The Actual Roles of “Him” and “Her”: Contrasts in She Stoops to Conquer and M. Butterfly
The figurative use of masks in She Stoops to Conquer and M. Butterfly is present in both the characters and the themes to define genders and deceit. Goldsmith and Hwang use mockery and satire in the two plays interchangeably through time and space and to interlock the two plays together in terms of themes as well as to set them apart. When it comes to the ending of the play. Both protagonists from M. Butterfly and She Stoops to Conquer challenges social norms through satire and deceit to transform and break gender stereotypes for femininity and masculinity, and while M. Butterfly makes the audience form false assumptions about gender roles from disguise and irony, She Stoops to Conquer uses satire to cross boundaries on how the audience thinks about men and women from different social hierarchies.
As the play begins, Rene Gallimard in M. Butterfly paces around his jail cell and mutters about losing his one and only love, addressing Butterfly, who is actually a man in disguise: “He still claims not to believe the truth.” “What? Still? Even since the trial?” “Yes. Isn’t it mad?” (Hwang, 8) By using two complete random characters whose name isn’t even mentioned, Huang uses irony and satire to emphasize on making fun of Gallimard about how he is still so hung up on a man whom he thinks was the perfect woman. In Scene Three, Gallimard thinks the whole country is still idolizing him when in reality; the whole nation is mocking him. Smilng, Gallimard starts talking to the audience, “You see? They toast me. I’ve become patron saint of the socially inept. Can they really be so foolish? Men like that – they should be scratching at my door, begging to learn my secrets! For I, Rene Gallimard, you see, I have known, and been loved by… the Perfect Woman” (Hwang, 9). The very fact that M. Butterfly is indeed, a man cloaked as a woman, suggests the notion that everything started out as a lie, or disguised in falsehood, from the beginning. Gallimard recognizes himself as the masculine figure in the situation, but towards the end realized that he is actually the feminine figure in terms of politics and personal relations as well. Song, or otherwise known as Butterfly, says to Gallimard towards the end, “You don’t really believe that I’m a man. I’m your Butterfly. Under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me. Now, open your eyes and admit it – you adore me” (Hwang, 65-66). There is strong satire and mockery dripping from the words of Song. It is only towards the ending where the tables have turned and the gender and cultural stereotypes have been reversed – for the West to be masculine and for the Asian/East to be feminine. Gallimard has made a fool out of himself as a result of believing too much in stereotypes.
On the other side, Hardcastle and his daughter, Kate (or Ms. Hardcastle) starts bickering about Kate’s future spouse, to whom Hardcastle says its Marlow. In the beginning scenes, Hardcastle seems to push the idea of Marlow as a possible spouse for his daughter, yet Kate’s generic replies have already start serving as disguise for the gender and class stereotypes existing in the play. Hardcastle continuously says, “Depend upon it child, I’ll never control your choice, but Mr. Marlow, whom I have pitched upon, is the son of my old friend, Sir Charles Marlow, of whom you have heard me talk so often. The young gentleman has been bred a scholar, and is designed for an employment in the service of his country. I am told he’s a man of an excellent understanding […] Young and brave. Very generous. And very handsome. And, t crown all, Kate, he’s one of the most bashful and reserved young fellows in all the world.” (Goldsmith, 17-18) It is ironic because when talking about gender stereotypes, Kate’s fate and marriage is clearly arranged by her father, Hardcastle, yet a while later Kate eventually determines her own fate through disguise. All Hardcastle could say about Marlow is how good of a fit he could be for Kate. By disguising as a maid, or a woman of a lower class hierarchy, Kate is able to grasp Marlow’s sincerity and persona and eventually makes Marlow fall in love with her. Kate single-handedly determines the fate of the two families, just by being herself, thus breaking the stereotype of gender classifications and social class hierarchies. “I never knew half his merit till now. He shall not go, if I have power or art to detain him. I’ll still preserve the character in which I stooped to conquer; but will undeceive my papa, who perhaps may laugh him out of his resolution.” (Goldsmith, 119) Kate has definitely ‘stooped to conquer’ by lowering herself into another class and shows that women from all hierarchies can have an influence. It is satirical and ironic because while Marlow could not talk to women of higher classes, he is smooth and reserved when talking to women of lower class; yet Kate is toying along with him along the way. The scene portrays how stereotypes are easily made and assumed, but in reality the tables has completely turned, therefore resulting in the complete opposite of how gender stereotypes are not accurate at all.
