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Column: 'May December' exploits the already exploited

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DTH Photo illustration. Netflix has seen a decrease in subscribers in the first quarter of the year.

The Oscar-nominated Netflix film “May December” hypocritically exploits the abuse faced by Vili Fualaau, who was raped at 12-years-old by his 34-year-old teacher, Mary Kay Letourneau.

“May December” is presented as a fictional work and there is no mention of the real-life story that it was inspired by. But, the similarities between the film's main couple — Joe and Gracie — and the abusive relationship between Fualaau and Letourneau are stark.

In 1997, Letourneau was convicted for second-degree child rape of Fualaau, who was her sixth grade student. They had two children together before he turned 15 and were married for over a decade until Letourneau died in 2020.

Similarly, “May December” tells the story of a TV actress who immerses herself in the lives of Joe and Gracie, who met when he was a 13-year-old part-time employee at a pet store where Gracie worked at the age of 37.

Screenwriter Samy Burch and director Todd Haynes have admitted “May December” was inspired by the Letourneau case,, but only as a starting point. However, the film made it easy to connect the fictional to the real, causing a resurgence in media coverage on the Letourneau case and thrusting Fualaau back into the public eye. 

In one emotionally charged scene, the character Gracie asks Joe “Who was the boss?” This explicitly replicates a 2018 interview in which Letourneau repeatedly asks Fualaau the same question in eerily similar fashion. 

Burch said the team behind “May December” was interested in big tabloid stories like that of Letourneau and Fualaau.

Netflix’s synopsis calls the fictional couple’s beginning “scandalous” and one scene in the film shows tabloids featuring Gracie and Joe, the title calling it a romance. Similarly, one cover of People Magazine from 1998 said Letourneau was “trysting with her former pupil.”

These words suggest the relationship was a taboo and forbidden romance as opposed to an immoral crime. It removes the severity of the tragedy endured, talking about the case as if the victim and the offender were in a consenting relationship that just happened to be filled with drama which the film attempts to point out.

“We all live in this tabloid world, whether we want to or not,” Burch said. “But sometimes I go, what have we really learned here? Is this not just another round of exploitation?”

Burch now must answer her own question.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Fualaau claimed he was never consulted about the “May December.” The film, which aimed to make viewers question how the media exploits victims, ironically does that exact same thing.

“If they had reached out to me, we could have worked together on a masterpiece. Instead, they chose to do a ripoff of my original story,” Fualaau said in an interview. "I’m offended by the entire project and the lack of respect given to me — who lived through a real story and is still living it.”

“May December” cannibalizes itself, calling viewers to think twice about their expectations and morals despite the fact that creating the film without the Fualauu’s consent is exploitative itself.

One article from People Magazine published on Jan. 31 was titled “Where Is Vili Fualaau Now? A Look At His Life 26 Years After Mary Kay Letourneau Trial.” Another article published by NBC News goes as far to explicitly say that “May December” is about Letourneau. 

The cast and creators are fully aware of the consequences the film posed to Fualaau and the other people who inspired characters, such as the children he had with Letourneau. 

In an interview alongside Haynes, Burch and the movie’s other two lead actors, Natalie Portman said this: “There’s this really harsh ethical [...] paradox that we face when we do what we do about real people in particular. That’s problematic.”

Regardless of the film’s original noble intention to subvert how viewers consume media that exploits trauma, it lost all validity when it did so at the expense of Fualaau. His life since he was 12-years-old has been defined by a lack of power and control, and the creators of “May December” perpetuate that pattern.

Fualaau has continually been misrepresented in the media. He was once portrayed as a consenting adult when he was a 12-year-old boy, as a participant in a scandalous romance rather than a victim of sexual abuse, and now he once again feels like his story has been twisted. Despite critical acclaim, “May December” fails to understand its own message and further exploits the already exploited.

@rachelxmoody

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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