James S. Moy (essay date March 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3541

SOURCE: Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theater Journal 42, no. 1 (March 1990): 48-56.

[In the following essay, Moy compares representations of Asian characters in M. Butterfly to those in Yankee Dawg You Die, by Philip Kan Gotanda, arguing that while both playwrights attack stereotypical Anglo-American representations of Asians, their plays ultimately reinforce these stereotypes.]

One thinks one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at it. … A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.


The point of intersection of the popular unconscious and the self-conscious, seriously intended work of art has always been problematic. The extent to which socially conscious drama, for example, can emerge from the morass of the bourgeois perception of the world is questionable at best.1 For over a hundred years popular representations of Asian populations in America have remained at a level perhaps best described as stereotypical. Employing various strategies, Anglo-American playwrights have portrayed the Chinese in America as collections of fetishized parts and as exotics. In the nineteenth century, for example, Bret Harte and Mark Twain, both serious writers, in seeking to provide sympathetic views of the Chinese, could offer, finally, little more than a stereotypical character consisting of fragments that articulated the most obvious aspects of difference.2 Some fifty years later, Eugene O'Neill, often regarded as the father of American playwriting, sought to provide a positive image of “Oriental wisdom” in contrast to a corrupt western commercialism but could do little more than offer a tourist view of an exotic “heathen” Orientalist China.3

Not until the new cultural awareness of the 1960s did this situation change as playwrights made conscious attempts to dispel stereotypes. As Asian American playwrights emerged, the earlier comic or exotic treatments offered by whites were replaced by Asian self-representations. Rarely popular with the dominant-culture audiences, some of these plays have provided incisive examinations of what it is to be Chinese or Asian in a familiar yet alien land. Notable among these are Frank Chin's The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972), the first Chinese American offering on a major New York stage; Philip Kan Gotanda's The Wash; David Henry Hwang's FOB (1979), The Dance and the Railroad (1981), Family Devotions (1981), and M. Butterfly (1988); and Benny Yee and Nobuko Miyamoto's Chop Suey (1980), a musical comedy that invited its audiences to look beyond the surface realities of colorful Chinatown.

Significantly, Hwang's M. Butterfly, which is currently enjoying Broadway and worldwide success, won the Tony award for best American play of 1988.4 In addition, 1988 saw successful runs of Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, with an Off Broadway production in New York during 1989.5 Both written by Asian Americans, these plays feature Chinese characters as major figures and have received generally favorable press in America.

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, China's Cultural Revolution, and the events of May 1968, M. Butterfly enacts the true-life tale of French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot's twenty-year affair with a Beijing Opera performer. The liaison results in the birth of a child and a trial for espionage. Through the character René Gallimard, Hwang stages Bouriscot's story. As Gallimard's narrative unfolds, it is revealed that his lover was not only a spy...

(This entire section contains 3541 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

but a man. Accordingly, the audience is left to ponder how a sophisticated western diplomat could fall victim to so amusing a case of gender confusion. Responding to this question, Hwang uses Puccini'sMadama Butterfly as a backdrop for the diplomat's first encounter with his “mistress,” which takes place at a performance of scenes from the Puccini opera in the German ambassador's residence in Beijing. Gallimard compliments the performance: “You were utterly convincing. It's the first time … I've seen the beauty of the story.”6 In response, Song Liling, soon to become his lover, assails the silliness of the western stereotypes:

It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man … Consider it this way: what would you say if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.7

Despite this harangue, Gallimard embarks on entrapping his “butterfly.” The audience looks on as he manipulates the emotions of Song Liling, all the while unaware that he himself has fallen into a trap of his own delusions regarding their relationship: “I stopped going to the opera, I didn't phone or write her … and, as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt for the first time that rush of power—the absolute power of a man.”8 As Gallimard feels the “power of a man,” Song explains: “All he wants is for her to submit. Once a woman submits, a man is always ready to become ‘generous,’. … Now, if I can just present him with a baby. A Chinese baby with blond hair—he'll be mine for life!”9

Gallimard's conquest of his butterfly complete, he applies his newly found wisdom to the conduct of international policy: “If the Americans demonstrate the will to win, the Vietnamese will welcome them into a mutually beneficial union. … Orientals will always submit to a greater force.”10 This, of course, was the mistake of the Vietnam War:

And somehow the American war went wrong. … Four hundred thousand dollars were being spent for every Viet Cong killed; so General Westmoreland's remark that the Oriental does not value life the way Americans do was oddly accurate. Why weren't the Vietnamese people giving in? Why were they content to die and die and die again?11

As he miscalculated the Vietnamese will to resist, so Gallimard fell hopelessly in love with a Song Liling created in his own imagination. When Song exposes the deception, Gallimard dismisses him, “You, you're as real as hamburger. Now get out! I have a date with my Butterfly.” Gallimard explains that he is “a man who loved a woman created by a man. Everything else—simply falls short. … Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.”12 Gallimard's fantasy merged the Orient into one indistinguishable mass, eliminating the differences among Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese. It is a vision of

… slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign 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.13

As Gallimard's unworthy life interpenetrates that of his imaginary lover, he realizes that the only course open to him is the same as that chosen by Puccini's Cho Cho San, “Death with honor is better than life … with dishonor.” As the diplomat commits suicide, Song, making explicit an ironic role reversal, declares Gallimard his “butterfly” as the lights fade to black.14 Although there is a curious conflation of “imperialism, racism, and sexism,”15 Hwang's indictment of the West is clear. If it has not been made clear through the development of Gallimard's character, then Song's words make explicit Hwang's attack:

The West has a sort of international rape mentality. … The 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. … Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself.16

Resonances of Puccini's Madama Butterfly likewise permeate Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die. Where Hwang's M. Butterfly cinematically spans some twenty years, the Gotanda piece examines the first year in the evolving relationship between a young aspiring Japanese actor, Bradley Yamashita, and an older, more established “Chinese” actor. It uses a stereotypical cinema portrayal of a Japanese soldier to represent the prevailing perception of Asians in the popular consciousness. The opening scene of Yankee Dawg You Die, which attacks this standard view of the Japanese, sets the tone for the rest of the play. The lead character, Vincent Chang, is a “Chinese” actor, later revealed to be a Japanese man who had changed his name to find work after World War II. In the industry, then, he is a Japanese man pretending to be a Chinese actor to get work portraying Japanese stereotypes.

If M. Butterfly attacks Anglo-American representations of Asians, Yankee Dawg You Die reinforces the attack with a discussion of its impact. For example, Bradley exposes the effects the mediated castration of the Asian male has had on his life while accusing Vincent of perpetuating it:

Vincent … All that self hate … Where does it begin? You and your Charley Chop Suey roles. … you think every time you do one of those demeaning roles, the only thing lost is your dignity … Don't you see that every time you do a portrayal like that millions of people in movie theaters see it. Believe it. Every time you do any old stereotypic role just to pay the bills, you kill the right of some Asian child to be treated as a human being. To walk through the school yard and not be called a “chinaman gook” by some kid who saw the last Rambo film.17

Gotanda sensitively measures the depth of the Asian-American desire to find role models. In his misplaced identification with Neil Sedaka, a Jewish pop singer with a Japanese-sounding name, Bradley Yamashita mistakes Sedaka for America's first “Japanese American rock'n roll star.”18 Finally, Gotanda seems to suggest that, having failed to find an adequate model, many Asian Americans have turned to the Japanese movie monster Godzilla as a source of cultural pride and perhaps even identification.19 Gotanda's piece shifts back and forth between the issue of identifying proper role models on the one hand and the practicalities of employment in the theater/film industry on the other. The desire to show “real” Asians is always suspended in tension with the stereotype of Orientals required in the industry, and the latter usually wins out. Vincent's claim to be a “leading man” is repeatedly undercut by vignettes displaying the mechanics of his stereotypical portrayals. Early on in the play, Bradley complains that the only roles open to Asians are “waiters, viet cong killers, chimpanzees, drug dealers, hookers, sexless houseboys. … They fucking cut off our balls and made us all houseboys on the evening soaps. ‘Get your very own neutered, oriental houseboy!’”20 Thus, this piece seems more overt than M. Butterfly in its attack on the theatrical institutions that work to subjugate the representations of the Orient.

Vincent makes clear the cognizance of his own complicity with theatrical institutions by relating an early episode in the life of Martin Luther King:

They came and took him away. Told him they were going to kill him. He said he never felt more impotent, more like a slave than that night. After that, he realized he had to fight not only the white man on the outside, but the slave inside of him … It is so easy to slip into the ching-chong chinaman.21

Central to Yankee Dawg You Die, then, is the issue of how to deal with the force that would seduce Asian Americans into the kind of cultural complicity required to “survive”—the impulse to surrender to the cultural hegemony of Anglo dominance. In response Gotanda offers the contrast between the older Vincent Chang, who has “sold out” by accepting stereotypical roles, and Bradley Yamashita, the aspiring young actor, full of radical rage with demands that Asians be allowed realistic stage presences.

The popularity of both plays with Anglo-American audiences raises the question of whether their acceptance signals, finally, an end to the marginalization of the Chinese or Asians in general. Even a superficial examination of the social dimensions of the texts reveals that this is not the case. A close scrutiny of the playscripts reveals an interesting system of literary subversions with significant impact for the social.

Obviously, both Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die and Hwang's M. Butterfly set out to dispel stereotypical perceptions of Asians. While Gotanda makes this aim explicit in his text, Hwang has said that he set out to do a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly.22 Toward this end Hwang employed a strategy described in an interview/essay appropriately entitled “Smashing Stereotypes”:

I am interested in cutting through … all the crap about the way people write about characters from the East. I mean, when these people are written about, it's always in this inscrutable poetic fashion. It's so untrue, and kind of irritating. So my tendency is to go to the other extreme and make it so slangy and contemporary that it is jarring.23

Hwang's hope, then, is to offer a truer view of what it means to be Asian in the space created by the tension between the audience's stereotypical perception and his “slangy and jarring” contemporary reality. Unfortunately, however, the characters he creates more often seem to subvert his stated intention. For example, the specifically Asian technical aspects of Hwang's M. Butterfly, the kurogo, do not serve as characters but rather exist as mere absent presences without voice who silently move stage properties about the acting area. Matters get worse as Asian characters are given voice. Comrade Chan (and the other characters played by the same actor) is perhaps even more stereotypical and cartoonish than the worst of the nineteenth-century stereotypes. Chan, then, serves as a sort of caricature of the stereotype whose “jarring” language alienates while establishing a provisional position for this traditional view of the Orient.

Against this background the character of Song Liling is of paramount significance, because it is in the tension between this role and the stereotype that a new, hoped-for vision of Chinese or Asian identity will emerge. But it is here that Hwang's project falls apart, for here he offers at best another disfigured stereotype. As racial and sexual confusion both dominate one character, Song Liling functions as a vehicle of massive self-doubt. S/he claims to be working as a spy for the state but admits enjoying the life of a transvestite. While s/he stands in for the role of the victimized Chinese character, the claim is made false as Song's manipulation of Gallimard is revealed in the role reversal at the end of the play. Accordingly, s/he finally comes across as little more than a disfigured transvestite version of the infamous Chinese “dragon lady” prostitute stereotype.24 After the proud revelation of manhood to Gallimard, Song covers up with great embarrassment as his/her Armani slacks are tossed offstage. This pattern of subversion is not an articulation of Asian desire; rather, it affirms a nefarious complicity with Anglo-American desire in its representation of otherness, both sexual and racial. Moreover, by setting the action in the neutral space of France, the author deflects any need for consideration of race relations in America. In this anamorphic intersection of race and gender, only obvious questions can be apprehended. As audiences leave the theater, then, racial/sexual identity is not an issue; rather, most are simply incredulous at how for twenty years Gallimard could have confused Song's rectum for a woman's vagina.

Gotanda also uses what could be called “jarring” contemporary language to demythologize the stereotypical portrayals of Asians established in the first scene of Yankee Dawg You Die. A somewhat more mature writer, he successfully contrasts the attitudes of the two actors as they confront the dilemmas of working in an essentially racist industry. Vincent Chang is revealed to be a Japanese man pretending to be Chinese to gain employment, but the clear linkage between racial disguise and economic imperative makes this acceptable. Indeed, it serves to emphasize the handicaps under which Asian American performers must work. Difficulties arise when it becomes evident that Vincent is gay and obviously ashamed of this situation. In light of America's gay/lesbian liberation movement, this amalgamation of race and gender confusion is almost enough to crush the unwitting Chinese/Japanese/closet-gay Vincent Chang into the space of aporia, subverting the most positive aspects of the play before it. Between the cinema stereotype and this disfigured character, little space exists for a new “real” Asian American since it is suggested that Bradley, too, will succumb to Chang's fate. Indeed, before the end of the play the once radical Bradley already has accepted stereotypical roles, had a nose job, and been warned that within thirty-five years he may be just like “Chinese” actor Vincent Chang.25

Clearly most problematic are the stage characters that both Hwang and Gotanda deploy to replace the earlier stereotypical portrayals. Their positions in tension with traditional standard portrayals create the opportunity for a new Asian stage presence. Unfortunately, the figures self-destruct at the very moment of their representation, leaving behind only newly disfigured traces. In David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die the genesis of a new representational strategy has emerged, one in which the words offer a clear indictment of the cultural hegemony of the West while the characters empowered to represent and speak on behalf of the Chinese or Asians are laughable and grossly disfigured. Thus marginalized, desexed, and made faceless, these Asian characters constitute no threat to Anglo-American sensibilities. Instead, they provide a good evening's entertainment and then float as exotic Oriental fetishes articulating Anglo-American desire, now doubly displaced into the new order of stereotypical representations created by Asian-Americans.

Most troubling is the possibility that this rupture in the representation could be strategic and intentional—a way of exploiting a jarringly contemporary Orient in a manner quite common in the fashion industry. In a public forum like the theater, writers ultimately must seek validation in the marketplace, and the market here is clearly Anglo-American.

The popular acceptance of these disfigured Chinese characters despite their Asian-American authorship does not signify an assimilation of the Chinese or Asians into the American mainstream. Rather, it offers a mere repositioning of their marginality and the creation of new “play” figures for the West. It would appear that both writers have fallen into the trap of complicity that Martin Luther King had admonished against, for it seems that while their mouths say no their eyes say yes.26


  1. For a detailed treatment of this, see Donald M. Lowe, History of Bourgeois Perception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

  2. See my “Mark Twain and Bret Harte's Ah Sin: Locating China in the Geography of the American West,” in Frontiers of Asian American Studies: Writing, Research, and Commentary, ed. Gail M. Nomura and Stephen H. Sumida (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989), 187-94.

  3. See my “Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions: Desiring Marginality and the Dematerialization of the Orient,” published in Chinese, Drama, Central Institute of Drama (Beijing), 1988.

  4. M. Butterfly premiered on 10 February 1988 at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. and opened in New York City on Broadway on 20 March 1988 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. All references to the playscript are from the first publication of the piece, which appeared as an insert (with independent internal pagination) between pages 32 and 33 of American Theatre (July/August 1988). Hereafter this playscript will be referred to as M. Butterfly.

  5. Philip Kan Gotanda, “Yankee Dawg You Die,” Typescript, provided by the Wisdom Bridge Theatre Company of Chicago, which produced the piece during the fall of 1988. Hereafter referred to as Yankee Dawg You Die.

  6. M. Butterfly, 4. The use of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904) for a point of departure is intriguing, as the Italian opera was an adaptation of an earlier American play entitled Madame Butterfly (1900) by John L. Long and David Belasco.

  7. M. Butterfly, 4.

  8. Ibid., 7.

  9. Ibid., 12.

  10. Ibid., 9-10.

  11. Ibid., 13.

  12. Ibid., 16.

  13. Ibid., 16.

  14. Ibid., 16.

  15. David Savran, In Their Own Words (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988), 127.

  16. M. Butterfly, 15.

  17. Yankee Dawg You Die, 33-35.

  18. Ibid., 27.

  19. Ibid., 41-44.

  20. Ibid., 36.

  21. Ibid., 60.

  22. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York: New American Library, 1989), 95.

  23. Gerard Raymond, “Smashing Stereotypes,” Theatre Week (11 April 1988): 8. See also David Savran, In Their Own Words, 117-31.

  24. For a treatment of this stereotype as it developed in the American cinema, see Renee E. Tajima, “Lotus Blossoms Don't Bleed: Images of Asian Women,” in Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings By and About Asian American Women, ed. Asian Women United of California (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 308-17.

