The Illusion of Gender in M. Butterfly

May 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.  

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