Song takes on both roles of femininity and masculinity through deceit in order to break cultural stereotypes of the East and the West, causing not only the audience but also Gallimard to be caught completely off-guard. Song uses his Asian origins as a tactic to pretend to be a submissive Asian woman to ‘serve’ white men. Song’s words and actions is completely depleted of egotism and pride, ‘she’ leaves it all for Gallimard. “Yes, I am. I am your Butterfly. […] No…no…gently…please, I’ve never… […] I’ve tried to appear experienced, but … the truth is no. […] No, let me keep my clothes… Please, it all frightens me. I’m a modest Chinese girl. I am your treasure. Though inexperienced, I am not… ignorant. They teach us things, our mothers, about pleasing a man. I’ll do my best to make you happy. Turn off the lights.” (Hwang, 33-34) Song’s bubble of innocence is all an intentional act of luring Gallimard in to the eventual great scheme of acquiring secret information about international affairs between the East and the West. The intentional acting and talking like a woman blinds Gallimard’s common sense and alertness because he is so obsessed with the idea of a Perfect Woman and the submissive, Oriental, woman. Gallimard tries to portray himself as the masculine one, the man of the West, and the wants to be the one who’s in control; he does not even notice that Song is not only a man, but also a spy for the Chinese embassy under-covering as a woman as a form of tactics. Song shows his true side later on in the courtroom, revealing to everyone that he’s a man, and testifying that Gallimard indeed loves him, with a hint of homosexuality suggested. “Go where? Rene, you can’t live without me. Not after twenty years. […] I’m your fantasy, so throw away your pride, and come… In the crush of your adoration, I thought you’d become something more. More like… a woman.” (Hwang, 67) Song explicitly refers Gallimard as a woman, immediately feminizing the West and playing a more masculine role for the Oriental. Thus, the tables have turned. Song knows Gallimard will go mad and cannot live without the idea of a Perfect Woman after twenty years, therefore keeps pushing the notion onto Gallimard and he eventually loses his mind, his job, his wife, and his life. Song immediately breaks and transforms the gender identity stereotypes for an alien culture to be more feminine and the West to be more masculine
Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer is a controversial character himself; Goldsmith uses Marlow’s own actions and words against him, turning it into irony and satire to distinguish how two genders act and present themselves from different social classes that usually mean nothing at all. Being on the higher end of the class hierarchy himself, he shows disgrace and awkwardness when it comes to socializing with women of the higher class, yet pertains and courts lower class women. When Kate, or Ms. Hardcastle, disguises herself as a bar maid, Marlow immediately replies, “Nothing, my dear, nothing. But I was in for a list of blunders, and could not help making you a subscriber. My stupidity saw everything the wrong way. I mistook your assiduity for assurance, and your simplicity for allurement. But it’s over. This house I no more show MY face in. […] This is the first mark of tenderness I ever had from a modest woman, and it touches me. Excuse me, my lovely girl… and I can never harbor a thought of seducing simplicity that trusted in my honor, of bringing ruin upon one whose only fault was being too lovely.” (Goldsmith, 117-118) Marlow appears to be smooth, genuine, and composed, in which the author uses this tactic to make fun of his character as well. Marlow thinks he’s more masculine by courting a woman of the lower class, and appears to be more feminine talking to women from the upper class, yet the whole time he is not the one in control, it is Kate who is; therefore Kate achieving the more ‘masculine’ role in the play. Previously when Kate hasn’t disguised herself yet, Marlow stutters and stumbles across his words. “Pardon me, madam, I-I-I-as yet have studied – only – to deserve them […] It’s – a – disease – of the mind, madam. In the variety of tastes there must be someone who, wanting a relish – for – um – a – um. […] Yes madam. In this age of hypocrisy there are few who upon strict inquiry do not – a – a – a – a – “ (Goldsmith, 63-64) Clearly, Marlow cannot even pronounce himself enough to get a proper sentence across to Kate when she is in her actual class status. He portrays the real feminine role here, ironically, because he likes to think of himself as the man who has control. Goldsmith also uses the satire in gender roles and identities to mock Marlow’s character in how controversial his actions and words are.
While the endings of the two plays are completely different and opposite, with Marlow and Kate getting married and Gallimard committing suicide because of his shame, deceit and disguise make a strong presence in determining the two plays. The themes both set them apart and brought them together in terms of gender relations and stereotypes. M. Butterfly and She Stoops to Conquer transforms and breaks the discrimination about the roles of women and men. The characters and the scenes also depicts how satire help break the stereotypes and reaches to a level of revelation. By the end of the two plays, gender roles have been switched, broken, and changed the conceptions of social norms.