  25. Yankee Dawg You Die, 60.

  26. It is interesting to note here that in responding to “leftist element[s], which might accuse me of selling out,” Hwang has said “I think the [Chinese American] community by and large is very success oriented and is more likely to embrace one of their own on the basis of having got to Broadway, no matter what the play was—as long as it was not horribly critical of the Chinese-American community.” Gerard Raymond, “Smashing Stereotypes,” 8.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194

M. Butterfly David Henry Hwang

American playwright, screenwriter, and librettist.

The following entry provides criticism on Hwang's play M. Butterfly through 2003. See also David Henry Hwang Drama Criticism.

Hwang received the 1988 Antoinette Perry Award for M. Butterfly (1988), distinguishing him as the first Asian American to win a Tony. The play has been praised as a postmodern text that deconstructs preconceptions of race, gender, and sexuality in a postcolonial world. M. Butterfly focuses on the relationship between René Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, who is actually a man employed to pose as a woman in order to extract state secrets from Gallimard. During the course of the play, Gallimard does not realize that his lover is actually a man. In a 1993 interview with Marty Moss-Coane, Hwang commented, “Writing for me tends to be closely bound up in the exploration of my identity as an Asian American,” concluding, “To me to write well is to battle stereotypes. To write well is to create three-dimensional characters that seem human.” M. Butterfly was adapted as a film in 1993, directed by David Cronenberg. Like many of Hwang's works, the play seeks to examine connections between different groups in society and to explore issues of shifting identity.

Plot and Major Characters

M. Butterfly was inspired by an article Hwang read about the real-life 1986 scandal involving a French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot, who for twenty years maintained a relationship with an international spy and Chinese opera singer, Shi Pei Pu, whom he believed to be a woman. Hwang recognized in this story basic elements of enduring Western stereotypes defining Asian men as feminized and disempowered. In his play, Hwang interweaves details from the Bouriscot story with plotlines from the Italian opera Madama Butterfly (1904), by Giacomo Puccini, in which a Japanese woman falls in love with an Englishman who eventually abandons her. In Hwang's play, a Chinese spy is ordered to present himself to Gallimard as a female opera diva, Song Liling. Gallimard first encounters Song on stage as she performs the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Gallimard is fooled into believing Liling is a woman, and develops a relationship with her, lasting several years. Subsequently, Gallimard abandons her and returns to his wife in France. Several years later, Liling is assigned to France to reestablish a relationship with Gallimard, who is now divorced from his wife. Liling is supplied with an Asian child to present to Gallimard as the result of their love affair. The ruse is successful, and Gallimard and Liling are reunited. After living with Liling as man and wife for over fifteen years, Gallimard is arrested and tried for espionage. He is accused of providing the Chinese government (via Liling) with French state secrets, such as American plans for increased troop strength in Vietnam, and other information that has passed through the French embassy. In a final scene, Gallimard, who is serving his sentence in a French prison, dresses in a wig and the garb of a traditional Chinese diva and stabs himself in the heart. This scene portrays a reversal of events as depicted in the Puccini opera, in which the Japanese woman kills herself in despair over her abandonment by her English lover.

Major Themes

M. Butterfly explores Western stereotypes concerning Asians and the preconceptions affecting national, racial, and East-West tensions and issues of gender and sexual identity. Hwang has described his play as a “deconstructivist” revision of Madama Butterfly, and critics have asserted that Hwang's dismantling of dominant Western notions of race and gender exposes these ideas to scathing critique. Hwang utilizes such postmodern theatrical techniques as nonlinear narrative, direct address to the audience, and unique staging to dramatize the intersecting discourses of race, gender, nation, and sexuality that infuse his play. On one level, the work functions as an examination of the phenomenon of “Orientalism,” which encompasses a broad spectrum of Western attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes regarding Asian people, cultures, and nations. In the play, Gallimard's willingness to accept Song as a woman is a natural extension of his perceptions of Asian men as feminized creatures. Further, Gallimard's stereotyping of Asian women as passive, subservient, and modest makes it possible for Song to live as his wife without being discovered as a man, despite the couple's intimate relationship. Gallimard's Western “colonial” attitudes concerning Asian culture are at the heart of his relationship with Song. Several critics have interpreted M. Butterfly as a condemnation of the East as well, stating that the work implies that the East played a complicit role in its own subjugation. The shifting of blame inherent in this interpretation has angered some Asian-American critics and activists, who denounce the suggestion of Eastern complicity as white-pleasing propaganda designed to conceal the real history of East-West relations. However, many commentators, and Hwang himself, have maintained that the play seeks to cut through layers of sexual and cultural misperception on both sides, and attempts to foster respectful relationships that are for the common good. In a different vein, M. Butterfly critiques traditional notions of gender by featuring a central character, Liling, who is biologically a man, but who succeeds in living as a woman for over twenty years. In the conclusion of the play, Gallimard dresses himself as a woman and commits suicide in a manner stereotypically associated with women—by stabbing his heart with a dagger. The ending has been interpreted by some critics as an assertion that gender is not necessarily an innate biological phenomenon, but a “socially constructed” identity which may be assumed by members of either sex.

Critical Reception

M. Butterfly remains Hwang's greatest popular and critical success, and has sparked ongoing debate over its socio-political implications in regard to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationhood, and imperialism. Academics have embraced M. Butterfly as a postmodern text that aims to deconstruct received notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Critics of the play have typically fallen into two camps: those who applaud Hwang's deconstructive gender-bending text and his examination of East-West tensions, and those who argue that the play, while ostensibly critiquing Western stereotypes of Asians, ultimately reinforces those stereotypes. Robert Cooperman has stated that M. Butterfly is “[a]rguably the most important play in terms of challenging the political/social/cultural identities of the West over the last decade,” further saying that the work “very plainly forces its Western audience to contend with Eastern stereotypes involving sexual orientation, gender, and culture, especially those stereotypes promulgated by the myth of Orientalism.” Many commentators have lauded Hwang's identification of Western stereotypes regarding Asians—both male and female—but other scholars have objected to Hwang's attempt at subversive discourse in M. Butterfly. For example, James S. Moy has argued that the play “is not an articulation of Asian desire; rather, it affirms a nefarious complicity with Anglo-American desire in its representation of otherness, both sexual and racial.” Other reviewers have agreed, asserting that by describing and reaffirming typical masculine Western notions, Hwang unintentionally reinvigorates the systems he intends to break down. Nevertheless, M. Butterfly has been celebrated and praised as a powerful metaphor for East-West political relations and as an astute examination of the assimilation of the Asian American into American culture.

Douglas Kerr (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5607

SOURCE: Kerr, Douglas. “David Henry Hwang and the Revenge of Madame Butterfly.” In Asian Voices in English, edited by Mimi Chan and Roy Harris, pp. 119-30. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Kerr compares the representation of Asian characters in M. Butterfly and Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. Kerr argues that the opera aligns the audience's sympathy with the pathos of the central Asian character, while Hwang's play aligns the audience with the plight of the central Western character.]

One of the best-known of all Asian voices sings in Italian. I dare say that Madame Butterfly is the most recognisable image in all of Western opera, and one that comes freighted with meaning even for those who have never seen or heard the opera, and have the vaguest idea of the story. One such was the American playwright David Henry Hwang, who, one afternoon in 1986 while driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, was visited by ‘the idea of doing a deconstructivist Madame Butterfly’, even though at the time he did not even know the plot of the opera.1 This paper is interested in what led to that idea, and what resulted from it: that is, the production and development of the image of Madame Butterfly from its origins almost a century ago, to its latest and violent reaccentuation in David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, given its first performance in 1988.

The composer Puccini was in England in the summer of 1900, in connection with the London production of his latest opera Tosca, when he attended a performance of an American play called Madame Butterfly. He was enthralled. He knew very little English, but he knew what he liked, and (says Mosco Carner) ‘came away profoundly moved by the play, in spite of or perhaps because of his inability to follow its dialogue’.2 When Puccini first heard Butterfly's voice, it was speaking in a language he did not know, yet felt he understood.

The character of Madame Butterfly had made her debut in a novelette by John Luther Long which was published in the American Century Magazine in 1898. This in turn owes something to Pierre Loti's novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887), an orientalist whimsy that tells the story of a European sailor's temporary marriage to a Japanese geisha. (Loti specialised in this sort of thing: E. M. Forster described him as ‘a sentimentalist who has voyaged hat in hand over the picturesque world’, adding ‘Les mariages de Loti se font partout’.3) But Butterfly seems to have had her chief origin too in a piece of gossip which Long (who had never been to Japan) had heard from his sister, the wife of an American missionary at Nagasaki.4 The dramatic or melodramatic potential of the tale, when he read it in the Century Magazine, caught the attention of David Belasco, then at the height of his fame as a playwright and theatrical producer. The collaboration between Belasco and Long—Arthur Hobson Quinn describes it rather sadly as ‘the most artistic period’ of Belasco's career5—brought forth the one-act play Madame Butterfly, first produced in New York in 1900, which was to be followed by five other exotic romances, including The Girl of the Golden West (1905). Puccini first saw and heard Butterfly, then, in the London production of Belasco's dramatisation of Long's story.

The play retains a great deal of the dialogue of the original story, but Belasco's dramatic instinct led him to a concentration of the action into a single act—more accurately, an act of two scenes, separated by the overnight vigil of Butterfly, a feature which Puccini was to retain. Belasco's other major change was to the plot. In Long's story, Butterfly's attempt at suicide is unsuccessful: she decides to live after all, and (it is implied) she returns in the end to her former profession of geisha. Belasco could see that this would not do.

The action of the play starts some three years after Lt Pinkerton has sailed away from Nagasaki, leaving behind Cho-Cho-San the geisha (known as Butterfly) with whom he has gone through a form of marriage, and promising to return when the robins nest again. Even her servant Suzuki can see the cynicism of this promise: but Cho-Cho-San believes Pinkerton will keep faith. She turns down an offer of marriage from the wealthy Yamadori, even though Sharpless, the American consul, tries to make her understand that it is useless to pin her hopes on Pinkerton. A ship's gun is heard: Pinkerton's ship has arrived in the harbour; Butterfly, her child by Pinkerton, and the servant Suzuki sit up all night waiting to welcome him home. In the second scene Pinkerton appears, though he has not the courage to face a meeting with Butterfly. He has married an American girl, Kate, and now they have come to take the child (whom Butterfly has named Trouble) back to America with them. When Butterfly understands this, she agrees to give up the child to Kate Pinkerton. But in losing her husband and her child, she has lost everything. Rather than go on living without honour, she commits suicide, using the blade with which her father too had killed himself. Her death ends the play.

Madame Butterfly offered its audience large helpings of the exotic, spiced with pathos and humour.

America's gaze was being drawn to the Orient. The year of Long's story was the year of the ‘splendid little war’ which gave Guam and the Philippines to America: Asia was becoming collectible. Japanese design was fashionable in the West, and Madame Butterfly itself is a collection or thesaurus of japonaiserie, containing most of what most people in the audience might be expected to recognise as typically Japanese—fans, screens, marriage-broking, paper houses, tea, suicide, cosmetics, ancestor-worship, politeness, cherry blossom. And at the centre of the collection the little geisha herself, acquired by Pinkerton in a buyer's market and referred to as Butterfly. Belasco's opening stage direction describes Butterfly's ‘little house’: ‘Everything in the room is Japanese save the American locks and bolts on the doors and windows and an American flag fastened to a tobacco jar.’

Pinkerton, who has acquired the place on a 999-year lease, has also possessed Cho-Cho-San, who in his absence insists on referring to the house as an American house and to herself as an American girl. She is locked into the marriage with Pinkerton that only she believes in. As Mrs Pinkerton, she can neither earn a living as a geisha, nor even consider a marriage proposal from the obliging and fabulously wealthy Yamadori. She has renounced her religion, and her family have renounced her. She is entirely and disastrously dependent on Pinkerton. But what is perhaps most interesting is what has happened to Butterfly's voice.

For obvious reasons, the play's dialogue is in English. The consul, and later the Pinkertons, provide the norm of speech: the cosmopolitan Yamadori also speaks a standard (even slightly Jamesian) American English. Against this must be measured Butterfly's idiom—as, for example, when she greets Mr Sharpless the American consul.

O, your honorable excellency, goon night,—no, not night yaet: aexcuse me, I'm liddle raddle',—I mean goon mornin', goon evenin'. Welcome to 'Merican house, mos' welcome to 'Merican girl! (Pointing to herself. They both bow.) Be seat.

And this is not an idiom reserved for her dealings with foreigners. She speaks to Yamadori and the marriage-broker in the same way, and at the beginning of the play she has already reminded the servant Suzuki that ‘no one shall speak anythin' but those Unite' State' languages in these Lef-ten-ant Pik-ker-ton's house’. She recognises and insists on this as the linguistic sign of Pinkerton's ownership—her voice is locked in his language just as her house is secured by those American locks and bolts. And so keen is she to refashion herself as her husband's creature that, when she winks behind her fan, Sharpless exclaims ‘Heavens! Pinkerton's very wink.’ This self-westernising of Cho-Cho-San is an assertion of her relationship with Pinkerton but also, of course, a measure of the grotesque inequality of that relationship. She refuses Japanese: in the English she has acquired from three months with Pinkerton, she is not only disadvantaged but often ridiculous.

Butterfly's comical English belongs to a strong theatrical tradition. There are moments when she sounds like a stage negro from a minstrel show. Alan S. Downer usefully points out that she speaks the English of a once popular comic figure, Hashimura Togo the ‘Japanese Schoolboy’.6 American drama and vaudeville were in any case full of characters and turns based on the immigrants flooding into the States—an accelerating flood, almost nine million in the twenty years before Madame Butterfly, almost nine million in the ten years after,7 and most of them no doubt protesting their Americanness loudly. (As one California Chinese says to another in Hwang's Family Devotions, ‘What do you know about American ways? You were born here!’) The theatres registered and applied the pressure of assimilation: American audiences were used to the idea that foreigners were condemned to be funny until they could become properly American. And so while Butterfly's setting made her part of an exotic spectacle, and her situation made her recognisable as the melodrama type of the deserted mistress, a figure of pathos, her voice made her recognisably a clown, a figure of fun. It is a potent and more or less unbearable mixture, reaching a dramatic climax when Pinkerton bursts in to find the dying Butterfly with the child he has never seen.

PINKERTON (Discerning what she has done):
Oh! Cho-Cho-San! (He draws her to him with the baby pressed to her heart. She waves the child's hand which holds the [American] flag—saying faintly.)
MADAME Butterfly:
Too bad those robins did n' nes' again. (She dies.)

The audience is gone which could enjoy this tableau, and this curtain line, in any straightforward way.8 Yet that audience did exist, and it made the play a sensational success in its time. The ending is constructed out of widely shared ideas or feelings about what it meant to be Asian and what it meant to be Western, and about the relation between the two.

The transformation of the Long-Belasco play took four years, and is not a simple matter. I do not propose to try to disentangle the contributions of Puccini, his two librettists Giacosa and Illica, or the different stages of revision. I must treat the opera as a single, finished thing, and pay attention to the transformation of the voice of Butterfly from Long's heroine to Puccini's.

First, in the opera Butterfly loses the linguistic disadvantage that made her sometimes ridiculous in the story and the play. She is as fluent as Pinkerton and the others in the language of the opera, Italian. Difference of idiom is a device more suited to the more realistic forms. Puccini does give his Butterfly elements of native Japanese and pseudo-Japanese music,9 but it would be difficult for the singing voice to suggest a Japanese imperfectly imitating an American idiom: besides, these language nuances probably were of no interest to the Italians who worked on the opera (and they certainly would not have been noticeable to Puccini when he saw the play). Gone is any sense that as a foreigner Butterfly is linguistically inferior: that sense perhaps depended on an experience of empire, or of immigration. The result of the equalising (so to speak) of Butterfly's language is that she is now no longer at all comic. The comedy, such as it is, recedes into the background to be distributed among the locally-colourful relatives who attend her wedding; the heroine herself is perhaps even more picturesque and exotic than she was in the original version but her Japaneseness is attractive and charming and not laughable. Unlike her prototype, Puccini's Cio-Cio-San is neither vulgar nor silly. Her powerlessness in relation to Pinkerton is registered not in an inadequate command of his language, but in the much greater emphasis the opera gives to her youth (she is fifteen when she meets Pinkerton).

