It is hardly surprising that M. Butterfly has proved a fertile ground for feminist critics. The play is a relentless indictment of the way men, driven by inherited, male-created cultural patterns, behave towards women. There is something deeply disturbing about Gallimard's psychology when it comes to his relations with women, and one doesn't need to be a feminist to notice it. Let's take just two examples. Every time he visits Renee, the young woman with whom he has an affair, he is excited by the knowledge that he is inflicting suffering on Song, who, Gallimard believes, is aware of his unfaithfulness. He imagines Song crying, alone and without comfort, and says, "It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee.’’ Gallimard had earlier demonstrated his cruelty in his refusal to make contact with Song, even when he knew she had a right to expect him to do so. This deliberate withdrawal also excited him: "I felt for the first time that rush of power—the absolute power of a man.’’
The implication in both cases is that a man who is in the grip of a culturally determined romantic and sexual fantasy will seek to shore up his own fragile sense of identity by mistreating a woman. Women must suffer because men are weak. This is hardly a pretty picture, and it is made even less savory by the fact that the playwright links sexism with politics and imperialism. For example, Renee offers the opinion that the male aggression that erupts in wars is caused by the same kind of sexual insecurity and feelings of inferiority that are the dark elements in Gallimard's own psychological make-up.
Nor is the indictment of male-female relations confined to Western culture. Hwang also has Chinese society in his sights. Song complains that women are kept down in Chinese society and denied an education, the implication being that a man is threatened by a woman who may know as much as he does. Later, Song asks Chin why it is that in Chinese opera, all the women's parts are played by men. Then he answers his own question: "Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.’’ In other words, women behave in ways that are culturally prescribed, and those who prescribe their conduct are men.
In the light of all this, it is clear why a feminist critic such as Chalsa Loo can refer to the play as a ‘‘revenge fantasy.’’ As she comments in her essay, ‘‘M. Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective," "Women who have felt the sting of male abandonment and betrayal silently rise in applause as Butterfly's death is avenged. Gallimard, the cad, gets his due: he is betrayed, humiliated, and made miserable.’’
And yet the play is also much more than a revenge fantasy, because it suggests that the stereotypical perceptions that lead to the tragedy are socially constructed; they are not inherent in the nature of things. And if something is a human, cultural construct, it can also be deconstructed and something else constructed in its place. Hwang himself, in ‘‘A Conversation With David Henry Hwang,’’ has described his play as ‘‘an attempt to debunk the stereotypes completely by mixing them up and confusing them so much that they really become inapplicable in any meaningful sense.’’
The audience feels this demolition of stereotypical roles of race and gender most acutely in the immediate aftermath of the play, when the lights on stage dim and applause has not yet begun to fill the theatre. The play is over, but its effects linger in the mind. It is as if all the unconsciously imbibed, unexamined expectations of gender roles have been tossed up in the air like a pack of cards, and they have not yet landed to form a new pattern. There is a kind of imaginative space present in the collective mind of the audience, which is for a few moments free of the props, short cuts, and lazy conveniences that the human mind normally uses to classify its experience and confirm its prejudices. It is in this imaginative space that everyone in the audience is free to restructure their perceptions "from the common and equal ground we share as human beings,'' as Hwang put it in his Afterword to the published edition of the play.
The aesthetic response to the play, then, includes the shattering of what Western, and also, to an extent, Eastern culture has conditioned people to believe regarding race and gender roles. Does it also shatter the myth of romantic love that is also so prevalent in the Western mind? Many would say that it does—after all, look what happens to Gallimard—but is it also possible that nestling somewhere alongside all the punctured balloons of Western male imperialism, the aesthetic response to M. Butterfly includes a sense, in spite of everything that would seem to contradict...
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