The Reaction To Jonathan Majors’ Arrest Proves Domestic Violence Survivors Deserve Better

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/WireImage.
Content warning: This article discusses domestic and sexual violence in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
In the digital ecosystem, news often becomes little more than a launching pad to entrench political positions within people’s respective echo chambers. The tragedy of this current reality is that news and violence go hand in hand – from the fearmongering over crime rates in big cities, to police violence, mass shootings, or high-profile celebrities being accused of acts of abuse. The habitual presence of violence in the news desensitises us to the brutality therein – instead of contending with the gravity of these alleged interpersonal acts, social media often dissolves into reductive and reflexive bickering, minimising the grander implications of this discursive cycle. The recent arrest of acclaimed actor Jonathan Majors is no exception.
On Saturday, March 25th, Majors was arrested and arraigned on multiple misdemeanour charges of assault and aggravated harassment. Majors was taken into custody after NYPD responded to a 911 call in Chelsea, where a preliminary investigation ascertained that Majors was involved in a domestic dispute with a 30-year-old female, who “sustained minor injuries to her head and neck.” He was released on his own recognisance without bail later that same day, with his next court appearance scheduled for May and a limited order of protection put in place at the request of the district attorney’s office. While Majors has yet to comment publicly, representatives have denied wrongdoing, with his criminal defence attorney proclaiming that Majors is “completely innocent.”

Jonathan Majors' large frame is countenanced by his marked sensitivity and noted humility – the allegations and reporting that had been unfolding since last Saturday ran directly counter to that public image.

The news reverberated through social media with a thud – it seemed, more than anything, that many were devastated at the possibility that a rising Black performer at the precipice of stardom was destined for a fall from grace. Dark humour abounded – users speculated how Marvel’s publicity was receiving the news of their latest star being mired in controversy, cheekily comparing the news to DC’s own struggles with their leading actor in the upcoming Flash film – emphasising that the first priority was the health of future intellectual property and not the alleged victim.  Majors’ public image is the portrait of a man who found the arts as a respite from a turbulent youth who had now evolved into a paragon of professional and physical accomplishment, unafraid to tap into his emotional spectrum. His large frame is countenanced by his marked sensitivity and noted humility – the allegations and reporting that had been unfolding since last Saturday ran directly counter to that public image. These details portrayed a man who was allegedly dangerous and life-threatening – marks around the victim’s neck hinted at strangulation, a major indicator that abuse can turn deadly
To say that this incident is arriving at an inopportune time for Major’s career is an understatement. It is no secret that Majors is currently on a fast track to movie stardom; he has been noted for his standout performances in The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Lovecraft Country, and recently brought into the massively profitable Creed and Marvel universes. Just a few weeks ago, he presented at the Oscars alongside Creed III co-star and director Michael B. Jordan. Majors’ rising profile as a thespian has come with increased media attention and public fawning as he ascends the nebulous hierarchy of celebrity – profiles, interviews, and thirst tweets galore. Conjectures over whether his nascent role as Kang the Conqueror in the Marvel franchise would be protected dominated the conversation; the race of the victim was presumed to be Caucasian, creating space for skepticism based on the historical wounds of white women’s misleading portrayals of victimisation at the hands of Black men. For those who wanted to hold onto the perception they had of Majors to date, they could cling to the trope of a white woman setting him up. People came forward with their own stories of Majors’ alleged harm against others, and were immediately deemed suspicious or opportunist for their timing of these revelations, as opposed to having consideration for the privacy of the affected parties.
Quickly, a familiar pattern evolved: a team clearly invested in protecting their celebrity client proceeds to muddy the waters over the series of events. Initially, Majors’ criminal defence lawyer, Priyanka Chaudhry, accused the victim of going to the hospital due to “having an emotional crisis” – a statement that was contrary to the NYPD’s report. Majors was also "provably the victim of an altercation with a woman he knows” – committing to producing two written statements from the alleged victim recanting the allegations, in addition to camera footage. Chaudry, whose previous clients include RHOSLC star Jen Shah and Paul Haggis, has maintained that it was Majors who called 911 out of concern for the alleged victim’s mental health.
On Thursday, text messages between Majors and the alleged victim were released by Chaudry, with Chaudry claiming that the exchange contained an admission of physical force by the alleged victim. The offending statement: “I told them it was my fault for trying to grab your phone.” The woman also revealed that she was given paperwork about strangulation and is not cooperating with any legal proceedings. “Know I’m doing all I can on my end,” she writes. Rather than reading as exculpatory, the messages invite concern – it is unclear whether these texts are intended to be the two written statements recanting the allegations, if the alleged victim consented to releasing these messages, or how reaching for a phone would justify the resulting head and neck injuries. The lack of answers obfuscates more than it clarifies and can easily be read as a survivor participating in a harmful cycle of self-blame as opposed to anything resembling vindication for the star. 
The lack of clarity of statements hasn’t stopped conclusive statements from being made in an attempt to soften the hit that Majors’ reputation has taken in the last week. Page Six declared that the texts “appear to prove innocence.” Daily Loud, a social media aggregator that was one of the many accounts that were complicit in spreading misinformation around the Tory Lanez case at the expense of Houston rapper Megan thee Stallion, tweeted that “Jonathan Majors’ girlfriend…has reportedly admitted she’s to blame and doesn’t want to press charges against him.” No matter the incident, the formula is the same – the person of concern is not the individual who may have had literal hands around their throat, but the notable figure who stands to lose millions should they be held accountable for their alleged misdeeds.

