There’s a lot to unpack in “May December,” the critically acclaimed new Netflix movie by director Todd Haynes. There’s the way it explores the weaponization of white womanhood, the trippy ways it plays with camp and drama, and the statement it makes about our complicity as a society in tabloid stories and sensationalism. (Though not by any means a play-by-play, the movie is a fictionalization of the 1997 sexual abuse scandal involving teacher Mary Kay Letourneau and her student Vili Fualaau, who was 12 at the time.)
Then there’s the deft way “May December” handles the subject of sexual grooming ― specifically the ways in which, culturally, we tend to let women abusers off the hook.
The film is set in the years after Gracie (the Letourneau surrogate played by Julianne Moore) is released from prison, where she was sentenced for sexually assaulting an underaged teen, Joe, played by Charles Melton.
Now, Gracie and Joe are married and live a quiet life in a beach house with their three children, now teens themselves. At least, things are quiet until actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) comes to visit. Elizabeth is in town to learn about the family before she portrays Gracie in a movie. The couple reluctantly agree to tell their story.
K.L. Randis, an author and sexual abuse survivor, told HuffPost that what struck her most about the movie was its exploration of grooming and the aftermath of child rape, although words as lurid as those are never used. Instead, what happened years ago between Gracie and Joe is delicately referred to as the “affair.”
“A woman seducing, raping and issuing power over a child is just accepted in the film, based on her pregnancy,” Randis said.
In fact, the whole town is in collusion with the couple.
“Gracie’s ex-husband said ‘they seemed happy,’” Randis said. “Her lawyer seemed proud to be part of something that brought him notoriety in the media, opposed to condemning her actions because of how genuine and in love Gracie has played her role over the years.”
That’s not the only thing the film gets right about the insidious way grooming works. Below, Randis and experts on child abuse talk about what “May December” has to say about the repercussions of child sexual abuse. (Spoilers for the movie ahead.)
Sexual abuse perpetrated by a woman is seen as less severe.
Female-perpetrated sexual abuse isn’t in the news as much as male-perpetrated abuse. That’s likely because it’s an underreported crime, according to Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of “Sexual Grooming: Integrating Research, Prevention, Practice and Policy.”
While about 2% of all convicted sex offenders are female, self-reported studies suggest that up to 14% of all perpetrators of child sexual abuse are female, Jeglic told HuffPost. It’s estimated that 40% of men who experience child sexual abuse are abused by a woman.
“Research has found that those who have been sexually abused by women may have the same or even greater negative consequences as individuals abused by males,” Jeglic said. “The abuse is rarely revealed by the victim, as they believe that they are in a relationship with the adult, as was the case in ‘May December.’ There is this sense of confusion.”
There’s a societal stereotype of women being caring and nurturing, which in turn makes many people believe that sexual abuse perpetrated by a woman is less severe. If a male adult abused a sixth grader, we’d have no qualms about calling it an abusive situation, Jeglic said.
“With the Mary Kay Letourneau case, the press repeatedly referred to it as ‘an affair,’ like we see here in the movie,” Jeglic said. “In her interview with [her], Barbara Walters asked Mary Kay if it ‘was romantic’? Mary Kay also talks about how it was Vili who pursued her. Remember, again, this was a young boy and she was an adult woman.”
When a boy is abused by a woman, it’s assumed he wanted it, too.
For Stefani Goerlich, a clinical social worker and certified sex therapist, one of the most striking things about the movie was the way Gracie shifted the blame to Joe for their illicit, illegal romance.
As a former first response advocate and domestic violence and sexual assault therapist, Goerlich said she’s seen that happen many times.
“When the perpetrator sexualizes their younger victim, they come to see their behavior ― even normal, age-appropriate behavior ― as sexual,” Goerlich said. “This can lead them to see seduction where none is intended, and to infer desire that the youthful victim might not feel.”
As a result, it’s easy for abusers to create a narrative where the victim has flirted with them, signaling a romantic or sexual interest that the perpetrator “had no choice” but to acknowledge.
When Joe finally confronts Gracie about who was responsible for their relationship beginning, a shocked Gracie shifts the blame to him. “Who was the boss? Who was in charge?” she asks.
On social media, many have noted that scene is eerily similar to a clip from a 2018 Australian interview with Fualaau and Letourneau, where the former teacher badgered her husband to admit “he was the boss.”
Adolescent boys are also often socialized to think of being seduced by the “hot, sophisticated, older woman” as desirable, or as evidence of their own maturity.
“Both of these perspectives are horribly flawed, and fail to recognize the harm that these relationships can cause,” Goerlich said.
Not all age-imbalanced relationships are predatory, she said, but culturally, we need to have a genuine conversation about the fetishization of youth.
“We need to talk about the way that stereotypes of masculinity and femininity can be weaponized to undermine, or even erase, the trauma that these relationships can cause,” she said.
The community sometimes protects the abuser.
When abuse happens over decades ― and the abused sticks with the abuser ― Randis thinks people will justify or excuse behaviors that are predatory, “because ‘why would anyone put up with that for so long if they didn’t want or enjoy it?’”
But because Gracie is a woman, her actions aren’t just condoned; she’s cloistered by the community. They buy cakes from her, which gives her an income. They’re terse with outsiders who question the origins of the relationship. At one point, a protective friend asks Elizabeth to be kind to the couple in the film, telling her: “It really feels like things just settled down. And now y’all are making a movie.”
In the years since the scandal, Gracie has worked hard to reframe her abuse as something positive, and her community is all too willing to play along to avoid any awkwardness.
“I found the film to be a great jumping-off point to discuss ‘all that hasn’t been said,’” said Aniss Benelmouffok, manager of public affairs at the Association for the Treatment and Prevention of Sexual Abuse, an international nonprofit organization.
“There is a scene where Elizabeth, the actress, and Joe are walking in the marshland near the house, and you can really feel that Elizabeth has a strong desire to act as an engaged bystander ― unlike the community,” Benelmouffok told HuffPost.
“Walking beside Joe, her body language screams that she wants to say something about his experience of child sexual abuse, but she doesn’t know how or can’t get herself to do it,” he said.
It can take years to realize you were abused and address what ‘hasn’t been said.’
Samy Burch, the screenwriter of “May December,” told Vogue recently that it’s relevant that the film is set around graduation. (Gracie and Joe’s twins are graduating high school; their oldest daughter is already off at college.)
“The seed was realizing that [Letourneau and Vili Fualaau’s] kids were college age,” Burch told Vogue. “That was the spark for me ― this idea of a man who hadn’t gotten to process everything that happened and the media blitz and forced fatherhood. Setting the film right before a high school graduation was the first sentence of the idea, with Joe about to be an empty nester and looking at all that hasn’t been said.”
Joe watching his kids complete their childhood allows him to finally grapple with what happened in his: how Gracie stole it from him and effectively sidelined any life he had planned for himself. The movie ends on a somewhat ambiguous note: Will Joe leave Gracie like Fualaau left Letourneau in real life? Either way, there’s a sense that something has irrevocably changed in Joe and his perception of what he’s been through.
“Joe finally starts to question his reality with her,” Randis said. “No longer is he the caregiver for Gracie. He’s voicing his observations from remembering things from his past.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.