The major structural difference between the opera and the play is the introduction of a long first act centred on the wedding, or ‘wedding’, of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. The erotic climaxing of this first act in the union of Pinkerton and Butterfly will be followed, and parodied, at the end of Act 1 of M. Butterfly. In an obvious sense, the act is a necessary prelude to the obligatory and dazzling love duet, but it serves other purposes too, purposes that open up differences from the original play. Butterfly's bridal happiness supplies what the play had lacked, a sense of the high point from which the heroine's fortunes decline, an arc of tragedy. It also lends a certain credibility to her devotion to Pinkerton—he is after all a Puccini tenor, which is something, and an improvement on the timid and brutal oaf of the play. The opera brings a very much stronger light to bear on the erotic. And yet that rhapsodic duet under starlight on the wedding-night is already ironic, pathetic. Earlier in the act and before Butterfly's first entrance, Pinkerton has given notice, in the aria ‘Dovunque al mondo’, that he intends to take pleasure and profit wherever he can find them, and that he is taking his wife on just the same contractual terms as he took the house—999 years, with the option to quit at any time he likes. So the unbridled lyricism of the wedding-night duet has some emotional subtlety, deriving from Butterfly's unawareness of what is being done to her. Her bliss is dependent upon her ignorance that for Pinkerton she is another score added to his total, another wife in another port for the ‘Yankee vagabondo’. She is not to know that, immediately before her arrival, the groom was drinking a toast to the day he would marry ‘con vere nozze / a una vera sposa americana’—a real marriage, to a real American bride.

The pathos of women was Puccini's speciality. He liked to speak of his heroines as his ‘little women’; and indeed the littleness of Butterfly is inscribed all over the opera. Pinkerton bombards her with diminutives. She is his ‘piccina mogliettina’, his tiny little wife. In one passage of the love duet he addresses her as his squirrel, his little toy, his child (a witch-like child, rather like the subject peoples of the Kipling poem, the ‘fluttered folk’ who are ‘half demon and half child’.10) She concurs, replying in kind: ‘Somiglio la Dea della luna, / la piccola Dea della luna’—she is the little goddess of the moon. She is even, as it were, racially miniature. ‘Noi siamo gente avvezza / alle piccole cose, / umili e silenziose’, she comes from a people accustomed to small things, modest and quiet (a line quoted but interestingly misunderstood in M. Butterfly). Long before the transistor and the microchip, Japan was associated with miniature artefacts. Here the diminution of Butterfly speaks to a recurrent western imagination of the Orient as delicate, beautiful and fragile.11 Linked to the libretto's insistence on the girl's extreme youth—and this is in turn related to a paternalistic tendency of the discourse of orientalism—and its characterisation of her as a grave child, courageous but out of her depth, these features add up to what was clearly for Puccini the truth of Butterfly's story, its overwhelming pathos. At one point in Act 2 Yamadori, the consul and the marriage-broker discuss her ‘blindness’ while she is in the room; people plot around her, she is the last to know. She is small, virtually alone, innocent and helpless, she has no power and no knowledge, nothing but dignity. Nothing, that is, except her voice. Whereas John Luther Long gave Butterfly a voice that made it impossible to take her seriously, Puccini's Butterfly has a voice of power, and she has all the best tunes. She does not resist her sufferings, but she sings. Her pathos is the opera.

Poor Butterfly. Long's narrative had her deserted: Belasco for the play required her death: Puccini's treatment of her story prolongs and deepens her pathos, while making it more impressive. You do not need to be particularly sensitive to consider that the myth of Butterfly, and its production, is a story of exploitation. The geisha herself is a resource exploited by the freebooting Pinkerton, and then abandoned. He adds her to his collection of erotic bibelots—she is like blown glass, he sings, or a figure painted on a lacquer screen. She is an attractive prize for him because she is Japanese; yet in getting his hands on her, he alienates her from her Japanese family, religion, language and future. To collect her is to kill her. And Pinkerton can take advantage of her by exploiting the powerlessness of virtually every card in her hand—her youth, her sex, her poverty, her race. But perhaps the buck should not stop at Pinkerton. Mosco Carner claims that it is ‘precisely because of their degraded position that [Puccini] was able to fall in love with his heroines’; but that, having created them to fall in love with them, he proceeds to punish them with ‘a manifestly sado-masochistic enjoyment’.12 But it was not only Puccini who enjoyed the spectacle of Butterfly's suffering. It filled the opera houses; it was something people wanted. ‘Voglion prendermi tutto!’ Butterfly realises, far too late: they want to take everything from me. But she utters not a single word of protest or anger. She is the queen of submission.

When David Henry Hwang perused the libretto of Madame Butterfly, he says he found in it ‘a wealth of sexist and racist clichés’, and concluded that the figure of Butterfly could be understood as a ‘fantasy stereotype’. There is no doubt that this is true. Butterfly is clearly a wish-projection of what a Western male imagination supposed an Oriental woman might be like—beautiful, exotic, loving, yielding and not binding, giving all and demanding nothing. She is an aspect of a stereotype, fashioned in an age of colonial adventure (though by no means extinct), a Western myth of the Oriental female (and of the Orient as female) about which a post-colonial criticism has found a lot to say, much of it along the lines of Rana Kabbani's claim (in Europe's Myths of Orient) that To perceive the East as a sexual domain, and to perceive the East as a domain to be colonised, were complementary aspirations.’13 It is appropriate that this myth should be reappraised at the hands of an Asian American writer. It will be remembered that Butterfly had a child who would grow up in the States, a child both Asian and American, and that his name was Trouble.

So Hwang's project is, really, the revenge of Butterfly, a revolutionary retelling in which the means of production of the story, as it were, are in Asian hands—or, if you like, Madame Butterfly with an Asian voice. Hwang uses (and in the process inverts) the myth of Butterfly as a way of telling and of understanding the story spun from an anecdote he heard in a casual conversation, an anecdote about a French diplomat in Beijing who had fallen in love with a Chinese actress, who subsequently turned out to be not only a spy, but a man. The play is set in Beijing and Paris and most of its action takes place in the 1960s. But Hwang has said that it is also a personal play for him, coloured by his own experience of the stereotyping social attitudes and expectations that confront an Asian American.

In M. Butterfly what I was trying to ask was: Is it reasonable to assume that those attitudes I felt from society at large influence the policy makers as they consider the world?14

How does the play manage its dialogue with the opera, story and myth of Madame Butterfly?

The facts of the play's story are these. René Gallimard, a junior French diplomat in Beijing in 1960, meets the opera singer Song Liling at a diplomatic reception where she fascinates him by singing Puccini; she invites him to see her perform in Chinese opera, a hesitant courtship ensues in which first Song and then Gallimard himself plays hard to get; this culminates in their becoming lovers at the end of Act 1. In Act 2, Gallimard has set up his mistress in an apartment, and she has begun to extract diplomatic intelligence from him (it is the early days of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam), Gallimard having been promoted on the strength of his envied ability to ‘get along with the Chinese’. Gallimard starts another affair, with a European girl, but her sexual frankness repels him; he returns to Song, who announces she is pregnant and (after going away for some months to the country) presents him with a child. But things start to go wrong: Gallimard is posted back to France, demoted and demoralised, Song suffers in the Cultural Revolution, and four years later is sent by his political masters penniless to France, to live off Gallimard and carry on spying. Act 3, fifteen years later, deals with Gallimard's discovery (or admission) of the truth about Song; the trial; and Gallimard alone in prison, with his memories and fantasies. It ought to be added that the audience is aware from the start that Song Liling is a man.

The play itself is presented (like Yeats' Purgatory) as an obsessive re-play, ‘always searching for a new ending’. (1.3) Gallimard, alone in gaol, introduces and stage-manages (or tries to) a series of tableaux from his memory, interwoven with verbal and musical allusions to the opera—necessary, he says, ‘in order for you to understand what I did and why’. (1.3) It is largely through this intertextuality that the play explores the issues of love and betrayal between cultures, the story of Gallimard being a parody and a reversal (up to a point) of the story of Pinkerton.

Through the first act, Gallimard gives a sort of caricature or cartoon version of the story of Madame Butterfly, his favourite opera, with himself in the role of Pinkerton. Here is Gallimard/Pinkerton telling the consul about his bride.

Cio-Cio-San. Her friends call her Butterfly. Sharpless, she eats out of my hand!
She's probably very hungry.
Not like American girls. It's true what they say about Oriental girls. They want to be treated bad!
Oh, please!
It's true!
Are you serious about this girl?
I'm marrying her, aren't I?
Yes—with generous trade-in terms.
When I leave, she'll know what it's like to have loved a real man. And I'll even buy her a few nylons.
You aren't planning to take her with you?
Huh? Where?
You mean, America? Are you crazy? Can you see her trying to buy rice in St. Louis?


This is hardly the language of the 1890s in which the action of the opera is supposed to take place. In fact the jokes about hunger and nylons point rather to the era of Macarthur, but the idiom is a slick contemporary colloquial. It also has a certain brutal self-confidence, apt for the speech of a latter-day Pinkerton, but actually ill-suited to Gallimard himself.

For though he may have his dreams of sexual conquest and power, Gallimard is a timid man, gauche and mild-mannered, and he is at first at a loss when his fantasies become actual in the alluring shape of the ‘Chinese diva’ singing the role of Butterfly—his dream made flesh. Though not one of nature's Pinkertons, Gallimard is enthralled by the myth, and drawn into it; he creates himself as Pinkerton, just as he creates Song Liling as Butterfly. And his old schoolfriend Marc collaborates in the construction of these roles, with his man-of-the-world advice about how the Chinese girl is ‘bound to surrender’ to her western suitor, she cannot help herself. It is, says Marc (quite accurately) ‘an old story’ (1.9), and so, evidently, not just Gallimard's singular fantasy but a communal, cultural and historical one. A Butterfly requires a Pinkerton; and in his pursuit of Song, Gallimard becomes calculating and commanding, aggressive and confident. He acquires authority, in both senses, of knowledge and power. He is promoted, and consulted by his ambassador as an expert on the East, a man with ‘inside knowledge’ whose advice (‘Orientals will always submit to a greater force’, and so on) is passed on to the Americans. Pinkerton possessed his Butterfly: ‘A lui devo obbedir!’, she said; I must obey him in everything. But Gallimard's authority and possession are a delusion. In M. Butterfly the tables are turned: he has been had.

Song him/herself is first seen in the panoply of Oriental mystique, costumed for Peking opera, and is last seen demystified, as a naked man. For unlike the guileless Butterfly, Song is an actor. ‘Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act’, (2.7) and Song has captivated Gallimard by telling him just what he wants to hear.

Please. Hard as I try to be modern, to speak like a man, to hold a western woman's strong face up to my own … in the end, I fail. A small, frightened heart beats too quickly and gives me away.


This is consummate: it is recognisably the voice of Butterfly—diminutive, meek, feminine, culturally quaint but backward, pathetically anxious to be Western. But of course the helplessness that doomed Puccini's Butterfly is a gambit for Song. Song's submissiveness makes a conquest of Gallimard: it is an instrument of power.

For Gallimard believes—and goes on believing (like Butterfly in the opera)—because he wants to believe. The Chinese singer has assumed the form of his desire, as romance embodied, beside whom Western women seem either commonplace or alarming. And so the demystification of Song, when it comes, is stark and brutal. In the courtroom scene in Act 3, Song responds with a cruel lack of modesty, to the judge's (the audience's?) prurient curiosity.

… I did all the work. He just laid back. Of course we did enjoy more … complete union, and I suppose he might have wondered why I was always on my stomach, but … But what you're thinking is: ‘Of course a wrist must've brushed … a hand hit … over twenty years!’ Yeah. Well, Your Honor, it was my job to make him think I was a woman. And chew on this: it wasn't all that hard. See, my mother was a prostitute along the Bund before the Revolution. And, uh, I think it's fair to say she learned a few things about Western men. So I borrowed her knowledge. In service to my country.


Song in the witness-box stands revealed as cynical, arrogant and unfeeling, proud of his powers as actor, lover and spy. This is what the voice of Butterfly has come to: it speaks now in a register, and manner, that recalls the boastful and racist vulgarities of Pinkerton in Act 1. And Gallimard—humiliated, betrayed and helpless—is forced to listen.

It is a dramatic discovery and reversal that turns the Butterfly story inside out. Gallimard understands at last that he has been telling the wrong story, or rather telling the right story but from the wrong point of view. The fantasy of Butterfly has been turned against the fantasist: Gallimard's dream of power was the weakness that enabled Song to use him. It is Gallimard who has been tricked into submission, exploited, deluded and lied to—he who is the last to know, ruined, and now abandoned. He has been brought, a low-mimetic Antony, to the heart of loss; and all for love.

… Yes—love. Why not admit it all? That was my undoing, wasn't it? Love warped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face … until I could look in the mirror and see nothing but … a woman.


He is Butterfly; and in the last moments of the play he enacts Butterfly's death, which Song is brought onstage (like Belasco's and Puccini's Pinkerton) in time to witness.

The project of Hwang's ‘deconstructivist Madame Butterfly’, as he explains in the Afterword, was to expose the falsities and dangers of the kind of ‘sexist and racist clichés’ that were to be found in ‘the archetypal East-West romance that started it all’. The play that gives Butterfly her revenge is as much of its place and time as were the earlier versions of the story that watched her suffer. Terms like ‘American’ and ‘Asian’, ‘Oriental’ and ‘Western’, are growing new meanings in multi-ethnic California, after Vietnam. But though its premises are quite different, M. Butterfly has much in common with Belasco's play, and not least in its theatricalism, its spectacle and melodrama. And if it stumbles at times over its own ambitions, it is none the less compelling. I want to conclude by raising two points, one political and one dramatic, about this latest but probably not last of the metamorphoses of Butterfly.

The play's overt political story is not one of its more impressive features. Its portrayal of Chinese communism is of the cartoon variety, and it is clumsy and contrived in its linking of Gallimard's adventures with Song to American activities in Vietnam. To be sure, the Americans took advice from the French over Indochina. But the play suggests there is a direct causal connection between the advice of a French vice-consul, whose orientalist qualifications are that he has a Chinese lover, and American decisions to escalate the war and later to have President Diem assassinated. (2.2, 2.6) The play is realist enough in its predication to suffer a good deal from its own improbabilities. And as a gloss on the history of East-West relations in its own time, it can't be assumed that M. Butterfly, for all its knowingness, is necessarily superior to the libretto of the Puccini opera.

Opera of course is not realist. Its words are in another language; they tend to be smothered in their music. The music, Brecht said, makes the reality vague and unreal: the point is repeated by the feminist Catherine Clément in her Opera, or The Undoing of Women, but, Clément adds, ‘The unconscious … does not hear with this deaf ear’.15 And her critique of the opera repertoire finds room to praise, of all people, Puccini.

None of these ‘women in Puccini's operas’ can be understood without history. Perhaps no one knew better than he and his librettists how to show a destiny and a politics that were intimately inseparable, right down to their final, crushing action.16

And indeed Puccini's Madame Butterfly is not a mere fantasy. It is an opera that opens with a man appraising a piece of real estate and ends with a woman making arrangements for the emigration of her son to the West. Butterfly's fate is of no historical moment, yet it has historical meaning. Her domestic tragedy is played out on a stage whose dimensions are political and economic, racial and cultural; and these awarenesses are created in the language, in the libretto—it may be a symptom but it is also an investigation of the discourse of orientalism. In Puccini the private drama lives in history in a way that makes M. Butterfly seem heavy-handed.

The dramatic point is related to this. Belasco and Puccini both identified the pathos of the betrayed victim as the dramatic centre of gravity of the Butterfly story. When David Henry Hwang undertook Butterfly's revenge and turned the story upside down, that centre of gravity remained fixed, though the victim was now not the Oriental woman but the Western man. Song triumphs over Gallimard; but Song's revenge (as we have seen) reveals him to be unfeeling and cruel. Gallimard's undoing leaves him a pathetic, even tragic loser. This could perhaps be related to the contemporary discovery by Hollywood that America was the real victim of the Vietnam war. And what is Gallimard, after all, but one who has loved not wisely but too well? You might say that, in drawing to a conclusion focused on the pathos of Gallimard, the story of Madame Butterfly exacts its own revenge on its would-be deconstructor. It remains a story of pathos. But its recomposition in M. Butterfly appropriates that pathos (Butterfly's last possession), taking it away from the Eastern and the female—for in the end, no Asians or females in the play are portrayed as deserving much sympathy—and investing it finally in a Western voice.


  1. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 95.

  2. Mosco Carner, Puccini: A Critical Biography, 2nd edn. (London: Duckworth, 1974), p. 127.

  3. E. M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 286.

  4. Carner, pp. 125-26.

  5. Arthur Hobson Quinn (ed.), Representative American Plays, 7th edn. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953), p. 623. The text of Madame Butterfly is on pp. 627-36.

