May December: Analyzing A Shocking True Story & Problematic Trope | Controversy Explained

Todd Haynes’ new black comedy-drama May December, starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, and Charles Melton, is based on a horrible real-life controversy that shocked the nation in the 1990s. So why did they decide to make a movie about this now? Let’s unpack the true story behind the film and what May December is really trying to say.

CH 1: The Real Life Controversy

Before we dive into the film, let’s take a look at what happened in the real-life story. In 1991, Mary Kay Letourneau, a married mother of four and a school teacher at Shorewood Elementary School in Burien, Washington, met second-grader Vili Fualaau when he was a pupil in her class. Letourneau began developing an obsession with the young boy. A few years later, when he became a student in her sixth-grade class, she began sexually abusing him. Fualaau was only twelve years old at the time. The abuse carried on in secret until her husband found love letters she had written to Fualaau in their home, and his relative called to alert the school. She was soon arrested, though at that point, she had already become pregnant with Fualaau’s child.

Letourneau was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison but only served six months before being released on parole. Though she had been ordered to have zero contact with Fualaau, she immediately began seeing him again as soon as she was released. During this period, she became pregnant with their second child. As a result, she was ordered to serve the rest of her sentence in full. She continued to keep in contact with Fualaau during her sentence, and the pair (with the help of a ghostwriter) even authored a book titled Only One Crime, Love, which was only published in France. Even given how obviously disgusting and abusive the relationship was, many at the time treated the ordeal as not that bad. This is thanks to a larger trope, specifically about male students and female teachers, both on screen and in real life, that we’ll discuss more in a bit.

While Letourneau was in jail, Fualaau did seem to begin to come to realize, to some degree, how messed up their relationship really was. In addition to the already existing mental anguish from the abusive relationship itself, he was also bullied by nearly everyone around him. He said that students at school mocked him once the news about the relationship spread, and once he was even made fun of by police as he was being arrested for being in the back of a stolen car, with one allegedly remarking, “Hey, aren’t you Mary Letourneau’s little boyfriend?” To cope, he began drinking heavily and even taking drugs. He attempted suicide in March of 1999 and eventually dropped out of high school. During the 2001 trial his mother brought against the school district for not keeping Fualaau safe, he, at one point, said about Letourneau, “I’m just really confused. It sounded like she really didn’t give a ... about me like I was just some ... toy ... just a piece of a puzzle that she needs to finish to get herself out.” But, unfortunately, the grooming he had endured allowed Letourneau to keep her claws in him for the duration of her jail time. Fualaau was 21 when Letourneau was released from prison. She was registered as a level 2 sex offender (one that is considered likely to reoffend), and on the same day, Fualaau petitioned the judge to overturn their no-contact order. The pair married in 2005 and remained together until Fualaau filed for separation in 2017. A source close to Fualaau told People in early 2020 that once separated from Letourneau as an adult, he was finally able to start getting some perspective on how one-sided and abusive their relationship had really been, saying, “Just thinking about how they met, and how that affected how they interacted as adults. He was never really a full-fledged partner; he was always secondary. He sees that now.” Letourneau was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and died on July 7th of that year.

Both the story itself and the reaction from much of the media and public is shocking looking back, so it was surprising when it was announced that filmmaker Todd Haynes was bringing a film loosely based off of the story, starring two of today’s most talented actresses, to the screen. So what is May December actually trying to analyze with its story?

CH 2: May December

The film follows Gracie Atherton and Joe Yoo – who met and began a sexual relationship when working in a pet store together when Gracie was 36, and Joe was only 13 (for which Gracie also served several years of jail time.) Elizabeth Berry, a TV star hoping to make her mark in the ‘real’ acting world with an indie drama about the couple’s scandalous relationship, has come to their home to learn more about them and try to really understand the character of Gracie that she’ll be inhabiting for the role. Gracie hopes that this film will help people see her side of the story, as she’s unsurprisingly been a pariah in her community since the event. Gracie, like Mary Kay Letourneau, doesn’t feel like she did anything wrong – in her mind, she was “in love,” and that makes everything that happened okay. Joe, though now well into his 30s, is still treated in many ways like a child by Gracie. And though the couple claim to still be madly in love, we begin to see the truth leaking through the cracks in their facade.

