The Netflix movie “May December” is heavily inspired by the real-life relationship between Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, which is probably why its depiction of stereotypes of Asian men feels so close to reality, too. The morally problematic tale takes viewers on a complex journey with troubling racial implications, particularly as they relate to weaponized whiteness and the depiction of Asian masculinity as subservient and childlike.
This highly publicized case, as well as its fictionalized version depicted in “May December,” raises a central question: how did the fact that she’s a white woman impact not only her ability to groom him — an Asian American boy — but also the public’s reaction to the story?
This feeds into the harmful stereotype that Asian men are complacent and obedient.
In “May December,” Julianne Moore plays Gracie, the fictionalized version of Letourneau, who began sexually abusing Fualauu when he was her sixth-grade student. In 1997, Letourneau pled guilty to two counts of secondary rape but stayed with Fualaau, giving birth to two of his children before he was 15 and eventually marrying him. In the film, Gracie is married to Joe, played by Charles Melton, the fictionalized version of Fualaau.
We pick up the action as their youngest children prepare to graduate from high school. At this point, Joe is a 36-year-old stay-at-home dad and Gracie is in her mid to lat e 50s. An actress named Elizabeth, portrayed by Natalie Portman, is set to play a fictionalized version of Gracie and drops into the family’s life to try to learn more about them.
Throughout the film, we, like Elizabeth, begin to see the real nature of Joe and Gracie’s relationship. It’s one predicated on stereotypes and racism — Joe fulfills the subdued, subservient role so often foisted upon Asian Americans, and their relationship is relatively accepted because Gracie weaponizes her whiteness. Ultimately, the film exposes how flipped gender and racial roles allow sexual abuse to be more palatable for and accepted by the general public.
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Let’s start with Joe. Although he’s well into his 30s, he increasingly comes off as childlike as the film progresses. He isn’t a full-fledged adult or equal partner. Rather, he is infinitely subservient to Gracie, only doing what he thinks is expected of him.
This feeds into the harmful stereotype that Asian men are complacent and obedient. Importantly, it’s a sharp contrast to how white men are usually depicted: dominant, brash, aggressive. Joe practically fades into the background at a neighborhood barbecue, almost like he is hired help, until Gracie calls upon him. It’s clear that Gracie has groomed him, like a toy to fill some part of herself — and she’s been able to do so at least in part because of his race.
In one scene, for example, Joe confides that the other girls at school weren’t much into him, but “Gracie saw me and I wanted that.” It’s clear he has internalized the white-savior complex. Gracie was very much able to leverage the perception of Joe as an “other” to her advantage, especially so because he grew up in a mostly white community. Indeed, we learn that Gracie fetishized Joe right from the start, first noticing him only because he and his family were the only Asians in the neighborhood.
Gracie is, in contrast to Joe, far more controlling, treating Joe more like a tool or dehumanized servant than as her husband. At the same time, she has come to weaponize her traditional “victim” role as a white woman. She makes it sound like everyone is out to make her feel bad and hurt her. She even tells Elizabeth at one point, “I am naive. I always have been. In a way, it’s been a gift.” In her relationship with Joe, while she is clearly the one in control, she fights to maintain this victim narrative. As she explains to Elizabeth, Joe “grew up very quickly,” whereas she herself was “very sheltered.”
At play here, too, is the explicit and implicit fetishization of Joe’s Asianness.
When Joe’s repressed feelings about how their relationship first started eventually float to the surface, he comes to her more like a child than as an equal partner and husband. He asks, “Why can’t we talk about it?” Even though he was only 13 years old at the time and unable to consent, Gracie continues to feed him a false narrative. “You seduced me,” she tells him. “I don’t care how old you were. Who was in charge? Who was the boss?”
This brings up the “hot for teacher” trope sometimes depicted in movies and TV shows. When we see a teacher who is a man engage with a girl student, it is universally regarded as problematic and predatory. But when the roles are reversed, the perception is wildly different.
Take shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and “Riverdale.” In both cases, the boy student is the instigator. We’re led to believe that these boys are ready for physical relationships, while the women teachers simply get swept up in it all. This framing completely eclipses the truth of the matter, which is that Gracie is a pedophile and an abuser.
At play here, too, is the explicit and implicit fetishization of Joe’s Asianness. It’s harder to call out because we often see this in the form of so-called yellow fever and the objectification of Asian women. But it happens to Asian men as well — usually in the form of an exoticization or emasculation.
Gracie isn’t the only one to fetishize Joe’s Asianness. As Elizabeth reviews the audition tapes for who might play Joe in the movie within a movie, she notes that the kids are “not sexy enough. You’ve seen him. He’s got this, like, quiet confidence. Even as a kid, I’m sure.” Equally, she is able to weaponize her white womanhood to seduce Joe herself.
The disturbing truth that underlies the entire movie (and Letourneau’s real-life crime) is that if Joe’s character had been a white girl and Gracie’s character had been an Asian man, the narrative would be received in a wildly different way. That dynamic would be practically inconceivable for most American audiences to accept as even plausible. There’s no way an emasculated Asian man teacher would’ve been able to manipulate and seduce a young white girl student — and even if he did, it’d be overtly predatory and unacceptable.
The relative acceptance of Gracie’s actions and motives — as well as the other characters’ treatment of Joe — reaffirms that Asian men are seen as “less than” in American society. Emasculated and fetishized, Asian men become passive tools to satisfy and satiate the whims and fancies of the white majority. We cook your food and clean your laundry as nameless, faceless, infinitely replaceable instruments of absolute servitude and silent acquiescence.
In the real world, Letourneau and Fualaau legally separated in 2019 after 14 years of marriage and two children together. She died from cancer in 2020 at the age of 58, leaving much of her estate to Fualaau. The ending of “May December” isn’t quite so conclusive. Rather, it leaves us with more questions worth exploring.
Conventional gender stereotypes played a central role in the media’s portrayal of the real-world story. Letourneau was presented as a social victim, and her relationship with Fualaau was often described in terms of love. Her criminal actions were almost excused in the court of public opinion, whereas Fualaau’s lived trauma is little more than a footnote. It’s her story that’s of primary interest, not his. Fualaau fades into the background, much like Joe does at the neighborhood barbecue, only brought up when it is convenient and he is needed to fulfill a task.
In “May December,” gender stereotypes equally take center stage. But the racial implications aren’t examined with nearly the same level of scrutiny. The power imbalance is attributed to the dynamic between an older woman and a teenage boy, and much less so to weaponized whiteness and subordinated Asianness.
We aren’t sure what happens to Gracie and Joe by the end of the film, though it feels like she still has his claws in him and he will continue to feel hopelessly trapped in their relationship. Because that’s what she wants, and what he wants never mattered anyhow.