JK Rowling has defended Johnny Depp's casting in Fantastic Beasts. Is it time we moved on?

Hadley Freeman
JK Rowling and Johnny Depp. Photograph: PA

Here’s a phrase you don’t hear very often: last week, a short story went viral. Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian was published in the New Yorker and I heard so many people arguing about it I briefly felt like a member of the Dickensian public in the heady days of The Pickwick Papers. It’s easy to see why this story caught fire: it shows, with heartbreaking control, how two people can see a relationship completely differently, telling themselves their own narratives. Relationships, as the cliche goes, are complicated.

I’ve been hearing variations of this phrase a lot recently. Last week JK Rowling issued a statement defending the casting of Johnny Depp in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts. Rowling, who is clearly A Good Thing, has spoken out frequently in defence of women. Depp, on the other hand, is decidedly A Debatable Thing, given that his now ex-wife, Amber Heard, said in a sworn declaration, “During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny Depp has been verbally and physically abusive to me.” Photos of Heard’s bruised face, bruises she said were caused by Depp, and a video of him smashing things and shouting at her, were posted online.

Rowling suggested that she was doing what Heard and Depp said they wanted, in a joint statement released last year after their divorce was finalised: letting them “get on with their lives”. “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the film-makers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies,” Rowling wrote.

Her statement was reminiscent of the one made by Lena Dunham and her Girls co-writer Jenni Konner last month, after their colleague, writer Murray Miller, was accused of sexual assault: “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year,” they wrote. Relationships are complicated, but apparently Rowling, Konner and Dunham have a special insight. Konner and Dunham later apologised, though Miller still denies the claims, but Rowling is standing firm.

You don’t need to #believeallwomen, as the unhelpfully simplistic hashtag has it. But you should not dismiss them either just because it’s more convenient or comfortable to do so. Despite the new wave of wokeness about sexual assault, attitudes towards domestic abuse remain stubbornly retrograde: women lie, you know – and hey, even if it’s true, it’s not like he was grabbing women off the street, right? Relationships can be volatile, and we all know that a woman really knows how to push her boyfriend’s buttons. As Fantastic Beasts’ director David Yates put it: “With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. I can only tell you about the man I see every day: he’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see.” Much like the (not Jewish) Kens Loach and Livingstone insisting they never saw any antisemitism in the Labour party, therefore it’s not a problem; Depp never hit Yates, so clearly he can’t be a wife batterer.

Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would cast Depp in anything, given he hasn’t looked more than half-awake on screen in a decade. If you’re going to spend $20m on an actor, why not hire Brad Pitt or George Clooney, or literally anyone else? Then you wouldn’t have to issue all those word-salad statements defending his casting. Think of all the salad you’d save!

Two women a week in England and Wales are killed by their partner or ex-partner. Yes, women do hit their male partners, too, sometimes; but the numbers pale by comparison and the fight is not equal. A woman can be at serious risk of death; these deaths are so common they only make the news if the man also kills himself, their children, or both. Maybe one day domestic abusers will be treated as pariahs in the way sexual harassers currently are – although given how many beloved men in the public eye that would rule out, from Geoffrey Boycott to Mike Tyson, maybe that would just leave too many job openings.

Cat Person stayed with me because it showed how resistant people can be to ominous signs in a male partner, even those apparent right from the get-go. You’re being paranoid, women tell themselves. You’re the horrible one, not him! But in the end, what was always right in front of you is revealed to be all there is. Some things really aren’t complicated after all.