynn’s in 1942 for the statutory rape of two teen girls, and Fatty Arbuckle’s in 1921 for the manslaughter and rape of Virginia Rapp set obsessive standards of celebrity trials. All three men were found innocent.

Writer Scaachi Koul pinpoints the reason for this fixation. The para-social relationships we have with celebrities – and we all have them, in one way or another – guide who we believe and who we don’t.” Legal experts support this analysis. In 2006, the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law compared potential A‑list, D‑list, and private defendants and found that the high celebrity status defendant was rated as less responsible for the crime than the low celebrity status defendant”. In other words, the more famous you are, the more likely people will believe you.

At no time since O.J.’s murder trial has this spectacle been more apparent than Depp v. Heard, the dueling defamation trial that wrapped up last week in a Virginia courthouse. The suit centred on a 2018 Washington Post #MeToo op-ed published under Amber Heard’s name and ghostwritten by the ACLU that placed Heard as a survivor of domestic abuse. The piece never named Heard’s abuser.

The Sun, however, did. In 2018, the British tabloid called Depp a wifebeater.” Depp sued the paper for libel and lost – the UK court found that Depp was, indeed, credibly abusive. Four years later, Depp sued Heard for defamation in the WashPo piece, and Heard launched a countersuit. The verdict was handed down on 1st June; Heard lost big, with $10.35 million being awarded to Depp, while Depp lost a little, with $2 million awarded to Heard.

Trials are tedious, repetitive, dehumanising and boring most of the time, but throw in a celebrity or two and it becomes a circus that threatens to eat everyone in its path”

Sarah Weinman, true crime expert

The Depp/​Heard case shows that Americans have an uncanny ability to go absolutely gaga over any kind of celebrity trial. We obsess over trials for murder (Phil Specter), sexual assault (Chris Brown, Bill Cosby) and nonviolent crimes (Martha Stewart, Winona Ryder, Lil’ Kim), but we also get caught in the tractor beams of civil suits (Britney Spears, Kesha, FKA twigs). No matter how mind-bendingly dull, a star-studded trial will captivate Americans.

Celebrities suck the air out of the room,” says true crime expert Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita and Scoundrel. Trials are tedious, repetitive, dehumanising and boring most of the time, but throw in a celebrity or two and it becomes a circus that threatens to eat everyone in its path.”

Most recently, a handful of trials have hypnotised many Americans and held the rest of us hostage. First, we followed a pair of high-profile fraud trials, Anna Delvey/​Anna Sorokin in 2019 and Elizabeth Holmes in 2021, and then we saw the trials dramatised in prestige mini-series. While Holmes was arguably famous before her trial, Delvey used her trial as a vehicle to amass more fame, parlaying her court attire Insta account and sought-after star status into a sweet Netflix deal that allowed her to pay off her debts. All Holmes got out of her trial was a husband and a baby.

Delvey and Holmes were convicted in criminal trials, but they were largely exonerated in the court of public opinion. Blac Chyna, who recently sued several members of the Kardashian family for defamation, and Amber Heard, who was on the receiving end of Depp’s defamation lawsuit, lost in both the court and in the public eye, especially on social media, where users routinely hurled misogynist slurs at both women.

Blonde and charismatic, Delvey and Holmes juked capitalism to receive good for her” yassification vibes. They, however, were not pitted against powerhouse celebrities whose fans were dedicated to turning them into villains. Koul observes that the Black Chyna/​Kardashian case is about race and Blackness and media saturation… Delvey and Holmes are more about our fascination with white women who dare be ruthless capitalists, to their own detriment (eventually).”

Fraudsters, grifters, and conmen – or women – hold a special appeal for us law-abiding citizens. Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, sees a parallel between grifting and social media. We’re all incentivised to lie on social media. If not lie outright, then at least to present ourselves in a flattering and coherent way, even if that’s not at all what our actual lives feel like on the inside.” She adds: Unlike murder, fraud is a troublingly relatable crime. We all lie, and we all get lied to.”

