One month almost to the day after Americans learned of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that would eviscerate the constitutional right of women to control their bodies and so their lives, millions sat glued to their screens to witness the verdict in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial, in which the jury awarded more than $10 million to Mr. Depp. In a statement afterward, Ms. Heard said she was “disappointed with what this verdict means for women.” “It sets back the clock,” she said, “to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated.”

The ruination of Roe and the humiliation of Ms. Heard have been cast as cosmic convergence, evidence of a larger forced retreat on women’s progress. “Johnny Depp’s legal victory and the death of Roe v. Wade are part of the same toxic cultural movement,” a Vox article asserted. “These examples may seem disparate, but there’s an important through line,” a USA Today reporter wrote, citing academics who linked the Alito draft opinion, the Depphead mobbing and, for good measure, the “public consumption” of cleavage at the Met Gala (held the same night the Supreme Court draft leaked): “This is backlash.”

Backlash it may be. Even so, putting the pillorying of Ms. Heard in the same backlash-deplorables basket as the death rattle of Roe is a mistake. Lost in the frenzy of amalgamation lies a crucial distinction. There’s a through line, all right. Both are verdicts on the recent fraught course of feminism. But one tells the story of how we got here; the other where we’re headed. How did modern feminism lose Roe v. Wade? An answer lies in Depp v. Heard.

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“I became a public figure representing domestic abuse,” Ms. Heard wrote in a Washington Post opinion essay in 2018, which set off Mr. Depp’s defamation rampage. She was also “representing” the A.C.L.U. (to which she had promised half of her $7 million divorce settlement) as one of its “ambassadors for women’s rights.” The gig placed her squarely in the tradition of feminism’s vaunted fourth-wave revival of the early 2010s.

That wave harnessed social media to achieve unthinkable heights of entertainment and commercial popularity. Celebrities would “represent” feminism, and their feminist fans would “like” and retweet their star’s declarations into a viral solidarity that, it was hoped, would hasten change.

Celebrity America signed on. Miley Cyrus: “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women not to be scared of anything.” Katy Perry (repudiating her previous repudiation of “feminism”): “I used to not really understand what that word meant, and now that I do, it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.”

Kendall Jenner and Cara Delevingne led Chanel runway models brandishing “Free freedom” picket signs at a “feminist rally” during Paris Fashion Week. Emma Watson started her HeForShe initiative as U.N. Women good-will ambassador, inviting boys and men “to be seen to speak up” for gender equality — setting off a cult of global ambassadorships for female empowerment. And, of course, Beyoncé performed before that giant “Feminist” screen at the MTV Video Music Awards.

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Corporate America joined in. “By 2015, you couldn’t swing a tampon without hitting someone or something that boasted its feminist import, in places you definitely wouldn’t expect: nail polish, underwear, energy drinks, Swiffers,” Andi Zeisler, a Bitch Media co-founder, noted in her book “We Were Feminists Once.” Spanx marketed Power Panties under the tag line “Powerful women wear powerful panties”— with the help of Tina Fey and Adele, who sang the shapewear’s praises. Dior sold $700 shirts trumpeting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We should all be feminists” slogan (and donated part of the proceeds to Rihanna’s nonprofit organization). Corporations plastered “The future is female” banners on their websites and annual reports. Sheryl Sandberg (whose resignation as Meta C.O.O. came the same day as the Depp-Heard verdict) began her “Lean In” revolution by enlisting distaff A-listers (and some celebrated feminists) to post their “Lean In” moments.

At the time, it felt like a breakthrough. “Feminism’s star has ascended,” the feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian in 2014. “Feminism is no longer the ‘F-word’; it’s the realm of cool kids.” Hadn’t the opposition alienated women from feminism for decades by painting its proponents as unpopular drudges? That message saturated the 1980s media and pop culture backlash: Embrace feminism and wind up unloved, unwed, barren and bonkers. If feminism was now cool, wasn’t that a step forward?

“2014 Turned Feminism Into a Brand — and That’s Not a Bad Thing,” Quartz headlined an article at the end of that year by a young feminist writer named Jessica McCarthy, contemplating the promise of what she called “the new, millennial feminism my generation is ushering in.” She understood the concerns of old-guard “feminist gatekeepers” — that a more commercial and celebrity-preoccupied feminism could undermine “the collective spirit of the movement.” But she decided there was nothing to fear. “This new wave that (critically) accepts new brands of feminism,” she concluded, “will never allow it to be sold.”