A Postcolonial Reading of M. Butterfly
David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly draws links between sexism, racism and imperialism. Hwang’s play, which is loosely based on a scandal involving a French diplomat and his lover, a male Chinese opera singer, utilizes postcolonial ideas in order to imply a connection between sex, race and imperialism. Part of how this is illustrated is through the parallel that the play makes between its plot, and the story of Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. Rene Gallimard, the main character, alludes to Puccini’s opera throughout M. Butterfly. He is enamored by the opera’s title character, Cio-Cio-San, romanticizing her as the ideal woman. This can be seen when he says, “Its heroine, Cio-Cio-San, is a feminine ideal, beautiful and brave.” (108, 1.3., Hwang). As far as Gallimard is concerned, she is the epitome of perfection because he sees in her a pure love, devotion and sense of sacrifice and duty. Ironically, the “woman” who turns him on to this attraction, Song Liling, is herself completely disgusted by the messages in the opera. She expresses this in the line: “But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner-ah!-you find it beautiful.” (111, 1.7., Hwang). Song repudiates the opera early on in M. Butterfly by turning the tables on the plot. If the American woman were abandoned by the lecherous Asian man, she would be scorned and mocked by a Western audience. On the other hand, a Western man is attracted by the desire to protect the poor, modest, submissive and devoted Asian girl, and idealizes her as an Oriental “Perfect Woman.” This is what Gallimard does while under Song’s spell. As opposed to calling Song by her “name” (or the name of the woman being played by the man in disguise), Gallimard calls her “Butterfly”, and lusts for her as an exotic prize the way his Madama Butterfly counterpart, Pinkerton, does for Cio-Cio-San. Gallimard expresses this when he says, “There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in cheongsams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women.” (129, 3.3., Hwang). Song plays her part as modest, when necessary, mysterious, when necessary and submissive, when necessary. For example, Song tells Gallimard, “Please…it all frightens me. I’m a modest Chinese girl.” (117, 1.13., Hwang). Song is doing everything to play into Gallimard’s fantasies about Oriental women. Gallimard bases these fantasies on racial stereotypes. Song appears to understand very well that to Gallimard, the stereotype of the East reflects that of its women: they are weak-willed and frightened, and would rather side with the powerful than stand independently. Likewise, when Gallimard feels secure enough in his relationship with Song, he feels a masculine power over her, and tries to abuse that power until Song is begging for him. Gallimard admits, “I knew this little flower was waiting for me to call, and, as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt the first time that rush of power — the absolute power of a man.” (115, 1.11., Hwang). He tries to be Pinkerton, and exert his power over Song. However, his experiment falters when he feels remorse over hurting the person he in fact loves very deeply. Madama Butterfly is a very colonial opera in which the Asian woman is the solemn martyr for the sake of the “white devil”. In the postcolonial M. Butterfly, the roles become reversed. In the courtroom scene toward the end of the play, the actor formerly known as Song speaks openly to the judge and jury about his ease in deceiving Gallimard. He says, “Basically, ‘Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.’ The West thinks of itself as masculine-big guns, big industry, big money-so the East is feminine-weak, delicate, poor…but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom-the feminine mystique.” (127, 3.1., Hwang). Here, the role reversal is clear, and the link between sex, race and imperialism is made explicit. Song describes the relationship between the land of the conquered and its conquerors. In this view, the conquered land is the woman, and the conqueror is the man. Song makes use of “rape mentality” to complete the metaphor: the people of a conquered land cannot say no, because deep down they want to be dominated. This is related to the assumption that women want to be dominated by men. This is why Asians, will, according to Gallimard, only ever side with the winning team. Yet, one cannot overlook the fact that Gallimard is duped by his submissive Oriental bride. He is led by the nose by his adoration of a gender and racial construct. This is described when we are told “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man” (128, 3.2. Gallimard). Gallimard is the one who, in the end, makes himself a martyr for his lost love. He commits seppuku after declaring this: “And now, to you, I will prove that my love was not in vain –by returning to the world of fantasy where I first met her.” (129, 3.3. Hwang). And when he dies, Song, in men’s clothing, stands over him asking “Butterfly? Butterfly?” (129, 3.3. Hwang). The postcolonial outlook of this play is made undeniable by the fact that the former submissive character can be Pinkerton, while the formerly dominant character can easily be his Butterfly. “Cultural Case Study: David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.” Texts and Contexts Winter 2010. Ed. Wendy Eberle-Sinatra. Montreal: John Abbott College, 2010. 105-37. Print.
