Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Int'l Blog Against Racism Week: M. Butterfly

There has been some mention, in this week's posts, of the tangled set of issues that can come along with romantic relationships between white men and women of Asian descent. Being in one of those relationships, I felt like I ought to say something, but, well, anyone who's met either of us knows that Chad didn't marry me because I'm exotic and submissive.

(When I was at Northeastern, I did very briefly date a guy (who was, I believe, Hispanic) who was interested somehow in Asia—he might've majored in Asian Studies, I'm not sure. It gave me a very minor twitch to wonder if my Asian-ness was part of what interested him, but the topic never came up. Nice guy, but no click, and also I had absolutely no idea what I was doing—I swear, the only way I managed to get married was by skipping the dating part of things—which to this day I feel kind of bad about. Then again, I was at least as twitchy about the guy who I suspected was attracted because I was actually shorter than he was, so the feeling's not restricted to race.)

But the topic reminded me of M. Butterfly, a play by David Henry Hwang. I first read it in an academic summer program in high school, and hadn't re-read it until last night. For those not familiar with it, it was inspired by the story of a French diplomat convicted of espionage; he had passed information his lover of twenty years, a Chinese man pretending to be a woman.

Hwang's afterword sums up the issues involved in this scenario very well, so I'm going to quote from it at length, in two pieces: the ending first, as it doesn't have spoilers for the play and talks about the broader issues raised by that premise; and then the beginning, and my reactions, behind a cut.

From David Henry Hwang's afterword to M. Butterfly:

From my point of view, the "impossible" story of a Frenchman duped by a Chinese man masquerading as a woman always seemed perfectly explicable; given the degree of misunderstanding between men and women and also between East and West, it seemed inevitable that a mistake of this magnitude would one day take place.

Gay friends have told me of a derogatory term used in their community: "Rice Queen"—a gay Caucasian man primarily attracted to Asians. In these relationships, the Asian virtually always plays the role of the "woman"; the Rice Queen, culturally and sexually, is the "man." This pattern of relationships had become so codified that, until recently, it was considered unnatural for gay Asians to date one another. Such men would be taunted with a phrase which implied they were lesbians.

[Ed.: it jumped out at me, typing, that the taunts were labelling men as women.]

Similarly, heterosexual Asians have long been aware of "Yellow Fever"—Caucasian men with a fetish for exotic Oriental women. I have often heard it said that "Oriental women make the best wives." (Rarely is this heard from the mouths of Asian men, incidentally.) This mythology is exploited by the Oriental mail-order bride trade which has flourished over the past decade. [Ed.: this was written in 1988.] American men can now send away for catalogues of "obedient, domesticated" Asian women looking for husbands. Anyone who believes such stereotypes are a thing of the past need look no further than Manhattan cable television, which advertises call girls from "the exotic east, where men are king; obedient girls, trained in the art of pleasure."

In these appeals, we see issues racism and sexism intersect. The catalogues and TV spots appeal to a strain in men which desires to reject Western women for what they have become—independent, assertive, self-possessed—in favor of a more reactionary model—the pre-feminist, domesticated geisha girl.

[Ed.: class is probably lurking around somewhere, in that the ads are targeted at men with money to spare.]

That the Oriental woman is penultimately female does not of course imply that she is always "good." For every Madonna there is a whore; for every lotus blossom there is also a dragon lady. In popular culture, "good" Asian women are those who serve the White protagonist in his battle against her own people, often sleeping with him in the process. Stallone's Rambo II, Cimino's Year of the Dragon, Clavell's Shogun, Van Lustbader's The Ninja are all familiar examples.

Now our considerations of race and sex intersect the issue of imperialism. For this formula—good natives serves Whites, bad natives rebel—is consistent with the mentality of colonialism. Because they are submissive and obedient, good natives of both sexes necessarily take on "feminine" characteristics in a colonial world. Gunga Din's unfailing devotion to his British master, for instance, is not so far removed from Butterfly's slavish faith in Pinkerton.

It is reasonable to assume that influences and attitudes so pervasively displayed in popular culture might also influence our policymakers as they consider the world. The neo-Colonialist notion that good elements of a native society, like a good woman, desire submission to the masculine West speaks precisely to the heart of our foreign policy blunders in Asia and elsewhere. . . .

M. Butterfly has sometimes been regarded as an anti-American play, a diatribe against the stereotyping of the East by the West, of women by men. Quite to 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 mutual good, from the common and equal ground we share as human beings.

For the myths of the East, the myths of the West, the myths of men, and the myths of women—these have so saturated our consciousness that truthful contact between nations and lovers can only be the result of heroic effort. Those who prefer to bypass the work involved will remain in a world of surfaces, misperceptions running rampant. This is, to me, the convenient world in which the French diplomat and the Chinese spy lived. This is why, after twenty years, he had learned nothing at all about his lover, not even the truth of his sex.