  6. Alan S. Downer, Fifty Years of American Drama, Gateway edn. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1966), p. 6.

  7. See Maldwyn A. Jones, The Limits of Liberty (London: O.U.P., 1983), p. 648 (Table 2).

  8. It is perhaps worth speculating at what point this ending ceased to be playable.

  9. Discussed in William Ashbrook, The Operas of Puccini (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), pp. 118-22.

  10. Rudyard Kipling, ‘The White Man's Burden: 1899 (The United States and the Philippine Islands)’.

  11. Turandot gives the obverse image.

  12. Carner, pp. 275 & 276.

  13. Rana Kabbani, Europe's Myths of Orient (London: Pandora Press, 1988), p. 59.

  14. ‘Playing with stereotypes from both East and West’, interview with D. H. Hwang in The South China Morning Post, 25 January 1990.

  15. Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988), p. 9.

  16. Clément, p. 20.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206

*FOB (play) 1979

The Dance and the Railroad (play) 1981; adapted as a teleplay, 1982

Family Devotions (play) 1981

The House of Sleeping Beauties [adaptor; from Yasunari Kawabata's novella] (play) 1983

The Sound of a Voice (play) 1983

As the Crow Flies (play) 1986

Rich Relations (play) 1986

M. Butterfly (play) 1988; adapted as a screenplay, 1993

1000 Airplanes on the Roof [librettist; with Philip Glass and Jerome Sirlin] (musical) 1988

Bondage (play) 1992

The Voyage [librettist; with Philip Glass] (opera) 1992

Face Value (play) 1993

Golden Gate (screenplay) 1994

Golden Child (play) 1996

Trying to Find Chinatown (play) 1996

The Silver River [librettist; with Bright Sheng] (opera) 1997

Peer Gynt [adaptor; from Henrik Ibsen's play] (play) 1998

Aïda [adaptor, from Giuseppe Verdi's opera; with Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, Elton John, and Tim Rice] (opera) 1999

The Flower Drum Song [adaptor, from Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' musical and C. Y. Lee's novel] (musical) 2001

Possession [adaptor; from Peter Sís' autobiographical children's book] (screenplay) 2002

Ainadamar [librettist; with Osvaldo Golijov] (opera) 2003

The Sound of a Voice [librettist; with Philip Glass] (opera) 2003

Tibet through the Red Box [adaptor; from Peter Sís' autobiographical children's book] (children's play) 2004

*This work was republished in 1990, along with several others, in FOB and Other Plays; the acronym refers to the phrase “fresh-off-the-boat.”

†These works were performed together as Sound and Beauty in 1983.

Robert K. Martin (essay date fall 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4583

SOURCE: Martin, Robert K. “Gender, Race, and the Colonial Body: Carson McCullers's Filipino Boy, and David Henry Hwang's Chinese Woman.” Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 1 (fall 1992): 95-106.

[In the following essay, Martin compares the discourses of gender, nationality, and colonialism within Hwang's M. Butterfly with the novel and film adaptation Reflections in a Golden Eye, by Carson McCullers.]

Almost twenty years after its first production, Michel Tremblay's two-person play about a drag queen and her motorcyclist lover, Hosanna, was staged again in Montreal, this time by a woman director, Lorraine Pintal. In the interval, the play had become a classic of Québec nationalism, with the sexual disguises read as failure of political self-affirmation. The new production was significantly different from the 1973 production, which many people in the audience remembered. Most striking of the changes was an alteration in the ending when the drag queen Claude, or Hosanna, no longer undresses to reveal her “true self.” As Renate Usmiani rather sententiously described the ending in her account of the early version, “both characters realize that the time for hiding places and disguises is past and they must assume real life and real identities” (96). Even if it originates in Tremblay's own accounts of the play, the notion of “real identities,” would seem hard to sustain in 1991, especially when it is accompanied, as it is in Hosanna, by a claim to masculinity; Hosanna's five-time repeated final words of the play, as she “becomes” Claude again, “Chus t'un homme [“I'm a man.”—author's translation]” (75), words that echo and make explicit the end of the first act, when Hosanna declares to her lover Cuirette, “Moé aussi j'arais envie de t'enculer! [“Me too, I want to fuck you.”—author's translation]” (48).

However much it may be necessary for Québécois (and perhaps particularly Québécoises) to rewrite that final scene in a more modern, and less triumphant, version, English speakers seem to have been almost invariably incapable of understanding the play's political content. Again, Usmiani may represent the critical response to the play. Denying Tremblay's definition of the play as “an allegory about Québec,” she claims that “Hosanna will doubtless survive its political uses because its psychological and philosophical themes have universal implications” (96). It is not that Usmiani wants to stress the play's situation in a rhetoric of gay liberation: on the contrary she stresses that “the fact that both [lovers] happen to be male becomes irrelevant” (89). Despite such transcendental readings, Tremblay's play remains a crucial work for an understanding of a discourse of sexuality and nationalism. The shifts made necessary in the recent production indicate ways in which the affiliations between nationalism and masculinity have been redrawn since the early 1970s.

If we bear in mind Patricia Smart's comment that revolutionary nationalism is a project of the son raised against the mother, “a 'virility' to be assumed against and at the expense of woman” (240), it is easier to see Hosanna as a nationalist project and to understand why it is the “woman” Hosanna, the drag queen, who must be humiliated and then reborn. While Tremblay clearly does not participate in the ritual violence that Smart shows is central to the nationalist novel, he is caught up in an equation that links masculinity with nationhood. The male character, Cuirette, is pathetic, but he is not subject to the ritual destruction that Hosanna endures. Hosanna's situation for Tremblay is that of a person lacking identity, “ce coiffeur de la plaza St-Hubert qui a toujours rêvé d'être une actrice anglaise (Elizabeth Taylor) naturalisée américaine qui joue un mythe égyptien (Cléopâtre) dans un film américain tourné en Espagne [“This hairdresser from Plaza St. Hubert who has always dreamed of being an English actress, naturalized American, playing an Egyptian myth in an American film shot in Spain.”—author's translation]” (4). Hosanna's femininity and his “Orientalism” are signs of his lack of identity, that is to say, masculinity.

Wishing to show Québec's failure to develop its own identity, Tremblay turns not simply to a drag queen, but to a drag queen who wants to play the part of the Oriental queen.1 This doubling of difference acts in some ways to counteract the gesture of subordination, but it substitutes a fantasy of performance for a reality, and a fantasy that has been multiplied by the screen into the world of mass culture. In the revenge that Hosanna's rivals take on her, as in the multiplied realities of the screen, all the drag queens are Cleopatra.

Tremblay's text marks an important moment in postcolonial and nationalist writing; though, in some ways it may be seen to promise more than it delivers. The defense of Hosanna, the drag queen who represents the colonialized fantasies of a subservient Québec, rests upon Tremblay's revelation, starkly dramatized in the early version's final scene when Hosanna disrobed to reveal that under the mask of the colonial woman there was a real man. Nationalist discourse seeks freedom from the loss of national identity through the assertion of masculinity, since obedience to the colonial regime is imagined as feminine or effeminate.

This joining of tropes, with masculine linked to national and anticolonial, may not be natural, but it is certainly pervasive. Because it is so thoroughly a part of an appeal to the revival of self, its sexist implications may pass unnoticed. What this suggests is the danger of resisting one form of oppression—political and national—by another, but in a manner that, because it is embodied in the tropes more than the explicit ideas, may seem “natural.”

As I see it, one aspect of director Pintal's refusal to retain the disrobing in the final scene (apart from the datedness of such theatrical nudity), is a questioning of the opposition of true self/disguised self, which implies a self somewhere outside of culture and history, as if any self were not always already constructed and disguised. Pintal also attempts to avoid the consequences (ultimately impossible in Tremblay's play) of the representation of the colonized body as the effeminate body, or the male body in drag. While Tremblay does suggest that the leather queen is as disguised as Hosanna is, the logic of the play's climactic moments works toward recuperating the masculine/nationalist connection.

I want to make use of the problems that Tremblay's play presents as a way into two rather different texts, a novel (and later a film) by Carson McCullers and a play by David Henry Hwang, in which issues of nationality, colonialism, and gender are raised. McCullers's focus on issues of gender will, in some eyes, make her less concerned with questions of race and nationality (although I think this is an incomplete view of her work), while Hwang's focus on the feminization of the Oriental male rests upon a set of assumptions about masculinity that must themselves be put under erasure. Edward Said's important study, Orientalism, has done much to demonstrate the artificiality and ultimate oppressiveness of the construction of the “Oriental” in the European imagination. However, a dismantling of the “Oriental” through its association with the “feminine” may replace one binarism with another; writing against empire by no means ensures rewriting gender.

Hosanna's heroine, Elizabeth Taylor, played the leading female role in the film of Carson McCullers's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941, filmed 1967). Her particular appeal, as a woman with sexual desires and ambitions, to a gay male audience links her to the “diva” figures of exaggerated yet grandiose figures whose suffering can be taken as a sign of the inevitable defeat both of their gender and of the desire for love.

McCullers's text offers an interesting contrast to Tremblay's play, which, as we have seen, is implicated in a larger discourse of violence as self-affirmation. McCullers's project is at once feminist and antinationalist. Set at a military base, the plot focuses on the erotic relationships beneath the surface of Army discipline, and indeed of the ways in which the military draws upon and exploits sexuality. McCullers's list of characters is striking: “two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse” (2). The sequence can hardly be accidental: first the White men, by rank; then the women, unranked; then the “Oriental,” sex not indicated; then the horse. The men are situated by their military ranks, the women by their gender; the Filipino has neither rank nor gender. Anacleto, the Filipino houseboy, serves to destabilize the economies of power and desire even as he situates the lives of these men and women in the context of race and colonialism.

Amongst the White characters, we have two triangles of desire. Major Langdon is pursuing an affair with Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor), the captain's wife, under the captain's eyes, while the captain is, perhaps, more interested in the major than in his own wife. As McCullers puts it, “he had a sad penchant for becoming enamoured of his wife's lovers” (11). Meanwhile, the captain is engaged in an erotoscopic relation with Private Williams, who is himself obsessed with watching Leonora.

Langdon's wife, Alison, has excluded herself from these erotic games and entered into the world of the invalid, cared for by her doting servant, Anacleto. Anacleto's devotion to Alison separates him from the military world to which the other men, and Leonora, belong; it places him, as it were, in the harem. His identification as a Filipino in a novel written just before American entry into the war against Japan and the assertion of military control over the Pacific can hardly be innocuous. Throughout McCullers's work, she shows an interest in servants and their relations to their employers, but the interest here in an Asian rather than an African American servant (and a male rather than a female) allows her to explore the interrelations of gender and race.

Although D. H. Lawrence is frequently cited as the principal source for McCullers's novel, her work is, in some ways, more precisely a rewriting of Melville's Billy Budd, with Private Williams as Billy. In Melville's short novel, the hero is executed by a system manipulated by two men, the master-at-arms Claggart and Captain Vere, both of whom desire him in ways they cannot acknowledge. The crucial incident, which takes place before the action of McCullers's novel, in which the Private “spill[s] a cup of coffee on the Captain's trousers” (4; 120), is an obvious echo of Billy's spilling of the soup in front of Claggart. In both cases, the episode is both a form of insubordination and an act of sexual provocation. In both cases, there is a kind of phallic display, joined to a sense of transgression, that is heightened in Reflections by the image of the “stain.” McCullers draws on the Billy Budd story in order to inscribe her work in an American tradition of critique that wants to examine the connections between homosociality and homophobic violence. Claggart and the Captain both ultimately kill the younger man (or cause him to be killed, in Billy's case) as a way of outwardly projecting their own panicked response to homosexuality.2 In both cases, the military enables the career of the captain as a closeted gay man, presenting him with a series of temptations that are expressly forbidden.

For the women of the army base, there are limited opportunities for resistance. The two wives, Leonora and Alison, represent the alternatives: a life devoted entirely to physical satisfaction or a life of frustration and self-hatred that, in fact, becomes self-mutilation. Alison's mutilation of her breasts not only renounces her role as mother after the death of her child but symbolically indicates her exclusion from the world of women. “Castrated,” as it were, she enters into a harem-like world with Anacleto as her only companion. Although McCullers's principal interest lies with the fate of Alison, the one-time Latin teacher who has become physically and psychologically incompetent, unable even to earn a living, as dependent as her servant whose very name means “dependent,” her introduction of the two servants, the African American and the Filipino, marked off by gender and race, permits her to extend her analysis.

Although McCullers is acutely aware of the situation of women, and their place in a society of what Adrienne Rich called compulsory heterosexuality and domesticity, she also recognizes that women form a part of a cultural construct of the “feminine” that is not limited to women. The Captain's repression of his feminine qualities leads him both to his masochistic self-torture and to his need to kill Private Williams, whose scopic possession of Leonora echoes the Captain's own inability to consummate his marriage. While it is obvious that the Captain's murder of the Private will be read as an act of defense of honour, it derives more from the fact that he was, as McCullers writes, “as jealous of his wife as he was of her lover” (33). In other words, the murder is a sexual act displaced onto violence, and justified by a code of “honour.”

The refusal of the “feminine” is also linked to the refusal of all that is “other,” including the foreign, represented by Anacleto. Anacleto enjoys embracing his role as queen to provoke the men around him, and deliberately (re)presenting the Western culture they might lay claim to. We see him dressed in an androgynous manner, “in sandals, soft gray trousers, and a blouse of aquamarine linen” (41). He has a passion for beautiful arrangements, for classical music, and for French. These are gestures that are, particularly in the context of an American military base in 1941, at once racial and sexual. They are also acts of gay provocation, in which the signs of the dominant culture are subject to replication and parody. Gay flouncing should be seen as the equivalent of “signifying,” as used in African-American criticism, a repetition with a difference.3 Just as Elizabeth Taylor plays the tragic queen in such a way that it is a parody, that she is herself already the drag queen who will imitate her, in a mirror of a mirror, so the gay adoration of high culture takes the symbols of the bourgeoisie and turns them around.

In effect, Anacleto knows the role he plays as the Filipino house-boy—the very term indicating his (homo)sexual role and the perpetual link between nationality and subjection in the colonial subject. He is the perpetual boy, never the full citizen/subject, in a term that is laden with racial meaning in southern America in the 1940s. Instead of fighting against the stereotype, he plays Sambo: dancing, listening to classical music, arranging the flowers, and speaking French, the American language of gayness that he barely masters, but that serves as a token of his difference and, paradoxically, superiority. While Anacleto can be seen as impenetrably “other” because of his racial difference, almost all the characters have a kind of secret life, represented, for example, by Leonora's photograph of her boarding school roommate, inscribed to her “with Oodles of Love from Bootsie” (56). Alison's other life may also be indicated by her cat Petronius whose name had to acquire “a feminine ending” when he “suddenly had kittens” (90). Anacleto serves as a means to the exploration of that other life, as an indication of the artificiality of the exclusive heterosexual regime as well as of American colonial domination.

McCullers's Anacleto is one of a number of her characters who represent a potential move toward a liberating androgyny in the context of a critique of Western patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. The feminization of Anacleto indicates the construction of difference in the colonial/patriarchal economy. The issue for McCullers is expressed by Captain Penderton late in the novel, when the major argues that the army “might have made a man” of Anacleto. Against that, Penderton argues for a recognition of difference, the “unorthodox” in a world of normalcy (124-25), a normalcy that the text has already fully deconstructed as the cover for a drama of power and desire, and the suppression of the other. That the politics of this text has been so obscured is due in large part to the conceptualization of “Southern Gothic,” a category that has proved a useful vehicle for homophobia and misogyny. Leslie Fiedler's account is representative. Against the “masculine vigor” of the presumed origin, Faulkner, there is a “sensibility … quite frankly homosexual” that “appeals to certain wealthy women with cultural aspirations” (450). Indeed, if women do provide a special audience for “Southern Gothic” writers, it may be because these authors began the exploration of the consequences of a patriarchal order that was put into doubt by the brief interlude of the 1940s, that is, until the Cold War made masculinity respectable again.