The Illusion of Gender in M. Butterfly
In David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Song Liling and Rene Gallimard engage in an extramarital affair that positions male against female, and East against West. Hwang uses the affair, along with its power dynamics, to challenge traditional notions of gender. Though society wants to view people as either male or female, both Song and Gallimard’s characters suggest that this is a forced categorization, which does not align with how gender really presents itself. Hwang suggests that gender identity is indicative of a greater power struggle that constitutes our sense of place and self, and not the binary, male-or-female category to which we are so accustomed. Throughout the play, Song undergoes a series of gender transformations, leaving the reader unable to conclude whether or not Hwang believes Song to be a man or a woman. Song contains contradictory information with regard to gender. The very title of the play indicates a discrepancy with respect to Song’s gender. M. Butterfly, though it refers to the title of an opera, could be interpreted either as “Monsieur,” as the “M.” traditionally refers to, or “Madame,” the title associated with the opera. Even during Gallimard’s affair with the apparently female Song, he acknowledges certain masculine tendencies of Song’s. Gallimard describes Song as “outwardly bold and outspoken” but with a heart that is shy and afraid. The boldness of Song’s character seems to be indicative of an inner masculinity, but Gallimard ignores this in favor of the modesty and shyness he identifies in her. These qualities are what attract him to her and validate his sense of self in the process. Song says, “I’m a modest Chinese girl.” She knows exactly what to say to Gallimard to appeal to his desire to dominate a feminine partner. Despite Song’s apparent femininity, Gallimard seems aware of a deep gender conflict within his lover. But Song’s “real” masculinity is subverted by her feminine affect. These simultaneous displays of both masculine and feminine qualities demonstrate Hwang’s opposition to the notion of binary gender. Rather than being something that is prescribed at birth, gender is portrayed as a spectral characteristic. It is Song’s femininity that engenders Gallimard’s masculine sense of self. Gallimard values his relationship with her for its ability to validate his own desire to feel manly. He often praises her for this quality, saying, “I wanted to take her in my arms – so delicate even I could protect her, take her home, pamper her until she smiled.” Here, Gallimard’s masculinity appears fragile. Song is so delicate that “even [he]” is made to feel like a man in protecting her. This suggests that Gallimard is insecure about his manliness, and furthermore that his attraction to Song is based on Song’s ability to validate his masculinity. Song is not so loveable because of who she is, but because she engenders a sense of security in Gallimard. He is generally insecure about his gender, and exclaims that Song makes him feel “for the first time that rush of power – the absolute power of a man.” Gallimard’s search for masculinity ends with Song, as he feels for the first time what it is like to dominate another. He is protective of this found power even though it is clear from early on that it may be illusionary. Long before Song reveals his biological self, Gallimard wonders, “Did I not undress her because I knew, somewhere deep down, what I would find?” Gallimard questions whether or not he always knew that Song was not the delicate butterfly she appeared to be. But he is willing to ignore this potential illusion from the very beginning because of its ability to satisfy his masculinity. He quickly concludes that “Perhaps, happiness is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect it.” It is more important to Gallimard that he be validated than that that validation be truthful. If the illusion of Song’s femininity is broken, so is Gallimard’s manliness.For Hwang, gender identity is a fluid construct that is tied more to the dynamics of power than to any physicality. Though gender is traditionally defined biologically, Hwang’s play insists that gender is about power and control. Gallimard speaks often about his power over Song, in relation to Song’s gender. He says, “I had finally gained power over a beautiful woman…” Gallimard speaks of this power as if it is something that he has searched for for a long time, and it seems to be of particular importance that Song is a “beautiful woman.” Her beauty and submission produce the power that Gallimard describes. But this is a novel power for him; he says, “I was learning the benefits of being a man.” This particular line suggests that Gallimard was not always a man and, in fact, that his manliness is a new quality. The idea of masculinity in response to femininity supports Hwang’s idea that gender is both relative and spectral. Gallimard may have always been a biological male, but it is not until his relationship with Song that he feels he is a real man. This view both challenges traditional binary understanding and identifies power as an essential determinant of gender.The idea of having power over another is not unique to gender; for Hwang, the implications of power and gender identity are also tied to race and culture. The power dynamic of gender is implicated in the opposition of Western and Eastern cultures, with oriental culture always in the submissive position. Song describes this