Why Jonathan Majors’s assault arrest is so disturbing — and so complicated

The Marvel star faces domestic assault charges, and now other allegations spanning years.
Wednesday - 19/04/2023 06:38 Author: Editors Desk Source: Vox
Jonathan Majors, pictured at the European premiere of Creed III in London on February 15, 2023. Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros
Jonathan Majors, pictured at the European premiere of Creed III in London on February 15, 2023. Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Warner Bros

Aja Romano is a culture reporter for Vox, focusing on criticism and the ethics of culture. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot.

Jonathan Majors, Emmy-nominated Lovecraft Country and Creed III star, was arrested on March 25, 2023, in Manhattan on misdemeanor charges of strangulation, assault, and harassment in a reported domestic dispute with his girlfriend.

The charges came as a deep shock to fans of Majors, whose public persona during his rapid rise through Hollywood has purveyed a soft-spoken, sensitive masculinity.

Yet the charges may be just the beginning of further allegations about Majors’s behavior. After his arrest, two directors spoke publicly about what one called Majors’s “emotionally violent/professionally abusive” history.

Majors has contested the allegations that led to the arrest, and so far, no further details about any of the alleged abusive incidents have emerged. Still, the news prompted shock across social media and led to a complex array of public reactions to Majors’s arrest. It’s also led to professional fallout: Deadline reported on April 14 that Majors’s manager, Entertainment 360, had dropped him from its client roster. So far, however, the arrest doesn’t seem to be terminal for Majors’s career: Regarding Majors’s starring role as Marvel’s next big villain, Kang, Deadline observed that currently there are “zero conversations in the Marvel camp to drop Majors from the MCU.” 

Majors’s star had been on the rise. The arrest may change that.

Majors had a truly storied run leading up to his March arrest. A lifelong army brat, Majors spent his childhood hopping across the country between various military bases with his family. He had a rough adolescence and credits theater for pulling him out of his rut; he majored in theater at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and went on to get a master’s from Yale. While there, he quickly found his way into the industry and won critical acclaim for 2019’s Last Black Man in San Francisco. Since then, his career has been constantly on the ascent — until the morning of March 25, when, allegedly, Majors and his girlfriend broke into a fight in a taxi as they returned from a night out in Brooklyn.

TMZ first broke the story on the afternoon after Majors’s arrest, reporting that Majors had been receiving texts from other women, which angered his girlfriend and led to a confrontation. Some reports state that the woman called 911 over the alleged assault; however, one report citing “police sources” claimed Majors called the police himself out of stated concern for his girlfriend. Upon arriving at the scene, police observed “minor injuries” to the woman’s head and neck and arrested Majors. Majors was released without bond on March 25 on an order of protection (a restraining order) and was arraigned the next day , but the strangulation charge was not included. He will next appear in court on May 8. 

statement released Sunday by Majors’s attorney, Priya Chaudhry, asserts that Majors is the victim, claiming not only that the woman has since recanted her accusations in two written statements, but that video footage and other witness testimony will support Majors. The statement further claimed that Majors’s girlfriend was in the middle of an “emotional crisis” at the time of the incident, after which she was hospitalized. (Chaudhry was recently in the spotlight for another celebrity criminal case; she represented convicted former Real Housewives of Salt Lake City’s Jen Shah on charges of defrauding the elderly.)

Yet the confusion surrounding these allegations might be just beginning. Shortly after the news of Majors’s arrest broke, social media began buzzing with anecdotal reports that Majors, who received a master’s in drama from Yale, had a long and well-known history of abusive behavior in both the Yale and New York theater scenes. Social media users recalled a since-deletedtweet made in February by filmmaker and director’s assistant A.B. Allen. “There’s a particular actor, relatively new on the scene, who Twitter has violently fallen head over heels for,” Allen wrote, “who, in actuality, is a vicious, cruel, abusive human being, both professionally and in his personal life, and every new viral thirst tweet about him drives me insane.”

After the news about Majors broke, Allen appeared to confirm (again in a since-deletedtweet) that the earlier tweet referred to Majors. Allen then clarified that they had known Majors to be “emotionally violent/professionally abusive” but not physically violent.

Actor and stage director Tim Nicolai was even more pointed, alleging in a since-deleted tweet that “folks at Yale and the broader NYC community have known about [Majors] for years.”

“He’s a sociopath and abuser and that is how virtually everyone speaks about him,” Nicolai stated. “It’s a shame it took this long for him to be reported.”

Neither Allen nor Nicolai provided specific allegations of things Majors had done. When asked by multiple social media users why neither of them came forward before this to warn the public about him, both Allen and Nicolai pointed toward their unwillingness to name and involve the people they say Majors harmed. Both have since made their Twitter accounts private.

The public’s reactions to the allegations have understandably been mixed

The timing of the allegations couldn’t be worse for Majors, who recently starred in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and is slated to be the next major Marvel villain. Now, much as with The Flash’s Ezra Miller, his career could be in jeopardy due to his alleged violence, at the precise moment he’s poised to reach new heights of fame.