Writing almost fifty years later, David Henry Hwang takes a very different approach. Provoked by press accounts of the French diplomat who had spied for his lover, a Chinese opera singer, for twenty years without apparently realizing that she was a man, Hwang sees this story as characteristic of the colonial feminization of the Oriental male.4 His great accomplishment [in M. Butterfly] is to have identified the operatic figure of Madama Butterfly as the paradigm for Western romanticizing of the subservient Oriental woman, and to have structured his play in part as a simultaneous performance and deconstruction of Puccini's 1904 opera, letting the Puccini “collide” with “a percussive Eastern score by Lucia Hwong.”5 The opera celebrates the love of Pinkerton, the American officer, for his mistress, the geisha Cio-Cio-San, called Butterfly, and his cruel betrayal of her. Butterfly accepts her fate and kills herself, allowing the opera to praise the impossibility of intercultural love and the domination of Japanese women by European men. At the same time, because of its use of the diva, the opera places emphasis on the triumphant act of sacrifice. While this can be read as oppressive, it is also a form of giving voice to what Lawrence Lipking has called the “abandoned women,” who may simultaneously stand for an aspect of the male self, a lyric counterweight to the dominant epic chord. Switching the gender (Madama becoming M. for Monsieur) permits Hwang to demonstrate the artificiality of all gender; the audience that is happy to consume the cultural stereotype of the demure Oriental woman sees this exposed as a fiction once the woman is a man.

In one of the play's many didactic moments, Hwang has the singer explain: “The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor … but good art, and full of inscrutable wisdom—the feminine mystique” (83). The East becomes the measure by which one recognizes one's Westernness, just as the feminine becomes the means by which the man recognizes his masculinity. Hwang's analysis, while a powerful tool to explore the ways in which the East is constructed, is less insightful in matters of gender, largely because of its insistence on a fundamental dualism and its search for a truth of sexuality. Hwang might have done well to read Barthes or Foucault. After all, Song, the Chinese spy is not unlike Balzac's La Zambinella in Barthes's S/Z. Barthes draws upon his/her status to suggest the need for a uninflected middle term, a kind of human or linguistic neuter (absent in French, of course) that can destabilize a set of gender expectations based on absolute difference.

When Hwang has Song declare that: “being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (83), he illustrates the equation between the Western and the masculine, but he does so in a way that leaves the term “man” undeconstructed. Writing out of a postcolonial stance, and not one primarily interested in the politics of gender, Hwang seems to retain masculinity as a norm to which the Oriental must aspire if he is to gain equality with the West. Underneath his robes, the play suggests, there is still an Oriental cock, even if the West persists in erasing it. If Gallimard does not know that his lover is a man, it is because no Oriental can be a man in Western eyes. Unexplored is the possibility that Gallimard knows perfectly well the nature of Song's genitals and that he prefers them. Seeking to undo one erasure, Hwang runs the risk of another—the erasure of male/male desire and the transvestite history of the Chinese opera, with its possibilities for incorporating homosexuality and/or pederasty.6

The play's last scene highlights the problem. In Gallimard's prison cell, the diplomat speaks the words of colonial and sexist oppression, of “slender women in chong sams and kimonos” (91), before undertaking his final transformation into Butterfly. As he puts on the makeup, wig, and kimono, the audience is expected to participate in a ritual renunciation of masculine power, in the abject humiliation of man as woman, the powerful becoming the powerless. The scene works dramatically, but what does it suggest intellectually? What place does it leave for drag or for gender instability? In a play about the “feminine” as the colonised other, the ultimate humiliation is indeed to become feminine. Gallimard's assumption of the Butterfly costume confirms his own gender crossing, his own “feminine” (or “Oriental”) submission to the dominant figure of his master/mistress. Marjorie Garber sees this as “revealing the mechanism of female impersonation as a political and cultural act” (243), but she may overestimate the subversive power of the scene. Gallimard, at the end is after all simply the dying queen. Even more than in the opera, the play's conclusion focuses on the Western male and his suffering. In a striking put-down, Gallimard's Danish girlfriend (or alter ego) comments, “The whole world [is] run by a bunch of men with pricks the size of pins” (56). The remark is meant to suggest an aggressive and colonial politics as a sublimated phallicism, but its crude Freudian terms suggest the penis as the measure of authority. If the world were run by a bunch of men with pricks the size of baseball bats, would we be better off?

Hwang's play shares with Tremblay's a call for the achievement of the “true” self, in which the drag queen is revealed at the end to be a man. What Hwang adds is an extra fillip, in which the “man” is revealed to be a woman—as if Cuirette could have put on the Cléopâtre costume at the end of Hosanna.7 What this demonstrates is the impossibility, as women have known for a long time, of undoing the patriarchy by reversing its terms. For Hwang, androgyny is not the possibility of différance, as it is for McCullers, but a means of imperial possession of the Oriental body. Seeking to punish the presumptuous male, he can think of nothing worse than turning him into a woman, equivalent to the ritual acts of sodomy as humiliation one finds in Faulkner or Dickey. In an attempt to undo the construction of the Oriental as “feminine,” Hwang retains that femininity as the state of abjection. As recent work on nationalism and sexuality has shown,8 an anticolonialist discourse is capable of replicating fully the misogynist and homophobic discourse of patriarchy, as it seeks to validate itself. Bearing this in mind goes no little way to explaining the strange reluctance of Edward Said, in his key text Orientalism, to pursue the connection he identifies, in his discussion of Flaubert, between the Orient and “fecundity [,] … sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies”; although one “could speculate” on such matters, “it is not the province of my analysis here” (188). Without such speculation, I would argue, there is no way out of the double bind of the colonial feminized body.


  1. The concept of the foreign queen as at once “Oriental” and “female,” as “darkness” personified goes back at least as far as the Roman representations of both Cleopatra and Dido, and their Renaissance reformulations. The popular images of Cleopatra carry a lot of baggage.

  2. See further discussion in Robert K. Martin, in Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1986), 111-16, and in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: U California P, 1990), 91-130.

  3. I have in mind the work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1988). One element of “signifying” that is particularly relevant to an analysis of gay style is what Gates terms “the ironic reversal of a received racist image,” where one might substitute “sexist” or “homophobic” for “racist”.

  4. Although I have already indicated the need to suspend the category of “Oriental,” I will use the term in this section of my essay, since it is essential to Hwang's argument and to his elision of Japanese and Chinese.

  5. See Frank Rich's review of M. Butterfly, New York Times, March 21, 1988, C13.

  6. This erasure is particularly striking since Hwang's source for the play, an article in the New York Times, quoted as an epigraph, mentions that at the Peking Opera “female roles have, according to tradition, often been played by men” (May 11, 1986, p. K7). The play has Gallimard explain “no one knew anything about the Chinese opera” (20), but this appears to be ascribed to a lack of interest in Chinese culture, and not a failure to grasp a homosexual and transvestite tradition. Marjorie Garber gives a more precise picture of Japanese theatrical transvestism in her discussion of M. Butterfly, in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), 245. More detail is available in Tsuneo Watanabe and Jun'ichi Iwata in The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, tr. D. R. Roberts (London, GMP, 1989).

  7. Although not at the end of the play, something of this reversal and “humiliation” does happen in Hosanna, when Hosanna reveals to Cuirette that as the breadwinner she is the “man:” “T'avais jamais pensé à ça que c'était toé, la femme, dans nous deux, Cuirette? Tu veux savoir que c'est que chus? Ben chus l'homme de la maison, Cuirette! L'homme de la maison!” (47). [“You never thought of that, that it was you who was the woman of the two of us. Cuirette. Well, I'm the man of the house, Cuirette. The man of the house!”]

  8. In the Canadian context, see Robert Schwartzwald's very fine essay, “Fear of Federasty: Quebec's Inverted Fictions.” in Hortense J. Spillers, ed., Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text, (New York: Routledge, 1991), 175-195. See also my essay, “Sex and Politics in Wartime Canada: The Attack on Patrick Anderson,” Essays on Canadian Writing 44 (Fall 1991), 110-125. For Europe see the very important work of George Mosse (Nationalism and Sexuality [New York: Fertig, 1985]) and Sander Gilman (Difference and Pathology [Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1985]). The recent collection edited by Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, Nationalisms and Sexualities (New York: Routledge, 1992) contains a number of crucial essays.

Works Cited

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Rpt. Cleveland: World, 1962.

Hosanna. Michel Tremblay. Théâtre de Quat'sous. Montréal, 1991.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. NY: Penguin, 1989.

McCullers, Carson. Reflections in a Golden Eye. 1941. Rpt. NY: Bantam, 1967.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexualtiy and Lesbian Existence” Signs 5 (1980). 631-60.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. NY: Pantheon, 1975.

Smart, Patricia. Écrire dans la maison du père: L'émergence du féminin dans la tradition littéraire du Québec. Montréal: Québec/Amérique, 1988.

Tremblay, Michel. Hosanna suivi de La duchesse de Langeais. Montreal: Leméac, 1973.

Usmiani, Renate. Michel Tremblay. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, n.d.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 261


Campbell, Karen. “In the Realm of the Voices.” American Theater 20, no. 8 (October 2003): 103-06.

Reviews The Sound of a Voice.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. “The Melancholy of Race.” Kenyon Review 19, no. 1 (winter 1997): 49-62.

Provides a discussion of representations of race in M. Butterfly and The Flower Drum Song.

Cooperman, Robert. “Across the Boundaries of Cultural Identity: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” In Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre & Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, pp. 364-73. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

Offers an interview with Hwang that took place October 25, 1993.

Hawthorne, Melanie C. “‘Du Du that Voodoo’: M. Venus and M. Butterfly.Esprit Createur 37, no. 4 (winter 1997): 58-66.

Compares M. Butterfly with the late-nineteenth-century novel Monsieur Venus, by Marguerite Eymery Vallette, and examines the ways each text treats gender ambiguity.

King, Robert L. “Recent Drama.” Massachusetts Review 30, no. 1 (spring 1989): 122-36.

Provides discussion of Hwang's M. Butterfly.

Shimakawa, Karen. “‘Who's to Say?’: Or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in M. Butterfly.Theater Journal 45, no. 3 (October 1993): 349.

Provides an examination of Hwang's constructions of gender and ethnicity in M. Butterfly.

Siebert, Gary. “Love Stew.” America 158, no. 14 (9 April 1988): 385.

Offers a review of M. Butterfly.

Additional coverage of Hwang's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Asian American Literature; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 127, 132; Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, Vols. 76, 124; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 55; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 212, 228; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors, 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vols. 4, 23; Drama for Students, Vols. 11, 18; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

Marjorie Garber (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10851

SOURCE: Garber, Marjorie. “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism.” In Nationalisms and Sexualities, edited by Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, pp. 121-46. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[In the following essay, Garber examines the role of cross-dressing in Hwang's M. Butterfly as a deconstruction of dominant categories of gender.]

A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity. … M. Boursicot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Mr. Shi, whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman.

New York Times, May 11, 1986

This story, which scandalized and titillated Western journalists and readers, was—perhaps predictably—received slightly differently in different parts of the West. The British press treated it as another homosexual spy scandal, analogous to those involving gay men like John Vassall, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Boursicot's explanation for his gender “mistake,” that the couple had always had sexual relations in the dark, was dismissed as a thin cover for something else. According to one British chronicler of spy activities, “the likeliest explanation” for this unlikely story was “that Boursicot knew the truth and was hopelessly entangled in a web of lies begun to hide his homosexuality, which he continued to deny.”1 In other words, the “secret” here was homosexuality, the denial of which became so important for Boursicot that he was willing to be branded a fool and a traitor.

The French, not surprisingly, had a slightly different view as to where the shameful secret of this story really lay. A panel of French judges sentenced both Boursicot and his lover to six years in prison. Their treason in itself was not considered very serious—only minor documents were leaked. But at least one French judge seemed less appalled by the evidence of treachery than by the apparent fact that a Frenchman was unable to tell the difference between a man and a woman.2

As for the American press, its attitude may perhaps be exemplified by the spectacular coverage afforded the incident by People magazine. People arranged for interviews with the two principals in the scandal—a coup it trumpeted with understandable self-congratulation (“Until now” neither man had been willing to discuss their relationship; “finally last week they agreed to talk”; “theirs is a story of East meeting West, and of political upheaval, sexual ambiguity and betrayal”; “It is a conundrum, finally, that will never be solved”) and so on and on. But underneath this veneer of wide-eyed openness People, too, offered a social critique of sorts. And People's contempt, unlike that of the British or the French, was directed not at Boursicot, the now openly gay French man, but at Shi, the Asian “woman” in the story, now living, like Boursicot, in Paris. “A delicate man of 50 whose most striking features are his tiny hands,” writes People,

he leads his life like an exiled, impoverished princess, living in apartments provided by friends whom he calls “protectors,” carrying himself like a faded diva.

“My life has been très triste, très triste, don't you agree?” he asks, in the dramatic French he favors. “But one cannot fall into une vie de désespoir.” With a sigh, catching his middle-aged reflection in the mirror, he adds, “I used to fascinate both men and women. What I was and what they were didn't matter.”3

What does matter to People's readers, of course, is the question that underlies every account of this story: what did they do? And how could Boursicot possibly not have known? The British accounts imply that he did know, and was ashamed to admit it; the French judge exhibited consternation at an ignorance that seemed to reflect badly on a prized national trait, heterosexual connoisseurship. The American press, at least as represented by the voice of the People, applies a characteristic investigative technique: American know-how.

Shi says he kept himself covered with a blanket in a darkened room and never allowed Boursicot to touch his crotch. He hid his genitalia by squeezing them tightly between his thighs. Even today [Boursicot] still cannot explain why sex with Shi seemed “just like being with a woman.” He does not believe he had anal intercourse with Shi; he thinks his lover might have “put cream between his thighs,” and that he penetrated Shi's closed legs. In any case, Boursicot stresses, they had sex only rarely.


Thus to the British, the answer to the “conundrum” was that Boursicot was gay; to the French, the answer—shameful to admit—was that he was a nerd; to the Americans, he was merely a dupe, misled by the tactics of a “faded diva” with a tube of K-Y jelly.

What is particularly interesting to me in all of these readings is that none of these accounts is willing to recognize the role of the central figure in the story, the transvestite. Attention focuses on sexual object choice (gay or straight) and on erotic style (dominant, submissive) rather than on the cultural “fact” at the center of the fantasy: the fact of transvestism as both a personal and a political, as well as an aesthetic and theatrical, mode of self-construction. Once again, as so often, the transvestite is looked through or away from, appropriated to tell another kind of story, a story less disturbing and dangerous, because less problematic and undecidable.

That Boursicot could fall in love with a man, or be duped by a spy—these are tales for which we have cultural contexts and cultural stereotypes. But that Shi could be—professionally, as an actor and a spy—and personally, as Boursicot's lover—a transvestite, whose entire persona put in question the cultural representation of gender—this was a “truth” too disturbing not to be explained away. And the masterstroke of M. Butterfly, the play based upon this affair, is that it puts in doubt, in question, the identity of “the transvestite.” For by the end of the play it is the Western diplomat, and not the Chinese spy, who wears the wig, kimono, and face paint of the (deliberately ambiguous) “M.” Butterfly.4

Both the original casting and the playbill of M. Butterfly drew attention, in different ways, to gender undecidability. The part of the diplomat, René Gallimard, was played by John Lithgow, who had appeared in a celebrated performance as the transsexual Roberta Muldoon (formerly a pro football player called Robert) in the film version of The World According to Garp. As for the Oriental actor/spy, that part was taken by a newcomer, B. D. Wong, whose gender was concealed by a playbill bio that carefully avoided all gendered pronouns. Until B. D. removed his briefs onstage at the end of Act 2—the spy's final debriefing—it was not possible to know—unless one had read the play, or the news stories—what his gender “really” was. A. Mapa, the actor who succeeded Wong in the role, used the same device of onamastic occlusion, which had become by that time—if it was not originally—part of the mystification of gender and sexuality disclosed (and dis-clothed) on the stage.

When playwight David Henry Hwang heard about the Boursicot-Shi story, he was determined to write a play about it. He was equally determined not to find out any of the (disputed) details, since to him the events suggested a particular, and familiar, story about nationalism and sexuality—a story that he thought of as a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly.” Over dinner one evening, he reports, a friend asked him if he had 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?” He then found a two-paragraph account in the New York Times that quoted the diplomat, Boursicot, as explaining that he had never seen his “girlfriend” naked because “I thought she was very modest. I thought it was a Chinese custom” (94).