dynamic:‘West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money — so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor…but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom – the feminine mystique. Not only is Western culture viewed as more dominant than Eastern culture, but Western culture is powerful because Eastern culture is relatively weaker. The power of one is derived from the weakness of the other. In addition, the relative weakness of oriental culture prevents Song from ever being a true man, regardless of his desires. Song says, “I am Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.” The weakness of Oriental identity precludes Song from ever attaining absolute power. Even the playwright’s notes indicate that Song can never fully shed his femininity. They describe him “[standing] as a man.” But there continues to be an emphasis on gender as a performance, as Hwang insists that Song retains his oriental femininity even as a man. In this way, power is at the center of both gender and cultural conflicts. Song’s revelation of biological masculinity is a death sentence to Gallimard, whose identity is shattered by the ruined butterfly who made him a man. Because he is dependent on Song as a docile, oriental woman for his identity as a male, Song’s transformation is lethal. Gallimard admits that he always knew his happiness to be ephemeral. He says, “I knew all the time somewhere that my happiness was temporary, my love a deception. But my mind kept the knowledge at bay. To make the wait bearable.” Gallimard’s contentment is based on an external quality over which he himself has no control, and he has always suspected that Song is not as she appears. He is able to prevent his suspicion from overpowering his love for Song because he knows that the clear illusion of manliness is better than an uncertain identity. Gallimard confirms this choice when he says; “I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.” When Gallimard is forced to confront societal notions of gender and reality – the “truth” is that Song is a biological male – he admits to his fantasy, and pledges his allegiance to it. He chooses fantasy because only that affirms his masculinity. Forced to live in the real world, Gallimard’s preference for illusion is not enough. After he loses his masculinity, the most essential piece of his identity, it is as if he has been robbed of the ability to live. Gallimard cannot accept himself as anything less than the masculine image he so desperately seeks. When he looks in the mirror, he “[sees] nothing but… a woman.” Unable to reconcile his loss of a solid gender identity with his Western conception of manliness, Gallimard has no choice but to end his own life. Hwang’s portrayal of gender as fluid and ephemeral causes us to question the very nature of identity itself. Together, race, gender, and culture lose their permanence and weight when viewed as symptoms of a greater power struggle. Though Song represents the gentle image of a butterfly throughout the duration of their affair – the absolute absence of masculine power – it is Gallimard who morphs into the butterfly at the end of the play. The Armani-clad Song is left crying out for his “butterfly,” while Gallimard performs his last act of power, dying at his own hands.
Masculinity, Femininity, and the Western Rape Mentality in “M. Butterfly”
As its title suggests, “M. Butterfly” is essentially a play about metamorphosis. It is, firstly, the metamorphosis of Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera “Madame Butterfly” into a modern-day geopolitical argument for cultural understanding. Author David Henry Hwang shows, through a highly implausible love affair between a French diplomat and the male Chinese opera singer he believes to be a woman, how the failure to separate desire from reality can result in deception and tragedy. Less obviously, “M. Butterfly” alludes to the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Gallimard transforms Song from “just a man” into “the Perfect Woman” (Hwang 88, 4). Due to his insecurity about his own masculinity, Gallimard needs to create Song in the image of the perfect Asian woman – exotic, sensual, and acquiescent – in order to feel wholly male. Though he seeks to confine Song within the context of his fantasy, Gallimard’s vulnerability and need actually free Song by providing her with an outlet to flee the Orientalist representation of Asian people. Gallimard transforms Song into a butterfly, but instead of transforming him into “a butterfly who would writhe on a needle”, Gallimard is the one who eventually ends up trapped by his own fantasy (Hwang 32). Through an analysis of Gallimard’s cultural, sexual, and personal relationship with Song Liling, Hwang demonstrates that his treatment of Song is a reflection of the Western rape mentality toward the East, a philosophy that is ultimately self-destructive.”Orientalism” is a term that refers to the study of Eastern cultures, but, according to postcolonial theorist Edward Said, “can also express the strength of the West and the Orient’s weakness – as seen by the West. Such strength and weakness are as intrinsic to Orientalism as they are to any view that divides the world into large general division” (45). The rape mentality of the West is a byproduct of the occidental conviction in the dominance and superiority of Western cultures. By playing into the racism and sexism inherent in Gallimard’s Orientalist belief system, it is not difficult for Song to deceive him. According to Song, “The West thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor…the West thinks that the East, deep down, wants to be dominated” (Hwang 83). Because Song is from the East, he can never be fully masculine in Gallimard’s eyes. The objective of this rape mentality is to serve as an imperialist reminder of the West’s supremacy and an assurance of its power over the East. If the West feels it is by nature masculine and that the East is feminine, its power is viewed as natural, real, and justified; in short, something that cannot be helped. Furthermore, the moral compass of Orientalism is the duty to aid the East in becoming more like the West, while still retaining the aspects of its own culture that the West deigns to accept. Said writes, “The modern Orientalist was, in his view, a hero rescuing the Orient from the obscurity, alienation, and strangeness which he himself had properly distinguished” (121). In a telling scene, Gallimard tells his colleague Toulon that the Asian people will always submit to the force of the greatest power (Hwang 46). Therefore, by submitting to him, Song has given Gallimard the right to power.Hwang comments on the cultural exchange between the East and the West by forming “M. Butterfly” as a deconstructivist version of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”. The notion that the beautiful Cio-Cio-San would commit ritual suicide because she has been abandoned by Pinkerton, a “not very good-looking, not very bright, and pretty much a wimp” of a Naval officer, seems entirely absurd (Hwang 5). But as feminist writer Marina Heung observes:As a master text of Orientalism, ‘Madame Butterfly’ confirms the Asian woman’s perpetual sexual availability for the Western male even as her convenient demise delimits such liaisons; in the end, Cio-Cio-San’s suicide recapitulates the face of the expendable Asian whose inevitable death confirms her marginality within dominant culture and history. (Heung 225) For Gallimard, Song’s Cio-Cio-San to his Pinkerton represents the supreme fantasy of male sexual power. This relationship is made all the more ironic because Song is an opera singer, and Gallimard meets her at a diplomatic function where she was hired to sing Cio-Cio-San’s death scene. In Act One, scene 13, when Gallimard first tells Song he loves her, instead of asking for her love in return Gallimard simply asks, “Are you my Butterfly?” (Hwang 39) It is only when she replies in the affirmative that Gallimard responds, “My little Butterfly, there should be no more secrets: I love you” (40). But while Gallimard’s statement “Butterfly…Butterfly…” opens the play, it closes with Song’s question, “Butterfly? Butterfly?” The inversion of the opening and closing lines indicates the dissolution of Gallimard’s “Madame Butterfly” fantasy; just as the meaning of the lines has changed completely, so has the relationship between Gallimard and Song; it is Gallimard, by the end of the play, who has become Cio-Cio-San.The tragedy of Puccini’s opera is in the destruction of Cio-Cio-San, an innocent and beautiful Japanese girl who is ruined by the one man she loved. While audiences cannot help but be moved by the helpless injustice of the situation, the circumstances under which it arises are still perceived as wholly believable, from the Japanese bride, to the American groom, to the painful termination of their relationship. As Song tells Gallimard when they first meet, “because it is an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner…you find it beautiful” (Hwang 17). If it were “a blonde homecoming queen” and a “short Japanese businessman”, the play would be considered ridiculous (17). Heung concurs, writing that “Puccini’s popular opera is in many ways a foundational narrative of East-West relations, having shaped the Western construction of ‘the Orient’ as a sexualized, and sexually compliant, space that is ripe for conquest and rule” (224). Because the East is seen as so innately feminine, any association between a blonde homecoming queen and a short, Japanese businessman would be impossible; the businessman could never, within an Orientalist framework, beat his Western competition. Orientalism arose as a study, but its underlying racism developed in response to fear – principally the fear of the East’s potential, which is a very real threat to the power of the West. A critical element in Puccini’s plot is that Prince Yamadori – rich, handsome, and royal – loses Cio-Cio-San to Pinkerton, the poor American sailor. In true Orientalist fashion, Cio-Cio-San would rather kill herself than marry Prince Yamadori after experiencing the superior affections of Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Gallimard’s reasoning for why most Asians hate “Madame Butterfly” is “because the white man gets the girl”, but their distaste is due to more than merely “sour grapes” (17). The West’s figurative castration of the East is a very real problem, a mindset that is advantageous to neither party and doomed to be fundamentally self-destructive.It seems improbable that anyone can remain ignorant about the sex of his lover for twenty years, but “M. Butterfly” is based on the true story of the French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and his Chinese mistress Shi Peipu, with whom he had a twenty-year relationship with before discovering his lover’s true identity. Hwang attempts, in “M. Butterfly”, to provide an answer for how such an incongruous relationship could have come about. While he intends the affair between Gallimard and Song to be a