David Henry Hwang's Pulitzer-prize-winning drama M. Butterfly is almost single-minded in its examination of the role played by preconceptions in the establishment of cultural expectations and stereotypes. Based on a true story, the drama to some extent lays out in clear precise terms the ways in which Western prejudices toward China can lead to results that would seem wildly implausible in a brief factual summary, but are nonetheless the foreordained results of taking such Western prejudices to their logical conclusion. It is crucial to note, however, that Hwang's ideas are couched largely in terms of gender: this is a play in which the difference between men and women is engaged intellectually for the reader or viewer as a way of complicating or underscoring certain preconceptions about the difference between East and West. It is worth conducting a deeper examination of the ways whereby Hwang constructs his story and to investigate the notions of gender that are used in that construction, to examine what he thinks the underlying cultural conceptions are and how they are formed.
It is worth noting at the outset that M. Butterfly is itself a text that is rewriting an earlier text: Hwang's story, while based on a true event, is itself a retelling or re-vision of the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. The idea of a gender difference is already advertised in the title: "Madame" is a French term of address for a married woman, while "M." is the abbreviation for the French "Monsieur," term of address for an adult man. In other words, his title could very well be "Mr. Butterfly," except that his protagonist is a French diplomat, Gallimard. In some sense, then, we are notified simply by reading the title that what we might expect is a gender-reversed version of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Conveniently for an audience that might know the title of Puccini's opera without recollecting the details of the plot, Gallimard summarizes the plot of the original story at the beginning of M. Butterfly:
Its heroine, Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly, is a feminine ideal, beautiful and brave. And its hero, the man for whom she gives up everything, is -- [he pulls out a naval officer's cap from under his crate, pops it on his head, and struts about] -- not very good-looking, not too bright, and pretty much a wimp: Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy. As the curtain rises, he's just closed on two great bargains: one on a house, the other on a woman -- call it a package deal. Pinkerton purchased the rights to Butterfly for one hundred yen -- in modern currency, equivalent to about…sixty-six cents. So he's feeling pretty pleased with himself… (Hwang, 5)
The rest of the plot, which he will also summarize, is fairly simple: Butterfly falls in love with Pinkerton, who abandons her. He returns to America where he marries a white American woman: when news of this betrayal reaches Butterfly in Japan, she commits suicide. What is worth noting, however, about the summary given by Gallimard is the performative nature of it. As he tells the story of Pinkerton without romanticizing him -- describing him as "pretty much a wimp" -- he also takes on the part of Pinkerton himself by wearing the "naval officer's cap." We are therefore invited at the outset of the drama to see the white Westerner in M. Butterfly as self-consciously playacting the role of the white Westerner from the earlier Madame Butterfly: to some extent the resolution of the drama will therefore come as an utter surprise, when it is essentially revealed that Gallimard has been playing the opposite role all along, of the spurned woman. So even though there is a larger and more memorable surprise about the gender of the main characters -- the central fact of the drama -- the drama itself is structured around a larger gender reversal, where Gallimard begins the drama as the unheroic agent of Western imperialism, but ends the drama as the one who dies for love, the role played in Puccini's opera by the Asian character, who is also a woman. We are asked to entertain ideas about both racial or cultural reversal, and gender reversal.
In point of fact, early on in the drama the two main characters -- the French diplomat Gallimard and the Chinese spy Song who is employed to gather information on him while pretending to be a woman -- actually do discuss outright this precise notion of a gender-reversed version of the Puccini opera:
SONG: It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.
Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner -- ah! -- you find it beautiful.
GALLIMARD: Yes…well…I see your point… (Hwang, 17)
It is worth examining this passage in more depth, because it offers us a vision of how shallow the plot of Puccini's Madame Butterfly might seem if an audience questions its unspoken assumptions. However, it is also important to note that these characters are also engaged in acting out a different version of the plot of Madame Butterfly, which also reverses expectations in a different way. How these two riffs on the plot of the Puccini original interact are quite interesting, when we consider the notion of gender and how it plays into Hwang's construction of the ideas of cultural preconception. In this passage, early in the play, Song finds one way of deconstructing the original plot of Madame Butterfly by speaking -- as a Chinese person -- about the racial assumptions that go into the story. It is the story of a "submissive Oriental woman" and the easiest way to get a Westerner to consider the extent to which this is a stereotype is to reverse the cultural backgrounds of the main characters. The notion of a submissive American woman who commits suicide for the love of a rather uninteresting Japanese man that spurns her is assumed to be readily explicable to Gallimard -- and to the implied white Western audience of a Broadway play -- as a "deranged idiot." Because Hwang is writing a tightly constructed play rather than a more discursive novel, he does not bother to discuss the fact that this race-reversed fantasy of Madame Butterfly has indeed been tried by others: one might consider a work like L'Amant by Marguerite Duras, or even Frank Capra's 1933 Hollywood film The Bitter Tea of General Yen, both of which do imagine the scenario of an Asian man with a younger Western woman. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine either Duras or Capra in too much detail, but it is enough to note that in neither case is the Western woman presented by the Western artist as a "deranged idiot."
It is worth noting, however, that the version of the "submissive Oriental woman" that is discussed in M. Butterfly is more or less explicitly presented for a white Western audience and is therefore challenging that audience's stereotypical preconceptions. It would complicate matters too much, perhaps, to suggest that Chinese or Japanese authors have examined gender in such a way that calls into question their own cultural constructions of gender, but have done so for Asian audiences without the assumption of a Westerner peeking in to see the drama. The protagonist of Kawabata's Snow Country, with his seemingly cavalier treatment of the geisha Komako, might be seen as a native Japanese version of Pinkerton from Madame Butterfly -- it is possible that Kawabata even intends this, as his protagonist is explicitly described as having a profound interest in Western arts (particularly ballet). So Kawabata does perhaps dramatize cultural difference as well, but it is a cultural difference within Japanese culture -- it is not about the conflict of East and West per se, but about an urban cosmopolitan (who has exposure to Western ideas and culture) and a rural geisha. Similarly Feng Jicai approaches the subject of the foot-binding of women in historical Chinese culture in the novel The Three-Inch Golden Lotus: this issue might very well be taken as a source of Western stereotypes about the "submissive Oriental woman" for the precise reason that so many Chinese women were forced to submit to the practice. But it is worth noting that, if we are meant to think in M. Butterfly, that the "submissive Oriental woman" is the object of fetishistic desire on the part of Westerners, in The Three-Inch Golden Lotus, the girl Fragrant Lotus is able…
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