Power is Sexy: The Politics of Racial Fantasy in M. Butterfly

May 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

In both society and literature, fetishes and sexual fantasies constantly find themselves rooted in racial differences. The philosophical concept of the “other” is one that addresses the idea of fetishization, in that we find ourselves idealizing and fantasizing about that which we are not; that is, racial and sexual fantasy become intertwined in the fetish, where racial discrepancies dictate sexual desire. The fetish usually involves some sort of inherent power struggle, where the person being fetishized is reduced to a mere object of sexual desire and the person with the fetish is in a position of creation or control, shaping the fantasy as he or she sees fit. Though David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly may initially appear to disavow traditional notions of power struggle surrounding the fetish and racial fantasy, the politics of power remain an integral facet of the fetish. Hwang’s protagonist, Rene Gallimard, develops a politic and hierarchy concerning racial fantasy based on a fetishized mythology of Asian women and his ability—whether it be perceived or actual—to exercise sexual and patriarchal power over Song. The narrative of M. Butterfly may initially seem unconventional because Song is aware of Gallimard’s fetishes for the duration of the play, which could potentially upset the traditional hierarchy of power governing racial fantasy and the fetish. However, Song recognizes that, as a man, he best knows how to portray a woman because only a man knows exactly what a man wants. In his seduction of Gallimard, Song is successful because he knows that Gallimard fetishizes Asian women and can, therefore, act according to Gallimard’s racial fantasy, playing into the conventions of the fetish. In talking to his comrade Chin, Song discloses his theory about the politics of identity and recognition in sexual fantasy: Song: Miss Chin? Why, in Peking opera, are women’s roles played by men? Chin: I don’t know. Maybe a reactionary remnant of male—Song: No. (Beat) Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act. (63) The quote implies that, while men watch women, women watch men watching women. In doing so, women discover what men want and then adapt to accommodate these desires, suggesting that men control how women act by means of fantasy. Therefore, it is implied that without the overt fantasies of men, women would be unable to satisfy their desires. The quote also mandates Song’s gender, implying that the only way to be sure of a man’s desires is to, in fact, be a man; it is only because Song is a man that he can recognize the desires of Gallimard. Therefore, recognizing what dictates sexual fantasy in terms of gender politics aids Song in his seduction of Gallimard because it provides him with a type of script to follow.It is clear from early in the text that Gallimard is a man who is aroused by power. The opening scenes, while farcical, show Gallimard trying to convince the audience that he is an important societal figure, even while in prison. As the text continues, the reader witnesses Gallimard’s aspiration for power morph into something comparable to sexual desire, as evidenced in his description of the first time he viewed pornographic magazines: “The first time I saw [pornographic magazines] in [my uncle’s] closet … all lined up—my body shook. not with lust—no, with power. Here were women—a shelfful—who would do exactly as I wanted” (10). Gallimard does not mention the hair, legs or breasts of the women in the magazines. Instead, he takes something fairly concrete—the image of a naked woman—and abstracts it to accommodate his hunger for power. And, while he claims that his reaction to the magazines did not result from lust, his body “shook” in something the reader might consider similar to orgasm from the sensation of power he experienced from seeing the women “ all lined up” and there to serve him, to do “exactly as [he] wanted.” The extraction of power coupled with the projection of female subservience to his whims, rather than overt sexuality, is what arouses Gallimard. However, Gallimard’s fantasy is one that is too complex to be situated solely in gender—that is, he not only fetishizes women, he fetishizes Asian women. In the specificity of Gallimard’s fetish lies racial fantasy. After seeing Song play the lead role in the opera Madame Butterfly, Gallimard is immediately taken with her, claiming the story made sense to him for the first time because of Song’s heartfelt, sincere portrayal of the opera’s sacrificial heroine: However, Song is ready to rebut Gallimard’s flattery, immediately exposing his fetish of Asian women:Gallimard: …her death. It’s a … a pure sacrifice. He’s unworthy, but what can she do? She loves him … so much. It’s a very beautiful story.Song: Well, yes, to a Westerner.Gllimard: Excuse me?Song: It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man. (17)While Gallimard claims that the romanticized notion of suffering for love is what moves him about the opera, Song