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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Johnny Depp Has Become a Full-Circle Meme

For the past nine weeks, Johnny Depp was TikTok. And TikTok was Johnny Depp. Now, after just one post thanking his fandom, his new account has more than 12 million followers. If the defamation suit the actor brought against ex-wife Amber Heard turned Depp into a meme, then his appearance on the platform that propelled him from Hollywood celebrity to social media influencer is the inevitable endgame of a world in which everything is content.

The characters the actor has played—most notably Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow—have previously become memes because of their outlandishness, but the actor himself has now entered the world of his larger-than-life characters. “Depp’s joining of TikTok is interesting because I’m not convinced that would have happened pre-trial, or if that platform hadn’t been so influential in producing content and shaping opinion,” says Rebecca Williams, associate professor in media audiences and participatory culture at the University of South Wales.

What’s more, Depp’s first post on TikTok—a highlight reel of him performing and driving past his adoring fans at the conclusion of the trial, during which a jury found Heard liable for defamation for a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she claimed to be a “public figure representing domestic abuse” (she did not name Depp)—is something of a thank you. “The appeal to fans’ sense of connection and recognition here is clear,” Williams says. That sense was supercharged by TikTok’s algorithm, which increasingly pushed Depp content into feeds, creating a cycle that dragged more people in and demanded yet more content.

It’s what Tom Divon, social media, communications, and culture researcher at Hebrew University in Israel, calls “common pathways of generational memetic communication”—which translates to not wanting to feel left out of a watercooler moment. In 2022, the easiest way to engage with a watercooler moment is by making content … lots of content. Some videos overlaid what Heard and Depp’s inner thoughts might have been during the trial, while others compared each one’s courtroom behavior to assign guilt.

Since the trial began in mid-April, TikTok has become the 21st-century version of Court TV, and Depp has become a hero to his followers. Footage from the trial, and reactions to its twists and turns, took over TikTok. In late April, videos using the hashtag #johnnydepp had 11.3 billion views, and #justiceforjohnnydepp a further 5.6 billion. Now, that’s closer to 34.1 billion and 20.4 billion. The hashtags have proven “extremely popular,” according to TikTok’s own hashtag analytics tool, with #johnnydepp trending for the last 71 days, and #justiceforjohnnydepp for 58 days.

The popularity of content generated its own momentum, with users creating videos to feed the near-insatiable interest in the trial. There were supercuts of the key moments in testimony collated by users who acted as talking heads about the trial’s developments, and conspiracy theories about whether Heard’s legal representative was a Depp fan, after having purportedly appeared at a movie premiere for Depp’s 2013 film, The Lone Ranger. One TikTok user even claimed, without evidence, to be one of the jurors deliberating on the case in order to capitalize on the attention.

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TikTok’s algorithm turned the trial into a social media circus, with ill-informed legal commentary sitting alongside outright fictionalizations of events in the court case—all of it pushed to millions of users by TikTok’s finely honed algorithm, whether they wanted it or not. TikTok declined to comment for this story.

The ubiquity of Depp-related content on TikTok—which has become a major driver of cultural conversation—made it inevitable that Depp would join the app. “Even if the verdict was different, the sentiment shaped by his TikTok tribe was highly influential,” says Divon. Memes became fact, and horrifying details of what Depp was alleged to have said and done to Heard were smoothed over by the social media frenzy.

Depp’s fandom helped reshape reality in a way that flattered him, often presenting Depp as a saint and Heard as a pariah. Given social media’s ability to bypass and even override traditional media’s framing of events, it makes sense that Depp would want to join the platform. Williams sees it as a progression of the coverage Depp received in the week following the verdict, where off-the-cuff appearances at bars and concerts have cemented him as a man of the people. “His public appearances in the UK have been framed as him being accessible and ‘normal,’ even as crowds of fans wait outside hotels and music venues to greet him,” she says. “The TikTok move can be seen as part of that same strategy: of rehabilitating someone through social media by constructing them as grateful for fan support, for being accessible through this type of platform.”

Depp’s comment on his first—and to date, only—TikTok video hints at this. “We have walked the same road together,” he wrote. “We did the right thing together, all because you cared. And now, we will all move forward together.” But while Depp’s trial created a huge new fandom, it remains to be seen whether Depp himself has any long-term interest in walking amongst them. “Is this just an easy way to appeal to fans in a space which was already broadly supportive of Depp during the trial?” asks Williams. “Or does it mark the start of a new mode of ongoing engagement with those fans?”

The video may provide clues as to whether Depp will go all-in on TikTok or simply use it as a short-term sop to his most ardent fans. Much of Depp’s video focuses not on fans but on the star himself as he waves from a moving car at the masses assembled outside the Virginia courtroom in which his trial took place. “It was made by a boomer who clearly did not master the platform vernacular,” says Divon. “I guess that when you have followers rushing into your profile without one video posted, you can show gratitude in ways that only narcissistic superstars can.”

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