Hwang, a Chinese American, was well aware that this was not a Chinese custom—that Asian women were no more shy with their lovers than are women of the West. He concluded that Boursicot had fallen in love with a stereotype, the image of the “Oriental woman as demure and submissive” (the word “Oriental” itself, he explains, is an imperialistic term imposed by Western discourse; “in general … we prefer the term ‘Asian’” [94]). Hwang had never seen or heard Puccini's opera, but he was familiar with the derogatory remark frequently made about Asian women who deliberately presented themselves to men as obedient and submissive: “She's pulling a Butterfly.” He was also familiar with the personal ads that run in magazines and on cable TV advertising “traditional Oriental women” as mail-order brides, and with the gay stereotype of the “Rice Queen,” a gay Caucasian man primarily attracted to Asians, who always plays the “man” in cultural and sexual terms, while the Asian partner plays the “woman.”

When Hwang consulted Puccini's libretto, therefore, he was gratified to find it a repository of sexist and racist cliches. From his point of view, he notes, 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” (98). Inevitable, that is, that racism and sexism should intersect with one another, and with imperialist and colonialist fantasies. The idea that good natives are feminized—submissive and grateful—and that the passive, exotic, and feminized East is eager to submit to the domination of the masculine West—this is a story so old that, in Hwang's play, it became new.

Now, what I want to argue here is that the figure of the cross-dressed “woman,” the transvestite figure borrowed from both the Chinese and Japanese stage traditions, the Peking opera and the Kabuki and Noh theaters, functions simultaneously as a mark of gender undecidability and as an indication of category crisis—in literary and cultural formations in general, but to a particularly high degree in M. Butterfly. By “category crisis” I mean a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits of border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another. The presence of the transvestite, in a text, in a culture, signals a category crisis elsewhere. The transvestite is a sign of overdetermination—a mechanism of displacement. There can be no culture without the transvestite, because the transvestite marks the existence of the Symbolic.

Man/woman, or male/female, is the most obvious and central of the border crossings in M. Butterfly, and the fact that the border is crossed twice, once when Song Liling becomes a “woman,” and the second time when René Gallimard does so, indicates the play's preoccupation with the transvestite as a figure not only for the conundrum of gender and erotic style, but also for other kinds of border crossing, like acting and spying, both of which are appropriations of alternative and socially constructed subject positions for cultural and political ends. “Actor” and “spy” both become, like “transvestite,” “third terms,” or, more accurately, terms from within the third space of possibility, the cultural Symbolic, the place of signification. And that space of “thirdness” is marked, tagged, signalled, by the presence (or, as explicitly in this play, the construction) of the transvestite.

In order to make this argument, I will briefly summarize the action of M. Butterfly, and then take up a number of key and related issues: specific category crises within Hwang's play—crises of nationalism and sexuality troped on the transvestite figure; the Peking opera and the European infatuation with Oriental transvestite theater; the concept of “saving face” and the overestimation of the phallus; and the formal and theoretical interrelationships among acting, spying, diplomacy, and transvestism.

For reasons both political and theoretical, I will be using the pronouns “she” and “her” to describe the Chinese actor when dressed as a woman, and the pronouns “he” and “him” when the actor is dressed as a man. This may at first seem confusing, but that is, of course, part of the point.

Hwang's play begins with the diplomat, René Gallimard, in his French prison cell, and proceeds by flashback to tell the story of his love affair with Song Liling, the Chinese opera star he calls “Butterfly.” His first encounter with “her,” at an ambassador's residence in Peking where “she” performed the death scene from Puccini's opera, had convinced him that “she” was a woman. She quickly perceives both his ignorance and his fascination, and invites him to attend performances of the Chinese opera. As their relationship develops, giving him a new sexual confidence in his own dominant manhood, he becomes more successful in his diplomatic career as well, and is promoted to Vice Consul. Always shy and inept in his relationships with Western women, and now fearing that his relationship with a Chinese will exposure him to ridicule, he finds himself instead—because he has a “native mistress”—the envy of the consular office. He discovers that he can treat Song Liling with cavalier neglect, and this further strengthens his sense of masculinity. Briefly he engages in another affair, this one with a young Danish woman student whose name is the feminine twin of his: Renée. (Denmark here is presumably chosen for its connotations of sexual freedom, and “Renée”—as with “Renée Richards”—in part because it means “reborn.”)

But Renée, who is eager to parade naked before him, and whose language is as frank as her sexual behavior, strikes him as paradoxically “too uninhibited, too willing, … almost too … masculine.” In other words, the play provides Gallimard with two narcissistic “female” doubles: the “masculine” Danish woman with the beautiful body, and the “feminine” Oriental who turns out to be a transvestic man.

When Song Liling writes him an imploring note, saying “I have already given you my shame,” René knows he is in command. “Are you my Butterfly?” he demands, requiring her to acknowledge the scenario of cultural domination and submission. When she assents (“I am your Butterfly”) he takes her to bed—in the dark, and clothed, for she protests that she is “a modest Chinese woman.” In this first section of the play, then, Gallimard becomes—as he tells the audience—the Pinkerton of Puccini's opera, exploiting and abandoning his Oriental mistress.

In the second half of the play, the roles will be reversed. René is sent back to France; none of his predictions about the war in Indochina have come true. The Cultural Revolution comes to China, and after being put to work in the fields and renouncing his “decadent profession” the actor Song Liling is sent by the Mao government to Paris, to resume his work as a spy, by resuming his women's clothes, and his relationship to Gallimard. At “Butterfly's” urging, René becomes a courier, photographing secret documents, which Song passes on to the Chinese embassy. Then comes the trial. In front of the audience the Chinese actor removes his kimono, wig, and makeup, and appears before René and the audience as a man in an Armani suit. The French judge asks the question the audience has wanted to ask all along: “Did Monsieur Gallimard know you were a man?” And Song Liling answers with two rules. “Rule One”: “Men always believe what they want to hear.” And “Rule Two”: “The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East.” And he defines “rape mentality” this way: “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.”

The 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.

Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself. … You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That's why you say they make the best wives.


But why, the judge asks, would that make it possible for Song Liling to fool Gallimard?

One, because when he finally met his fantasy woman he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.

Yet there is another power reversal to come. Before Act 3 is over, and before René can stop him, he has completely removed his clothes, and stands naked, revealed as—in René's words—“just a man—as real as hamburger” (3.2). And René chooses “fantasy” over “reality.” If his “Butterfly” is not the Perfect Woman he has thought her to be, he will become that perfect oriental woman himself. Song Liling—revealed at last to be a man—becomes the Pinkerton figure, and Gallimard literally transforms himself into “Madame Butterfly,” dressing himself in the kimono and wig Song has discarded, making up his face in the traditional Japanese fashion, and ultimately committing ritual suicide—seppuku—plunging a knife into his body as the music from the “Love Duet” blares over the speakers. The final stage picture is a reversal of the first: Song, dressed as a man, stares at a “woman” dressed in Oriental robes, and calls out “Butterfly? Butterfly?”


M. Butterfly itself stands at the crossroads of nationalism and sexuality, since the axes along which it plots its dramatic movement are those of West/East and male/female. These two principal binarisms are brought immediately into both question and crisis, for one cultural fact of which René and his wife Helga—a diplomatic couple stationed in China—are blissfully ignorant, is that the Peking Opera is a transvestite theater: that all women's roles are played by men. After his first encounter with Song Liling, Gallimard reports that he met “the Chinese equivalent of a diva. She's a singer at the Chinese opera.” In other words, he is convinced that the performer he met was a woman. His wife is surprised to hear that the Chinese even have an opera. Informed by René that the Chinese hate Puccini's opera “because the white man gets the girl,” Helga is dismissive (“Politics again? Why can't they just hear it as a piece of beautiful music?”) and only mildly curious: “So, what's in their opera?” Gallimard: “I don't know. But whatever it is, I'm sure it must be old” (1.7).

Undoubtedly, much of the Broadway audience shares this cultural indifference, which will be René's downfall. (“I asked around,” he says. “No one knew anything about the Chinese opera.”) Only much later in the play does the play offer enlightenment, in a conversation between Song Liling and her female confidant-superior in the Chinese Communist Party:

Miss Chin? Why, in the opera, are women's roles played by men?
I don't know. Maybe, a reactionary remnant of male—
No. Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.


One category crisis leads to another, as Gallimard, voicing the indifference of the West to distinctions of national and cultural tradition in a region romanticized simply as “the Orient” or “the East,” conflates China and Japan. Captivated by Song Liling's performance as Cio-Cio San, the heroine of Madame Butterfly, he assumes that what he is seeing is “authentic,” and that an Oriental actress can bring Puccini's character to life in the way no Western diva could. After the performance, he seeks out Song Liling to tell her so:

I usually don't like Butterfly.
I can't blame you in the least.
I mean, the story—
I like the story, but … I've always seen it played by huge women in so much bad makeup.
Bad make-up is not unique to the West.
But who can believe them?
And you believe me?
Absolutely. You were utterly convincing. […]
Convincing? As a Japanese woman? The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war, you know. But I gather such an irony is lost on you.
No! I was about to say, this is the first time I've seen the beauty of the story.
Of 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.
Well, yes, to a Westerner.
Excuse me?
It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.
Well, I didn't quite mean …
Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah!—you find it beautiful.
Yes … well … I see your point …
I will never do Butterfly again, M. Gallimard. If you wish to see some real theatre, come to the Peking Opera sometime. Expand your mind.


We might notice that even though Gallimard knows nothing at all about the Peking Opera—clearly he has no idea that its women's parts are all played by men—he assumes that “the Orient” can be represented in a single, and conventional, way. He conflates China and Japan.

But if M. Butterfly deliberately challenges the conflation of China and Japan as some mystical element called “the Orient,” it also offers up another, less obvious conflation of national qualities between China and France. “What was waiting for me back in Paris?” Gallimard asks, rhetorically. “Well, better Chinese food than I'd eaten in China … And the indignity of students shouting the slogans of Chairman Mao at me—in French” (2.11). Like the exchange of roles between Song and Gallimard, between culturally constructed “woman” and culturally constructed “man,” this apparent paradox is presented as not really a paradox at all. In a global cultural economy all constructions are exportable and importable: recipes for food, slogans, and gender roles are all reproduced as intrinsically theatrical significations.

The crossover from China to France, as from “female” to “male,” is underscored theatrically by the presence onstage, during the scene of Song Liling's testimony and confession in the French court, of the actor who had played the French consul in China, and who now “enters as a judge, wearing the appropriate wig and robes” (3.1). Moments before in this same scene Song Liling had removed “her” wig and robes, the formal black headdress and embroidered kimono of Butterfly, and appeared for the first time onstage as a man, in a “well-cut Armani suit.” In the courtroom scene “wig and robes” take on a new set of vestimentary significations, now the accoutrements of Western (specifically French) maleness as power and authority, the traditional costume of the judge. In the scene that follows, to the blaring music of the “Death Scene” from Butterfly, Gallimard will enter, “crawling toward Song's wig and kimono,” while “Song remains a man, in the witness box, delivering a testimony we do not hear.”

These border crossings, then, present binarisms in order to deconstruct them. As the figure of the transvestite deconstructs the binary of male and female, so all national binaries and power relations are put in question.


In fact the traditions of the Peking Opera and of Japanese Kabuki theater, though both are transvestite theaters, are otherwise quite different, as we should expect, despite the efforts of some European and North American observers to conflate them (rather like René Gallimard), producing an idealized image of pure “theater” or “theatricality” that is analogous—and not coincidentally—to the idealization of “woman” derived from certain transvestic representations and certain cultural fantasies.

The European infatuation with “Oriental” theater as the antitype of (and antidote to) the psychologized theater of the West was memorably expressed by Artaud in The Theater and Its Double, first published in 1938. Artaud, responding in part to a visit by a Balinese theater troupe, wrote rapturously about the death of the author: “It is a theater which eliminates the author in favor of what we would call, in our Occidental theatrical jargon, the director; but a director who has become a kind of manager of magic, a master of sacred ceremonies … the actors with their costumes constitute veritable living, moving hieroglyphs. And these three-dimensional hieroglyphs are in turn brocaded with a certain number of gestures—mysterious signs which correspond to some unknown, fabulous, and obscure reality which we here in the Occident have completely repressed.”5

Artaud's romanticized and mystified account of the difference of Oriental theater focused on clothes, on doubleness—and on the image of the butterfly.

Those who succeed in giving a mystic sense to the simple form of a robe and who, not content with placing a man's Double next to him, confer upon each man in his robes a double made of clothes—those who pierce these illusory or secondary clothes with a saber, giving them the look of huge butterflies pinned in the air, such men have an innate sense of the absolute and magical symbolism of nature much superior to ours.

(Artaud, 62)

The influence of Artaud could still be felt in France when, in 1955, the Peking opera came to the Théatre des Nations, to be greeted by the press with hyperbolic praise. (In fact, had he wished to, the model for M. Butterfly's Gallimard, Bernard Boursicot, could have seen this cultural event during this visit, or on subsequent occasions when the troupe returned to Paris, in 1958 and 1964. As it happens, he did not.)

One of the Chinese opera's most important works is a traditional piece called The Butterfly Dream, or The Story of the Butterfly: a folktale about a beautiful girl who impersonates her lazy brother so that she can get an education. Like Shakespeare's Rosalind (or I. B. Singer's Yentl, whose story hers resembles), the girl in the opera falls in love with a young man who thinks she is a boy. It was this part, in fact, that made Shi Pei Pu a star in China. And at least according to one account it was looking at a scrapbook containing pictures of Shi in his cross-dressed Butterfly role that led the French diplomat Boursicot to believe he was really a woman, when the two men first met at a party at the French embassy. Although Shi was dressed in men's clothes at the time, the photographs of him in women's costume apparently persuaded Boursicot that he had detected his “real” gender.

(The two mens' stories differ slightly on this point. Boursicot says that Shi took him aside after they had become friends and confided that he was actually a woman, just like the character in The Story of the Butterfly—that his mother, having borne two daughters, was afraid to tell his father the third child was also a girl. Shi contends that he was showing Boursicot the scrapbook and that Boursicot—rather like d'Albert in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin—leapt to the conclusion that he was really a woman, with expressions of relief and delight.)

Many observers during the opera's European visit commented on similarities between the Chinese and the Elizabethan theaters, including the paucity of scenery, the absence of stage lighting to indicate night, and the commotion of eating, drinking and talking that took place in the audience during the performance. But there are obvious dangers about conflating Chinese opera, Elizabethan acting companies, and Japanese Kabuki as “transvestite theater,” dangers that Hwang's play continually points up in the way it reverses even expectations of reversal. In Chinese opera, the tan, or female impersonator, wears a mask corresponding to the class of woman he is portraying: chingyin, the elegant lady, huatan, a woman of the lower classes, or taomatan, an Amazon or militant.6 There is, then, no one fixed and inevitable role for woman; in fact, this tripartite division, with the inclusion of the woman as militant or Amazon, suggests the same kind of splitting and refusal of binarism explored by Hwang's M. Butterfly.

Furthermore, the Chinese theater also includes a tradition of female transvestism. All-female troupes were popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties,7 and in the plays of that period the cross-dressed “man's” true gender is often detected by her tiny feet. This sign of “nature” was in fact a sign of culture, since the cultural aesthetic of foot-binding produced an ideal of beauty that was the effect of mutilation and deformity. The small size of the appendage is a mark of femininity, artificially and painfully wrought. Theatrically produced as a device of discovery, the female foot that trips up the masquerading “general” or “statesman” becomes a displacement downward that marks the site of anatomical gender. Thus, for example, in the play Ideal Love-Matches by dramatist Li Yu, a woman disguised as a man discloses her gender identity when she takes off her shoes. “With those black boots off, his feet are little ‘three-inch lotuses.’ It means he must be a girl!”8

Similarly, in a tale called “Miss Yan” or “Yanshi” by the seventeenth-century author Pu Songling, an intellectually gifted woman who has disguised herself as a man in order to substitute for her less studious husband at the candidate's examinations reveals her gender to an incredulous aunt by pulling off her boots and displaying her bound feet; the men's boots have been stuffed with cotton wool. Another tale by the same author, subsequently expanded by him into a long vernacular play, describes a young woman's quest for revenge on her father's murderers. Disguising herself as a young male entertainer, the heroine Shang Sanguan takes the fancy of the murderer, a village bully; they retire together for the night, and in the morning servants discover that the bully has been beheaded, and the young “boy” has hanged himself. When they attempt to move the “boy's” body the servants discover to their surprise that “his socks and shoes felt empty, as if there were no feet inside. They took them off and found a pair of white silk slippers as tiny as hooks, for this was in fact a girl.”9 As Judith Zeitlin notes, “bound feet, those manmade fetishes which had become the locus of the erotic imagination in late Imperial China, are transformed into a natural and immutable proof of true femininity.”10

In Japan, as in China, female transvestite theater has at times coexisted with the male Kabuki tradition. The Takarazuka Young Girls Opera Company, for example, presents all-female productions in which the male roles are played by women. Recent films like Shusuke Kaneko's Summer Vacation: 1999 (1990) starring four young actresses as schoolboys in a drama of uncanny homoerotic substitutions problematize gender roles and sexual fantasies.

