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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.

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 writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

New allegations of abuse and domestic violence have surfaced against Jonathan Majors. As reported by Rolling Stone, Majors stands accused of a decade-long pattern of relationships in which he was allegedly controlling, manipulative, and in some cases physically abusive.

The 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. Since then, accusations have flown back and forth between Majors and the woman involved in the incident. On June 26, Insider reported that police had found probable cause to arrest the woman after Majors filed a cross-complaint against her, claiming that she had assaulted him. So far, no arrest warrant against her has been filed.

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 were 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. On April 19, Variety reported that “multiple alleged abuse victims” of Majors had come forward in the wake of the incident and were working with the district attorney’s office.

The Rolling Stone allegations span 10 years, beginning in 2013 with Majors’ entry into the Yale drama school, where he quickly became a notable presence. Multiple anonymous sources paint a picture of Majors as volatile, controlling, intense, physically intimidating, and sometimes aggressive, a characterization that has followed him onto Hollywood sets, with some production staff describing him as physically and verbally intimidating. At the center of the allegations are claims from multiple third parties that Majors was emotionally and physically abusive with one romantic partner, to the point of allegedly strangling her. Another woman allegedly described her relationship with him as “emotional torture.” Both women declined to be interviewed.

Through his lawyer, Majors denied all accusations, pointing out that the Rolling Stone report was effectively hearsay. Rolling Stone further alleged that half of the character witnesses Majors’s legal team provided to them “never gave Majors’ team permission to release such statements.”

Majors has contested the allegations that led to the March 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 17 that Majors’s manager, Entertainment 360, had dropped him from its client roster; a day later, Deadline followed up with news that several upcoming film projects as well as a Major League Baseball ad campaign scheduled to be released later this week had all dropped Majors from his planned roles. Despite these developments, the arrest might not be terminal for Majors’s career: Regarding his 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.” Variety cautioned, however, that “Disney is monitoring the fast-moving situation.”

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 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. A later version of the woman’s statement removed the strangulation allegation and instead claimed that Majors shoved her into the side of a car. His trial on the charges is scheduled to begin August 3, 2023.

A statement released 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.)

Shortly after the news of Majors’s arrest broke, social media buzzed 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-deleted tweet 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-deleted tweet) 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. “They basically look like the text messages of a textbook abused woman,” an anonymous source told Variety.

Also alarming is that the woman’s text messages further indicate that she had “collaps[ed] and pass[ed] out” during the incident, which implies that she was not only strangled but strangled to the point of unconsciousness. 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.

Many people have 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.

Yet more abuse allegations against Majors may be forthcoming. Per Variety, “multiple” women have reportedly contacted prosecutors about Majors. Their testimony would bolster the charges against Majors, and this new movement in the case would certainly explain the sudden rush, in mid-April, to drop Majors from multiple projects after several weeks of what seemed to be an industry holding pattern.

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. A day later, Deadline claimed Majors had subsequently been dropped from several upcoming film projects, including the thriller The Man in My Basement, which Majors was to have produced and starred in alongside Willem Dafoe. An Otis Redding biopic, Otis and Zelma, was also considering casting Majors as the lead but has moved on from him since the scandal broke. Per Deadline, this year’s Met Gala has also disinvited him.

Per Variety, Majors has also resigned from his role with the Sidney Poitier Initiative, a career development program for Black creatives that Majors created in 2022 as part of the Gotham Film and Media Institute. Majors also served on the board of the Gotham Institute; he has resigned from that role as well.

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. 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, June 30, 11:45 am ET: This story was originally published on March 28 and has been updated with new details, including reports of new allegations against Majors.

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