The formula is the same – the person of concern is not the individual who may have had literal hands around their throat, but the celebrity who stands to lose millions should they be held accountable for their alleged misdeeds.

Debating Majors’ future in the Marvel universe is of little import – celebrities with checkered pasts have long found a home to rebrand there. Avengers star Josh Brolin had a similar incident in 2004 with then-wife Diane Lane. “There was a misunderstanding at their home,” a publicist representing the couple said in a statement at the time. “Diane called the police. Josh ended up being arrested for the lowest-end misdemeanour charge of domestic battery. Diane did not want to press charges and asked them not to arrest him, but in cases involving the possibility of any physical contact, the police have to arrest first, ask questions later. They are home together and are embarrassed the matter went this far.” The statement eerily echoes the remarks made by Chaudhry – the cops were forced to arrest the assailant, it was a misunderstanding – indicative of how methodical this well-worn approach has been over the decades.  
Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP/Getty Images.
Amber Heard during the defamation trial against her
The public flogging of Amber Heard is further proof of just how many institutional forces are in play to protect the reputation of a celebrity accused of abuse. When Heard initially filed her restraining order against now ex-husband Johnny Depp, she alleged “during the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me.” Four months after Heard’s filing, both their divorce and domestic cases were settled, with a joint statement to the public: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. There was never an intent of physical or emotional harm.” When Heard chose to acknowledge that she was the survivor of abuse in a 2018 op-ed, she endured the public scrutiny of a livestreamed defamation suit, where she was not only positioned as the aggressor, but also largely motivated by greed, as wilfully misinterpreted and re-contextualised statements spread throughout social media; her career opportunities have dwindled as a result of the public fracas, with her role in the Aquaman franchise becoming markedly diminished.
Currently, musician Marilyn Manson is facing multiple allegations of abuse, most notably by actress Evan Rachel Wood, who alleges that Manson “started grooming me when I was a teenager and horrifically abused me for years.” Manson, whose real name is Brian Warner, has categorically denied these claims as “malicious falsehoods”, claiming that he is a victim of a coordinated defamation attempt in a suit. “Wood [has] secretly recruited, coordinated, and pressured prospective accusers to emerge simultaneously with allegations of rape and abuse against Warner, and brazenly claim that it took 10 or more years to ‘realise’ their consensual relationships with Warner were supposedly abusive.” Of the numerous suits by alleged survivors of Manson that have been filed in the last several years, one survivor has recanted, and several have been dismissed due to statute of limitations; Esme Bianco’s sexual assault suit, whose allegations Manson’s lawyer claimed were “provably false” and merely “outrageous financial demands based on conduct that simply never occurred,” resulted in a settlement that Bianco confirmed she agreed to “in order to move on with her life and career.” Despite the allegations, Manson continues to be visible in the public eye, with open support from artists such as Kat Von D and invitations to collaborate on Ye’s Donda album (prior to Ye’s persona non grata status in Hollywood). These cases prove that, across the board, there is minimal upside — financial, social, or otherwise — in publicly acknowledging your abuser. Instead, you are left with high risk for public recrimination, and little support in the fallout as your claims and safety take a backseat to a propulsive entertainment industry and an overwhelming news cycle, eager to move on to the next scandal.     
Amidst the social media noise that Majors’ arrest caused, the wellbeing of the alleged victim and the whistleblowers coming forward were largely ignored. Actor and director Tim Nicolai’s allegation that Majors is a “sociopath and abuser” and that people at Yale and the NYC community have known about his alleged behaviour for years rippled throughout the internet (Nicolai has publicly maintained that he will not recant his claims) but  a follow-up tweet went underacknowledged: “If you know one of the women this happened to, just support them and encourage them,” Nicolai wrote. 
An environment where the reflexive reaction to allegations of abuse by a high-profile figure continues to be disbelief and concern over future earnings is not one that is conducive for more survivors to come forward with their stories. The last two years have established an increasingly fragile infrastructure for survivors to lay claim to their harm in a public domain – the knowledge that their experience is not just against their abuser, but against the court of public opinion and all their resources is doubly terrifying. As Majors’ alleged victim wrote via text, “I know that you have the best team and there’s nothing to worry about.” In an ideal world, a purported victim leaving the hospital wouldn’t have reputation management as her concern, nor would Majors’ immediate future be ours. It is incumbent that we break from our collective complicity with the predictable patterns of  celebrity crisis management – survivors deserve better, otherwise we don’t deserve to be trusted with their stories.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.
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