But Kabuki remains the best-known, and the dominant, form of transvestite theater in Japan. The tradition of the onnagata, the male actor of female roles, is an honored position passed down, at least adoptively, in theatrical families. The present onnagata, Tomasaburo IV, has become a celebrity in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Japan. The onnagata is heir to an interpretative tradition centuries old, and so stylized that it demands a certain way of walking, of moving the head and hands, of managing the kimono. “Were a woman to attempt to play a Kabuki female role,” writes one scholar, “she would have to imitate the men who have so subtly and beautifully incarnated woman before her.” “But it is unlikely that a woman has the necessary strength to play a Kabuki female part; the Japanese claim that only a man possesses the steel-like power hidden by softness which is requisite to a successful onnagata creation. Besides, with many layers of heavy kimonos, and a wig weighing as much as thirty pounds, a woman would probably not have the physical stamina to hold up such a weight for ten or twelve hours a day.”11

These comments by one of the most careful observers of modern “Theater East and West” exhibit the very essentialism that he describes Kabuki theater as putting in question. The idea that women would inevitably play cross-dressed women's parts less well than men, and would lack even the physical strength to wear the traditional woman's stage costume, suggests not a harmonious blending of male and female, as he later contends (“whether the spectator is aware of it or not, the onnagata stirs in his unconscious a dim memory of some perfection partaking of both feminine and masculine … the divine androgyn in whose bisexuality both dark and light are harmonized”12) but a reimposition of gender hierarchy. Only the onnagata is the real or true stage woman.13

The great eighteenth-century onnagata Yoshisawa Ayame declared that “if an actress were to appear on the stage she could not express ideal feminine beauty,” for she could only rely on the exploitation of her physical characteristics, and therefore not express the synthetic ideal. “The ideal woman,” wrote Ayame, “can only be expressed by an actor.”14 In the same years, in England, where the reopening of the theaters presented women onstage after decades of transvestite performance, the Restoration actor Edward Kynaston, who specialized in women's roles, was praised by his contemporaries as superior to any actress: “It has been disputable among the judicious whether any woman that succeeded him so sensibly touched the audience as he.”15 The question seems to be, as Ayame expressed it, one of “ideal” and transcendent womanhood, an abstraction politically inflected so that it can only be conceptualized and embodied by men. Goethe, applying similar criteria, produced a celebrated praise of the castrati of Italian opera: “a double pleasure,” he said, “is given in that these persons are not women but only represent women. The young men have studied the properties of the sex in its being and behaviour; they know them thoroughly and reproduce them like an artist; they represent, not themselves, but a nature entirely foreign to them.”16 Nor is this an attitude that can be safely consigned to the past. Not too long ago, for example, Kenneth Tynan remarked about Shakespearean theater that Lady Macbeth was “basically a man's role,” and that “it is probably a mistake to cast a woman [in the part] at all.”17 Meantime in modern Japan, where Shakespeare is much admired, we are told that audiences “enjoy seeing Lady Macbeth played by a famous [male] Kabuki star, precisely because it is more artificial, thus more skilful, in a word, more beautiful.”18

I should note that David Hwang himself is far from immune to this kind of sentiment. “What interested me most from the start,” he reflected in an interview, “was the idea of the perfect woman. A real woman can only be herself, but a man, because he is presenting an idealization, can aspire to the idea of the perfect woman. I never had the least doubt that a man could play a woman convincingly on the stage.” And he added, “I also knew it would not hurt in commercial or career terms to be able to create a great part for a white male.” As for “real” women, Hwang is less interested in their “perfection,” or, indeed, in their subjectivity: “Pleasure in giving pain to a woman is not that far removed, I think, from a lot of male experiences,” he says. “As an Asian, I identify with Song,” but “as a man, I identify with Gallimard.”19

There is, then, a certain amount of double-speak that goes on in the discussion of “transvestite theater,” even as an approach that verges on cultural anthropology valorizes these Eastern traditions, not only Peking opera and Kabuki but also the older and more stylized Noh drama, in which women never appear, and Balinese cross-gender ritual dances, to name only a few of the best known instances. The twentieth-century Western infatuation with Noh, and to a certain extent with Kabuki and the Chinese opera, reinstitutionalizes as “traditional” and “culturally authentic” a form of drama that writes out women and replaces them with men.


As we have noted, makeup, costume, gesture, symbols, and stylization are the key elements of the “Oriental theater” (whether Chinese, Japanese, or Balinese) that captivated Europe. Significantly, they are also the key elements of female impersonation as it is practiced in the West. What David Henry Hwang did, in writing his play about the seduction of a Western diplomat by a Peking opera star, was to demystify, and then remystify, the material basis of female impersonation. In so doing he recast the roles, allowing Gallimard to see that it was he, and not Song Liling, who was playing the woman in the piece, and thus revealing the mechanism of female impersonation as a political and cultural act.

One of the faults Gallimard found with Puccini's opera was that the part of Butterfly was always played by “huge women in bad makeup.” At the end of M. Butterfly, Gallimard seats himself at the same dressing table where Song Liling had unmasked himself, and smears his face with white face-paint. The whiteness of the makeup is traditional in Japanese theater as a sign of the ideal white complexion of the noble who can afford to keep out of the sun, and the pallor of the protected young woman (or trained geisha) even today.20 Since Butterfly is the story of a Japanese woman, the makeup is appropriate, but Song also wears white makeup whenever s/he is dressed as a woman, and we might note that in Chinese opera face-painting participates in an entirely different sign system, in which white on an actor's face symbolizes treachery, as red does loyalty, yellow piety, and gold the supernatural.21 In this story of spies and treason the Chinese signification is over- or underlaid on the Japanese, and Song has already given Gallimard fair and explicit warning not to conflate the two.

For Gallimard himself, of course, the white makeup has yet another significance, since he is continually described as a “white man” throughout the play, even in France where “There're white men all around.” When he covers his face with dead white paint Gallimard demonstrates the inexactness of this cultural shorthand. His already pale face takes on a dramatic sharpness, as he continues his painting. A red slash of mouth, dark black lines for eyebrows—this is not the careful and seductive adornment of acculturated woman or trained actor, but something that verges on tragic parody. He lifts the wig—which has remained onstage on a wig stand since Song's unmasking—onto his head, and slips his arms into the kimono. And as he makes up his face, he talks to himself, and to the audience:

Love warped my judgement, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines in my face … until I could look in the mirror and see nothing but … a woman.

Dancers help him put on the Butterfly wig.

I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.

Dancers assist Gallimard in donning the kimono. They hand him a knife.

Death with honor is better than life … life with dishonor.

(He sets himself center stage, in a seppuku position.)

The love of a Butterfly can withstand many things—unfaithfulness, loss, even abandonment. But how can it face the one sin that implies all others? The devastating knowledge that, underneath it all, the object of her love was nothing more, nothing less than … a man.

(He sets the tip of the knife against his body.)

It is 19—. And I have found her at last. In a prison on the outskirts of Paris. My name is René Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly.


“Death with honor is better than life with dishonor.” These lines from Puccini's opera have been quoted throughout the play. When juxtaposed to Gallimard's transformation, they underscore the fact that the dramatic use of face makeup in M. Butterfly is a remarkable literalized commentary on the concept of “saving face” in Chinese culture. It should come as no surprise to learn that this term, “saving face,” is an invention of the English community in China, and not, strictly speaking, a Chinese phrase at all—although, equally significantly, it is common enough in Chinese to speak of “losing face” or doing something “for the sake of one's face.” To “save face” in M. Butterfly it is necessary to “lose face.” Song Liling in the character of Butterfly signals this in her letter to Gallimard: “I have already given you my shame.” When Song Liling goes to a mirror at the end of Act 2 and starts to remove her makeup—and when Gallimard reverses this procedure in Act 3, sitting at the same mirror to make up his face—the figure of face is laid bare. And of course “figure” means “face.”

Let me again emphasize that it is the omnipresent question of transvestism that makes this translation possible. Nationalisms and sexualities here are in flux, indeed in crisis, but what precipitates the crisis is the conflicting intertextual relationship between a transvestite theater that traditionally presents “woman” as a cultural artifact of male stagecraft (in the Chinese opera; in Kabuki theater) and a Western tradition of female impersonation that defiantly inverts the criteria for assertive individual “masculinity.”

Transvestite theater in England and the United States, both Shakespeare's theater of “boy actors” and more recent manifestations like the Hasty Pudding Show or the chorus of hula-skirted sailors in South Pacific (another East-West borderline marked by rampant cross-dressing), often turns on a stage rhetoric of phallic reassurance. And what I want to suggest here is that phallic reassurance, and its theatrically “comic” underside, the anxiety of phallic insufficiency, is the Western transvestite theater's equivalence of “saving—or losing—face.” By a familiar mechanism of displacement (upward or downward) which is in fact the logic behind Freud's reading of the Medusa, “face” and “penis” become symbolic alternatives for one another. And this, in turn, suggests a reason for the presence, throughout M. Butterfly, of an insistent and anxious language of phallic jokes—jokes about phallic inadequacy.

For example: René, remembering himself as a boy of twelve having discovered his uncle's cache of girlie magazines, imagines a pinup girl in a sexy negligee stripping in front of him: “My skin is hot, but my penis is soft. Why?” Girl: You can do whatever you want. Gallimard: I can't do a thing. Why?” (1.5). He reflects that when a woman calls a man “friend” she's calling him “a eunuch or a homosexual” (1.11), and his friend Marc jokes about having had to set up René's first sexual encounter. The play establishes him clearly as a man unsure of his own sexual attractiveness and adequacy. The one relationship that make him feel like “a man” is that with Song Liling, and the more he neglects her, the more male and potent he feels. We may recall that his affair with the Danish girl Renée was predicated on her difference from “Butterfly”: “It was exciting to be with someone who wasn't afraid to be seen completely naked. But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too … masculine?”

The female Renée's “masculinity” extends itself not only to nakedness but also to unadorned language, as they discuss the difficult question of what to call his penis.

You have a nice weenie.
Penis. You have a nice penis.
Oh. Well, thank you. That's very …
What—can't take a compliment?
No, it's very … reassuring. […] what did you call it?
Oh. Most girls don't call it a “weenie,” huh?
It sounds very—
Small, I know.
I was going to say, “young” …
There's “cock,” but that sounds like a chicken. And “prick” is painful, and “dick” is like you're talking about someone who's not in the room.
Yes. It's a … bigger problem than I imagined.


Furthermore, Renée has a sartorial theory about war that hinges on the unknowability of phallic supremacy:

I think the reason we fight wars is because we wear clothes. Because no one knows—between the men, I mean—who has the bigger … weenie. So, if I'm a guy with a small one, I'm going to build a really big building or take over a really big piece of land or write a really long book so the other men don't know, right? But, see, it never really works, that's the problem. I mean, you conquer the country, or whatever, but you're still wearing clothes, so there's no way to prove absolutely whose is bigger or smaller. And that's what we call a civilized society. The whole world run by a bunch of men with pricks the size of pins. (She exits)

Gallimard (to us): This was simply not acceptable.


Renée's exhibitionism is thus directly contrasted with Butterfly's modesty. When Gallimard, stung by humiliation at work (his political prophecies have not come true) decides to return to Butterfly and displace his humiliation onto her, he demands that she do the one thing she has consistently refused him: to strip. But before she can comply, he withdraws his request: “Did I not undress her because I knew, somewhere deep down, what I would find? Perhaps” (2.6). The phallus can play its role only when veiled.

Transvestism, in fact, theatrically literalizes Lacan's famous statement that the relations between the sexes “turn around a ‘to be’ and a ‘to have,’ which, by referring to a signifier, the phallus,” both “giv[e] reality to the subject in this signifier” and “derealiz[e] the relations to be signified.”22 In effect, transvestism becomes the middle term, the “to seem,” that Lacan suggests will intervene to protect both the fantasy of having and the fear of losing (or having lost) the phallus. Since in Lacanian terms “having” is always a fantasy, “seeming,” which speaks at once to the situation of theater (what Lacan calls “the comedy”) and of psychoanalysis, does represent an effective “intervention.” When the theater involved is transvestite theater, or when the intervention is that of the transvestite within the context of a (hypothetically) nontransvestite dramatic or cultural moment, the effect can be stunning.

Consider this example from Hwang's play, which may help to make the theoretical point more clearly. Song Liling, determined to keep Gallimard's affections from straying, tells him she is pregnant, and then produces a child she says is his son (following, as it happens, the scenario of the Boursicot-Shi relationship).23 She announces that she will name the child “Peepee.” And to Gallimard's appalled remonstrance she offers the reproach of cultural difference:

You can't be serious. Can you imagine the time this child will have in school?
In the West, yes.
It's worse than naming him Ping Pong or Long Dong or—
But he's never going to live in the West, is he?


We may recall that the Chinese actor-spy on whom Song Liling's part was based was named Shi Pei Pu. The name Pei Pu may have suggested to the playwright the joke on “Peepee.” But in any case little “Peepee,” the detachable phallus (who may someday grow up to be Long Dong) is the “proof” of Gallimard's “masculinity.” In an earlier scene, his wife had urged him to see a doctor to find out why they were unable to have children. “You men of the West,” said Song Liling to him on that occasion, “you're obsessed by your odd desire for equality. Your wife can't give you a child, and you're going to the doctor?” “Promise me … you won't go to this doctor. Who is this Western quack to set himself as judge over the man I love? I know who is a man, and who is not” (2.6). There could be no better example of the translation of “saving face” into phallic terms. “Of course I didn't go,” Gallimard comments to the audience. “What man would?” (2.6).


Most transvestites are not spies. Indeed, recent statistics in Massachusetts suggest that most transvestites in that state, for example, are married heterosexual truck drivers or computer engineers.24 But some of the most famous transvestites in history have been “actresses,” diplomats and spies. Why should this be?

In the seventeenth century, for example, the Abbé de Choisy, who cross-dressed in women's clothes from his earliest childhood, had a highly successful career on the stage (and off) as an actress in a Bordeaux theater. Indefatigably heterosexual, he dressed himself in a gown and his mistress as a boy and attended the opera with her, attracting more attention from the audience than the lesser spectacle on the stage. Sent to Rome to attend the election of the Pope, he dressed as a woman at the coronation ball—and for the next several years while he lived in Italy. When he visited Siam in the entourage of Louis XIV's ambassador, we are told, he “went gorgeously arrayed in a feminine evening gown, make-up and jewelry. The Siamese thought it was a European custom of some sort.”25 This is the inverse of the East/West stereotype: instead of the West feminizing the East, the East feminizes the West, or, rather, naturalizes the “feminine” it sees.

The most famous transvestite in Western history, the personage after whom Havelock Ellis wished to name the transvestic syndrome eonism, was the Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont, a French diplomat who early in his career went to Russia as a cross-dressed spy, then was sent to England, where bets were laid about which sex he was. Based on anatomical observation, an English court ruled that d'Eon was a woman. Recalled to France by an increasingly restive King, d'Eon was required as part of his repatriation to dress and live like a lady of the court, which he did for years. Tiring of this restrictive life, the Chevalière, as she was then styled, began a theatrical career as a female fencer, which enabled her to use the military skills she had acquired in her earlier years. Tended by a faithful female companion for years, she died a woman—and was then revealed, to the astonishment of her companion, to have been a man.26

Perhaps the most celebrated brief description of treason is the terse little epigram ascribed to Elizabeth I's godson, Sir John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

—Harington, Epigrams

What is being described here is a hermeneutic of passing or crossover. If treason works, it gets mainstreamed or translated into another, nonoppositional category, a new political orthodoxy. This will come as no surprise to any reader of George Orwell—or of history. But the mechanism that is here being described is also the mechanism of gender impersonation, transvestic passing. If we were to take Harington's epigram about treason and replace “treason” with some metrically equivalent word—like “passing”—we would be characterizing a social and sartorial inscription that encodes (as treason does) its own erasure. Successful treason is not treason, but governance, or diplomacy. Is successful cross-dressing, when undertaken as a constant rather than an episodic activity, and when undetected, still cross-dressing? In other words, was Bernard Boursicot wrong, to believe that Shi Pei Pu was a woman? If we are serious about describing gender as constructed rather than essential or innate, the lifelong transvestite puts this binarism (constructed/essential)—like so many others—to the test.

