The Submissive Oriental Woman and the Cruel White Man: Power Play in M. Butterfly

The image of the submissive Oriental, like the image of the submissive woman, is a familiar cultural stereotype. In the binary oppositions of West and East, man and woman, the latter elements share the same supposed set of characteristics: delicate, passive, self-sacrificing or victimized, pursued object, inferior, while the opposites of these characteristics—strong, active, superior, and so on—are attributed to the man, to the West. Thus the Orient is commonly depicted as feminine—and therefore weak, legitimizing the “protection” and domination of the powerful, masculine Occident. The myth of these binaries, produced by the Western male imagination and perpetuated in such cultural products as Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, is what David Henry Hwang explores, exposes, and turns upside down in his play M. Butterfly.

The first thing that struck me about the play was the unconventional staging and narrative technique. The play utilizes two stages simultaneously, allowing for conjunctions that make for a richer experience and understanding of the drama. The play also follows a nonlinear narrative, breaks through the fourth wall, and turns attention to its own constructedness. The second thing that struck me was the issue of Gallimard being a dupe. The second scene emphasizes the incredulity and ridicule with which people reacted to Gallimard’s delusion. Indeed, the theme of self-deception and fantasy runs throughout the narrative. It is important to consider that central to the play on narrative technique and the theme of fantasy is the awareness of the aforementioned binaries of West and East, Man and Woman, and the power struggles they involve, the structures of power that underlie them. Just as the play’s form runs counter to conventional, Western, linear thought, so does the play’s subjects undercut the stereotypes of East and West, man and woman. Contrary to the Western stereotype of the shy and subservient Oriental woman, Song is intelligent, proud, and assertive, and makes no qualms about arguing against Gallimard’s unenlightened opinions in the first scene we see her speak. Indeed, after they meet, he thinks her arrogant. However, this impression soon fades into a different image, that of Gallimard’s “Perfect Woman”—beautiful, adoring, and, most importantly, under his power. Gallimard sees Song not as she really is, but as he imagines and wants her to be, a figure consistent with his idea of the Orient and of femininity. Despite hints and evidence to the contrary, he is unwilling to let go of this image, however illusory it may be, because it gives him a sense of power. In the same way, the Westerners too easily believe that the East is open to imperialism and will welcome them with the desire “to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power” because such judgments sanction their ideology of domination.

Although Hwang shows the erroneousness of subscribing to such stereotypes that perpetuate the subjugation of the East and of woman, one may also question the complicity of the Oriental woman in perpetuating such stereotypes. Doesn’t Song deliberately project this image of “woman created by a man”? Doesn’t she allow herself to be put under Gallimard’s power? Yes, she does, but she does this with an agenda—and that is to undermine that power. The fact that the Western man is able to construct and maintain these stereotypes of the East and of women and even make standards of those stereotypes indicates his power over them. Thus, open retaliation in such an uneven equation can be futile. Another form of resistance may be used, and that is to mimic those stereotypes and expose them for being stereotypes, and in so doing, break them down. That Song turns out to be the very opposite of what Gallimard supposes “her” to be—a man who manipulates him for political ends instead of a woman under his power because of love—undermines those constructs. With his use of parallels and reversals, Hwang shows the dangers of believing them: because of misconceptions, a man is forever thrown into ignominy; because of misconceptions, a disastrous war ensues. In the end the stereotype turns against the stereotyper: Gallimard becomes the butterfly and, in a manner conventionally associated with women and with the Japanese, kills himself.

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