criticism of the West’s xenophobic and supremacist perception of the East, Hwang writes in his Afterword that it is not a “diatribe…quite the contrary, I consider it a plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception, to deal with one another truthfully for our own mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings” (Hwang 100). The only probable reason why Gallimard and Boursicot could have been blind for so long is because they did not want to acknowledge the truth. Song explains to the Judge, when he is tried for spying, that men hear only what they want to hear, and that Gallimard believes he is a woman because he needs to accept that his fantasy woman is in reality female. As a consequence of Gallimard’s profound insecurity about his own masculinity, he experiences considerable problems with communication in all of his relationships with women. His marriage to Helga was a matter of convenience, his brief affair with Renee was fueled only by his sadistic desire to cause Song pain, and he maintained a twenty-year relationship with Song without any level of emotional intimacy at all. Gallimard’s desperate need for dominance exposes a vital weakness, which provids Song with the means by which to assert his freedom from the castration of the East by asserting his sexual power over a member of the elite West. Song knows exactly how to inveigle Gallimard: “I take the words from your mouth. Then I wait for you to come and retrieve them” (86). As he admits to Comrade Chin, only a man knows how a woman should behave; because Song is aware of how the perfect Asian Butterfly is required to act, he knows precisely how to seduce men like Gallimard (63).From the start of the play, the audience already knows the entire story. The play is presented in a series of chronological flashbacks interspaced with personal commentary from the various characters. At times, both Gallimard and Song speak to the audience, calling upon the audience to attempt an understanding of the different motivations of the characters. The character of Gallimard is a tragic figure, because – as he readily admits to the audience – he does not wish to acknowledge the actuality of his situation, but chooses rather to continue to live in his imaginary world with his imaginary woman. In the final, climactic confrontation between Gallimard and Song, he tells Song, “Tonight, I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy” (Hwang 90). Like Cio-Cio-San, who faithfully waited for three years without a word from Pinkerton, Gallimard’s most pitiful quality is his dogmatic incapacity to concede the obvious truth. “I knew all the time somewhere that my happiness was temporary, my love a deception. But my mind kept the knowledge at bay. To make the wait bearable” (88). Even after the truth is presented beyond a doubt, Gallimard knows he cannot live with the weight of the knowledge. In his final speech, Gallimard yearningly recollects his “vision of the Orient…of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils” (91). Like the tragic heroine of “Madame Butterfly”, Gallimard chooses to die with the death of a dream rather than live on with the acceptance of fact.Gallimard claims he dies for love, and to an extent he is right – he does love the woman he believed Song to be. “The man I loved was a cad, a bounder. He deserved nothing but a kick in the behind, and instead I gave him…all my love” (Hwang 92). However, Song is not Gallimard’s Butterfly, but rather a strange man in Armani slacks wearing a cold chain and smelling of garlic (Hwang 90). Hwang shows, through a geopolitical lens, that Gallimard’s relationship to Song is a reflection of the Western rape mentality. The Orient of slender women in chong sams does not exist anywhere but in Gallimard’s fatally misguided imagination, and his faith in such a self-serving, chauvinistic paradigm impels Gallimard to lose grasp of reality and ruin himself. Edward Said assents:[Orientalism] set the real boundaries between human beings, on which races, nations, civilizations were constructed; it forced vision away from the common, as well as plural, human realities like joy, suffering, political organization, forcing attention instead in the downward and backward direction of immutable origins. (233). Though it is only a dream, Gallimard’s criterion for the “Perfect Woman” creates a very real wall between himself and Song, which eventually grows so ingrained that it cannot be breached. Monsieur Butterfly does not refer to Song, but to Gallimard. “Madame Butterfly” does not exist; the only Butterflies are the men who fool themselves into loving a product of their own imaginations.
The Old Switcheroo: The Role Reversal Between between Gallimard and Song in M Butterfly
A visual paradigm shift known to many: the rabbit-duck illusion. At first glance, the image is a rabbit, long ears unmistakable. A slight tilt of the head, however, and those characteristic ears morph into a beak—no longer a rabbit, but a duck. Indeed, this simple optical illusion parallels David Henry Huang’s characters in his play M. Butterfly. Although the author’s choice to model elements of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly seems clear cut at first glance, further inspection reveals that the characters are not what they seem. Hwang leads on the reader to believe that Gallimard is Pinkerton and Song is Butterfly; however, the opposite is true, and such a role reversal helps to deconstruct ideas of imperialism and masculinity so essential to Puccini’s work.
