How Roe v. Wade, the Met Gala and Amber Heard show us the state of women in America

  • Roe v. Wade, the Met Gala, and the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial all speak to our views of women.
  • These seemingly unrelated events deal with women’s bodies and autonomy.
  • Experts say it’s worth noting how we view these events and we shouldn’t ignore the link between them.

In the last 48 hours, powerful political and cultural forces have tried to show American women what they may do with their bodies and what they may not. 

On Monday night, guided by the theme “Gilded Glamour,” society’s elite converged at the annual Met Gala to watch women, in particular, parade their bodies for consumption. But as the attendees posed, a document leaked that revealed the conservative Supreme Court planned to strip women of their constitutional right to an abortion. The morning after, an actress embroiled in a high-profile civil suit with a revered Hollywood star was mocked and scorned for trying to defend her right to speak about their marriage. 

These examples may seem disparate, but there’s an important through line.

“When women’s bodies behave, it seems like they have autonomy and that their bodies can even be used as a source of empowerment. When women break the unspoken rules about their bodies, like talking about abuse while not being the perfect victim or by having an unwanted pregnancy, we quickly realize that that autonomy is an illusion,” says Kjerstin Gruys, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality.

Experts in gender, misogyny and reproductive justice say the Met Gala, the leaked Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade and the public’s treatment of actress Amber Heard during her defamation trial with Johnny Depp are all influenced by misogyny – explicit and internalized.

Women aren’t the only social class that feels threatened. Many marginalized communities, who are already experiencing a legislative assault on their rights, fear what comes next. 

We see the battles around critical race theory – that is white supremacy. We see what’s happening with Amber Heard – that is male supremacy. And then we see the supremacism of heteronormativity in the bills targeting trans kids and LGBTQ folks. It’s coming from all sides,” says Chelsea Ebin, a political professor at Centre College in Kentucky and co-founder of the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism.

‘It’s not just trying to catapult us into the past. … it’s actually worse’

While the Met Gala may seem like a harmless celebration of fashion and celebrity, UCLA gender studies professor Juliet Williams says the spectacle can also reveal hypocrisy.

“You can celebrate women at the Met Gala, but if you are also telling them they can’t control their own reproduction, it’s not celebration, it’s objectification, pure and simple,” she says. 

There’s irony in the Supreme Court opinion being leaked during the Met Gala, with its theme of “Gilded Glamour,” a period in American history where wealth became more concentrated and inequality grew more extreme. Pro-choice activists have emphasized that the Supreme Court’s decision will have a more profound impact on those with less economic resources. 

Hunter Kay, right, 27, hugs her friend Taisiia Work, 23, as demonstrators gather at Pershing Square after protesting outside of the U.S. Courthouse in response to a leaked draft of the Supreme Court's opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, in Los Angeles on March 3, 2022.

If the opinion is what the high court hands down, it would turn abortion over to individual states, about half of which are expected to ban or severely limit the procedure. Some pregnant people will have the means to travel to another state to obtain a legal abortion. Many will not. 

Mary Ziegler, a professor at the Florida State University College of Law who specializes in the legal history of reproduction and the Constitution, says what she found striking in the draft opinion was how little regard it seemed to have for real-world consequences.

“It doesn’t feel like a draft that you would write if you were worried about what people who can get pregnant would think,” she said.

This decision has little to do with public opinion. Currently, nearly 60% of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The leak of the draft decision during the Met Gala also set up an interesting juxtaposition. Many progressives have suggested conservative activists want to return society to a more regressive time, but Ebin says conservatives don’t actually want to return to the days of “Leave it to Beaver.” They want to retain many of the new aspects of sociopolitical economic culture, including an event like the Met Gala where women’s bodies are trotted out for public consumption, while also reasserting regressive roles for women.

“It’s not just trying to catapult us into the past. It’s trying to catapult us into a future where we retain whatever weird late-stage capitalist system we have,” Ebin says. “Some of the ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ comparisons are problematic, because what it will look like is actually worse.”

‘You have to actually believe that we’re important enough to listen to’

Part of what people are seeing, Ebin says, is a continuation of the discourse that tried to put women back in their place after #MeToo. This is backlash, she says. The public’s treatment of Heard – which has been derisive and dismissive – underscores this point. 

Amber Heard has yet to take the stand:But on social media, Johnny Depp has already won.

In 2018, at the height of #MeToo, Heard penned an op-ed in The Washington Post describing herself as a victim of domestic abuse. Depp is accusing Heard of defamation and is suing her for $50 million. 

Actor Amber Heard returns to the courtroom after lunch break at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Wednesday May 4, 2022.

The trial has become a public spectacle, with Heard frequently the punchline (Drew Barrymore recently apologized for joking about the case). Heard has not yet taken the stand, but the public seems firmly on Depp’s side, despite evidence suggesting both spouses behaved violently during the marriage. 

Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of “Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World” and founder and executive director of EducateUS: SIECUS In Action, says society’s institutions are built on disbelieving women, not only by failing to see them as credible but also failing to see them as important. This can look like dismissing Heard’s accusations against Depp or it can look like dismissing Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of sexual assault against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is now part of the court’s conservative majority.

“If you look at the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, she was credible,” Friedman says. “But ultimately everyone decided it was not important. It’s not enough to find us to be truth-tellers, you have to actually believe that we’re important enough to listen to.”

Where do we go from here?

Friedman says the draft opinion portends future assaults on contraception and gay marriage. 

Ebin says a path forward for advancing robust rights and meaningful equality lies in forming a coalition of interests. 

Leaked abortion opinion:Shakes trust in Supreme Court

“We need to recognize that racial justice, and reproductive justice, and economic justice and LGBTQ justice are inseparable,” she says. “No one gets free until everyone gets free.” 

Friedman says for many women this week, even those who predicted this fate for Roe, there is rage and sadness and defeat and despair. But there is also hope. 

“Someone risked a lot to leak this,” she says. “And we don’t know who and we don’t know why, but I think there’s a strong possibility that someone is trying to say, ‘it’s not too late.'”

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