A reasonable hope. After all, a century earlier, hadn’t suffragists opened suffrage shops hawking “Votes for women” products, commissioned movies and landed endorsements from the silent stars Mary Pickford and Ethel Barrymore — and won enfranchisement by decade’s end?

But mass pop culture was in its infancy in the 1910s, and the commanding importance of celebrities had not yet come to define America. By the mid-2010s, what had once been a popularizing adjunct to feminism threatened to become the public face of feminism itself — and a model for how to be a feminist activist.

An early referendum on these tactics came on Nov. 8, 2016, with Hillary Clinton’s defeat. In the aftermath, a vast array of unsung women returned to the old methods, nurturing a cumulative progressive awakening. Not just through the Women’s Marches that drew millions to the streets across the country but also through hundreds of local and regional organizing initiatives. Female-led grass-roots activist organizations such as Sister District, Black Voters Matter, MomsRising and Flippable showed up at town halls, convened community rallies, petitioned and canvassed and phone banked in a tradition that recalled American women’s long century of struggle for the vote.

That mobilization was soon overshadowed by #MeToo, which, despite its prehashtag precursor as a ground-level support system for Black girls victimized by sexual violence, ironically re-established a celebrity preoccupation, with its intense focus on high-profile women denouncing high-profile men.

Pool photo by Evelyn Hockstein

#MeToo drew badly needed attention to the scourge of sexual predation in the workplace and delivered a warning to men in power. Perhaps retribution against tabloid-worthy sexual miscreants sent a trickle-down message to middle management and the factory floor. But ultimately, the campaign’s headline achievements were shaming male V.I.P.s. #MeToo’s weapon of public humiliation wasn’t particularly useful against a predator without a public — say, a bank supervisor or shop foreman.

Using celebrity and hashtag feminism is a perilous way to pursue women’s advancement because it falls victim so easily to its own tools and methods. In Ms. Heard’s case, her ex-husband turned #MeToo’s strategy against itself. Mr. Depp claimed victimization because he’s a money-generating personality — he could be de-famed because he’s famous. And his massive (and vicious) fan mobilization on social media (nearly 20 billion views for #JusticeForJohnnyDepp on TikTok by June 2) was overwhelming, even by #MeToo standards. By contrast, #JusticeForAmberHeard had about 80 million views on TikTok in the same period.

Celebrity representation of feminism is a double-edged sword. If an individual embodies the principle, the principle can be disproved by dethroning the individual. In that way, Ms. Heard became both avatar and casualty of celebrity feminism. When she took the stand, she brought the modern incarnation of the women’s movement into the dock, too, and mobilized those who would see it brought down. If an ambassador for women’s rights wasn’t credible, Ms. Heard’s mob of haters was quick to conclude, then the movement wasn’t, either. No need to fret over those legions of unfamous women who may now think twice before reporting domestic violence.

Coupling the fortunes of feminism to celebrity might have been worth it if it had led to meaningful political victories. But such victories are hard to achieve through marketing campaigns alone, as the right wing understands. It took conservative foot soldiers decades of gritty and unglamorous mobilization, starting at the school board and county commission levels, to dominate Congress and the Supreme Court. As pop feminism enjoyed its heyday in the early 2010s, state legislatures passed more than 200 restrictions on women’s access to abortion. As Ms. Clinton’s campaign in the mid-2010s racked up endorsements from Ms. Perry, Lena Dunham, Rosie Perez, et al., Donald Trump quietly made his bargain with the anti-abortion religious right, which helped propel him to the White House. As #MeToo hashtagging dominated the news in the late 2010s, the Trump administration gutted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and installed scores of anti-abortion judges in the courts.

Pop feminism’s Achilles’ heel is a faith in the power of the individual star turn over communal action, the belief that a gold-plated influencer plus a subscription list plus some viral content can be alchemized into mass activism. The #MeToo campaign, as it evolved, was driven in no small measure by that faith — likewise Ms. Sandberg’s “Lean In,” a “movement” of free-standing C-suite aspirants, each of whom was instructed to defeat her “internal obstacles” to get ahead as an individual rather than organize to defeat external forces. That ethic made it attractive to the professional class but of little use to the great mass of working women.

Celebrity, individualistic and commercial efforts tend to betray their dowdy collective partners. When housekeepers organizing at a Hilton DoubleTree Suites hotel in Boston asked to meet in a “Lean In” circle with Ms. Sandberg while she was in town to deliver a Class Day speech at Harvard University, which owned the hotel’s building, her office reportedly declined, citing her busy schedule. Those ubiquitous “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts were being manufactured by women earning about $1 an hour in a Mauritius factory. Branded feminism had indeed allowed itself to be sold.