Near the beginning of the narrative, a delusional Gallimard paints himself as Pinkerton, but Hwang later reveals that Gallimard is in fact Butterfly—a comparison that dismantles Gallimard’s masculinity and his ideas concerning the East. Gallimard, acting out a scene from Madama Butterfly, assumes the role of Pinkerton, explaining that the naval officer is “not very good-looking, not too bright, and pretty much a wimp” who has “just closed on two great bargains: one on a house, the other on a woman—call it a package deal” (Hwang 819). The parallels between the two men are clear here: Gallimard, too, is unattractive, unintelligent, and cowardly. More concerningly, however, is the parallel between the two characters that Hwang does not explicitly list: their misogyny. Pinkerton and Gallimard both put a price on women and objectify them—as Gallimard refers to a “package deal,” in which he equates Pinkerton’s house and his Butterfly to objects. Despite these parallels to Pinkerton, Gallimard is in fact Butterfly—a fact epitomized by the final moments of the play, in which the protagonist dresses in a kimono. In the final monologue, Gallimard sets the tip of the knife against his body and says to the audience, “It is 1988. And I have found her at last. In a prison on the outskirts of Paris. My name is Rene Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly” (864). After this monologue, he commits suicide. Especially apparent here, Gallimard’s transition from Pinkerton to Butterfly effectively dismantles ideas of imperialism, masculinity, and sexism in Madama Butterfly. For one, the submissive East—epitomized by Butterfly—in which he had believed so strongly in was only in his mind. That is why he says he has found her in himself, why he proclaims himself Butterfly. Furthermore, through Gallimard’s suicide, Hwang makes a statement: harboring toxic beliefs like his protagonist did will certainly cause your demise. With his death, Gallimard’s harmful ideas die with him, and the author includes it as an example to others who may hold similar beliefs.
The opposite is true for Song: he seems to be Butterfly but is later characterized as Pinkerton, a character shift that Hwang uses to define the true spirit of the East: hardy and clever, rather than submissive. For the majority of the novel, Hwang presents Song as a woman, and although he is not, it is clear the author draws upon conventions of femininity and the stereotype of the “Chinese doll” to initially develop his character. In Act 1 Scene 13, Song admits that she is Gallimard’s Butterfly, and as he begins to kiss her she responds, “Please…it all frightens me. I’m a modest Chinese girl…I am your treasure. Though inexperienced, I am not…ignorant. They teach us things, our mothers, about pleasing a man” (837). In this scene, Song really epitomizes Butterfly. Primarily, she does not want to take off her clothes, epitomizing the modesty so often assigned to Eastern characters. Most importantly, however, she objectifies herself, calling herself a “treasure” and insinuating that giving men pleasure is a tradition, a commonality, something passed down from mother to daughter. Through these elements, Hwang paints Song as a commodity to be taken advantage of—a Butterfly to be captured. Later, however, the tables turn: Song is not Gallimard’s Butterfly, but rather Pinkerton, when he reveals his true sex. In the courtroom where Gallimard is being tried, Song gloats, “You think I could’ve pulled this off if I wasn’t already full of pride when we met? No, not just pride. Arrogance. It takes arrogance, really—to believe you can will, with your eyes and lips, the destiny of another” (860). In this scene, the roles are truly reversed, with Song standing over Gallimard as conqueror, as Pinkerton, rather than the conquered. Song’s tone drips with simultaneous condescension and pride, and through these lines, Song parallels his arrogance in his manipulation of Gallimard to the arrogance of the West in their attempts to manhandle the trajectory of the East. Through this clear mockery of the imperialist ideals that guide the West’s interaction with the East, Song expels the concept of a weak, submissive East—a tenet of Puccini’s opera.
M Butterfly effectively deconstructs the ideals so prominent in Madama Butterfly, and although the play focuses mainly around Asians and the East, Hwang makes an example of Gallimard as a call to dismantle all problematic beliefs. The play is really a warning to others who live in such a fantasy world as Gallimard, which is why the play is set in Gallimard’s mind—a mind filled with imagination, coupled with a distinct inability to see things as they are. Hwang maintains, then, that such troublesome beliefs will not only cloud one’s perception of the world, but also only exist within that mind. Outside of that mind, these ideas are simply untrue.