Here's the beginning of the Afterword, which talks about the play itself:

It all started in May of 1986, over casual dinner conversation. A friend asked, had I heard about the French diplomat who'd fallen in love with a Chinese actress, who subsequently turned out to be not only a spy, but a man? I later found a two-paragraph story in The New York Times. The diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, attempting to account for the fact that he had never seen his "girlfriend" naked, was quoted as saying, "I thought she was very modest. I thought it was a Chinese custom."

Now, I am aware that this is not a Chinese custom, that Asian women are no more shy with their lovers than are women of the West. I am almost aware, however, that Bouriscot's assumption was consistent with a certain stereotyped view of Asians as bowing, blushing flowers. I therefore concluded that the diplomat must have fallen in love, not with a person, but a fantasy stereotype. I also inferred, to the extent the Chinese spy encouraged these misperceptions, he must have played up and exploited this image of the Oriental woman as demure and submissive. (In general, by the way, we prefer the term "Asian" to "Oriental," in the same way "Black" is superior to "Negro." I use the term "Oriental" specifically to denote an exotic or imperialistic view of the East.)

I suspected there was a play here. I purposely refrained from further research, for I was not interested in writing docudrama. Frankly I didn't want the "truth" to interfere with my own speculations. . . .

. . . [I] asked myself, "What did Bouriscot think he was getting in this Chinese actress?" The answer came to me clearly: "He probably thought he had found Madame Butterfly."

The idea of doing a deconstructivist Madame Butterfly immediately appealed to me. This, despite the fact that I didn't even know the plot of the opera! I knew Butterfly only as a cultural stereotype; speaking of an Asian woman, we would sometimes say, "She's pulling a Butterfly," which meant playing the submissive Oriental number. Yet, I felt convinced that the libretto would include yet another lotus blossom pining away for a cruel Caucasian man, and dying for her love. Such a story has become too much of a cliché not to be included in the archetypal East-West romance that started it all. Sure enough, when I purchased the record, I discovered it contained a wealth of sexist and racist clicheés, reaffirming my faith in Western culture.

Very soon after, I came up with the basic "arc" of my play: the Frenchman fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and his lover is Butterfly. By the end of the piece, he realizes that it is he who has been Butterfly, in that the Frenchman has been duped by love; the Chinese spy, who exploited that love, is therefore the real Pinkerton. . . .

[Ed. note: The play itself summarizes Madame Butterfly, but for those unfamiliar, see Wikipedia.]

Last night, I re-read the Afterword before the play. All the issues described there are presented and accounted for. Other things:

I'd remembered that Rene Gallimard, Hwang's French diplomat, was infuriating and yet ultimately pitiable in his blindness—first unrecognized, and then embraced when he assumes the role of Butterfly (literally, puts on her costume) and kills himself.

I'd forgotten, or perhaps never recognized, that Song Liling is damaged as well. At the time, I was somewhat amused by and admiring of that kind of hard-edged, contemptuous cynicism (especially toward men), using others' weaknesses against them to get what you want. These days, well, I'm not; and with that set aside, I can see that the racism and sexism of their situation has had costs to Song as well as benefits. At the end, he forces Gallimard to recognize that he is male, and then says, "I'm your Butterfly. Under the robes, beneath everything, it was always me. Now, open your eyes at admit it—you adore me." When Gallimard denies it, he asks, "So—you never really loved me? Only when I was playing a part?" Song deliberately assumed the role of a subservient Oriental actress as a trap for Gallimard; but I think it's a fair reading that Song was also trapped himself to some degree. Whether it was ego or affection, it appears to me that he was unsatisfied with the lie of their relationship.

Another thing I hadn't remembered: Song is initially very bold with Gallimard, speaking dismissively in their first conversation about the stereotyped stupidity of Madam Butterfly. It's not until after Gallimard has sought Song out several times that Song pulls a Butterfly. However, since Gallimard thinks even before then that "her heart is shy and afraid. It is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education," I don't think there was any hope for them having an honest relationship—well, particularly since Song did not enlighten him about his sex at the beginning, but beyond that.

Finally, Song's view of men is challenged within the text, though from a slightly dubious source. Comrade Chin is Song's espionage contact. She's homophobic and a fervent believer in the Cultural Revolution, but when Song pulls out "I just was his plaything . . . you don't understand the mind of a man," she retorts: "Oh no? No I don't? Then how come I'm married, huh? How come I got a man?" Of course she then goes into praise of Chairman Mao, but it is, as best I can tell, the only time Song is challenged and a relatively healthy relationship is even hinted at.

The play was adapted for screen and directed by David Cronenberg, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone; I haven't seen it and don't know how it's regarded. The play takes place almost entirely within Gallimard's mind, in his memories and fantasies; this fits so well thematically that I suspect the less fantastic medium of film would fare poorly in comparison. At any rate, I think it's worth reading as an accomplished and humane drama; the political and sexual issues are inescapable, but not the only thing the play has to offer.

Tags: gender, international blog against racism week, race, theater

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