July 20th, 2006

International Blog Against Racism Week

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.

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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.

International Blog Against Racism Week

Int'l Blog Against Racism Week: three links

There have been a lot of good posts, and I encourage people to peruse rilina's link roundup (now in the triple digits!). I just wanted to put a few personally relevant links here.

  • rilina on why she is participating, which I agree with.
  • Malcolm Gladwell on pit bulls and profiling versus stereotyping; I'd read it earlier this year but want to put it somewhere I can find it, because it's a really useful point. (Also, I have a soft spot for pit bulls, as we came thisclose to adopting one from a rescue group—we held off because he was afraid of cats (no, seriously) and we thought we might get one, but he was so sweet that after a couple of clinics, we were going to take him at the next one if he was still there. (Don't tell the best Emmy ever.))
  • And on a lighter note, today Chad was surprised to meet the people from our cleaning service.