The film’s sympathies always lie with Joe – it’s very clear about how destructive this relationship has been for him, and how it’s led to him becoming trapped in a state of arrested development and misery. The film isn’t seeking to question whether what Gracie did was “okay,” but instead to interrogate what kind of person would do something so horrible in the first place, and importantly, what kind of people would be interested in turning that kind of crime into tabloid fodder. Through Elizabeth, the film attempts to hold up a mirror to the darkness that goes into the sensationalization of such an event, and how audiences become engrossed by analyzing and trying to “understand” bad people. And it’s this that makes the film so particularly relevant to today, as a growing number of people have become obsessed with ‘true crime’ media and trying to find ways to involve themselves with these dark narratives.

CH 3: The ‘Dating the Teacher’ Trope Problem

As we mentioned earlier, the ‘male student dating the hot female teacher’ trope is a long-standing cliche in film and television. It has served to help normalize this kind of abuse by almost always framing it as a positive, attempting to erase the power imbalances involved by playing into the idea that boys are just naturally ready for physical relationships at a younger age than girls. This idea that getting with the ‘hot teacher’ is not only a goal for every boy but a win if they can manage it has not only allowed this trope to continue to appear on screen but also affects the way people react to real-life cases of abuse. According to a U.S. Department of Education study of teacher-student sexual abuse in 2004, “one-third of the reported abuse is female to male.” During the time of the case, Fualaau was often framed as ‘equally responsible’ for the abuse because he had allegedly bet his friend $20 that he could sleep with Letourneau – completely ignoring that it doesn’t matter what the twelve-year-old was doing, the grown adult absolutely knew better than to engage with it. (We see this theme touched on in May December as well, when at one point Gracie reminds Joe, “You seduced me” in an attempt to shift blame away from herself.) This framing of the boys as the instigators of these relationships while the adult women teachers just can’t help but give in to them is a staple of the trope and, in fact, what has allowed it to stick around so long, more or less unquestioned. It gives the false impression that the child and adult are somehow on equal footing in the relationship and that while it may be taboo, it isn’t actually harmful. And so, while male teacher-female student relationships are usually acknowledged as creepy, damaging, and abusive, female teacher-male student relationships don’t receive the same kind of coverage.

In the first episode of Dawson’s Creek – which aired in January of 1998, the same month that Letourneau was initially released on probation – fifteen-year-old high school student Pacey becomes enamored with thirty-six-year-old new teacher Tamara when she comes into the video store where he works. Though she pretends to protest for a few scenes, they end up kissing and, a few episodes later, are in a full-blown sexual relationship – all of which is, of course, at Pacey’s insistence. Rumors begin to circulate through the school, and the school board does actually move to take action, but Pacey throws himself under the bus to save her reputation (saying that he made the entire story of their relationship up to appear cooler) and she’s free to go. The entire relationship is treated more like a taboo ‘fling’ than the abusive relationship it actually is – and Tamara even returns to town in season two and momentarily rekindles things with still-teenaged Pacey before they finally decide to call things off for good. The trope has continued to appear on screen as recently as 2017, with Riverdale’s relationship between Archie and music teacher Ms. Grundy. This relationship follows the same pattern: the boy is the instigator, and the adult woman is just swept up in the emotion of it all – openly stating that they shouldn’t do anything and yet still going for it. Some people close to him do try to point out what a bad situation it is. But, again, when other people find out and seek to punish the teacher for the abuse, the boy steps in to defend her, and she gets to leave town pretty much consequence-free.

The decades-long normalization of this trope is what makes May December pushing back against this idea, and showing the kind of long-term, devastating effects this kind of abuse can cause, so cutting. The film asks us to not only think more deeply about the real, negative impacts of these stories on screen and in real life, but also our societal culpability in the sensationalization of this kind of crime. Hopefully, it marks a move toward no longer treating the abuse of boys as a joke or something they should be proud of but as the traumatic violation that it really is.


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