Isn’t it good to fight the good fight on all fronts? Sure. But without a firm conviction about what’s most important, fighting one battle can mean surrendering another. Should things be so either/or? If pop culture can make being a feminist a “cool” personal identity, can’t that translate into doing feminism and thereby advance old-fashioned shoe-leather organizing?

Perhaps. But the new individualist style of feminism so often cast itself as an alternative instead of as an aid to the old-fashioned communal activism. In the catastrophic 2016 election year, Tufts University exit polls found that only 20 percent of millennial women disagreed with the statement that feminism “is about personal choice, not politics.” The division concerning personal versus collective action was “one central disconnect” between the younger generation of feminists and their elders, The Washington Post concluded, based on its own 2016 poll conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation and supplemented with follow-up interviews.

There’s a bigger problem here. Celebrity feminism is based on the idea that a celebrity can instigate change by representing a cause. Which so often reduces the cause to a persona: We think of land mines, we think of Princess Di. That same equation works in reverse. You can establish your persona by embracing a cause. Virtue becomes a vanity. No longer are you doing something; you’re being something. And in our social-media age, anyone with a YouTube channel or a TikTok account can give it a try. You no longer need a movie star to front for your movement. Celebrity of the self will do. A corrosive culture is abetted.

Even to fixate on the Depp-Heard trial — as I am doing here — is to risk abetting a more pernicious backlash, one that has never relented, one that has brought us the calamity of the Alito draft opinion. That backlash, hidden beneath years of “Lean In” moments and social media slap downs over whether Taylor Swift is or isn’t a feminist, never lost its force or focus, and its retribution has been and always will be meted out on the uncelebrated and unaffluent.

It’s hard to gussy up pocketbook issues in sequins, and celebrity feminism has preferred to focus on problems of sexuality and identity over bedrock economics. But abortion is, inevitably, an issue of economic justice. The right to an abortion is not just about choice but fundamentally about the survival of women who have no choice, who are faced with dire necessity. That is, the vast swaths of women segregated in low-paying pink-collar occupations, women unable to reclaim jobs lost in a pandemic that drove them out of the work force at four times the rate of men, women unable to afford education or decent housing or child care and soon, it seems, unable to get an abortion when they need or want one.

Effectively confronting threats to women’s material welfare requires a reckoning within feminism. This must go beyond generational indictments. It would be wrong to cast as Instagram ingénues the many millennial feminists fighting on the ground against practical impediments to equality, just as it’s wrong for parvenu radicals to recast the second wave as a bourgeois movement oblivious to race and class. The second wave’s collective activism helped secure, among other landmark achievements, the right to abortion — a right that, in our celebrity-besotted and self-absorbed times, we’re letting slip away.

As the court’s coming decision brings our attention back to basics, there are other models we can turn to. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, for instance, whose advocacy and organizing of low-income household laborers led to passage of Domestic Workers Bill of Rights laws in 10 states and two cities. Or Fair Fight Action, founded by Stacey Abrams — a voting reform campaign that helped flip Georgia to the Democrats for the first time in a generation and helped rescue the nation from another term of Trumpism. Or the “green tide,” a multipronged mass movement of Latin American feminists that stressed health equity and economic issues to build a wide spectrum of public support and legalize abortion in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia.

In the late 19th century, the Illinois Woman’s Alliance brought together almost every women’s organization in Chicago — including suffragists, unionists and socialists — forced a congressional investigation into female sweatshop labor and pushed through the state’s Workshop and Factories Act, creating an eight-hour day for women and children and banning factory labor for children under 14. (The second-wave feminist Meredith Tax’s recently reissued 1980 book, “The Rising of the Women,” chronicles the alliance and how the act was partly struck down by a hostile State Supreme Court.)

The coalition’s efforts were reflected nationwide in the work of diverse groups, Black and white, including the settlement home movement, the Women’s Trade Union League and the Neighborhood Union in Atlanta. The last was organized by the social reformer Lugenia Burns Hope, who was married to Morehouse College’s president and deployed other faculty wives to fight for education, day care and housing for poor Black women.

All of these groups subscribed to a fundamental principle enshrined in the mission statement of the Illinois Woman’s Alliance: “The actual status of the poorest and most unfortunate woman in society determines the possible status of every woman.” As the Supreme Court may soon remind us, it’s a principle we ignore at our peril.

Susan Faludi is the author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” and is at work on a book on contemporary American feminism.

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