Still, the many questions and unknowns surrounding Majors’s arrest have led to mixed reactions from the public. Would it really be possible for a pattern of disturbing, “sociopathic” behavior to go unaddressed for years while Majors rose through the ranks of Hollywood? Is it possible that the police made false assumptions based on Majors’s race and the surface-level optics of a complex situation? Could a guy who told NPR less than a month ago that masculinity includes “kindness,” “vulnerability,” and “gentleness” really be violent? (We should note that in the same interview he also states, “I wouldn’t wanna walk up on me in the street.”)

On the other hand, far too often in situations of intimate partner violence, the justice system disempowers victims, forcing the abused into impossible positions that ultimately enable their abusers — even when the alleged abuser isn’t a rich, famous, powerful celebrity. As many people have observed, if Majors’s girlfriend really was assaulted, and if Majors indeed called the police himself and framed his girlfriend as the instigator, he’s employing a classic tactic of domestic abuse: DARVO, or “deny, attack, and reverse victim/offender.”

This is a tactic that has played a role in several recent high-profile cases, including the murder of Gabby Petito, in which her partner successfully framed her to police as the instigator of her own domestic abuse — even though a 911 caller reported that he had been seen physically assaulting her. It also played a prominent role in debates surrounding the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp defamation lawsuit, with supporters of either side accusing the other of utilizing DARVO.

In this case, if that’s Majors’s MO, it’s already been effective: His lawyer is directly contradicting the witness account of the incident that led to his arrest, declaring that Majors himself is “provably the victim” of the incident, not the woman who had visible marks on her body. (Majors was spotted leaving the courthouse after his arrest in a cap emblazoned with the word “Freedom.”) His supporters are lining up to argue that with the primary witness already recanting, there’s plenty of reasonable doubt. However, detractors have also noted that survivors will frequently recant their statements in incidents of intimate partner violence — not because they aren’t true, but because they fear reprisals.

Indeed, on March 30, in an apparent effort to tarnish the credibility of Majors’s accuser, his lawyer released text messages she allegedly sent to him in which she appears to accept all the blame for the incident: “I told them it was my fault for trying to grab your phone. I only just got out of hospital.” However, her texts are pleading and contradictory, confirming she suffered injuries and giving the impression she’s desperate to avoid further problems. They don’t exactly exonerate Majors. 

Also alarming is that intimate partner strangulation is an extremely high risk factor for eventual homicide. That is: People who strangle or choke their partners are far more likely to escalate to killing them later on. Strangulation charges against Majors were dropped, but the fact that the woman suffered injuries on her neck (and was granted a restraining order) carries disturbing implications.

It’s unclear, however, whether those implications will have more serious consequences for Majors. Many people have already compared Majors’s girlfriend to Amber Heard — implying, depending on their view, either that she’s lying or that she’s being unfairly publicly trashed for reporting her assault. In either case, the comparison indicates a level of strong support for Majors.

In response to the arrest, the US Army pulled its recently launched ad campaign featuring Majors but clarified that they were only halting the campaign temporarily. “While Mr. Majors is innocent until proven guilty, prudence dictates that we pull our ads until the investigation into these allegations is complete,” a spokesperson stated.

Majors’s PR firm and eventually his talent management both followed suit, according to an April 17 report by Deadline.

Majors’s supporters have been quick to call out double standards in how famous white men are treated when they’re accused of domestic violence versus famous Black men. Meanwhile, Marvel has given no public indication about whether it plans to drop Majors from the franchise, and per Deadline they have had “zero conversations” about Majors’s future: It’s likely the studio will hold off until Majors’s May 8 hearing date. If the primary witness has indeed recanted, however, moving forward with charges will be difficult for prosecutors. 

If charges against Majors are ultimately dropped, could he escape this incident unscathed? Marvel has cast at least one public figure accused of domestic assault before; Josh Brolin’s 2004 arrest for allegedly assaulting his wife of four months at the time, Diane Lane, barely made a dent in his long career, and he went on to play the big bad Thanos. Lane declined to press charges, and a joint spokesperson for the couple reportedly called the incident a “misunderstanding.” They divorced in 2013, and while Brolin occasionally still gets asked about the incident, it doesn’t seem to have impacted him in the long term.

But Majors, by virtue of being a buff, physically powerful Black man, may also have different standards applied to his career rehabilitation, if one is needed. It wouldn’t be the first time recently that a Black celebrity’s punishment for public misbehavior might spark debate for being too severe. Furthermore, we shouldn’t lose sight of the very real stressors Black men face in 2023, a period of escalating police violencerising hate crimes, and more stress generally. Amid all of that, Black men often face complicated obstacles to mental health care and wellness. That doesn’t change if someone becomes a Hollywood celebrity; in fact, those stressors might even intensify.

Absolutely none of that excuses Majors’s alleged assault. But these factors further complicate knowing how to respond to domestic assault allegations when there are contradictory accounts and arguably everyone involved has a level of vulnerability. For now, Majors appears to be denying there is any truth to the allegations. With the accusing witness remaining silent, we might have a long wait for the full truth to emerge.

Update, April 18, 11:15 am ET: This story was originally published on March 28 and has been updated with new details, including that Majors has been dropped by his PR firm and talent management. 


  Reader Comments

You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second