In what is surely the world’s most disappointing casting, Rihanna has enlisted Johnny Depp in her forthcoming Savage x Fenty fashion show. The news was confirmed by IndieWire, who spoke directly to Depp’s representatives. He will be the first man to take a starring role modelling the brand’s men’s collection.
Approximately 8 billion words have been written about Depp in relation to allegations of abuse his ex-wife Amber Heard made against him, so I’ll try to keep this short: For those unfamiliar, in November 2020, he lost a libel case against The Sun for calling him a “wife beater.” A UK court ruled that the claims of abuse made by the newspaper were “substantially true,” ruling that 12 counts of assault against Heard had taken place. Depp lost his appeal. This year, Depp took Heard to court over a 2018 article she wrote saying that she was the victim of domestic abuse but didn’t explicitly name him as the perpetrator. The trial was televised, turning what was a serious issue into a miserable spectator sport.
Domestic abuse charities quickly voiced their concerns about the impact the case would have on survivors coming forward. After all, who in their right mind would want to put themselves through such scrutiny, humiliation and vitriol? As someone who regularly writes about the issues and challenges faced by women, I’m disappointed in myself for not publicly weighing in on the case – for not defending Heard. The truth is I was shocked by the number of people I knew, including progressive friends, who so easily disregarded the evidence of Depp’s abusive behaviour and the UK court ruling. It felt too big, too complicated, and too fraught to discuss despite my disgust with the way in which the case had been handled and how ready so many were to side with a man previously proven to have acted violently towards his wife.
When I read about Rihanna’s decision to cast Depp in her show, I was horrified and deeply disappointed. For context, Rihanna is one of my heroes. Ever since I joined her on her infamous 777 tour in 2012, I’ve adored her. At the time of that trip, Rihanna was secretly dating Chris Brown again, her ex-boyfriend who violently attacked her in 2009. We know that there are many complex reasons why abuse survivors choose to stay or rekindle relationships with abusive men, from denial to love – and it would be a while before she ended things entirely.
Rihanna is a woman in control of her own ship. That ship might not always have been steered in the right direction, but there’s no doubt that she was at its helm. Her performances are always high energy, irreverent, and skilled. I love her music and how it makes me feel, but I also love her persona – her defiance and non-conformity. I love how she dresses – she couldn’t care less about what anyone else thinks of her outfits, it’s about how she feels in them. And she’s always ahead of everyone else in terms of cultural and style shifts. She’s a hugely successful businesswoman, solving problems that she herself faced, like feeling excluded from the beauty or lingerie industries. She does this without ever seeming pious or self-righteous; she’s still a very accessible mainstream artist. She cannot be contained, and I admire her ambition, her inclusiveness and also, that she just seems really great to hang out with. I’d sell a sibling to have a rum or five with Rihanna.
“It’s hard to maintain the same level of respect and admiration for Rihanna in the face of such a dismal judgement call, but domestic abuse is a murky, nuanced issue and survivors often have complicated, mixed feelings about abusers.”
All this has made her casting choice very difficult to swallow. Regardless of whether you think Depp is an abuse survivor or not, there were a great many dark, nasty things that came out about him in court – not just Heard’s accounts of abuse, but explicit footage and recordings that detailed his behaviour towards her. It seems risky from a business perspective, but also hugely poor moral judgement on her part.