‘May December’ film about Mary Kay Letourneau ignites discussion of race and class

In 1997, elementary school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau ignited a tabloid frenzy when she pleaded guilty and was convicted of second-degree child rape of 13-year-old student Vili Fualaau. The case dominated headlines again this month following the release of the Netflix movie “May December,” which is partially based on the scandal.

Letourneau, a 35-year-old white woman from a wealthy political family in California, served seven years in prison. She and Fualaau, who is of Samoan descent, later got married and raised two daughters, both of whom were born before Fualaau turned 16. Sociologists and other academics say the film brings up new angles about how race and class shaped the coverage of the story by the media and may have prevented the public from seeing Fualaau, a Pacific Islander boy from a working-class family, as a victim of rape. 

Charles Melton as Joe at the barbeque.
Charles Melton as Joe in a scene from “May December.”François Duhamel / Netflix

 The Netflix movie, starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton, loosely adapts the reported facts of the case, including tabloid photos and cable interviews the couple gave. The film’s director, Todd Haynes, told Letterboxd that the title refers to the term “May December romance,” which describes a relationship between two people with a considerable age gap — May alluding to spring and December to winter.   

The Letourneau-Fualaau scandal “was presented as a human interest story that normalized the relationship between this adult woman and a child of color,” said Anthony Ocampo, a sociology professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “The images played a very strong role in normalizing this relationship and erasing the fact that a child was raped.” 

In the late 1990s, many tabloids portrayed the relationship between Letourneau and Fualaau as a forbidden romance rather than a crime. A 1998 People Magazine cover, showing a pregnant Letourneau holding her infant daughter, described the scandal as a “bizarre story of obsessive love” that began with a teacher “trysting” with her pupil. Other outlets amplified Fualaau’s claim that he “bet a friend $20” that he’d seduce Letourneau. Letourneau and Fualaau’s marriage lasted more than a decade; they divorced in 2019 and a year later Letourneau died of colon cancer.

Mary Kay Letourneau listens to testimony during a court hearing in 1998.
Mary Kay Letourneau during a court hearing in Seattle in 1998. Alan Berner / The Seattle Times via AP file

Back in 1997, Letourneau’s attorney, David Gehrke, defended her actions by downplaying the rape. “This was a child she took an interest in, not unlike one of us might have taken an interest in one of our teachers,” he said. “She’s a very good person who did a very bad thing.”

Attempts to reach Fualaau were unsuccessful.

Ocampo, the sociology professor, said the tabloids were able to sell the rape as a love story because of the popular perception that white women are inherently innocent while men of color, no matter how young, are criminal and threatening. “We’re not conditioned to see white women as perpetrators of rape,” he said. “Our brains are programmed to reject that idea.”

To be sure, instances of sexual predation in which an older woman targets a younger man — no matter their race — are often benevolent to the woman, though implications can be more damning for men of color.  

The tabloid coverage of Fualaau exemplified the “adultification bias” against Black and brown children, who are often perceived as more sexually mature and dangerous than their white peers, said sociologist and cultural critic Nancy Wang Yuen. She noted that this practice applied to Emmett Till, who was 14 when he was lynched in 1955, and more recently to Tamir Rice, who was 12 when he was shot for carrying a replica toy gun.  

Charles Melton as Joe and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry walking with dogs.
Charles Melton as Joe with Natalie Portman as Elizabeth Berry in a scene from “May December.”François Duhamel / Netflix

 “They were all talked about as adults,” Wang Yuen said. “That’s definitely the case with Fualaau, too. These really problematic and racist and sexist stereotypes of Black and brown kids resulted in these problematic legal allowances that were made for his case.” 

Lana Lopesi, an assistant professor at University of Oregon who specializes on Pacific studies, said the hypersexualization of Pacific Islanders’ anatomy in particular is centuries old. Early explorers like Captain James Cook described young Pacific Islanders in a sexual way in their travelogues, she said, as did anthropologist Margaret Mead in her study of prepubescent Samoan girls.  

 Representation of Samoan men still portray their bodies as naturally large and athletic, Lopesi said, which draws on stereotypes of savagery and primitivism. This “noble savage” trope is widely deployed in sports like wrestling and American football, she said, with Samoan players often described as embodying “savage warrior hood.” In 1991, a police officer shot and killed two unarmed Samoan brothers, Pouvi and Italia Tualaulelei, in their driveway. Yet the lawyer persuaded jurors to acquit the officer, Lopesi said, by focusing on the brothers’ physicality, making the case they too “would be scared” should the Tualauleleis approach them.  

 Vili Fualaau watches as his attorney speaks
Vili Fualaau during opening arguments in a lawsuit in Kent, Wash., in 2002.Elaine Thompson / AP file

“All of this works together in the way that the public sees Samoan men — without humanity, without intelligence, without emotion — as bodies to be used,” Lopesi said. 

In 2020, a couple of months after Letourneau’s death, Fualaau told Dr. Oz that he didn’t feel like a victim of rape but rather of the publicity around the relationship. “I wouldn’t say I was ever a victim by her,” he said. “I would say I was a victim by the way everything played out. It was extremely depressing back then, and I became a victim from a lot of media putting her name out there and a lot of people’s opinions … It just caused a lot of trauma.” 

In a 20/20 interview in 2015, he also said that he struggled with depression and alcoholism over the years. “I’m surprised I’m still alive today,” he said. “I went through a really dark time.”

Many on social media are also pointing to an interview with an Australian news channel that inspired a scene in the movie. In the real-life segment, interviewer Matt Doran asked Letourneau about being the “adult” and said that Fualaau was “the child.”

Letourneau asked Fualaau, “Who was the boss back then?”

“This is ridiculous,” Fualaau said, and said he was the “pursuer.”

“Come on, he was 13,” Doran said.

The #MeToo movement has led to increased awareness about child abuse and the double standard that Black and brown victims face, Ocampo said. Many people who watched “May December” have expressed horror and heartbreak toward the abuse that Fualauu endured, a marked departure from the tabloid fascination with the story three decades earlier. 

Ocampo said growing representation of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood and popular media played an important role in this reckoning. But he said there’s still a long way to go, pointing out that the movie wasn’t told from the child’s perspective, portrayed as Joe Yoo, a half-Korean character played by Melton.   

“Can you imagine Hollywood greenlighting a movie that centers a young man of color who was abused?” he said.