knows that his true attraction to the tale is rooted in the stature of the “submissive Oriental woman.” Song establishes the site of Gallimard’s fantasy not in a performance of perverse, sacrificial love, but in the inevitable success of the white man. That is, Song exposes Gallimard’s fantasy as one fixated on the execution of power and the presence of a specific hierarchy, where the Western man always overpowers the Oriental woman. Gallimard’s obsession with power is only exacerbated by the misogynistic ramblings of his friend, Marc. After having a flirtatious conversation with Song, Gallimard dreams not of “Sophia Loren in a towel” (23), but of his friend Marc. After claiming that a relationship with Song would be impossible because he is a foreigner, Gallimard is once again intoxicated with the idea of exercising power over a woman, this time assisted by Marc’s statement: “Ah, yes. She cannot love you, it is taboo. But something deep inside her heart … she cannot help herself … she must surrender to you” (25). This statement plays on Gallimard’s ideas fantasy and power, claiming that Gallimard’s love is simply too powerful to overcome and, though it is “taboo,” his woman simply “cannot help herself.” The forbidden nature of love is especially appealing to Gallimard because it affords him a situation where the power of his love and masculinity can—and must—prevail. Marc excites Gallimard even more, claiming that the power of Western men frighten Asian women: “They fear us, Rene. Their women fear us” (25). Yet again, the hierarchy of Gallimard’s sexual politics is established in which the Western man is situated in a position of power, controlling the emotion of the impressionable, Asian woman.We see Gallimard as the play opens relating to the audience the story of Madame Butterfly, and, in the process, revealing at once his racial fantasy about Asian women, describing the posturing of an Asian woman by saying, “Even her life itself—she bows her head as she whispers that she’s not even worth the hundred yen he paid for her. He’s already given too much, when we know he’s really had to give nothing at all” (10). Gallimard is obsessed with the myth of Asian women—the fantasy that they are submissive, weak, and easy to overpower. Since Gallimard lacks the fortitude often associated with traditions of masculinity, as evidenced in the confidence and virility of his foil character Marc, Asian women are particularly appealing to Gallimard. He characterizes Madame Butterfly’s heroine Cio-Cio-San as meek and mild, “bow[ing] her head” in shame or fear and not even daring to speak at full volume, but “whispering” instead. Gallimard engages in racial fantasy about Asian women because, according to the myth he maintains, they adhere unflinching to patriarchal standards, maintaining a posture of weakness in order to make their partner—their man—feel useful, strong, and, most importantly, powerful. And yet, even after he is betrayed, after Gallimard discovers that, for all those years, his “Butterfly” had been a man masquerading as a woman, his vision and fetish of the Asian woman does not change. Instead, he holds steadfastly to the mythology of the submissive, Asian woman:There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women. Who take whatever punishment we give them and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally. It is a vision that has become my life. (91) Despite suffering humiliation, deception, and betrayal, Gallimard does not rescind his vision of the Asian woman. He holds onto it, claiming that the fetish has become “his life” because, in order to fulfill the politics of his racial fantasy, he must guard the mythology of the Asian woman. He envisions the Asian woman as “perfect” because she will suffer abuse—“take whatever punishment we give them”—and still remain loyal to their partners. While the mythological Asian woman will “love, unconditionally” her partner in this case, it is not the love of an Asian woman that attracts Gallimard—it is the control that he can exercise over her. His perfect woman is “slender” and small, something he can overpower. She takes his abuse and maintains a love that survives all sins committed by the man, yet commits no sin against him. The characterization of the Asian woman once again puts the man—Gallimard—into a position of power while the woman is left to his mercy.M. Butterfly is an obscure text in that it plays around with traditional notions of fetishism and racial fantasy, yet manages to maintain perhaps the most basic politic of all—that of power. While Song is aware of Gallimard’s fetish for Asian women, that consciousness does not undermine Gallimard’s racial fantasy because he maintains an illusion of power. Gallimard is aroused by power which is what makes the mythology of the stereotypical Asian woman—soft-spoken, subservient, and accommodating to men—especially appealing to him. In the end, sex and power become inseparable for Gallimard because they are so intimately associated within the politics of his racial fantasy.

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