Lying and social media sit at the heart of the UK’s recent obsession, Wagatha Christie, the three-year-long civil suit quagmire between football wives Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney. Displaying a Dickensian drawn-out complexity, the tennis match of defamation lawsuits between Vardy and Rooney is tabloid fare, creating a dizzyingly circularity because they began with questions of whether Vardy might have leaked photos from Rooney’s Finsta account to The Sun. To an American’s eyes, these women resemble Stepford WAGs created for the purposes of seducing athletes and making reality shows, both of which they’ve done.

Reality television feels crucial in understanding the gravitational pull of celebrity crime. While television shows about real people living their lives arguably dates back to the mid-1940s, the structured reality format we know and love hit its stride in the early 1990s, about the same time that American courts opened up the courtroom to cameras; Court TV launched in 1991, and MTV’s The Real World started a year later.

But reality TV – and its flabby relationship between fact and fiction – isn’t the only template for celebrity trials. Monroe sees a correlation between sports and televised trials, noting that with the advent of Court TV and 24-hour cable channels, it became possible to watch court proceedings almost like sports – you could just have a trial on in the background all day.” People picked #TeamDepp or #TeamAmber on Twitter, treating the trial like a football stand.

Weinman, however, views the phenomenon differently. Trials are treated like soap operas – in the case of O.J., its popularity literally displaced the soaps for months on end.” Weinman argues that storytelling alternatives via social media” give people spectacle and bombast with the added level of feeling like they are extra-invested in it”. Access to social media combined with proximity to celebrity dirt has the potential to make armchair experts of us all.

When [stars’] private lives become exposed, it dethrones that sense of superiority and makes people feel like they have proximity and a right to judge them”

Erin Lee Carr, Britney vs. Spears documentarian

Documentarian Erin Lee Carr, whose film Britney vs. Spears centred on the pop singer’s conservatorship battles, notes that Americans are drawn to stars but when their private lives become exposed, it dethrones that sense of superiority and makes people feel like they have proximity and a right to judge them.” Narrowing her focus, Carr adds that the buzz surrounding celebrity trials is really a reflection of how the media treats women and how technology has become a tool to tear people down.”

Celebrity, misogyny and jurisprudence converge spectacularly in Depp v. Heard. Because they were not sequestered, the Depp v. Heard jury was – as we all were if we use TikTok, Insta or Twitter, or even flirt with newsy content on YouTube – inundated with memes, clips, hashtags, and what amounted to a maelstrom of ephemeral shit created with the intention to make Heard look like a mendacious harpy and Depp look like a dapper hero. To be online during the six weeks of Depp v. Heard felt like swimming in a coagulating stew of conservative-funded MRA propoganda, opportunistic content creators, and hysterical Jack Sparrow stans.

There were, of course, those who asked: who cares? Who cares when celebrities get criminal, get caught, get litigious, get sued, get turned into memes and TikTok videos, become grist for the tabloid mill, get hammered into hashtags and monetised into content? Stars ask for it, right? They wore that trashy little designer dress and opened their dirty little mouths and begged for our attention. It’s not our fault that we gave them what they wanted.

And the answer is that we all should care – not specifically about Depp or Heard, not more than we should care about anonymous strangers in that ambient hope that their lives are healthy and happy. We should care about what is happening to legal precedent as trials become increasingly public. We should care about the effects of ironic detachment and meme-ification on legal precedent. We should care because we don’t want rich and powerful people using threats of defamation to silence people – or institutions. And we should care because very soon we’ll be seeing Depp v. Heard play out again as Brian Warner, aka Marilyn Manson, sues former partner and abuse survivor Evan Rachel Wood for defamation.

In the wake of the Depp v. Heard verdict, Koul says: I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t think I’ll know what we lost until I look around and try to find it, but it doesn’t feel good.”

We can’t know what will happen. But we can look at the tangent from Jack Sheppard’s broadsheets to Jack Sparrow’s stans and see that when it comes to hyper-publicised, constantly televised, incessantly memed, and callously commodified celebrity trials, the verdict is in. We have lost.

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