Since filing court documents on Tuesday alleging that on a plane ride in 2016, Brad Pitt hit and choked their kids while intoxicated, Angelina Jolie has been called a vindictive liar by online hordes and even some media outlets. The response has been creepily reminiscent of the reaction to Amber Heard’s allegations that Johnny Depp abused and assaulted her during their highly publicized defamation trial in May.
On Tuesday, amid Pitt’s ongoing lawsuit against Jolie for selling her stakes in their shared winery, and the couple’s ongoing child custody battle, Jolie’s lawyers filed a complaint that gives further details about the plane ride in question, which first came to public attention in August, when an FBI report about the incident was released. In it, Jolie alleged that during a drunken rampage, Pitt had shoved and spilled drinks on her and charged at one of their kids for defending Jolie amid the couple’s argument. But the new filing this week specifies that Pitt was physically violent toward their kids, too.
The FBI agent who had been investigating the incident told Jolie in 2021 he’d “concluded that the government had probable cause to charge Pitt with a federal crime for his conduct that day.” Per the August report, Jolie was “conflicted on whether or not to be supportive of charges” related to the case—a common experience among those who have survived domestic or intimate partner violence—and Jolie’s lawyers said on Tuesday this was “to try to shield their children from reliving the pain Pitt inflicted on the family that day.”
Since the FBI report about the plane ride became public, I’ve been nervous about what would arise from another very famous woman testifying that another very famous man had abused her. I naively hoped that the public reaction would be different this time around, given how publicly Jolie and Pitt’s shared kids have stood by her since the couple separated in 2016. Yet, if anything, Jolie’s strong presence in the kids’ lives—and Pitt’s very obvious absence—has been weaponized against her.
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Just as the public painted Depp as Heard’s victim because she fought back or resisted harm he inflicted on her, social media users seem eager to portray Pitt as yet another male victim—this time, the victim of a spiteful ex who’s stolen his kids by lying and cunningly hiring a top-tier legal team. A cursory scroll of YouTube videos responding to the new allegations, along with TMZ reporting that “Jolie is on a smear campaign against Brad Pitt,” and a smattering of tweets simultaneously defending and thirsting for Pitt are giving serious deja vu to the height of Depp and Heard’s defamation trial. Hundreds of Facebook comments and Twitter replies to articles reporting on the new court filings sympathize with Pitt or argue that due to his self-admitted struggles with alcoholism, he’s not to blame; many of the comments blatantly villainize Jolie and call her a liar.
As tempting as it may be to write these stories off as irrelevant celebrity drama, cases like this have broad consequences for how the public perceives and treats women and survivors broadly.
Despite being accused of “stealing” Pitt’s kids out of spite, based on Jolie’s allegations, it’s pretty clear why she’s fighting for sole custody. In May 2021, a judge barred three of Jolie and Pitt’s kids who were on the plane in 2016 from testifying in court for the couple’s custody battle—a move Jolie argued was “detrimental” because the judge was “improperly excluding her evidence relevant to the children’s health, safety, and welfare.” About a month later, the same judge, who had awarded Pitt the joint custody he sought, was disqualified due to his undisclosed business relationships with Pitt’s lawyers.
While Jolie’s Tuesday court filing contains new details from the 2016 plane ride, it’s hardly the out-of-left-field attention stunt her critics are making it out to be. Jolie has alluded to experiencing domestic violence whilst advocating for the Violence Against Women Act in recent years. In an interview with The Guardian last year, she alleged that even after she told Pitt that Harvey Weinstein had nearly raped her, Pitt continued working with Weinstein. Ironically, Pitt is currently producing a movie about the reporting that sparked the mainstream Me Too movement in 2017—fresh off producing Blonde, the Marilyn Monroe film widely accused of misogyny, anti-abortion propaganda, and fetishizing the sexual violence and trauma Monroe experienced.
The parallels in Jolie and Heard’s cases extend beyond the public reaction to their claims. Both are openly bisexual women, and for years, much speculation has been made about their mental health, subjecting them to intensified scrutiny and sexism. Depp and Pitt’s responses to the allegations against them are also strikingly similar, with both essentially arguing that Heard and Jolie are vengeful liars accusing them for personal gain—despite that both women’s claims have opened them to intense harassment campaigns, and Heard literally turned down hush money from Depp.
Like Heard’s case, there’s plenty of evidence corroborating Jolie’s claims—she filed for divorce within days of the 2016 plane incident, the kids clearly want nothing to do with Pitt, and an FBI agent told Jolie the agency had cause to criminally charge Pitt. Yet Pitt, like Depp, is already being treated as the victim. By popularizing the deceptive term “mutual abuse” that equates victims’ resistance with abuse, Depp’s lawyers paved a way for subsequent public abuse trials: Powerful men will always be the “victims” when women dare to even try to defend themselves—or, in Jolie’s case, her children.