The most direct revelation of Song Liling's activities as a spy in M. Butterfly comes, significantly, in a conversation that also addresses the question of cross-dressing and the essence—or construction—of womanhood. The scene is the flat shared by the lovers in Beijing, 1961. Gallimard has left for the evening, and Comrade Chin, Song Liling's female government contact, is interviewing Song about American plans for increased troop strength in Vietnam—all information passed through the French embassy. Chin, writing as fast as she can, can hardly keep up with the numbers of soldiers, militia, and advisors. “How do you remember so much?” she asks. “I'm an actor.” “Is that how come you dress like that?” “Like what … ?” “You're wearing a dress. And every time I come here, you're wearing a dress. Is that because you're an actor? Or what?” “It helps me in my assignment,” says Song.

“Remember,” cautions Comrade Chin, “when working for the Great Proletarian State, you represent our Chairman Mao in every position you take.” “I'll try to imagine the Chairman taking my positions,” replies Song, with an irony entirely lost on her interlocutor. “Don't forget,” says Chin as she is leaving, “there is no homosexuality in China.” And Song answers, “Yes, I've heard.” And then to the audience, after the departing Miss Chin in her Mao suit, he comments, “What passes for a woman in modern China.” What passes for a woman—this is the real question. And, in René's horrified recognition that “the man I loved was a cad, a bounder,” what passes for a man.

Song's ironic and disparaging aside, “What passes for a woman in modern China,” marks a crucial dissymmetry in the playtext. Focusing on male pathos and male self-pity, M. Butterfly is intermittently antifeminist and homophobic, ridiculing the female cross-dresser, Miss Chin, while it elevates Gallimard's plight to the plane of high drama. The other women in the play, like Renée and Helga, are likewise presented in caricature rather than in sympathetic depth. This is a critique frequently made of contemporary male transvestite theater, that it occludes or erases women, implying that a man may be (or rather, make) a more successful “woman” than a woman can. In Hwang's play cross-dressed men are emblematic of cultural crisis (or even of the “human condition”), but the cross-dressed woman is a risible sign of failed “femininity.”

Here too, though, it is worth recalling that the “women,” like the “men” in Hwang's play, are gendered in representation rather than in “reality.” Making Miss Chin the butt of broad jokes about uniforms, bureaucratic dress-for-success and the totalitarian erasure of difference offers a sharp contrast between the impossibility of androgyny by sartorial fiat and the subversive power of transvestism both to undermine and to exemplify cultural constructions. Nonetheless, the easy laugh elicited by Song's put-down on “passing for a woman” is too anti-butch not to let the fear of women, and women's difference, come through. What is really at stake here, it seems to me, is a subconscious recognition that “woman” in patriarchal society is conceived of as an artifact—and that the logical next step is the recognition that “man” is likewise not fact but artifact, himself constructed, made of detachable parts. This is the anxiety that lies beneath the laughter; and it is on this anxiety of artifactuality that the aesthetic claims of transvestite theater are, paradoxically, based.

That acting, espionage, and, indeed, diplomacy should be formally or structurally cognate with transvestism is not really surprising. Using the language of vestimentary codes, actors, spies, and transvestites could be characterized as potential or actual turncoats. Another suggestive sartorial term popularly in use to describe espionage activities is cloak and dagger—again, pointing to the element of disguise, but also of theatricality virtually for its own sake, and of displacement onto clothing—away from the body. Remember that Artaud's praise of Oriental theater was literally a praise of cloak and dagger—of “those who succeed in giving a mystic sense to the simple form of a robe and … pierce these illusory or secondary clothes with a saber, giving them the look of huge butterflies pinned in the air.” What these activities have in common, however, is more than metaphorical or literal change of costume. It is an ideology of construction.

“The woman of Fashion,” says Roland Barthes in The Fashion System,

is a collection of tiny, separate essences rather analogous to the character parts played by actors in classical theater; the analogy is not arbitrary, since Fashion presents the woman as a representation, in such a way that a simple attribute of the person, spoken in the form of an adjective, actually absorbs this person's entire being. … The paradox consists then of maintaining the generality of the characteristics (which alone is compatible with the institution of Fashion) in a strictly analytical state: it is a generality of accumulation, not of synthesis: in Fashion, the person is thus simultaneously impossible and yet entirely known.27

We might compare this to what Diderot says about the paradox of acting: that the actor, the great actor, must not feel.

At the very moment when he touches your heart he is listening to his own voice; his talent depends not, as you think, upon feeling, but upon rendering so exactly the outward signs of feeling, that you fall into the trap. He has rehearsed to himself every note of his passion. … The broken voice, the half-uttered words, the stifled or prolonged notes of agony, the trembling limbs, the faintings, the bursts of fury—all this is pure mimickry, lessons carefully learned, the grimacing of sorrow, the magnificent aping which the actor remembers long after his first study of it, of which he was perfectly conscious when he first put it before the public, and which leaves him, luckily for the poet, the spectator, and himself, a full freedom of mind. … He puts off the sock or the buskin; his voice is gone; he is tired; he changes his dress, or he goes to bed; and he feels neither trouble, nor sorrow, nor depression, nor weariness of soul. All these emotions he has given to you.28

This (de)construction or (de)composition of the fantasy of “character” is precisely what is at work and on display in M. Butterfly. Barthes' description of the fashion system suggests that “personality” in the discourse of clothing is an illusion, made up of an accumulation of signifying “essences”: “in Fashion, the person is thus simultaneously impossible and yet entirely known.” In David Henry Hwang's play the vestimentary codes of stage, gender, nation and race conspire together to make the person of the play's title, the dramatis persona, likewise, in Barthes' terms, both “impossible” and “entirely known.” As Song Liling changes costume, from the “traditional Chinese garb” of the opening tableau to the “Anna May Wong” black gown from the twenties and the chong sam in which “she” appears at home to Gallimard (1.10) to the Armani slacks and gold neck chain in which “he” reveals “his” true gender in the courtroom in France, s/he also changes “character,” becomes, as s/he has always been, unknowable, unknown.

“What passes for a woman.” And what passes for a man. Passing is what acting is, and what treason is. Recall that the French diplomat Boursicot was accused of passing information to his Chinese contacts. In espionage, in theater, in “modern China,” in contemporary culture, embedded in the very phrase “gender roles,” there is, this play suggests, only passing. Trespassing. Border crossing and border raids. Gender, here, exists only in representation—or performance.

This is the scandal of transvestism—that transvestism tells the truth about gender. Which is why—which is one reason why—like René Gallimard, we cannot look it in the face.


  1. Chapman Pincher, Traitors (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 104-105.

  2. The (London) Times, May 6, 1986; The Daily Mail, May 6 and 7, 1986; Pincher, Traitors, p. 105.

  3. Joyce Wadler, “For the First Time, The Real-Life Models for Broadway's M. Butterfly Tell of Their Very Strange Romance,” People, 30, 6 (August 8, 1988), p. 91.

  4. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly, with an Afterword by the Playwright (New York: New American Library, 1989). Citations from the play (by act and scene) and references to the afterword (by page number) will be incorporated directly in the text above. I am grateful to David Henry Hwang, to Andreas Teuber and to John Lithgow, who graciously allowed me to see the playscript before M. Butterfly appeared in published form.

  5. Antonin Artaud, “On the Balinese Theater,” The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), pp. 60-61.

  6. Peter Ackroyd, Dressing Up (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 94.

  7. See Colin P. Mackerras, The Rise of Peking Opera, 1770-1870 (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 45-47.

  8. Patrick Hanan, The Invention of Li Yu (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 175.

  9. Liaozhai's Records of the Strange, 3.374. I am indebted to Judith Zeitlin and her forthcoming book The Painted Wall: Pu Songling's Records of the Strange for this reference, and for much other fascinating information on cross-dressing and sexual transformation in Chinese literature and culture of this period. My thanks as well to Ellen Widmer, who first drew my attention to the bound foot in Chinese drama in a discussion after the Nationalisms and Sexualities Conference at the Harvard University Center for Literary and Cultural Studies in June 1989.

  10. Zeitlin, The Painted Wall (unpub. MS), p. 167. As will be evident, Zeitlin's reading and mine agree on many points. As she notes, “It is almost irresistible to explore the allure of bound feet in Freudian terms as representations of the female genitals—as mutilated appendages with something missing” (p. 167).

  11. Leonard Cabell Pronko, Theater West and East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 195.

  12. Ibid., p. 196.

  13. Yet even here things are not quite what they seem—or rather, what they seem always to have been. For the earliest form of Kabuki was in fact the so-called Women's Kabuki (onna-kabuki) of the late sixteenth century. But women were prohibited from the stage in 1629 because of allegations of immorality, political as well as sexual; many were prostitutes, and actors were by edict officially to be segregated from the general populace. After a brief interlude in which Kabuki actresses attempted to evade this regulation by reversing the theater's previous practice, and having men play men's roles, and women, women's roles, women disappeared from the stage altogether, and did not reappear as performers in Japan until after 1868.

    The women were succeeded on the stage by long-haired, handsome boys, in what was known as Young Men's Kabuki (wakashu-kabuki), but these boys proved, apparently, too attractive to some of the samurai in the audience, and in 1652 Young Men's Kabuki was also forbidden. The present form of all-male theater therefore derives from the “Male” Kabuki (yaro-kabuki) of the seventeenth century, in which boys and young men were required to cut off their forelocks and shave their foreheads in order to appear less seductive. See Earle Ernst, The Kabuki Theater (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974), pp. 10-11.

  14. Ibid., p. 195.

  15. Ashley H. Thorndike, Shakespeare's Theater (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 420.

  16. Quoted in Ackroyd, Dressing Up, p. 98.

  17. Kenneth Tynan, Tynan on Theater (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1964), p. 108.

  18. Ian Buruma, Behind the Mask (New York: New American Library, 1984), pp. 117-118.

  19. Jeremy Gerard, “David Hwang: Riding on the Hyphen,” New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, p. 87.

  20. Pronko, Theater West and East, p. 151.

  21. Ibid., p. 44.

  22. Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 289.

  23. Wadler, “For the First Time …,” p. 96.

  24. Sally Jacobs, “‘You Do What You Need to Do,’” The Boston Globe, August 2, 1988, p. 2.

  25. Ackroyd, Dressing Up, p. 9. For more on Choisy, see The Transvestite Memoirs of the Abbé de Choisy and the Story of the Marquise-Marquis de Banneville, trans. R. H. F. Scott (London: Peter Owen, 1973), and also the extended treatment in my Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1991).

  26. I discuss D'Eon, like Choisy, at much greater length in my Vested Interests. See also, among the many books and articles on this enigmatic figure, J. Buchan Telfer, The Strange Career of the Chevalier D'Eon de Beaumont (London: Longmans Green, 1885); Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, The True Story of the Chevalier D'Eon (London, 1895); Marjorie Coryn, The Chevalier d'Eon, 1728-1810 (London: T. Butterworth, 1932); Edna Nixon, Royal Spy: The Strange Case of the Chevalier D'Eon (New York: Reynal and Co., 1965); Cynthia Cox, The Enigma of the Age: The Strange Story of the Chevalier d'Eon (London: Longmans, 1966); Michel de Decker, Madame le Chevalier d'Eon (Paris: Perrin, 1987); and Gary Kates, “D'Eon Returns to France: Gender and Power in 1777,” in Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, eds., Body Guards: The Cultural Contexts of Gender Ambiguity (New York: Routledge, 1991).

  27. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), pp. 254-255.

  28. Denis Diderot, The Paradox of Acting, trans. William Archer (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), p. 19.

Hsiao-hung Chang (essay date 1992-93)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5729

SOURCE: Chang, Hsiao-hung. “Cultural/Sexual/Theatrical Ambivalence in M. Butterfly.Tamkang Review 23, nos. 1-4 (1992-93): 135-55.

[In the following essay, Chang analyzes the trope of “cross-cultural dressing” in M. Butterfly in terms of the discourses of feminist politics, postcolonial studies, and deconstructivist theory.]


This essay situates D. H. Hwang's “deconstructivist” Madame Butterfly, a play which critiques sexual imperialism by politically re-visioning the archetypal East-West romance perpetuated by Puccini's opera, at the intersection of feminist politics, postcolonial discourse and deconstructivist theory. My reading of the play intends to broaden the scope of feminist theorization of cross-gender dressing by analyzing the trope of “cross-cultural dressing” in its imperialist context. On the one hand an essentialist view of cross-dressing maintains the binary opposition of clothes/body by taking “body” as the ultimate reality that can be disclosed after removing layers of cultural and gender camouflage. On the other hand, a constructivist view tends to undermine the binary structures of body/clothes and West/East by exploring the construction of (a fictional) “Orientalism” under the western masculine gaze (Said) and of (a fictional) “sexuality” through the heterosexual matrix (Butler), thus laying bare the possibility of a role reversal in which West becomes East and man becomes woman (or vice versa).


cross-gender dressing
camouflage essentialist
binary cross-cultural
constructivist post-colonial
gaze role reversal

In other words, it is only in so far as “Woman/Women” and “the East” are defined as Others, or as peripheral, that (Western) Man/Humanism can represent him/itself as the center.

—Chandra Talpada Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes”

I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence—to me that Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation—whose invented interplay allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.

—Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs

The Orient is itself already a fictionalized place, essentially an absence, corresponding to the silent space of woman.

—Linda Peckham, “Not Speaking with Language/Speaking with No Language”

M. Butterfly, the 1988 Tony Award-winning play written by the Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang, portrays an intriguing love/spy story of a French diplomat seduced by a Chinese opera actor masquerading as an Oriental femme idéale. Designed as “a deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” (Hwang, “Afterword” 95), the play enacts a critique of sexual imperialism by re-visioning politically the archetypal East-West romance perpetuated by Giacomo Puccini's opera.1 Taking cross-dressing as the major trope, this paper will situate the play at the intersection of feminist politics, postcolonial discourse and deconstructionist theory, with a wish to bring these three methodologies into a productive crisis. The following reading is thus intended to broaden the scope of feminist theorization of cross-gender dressing (Case, Dolan, Gilbert and Gubar) by incorporating the dimension of cross-cultural dressing in the imperialist context (Low, Rowse, Wollen, Yau). By addressing not only the “fabrication” of gender but also the “fashioning” of race in a deconstructive gesture, it also attempts to foreground the performativity of cultural/gender roles and then relates this to the issues of feminine masquerade and colonial mimicry.

With male transvestism as the central complication of the plot, M. Butterfly simultaneously allows two different readings of cross-dressing responding respectively to two different discourses of identity.2 On the one hand, an essentialist view of cross-dressing adheres to the binary opposition of clothes and body by taking the latter as the ultimate reality that can be disclosed after removing layers of cultural and gender camouflage. Here the Oriental feminine costumes—traditional Chinese garb, kimonos and chong sams—function not only as exotic fetishes but also as gender/cultural disguises under the binary oppositions of East/West, appearance/reality, signifier/signified, clothes/body, and femininity/masculinity. As a stage play based on “a true story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity” (“Playwright's Notes”), M. Butterfly can only reach its climax at the very moment when Song Liling, the Chinese female impersonator, undresses himself in front of Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat, who still refuses to face the “true sex” of his lover even after the espionage trial. Song's naked male body is thus displayed on the stage as the final undeniable truth of the sexual identity. On the other hand, a constructionist view of cross-dressing tends to undermine the binary structures of body/clothes and West/East by exploring through Song's cultural/gender performance the construction of Orientalism through the western masculine gaze (Said), the fictionality of sexuality through the heterosexual matrix (Butler), and the embedded instability and fluidity of the structures themselves through the final role reversal of West becoming East and man becoming woman. Therefore, it is against this background of these two contrasting, destructive possibilities of cross-dressing that I attempt to examine the dynamics of identity/difference in M. Butterfly and its subsequent cultural, sexual and theatrical ambivalence.


Clothes always function as a major signifier in the play of identity and otherness in cross-cultural encounters. As Low points out in her discussion of the colonial fantasy of cross-cultural dressing, “Clothes trap the essence of the east; they objectify it. Like souvenir curios which represent fetishized totems, they present the oriental world for consumption” (“White Skins” 89). As the visual signifier of the exotic other, the Oriental costume becomes the most effective way for Western imperialists to view the Orient as a site of transgressive and fantastic sexuality (Wollen). Under the complexities of power/knowledge/pleasure in this imperialist project of the West, the Orient is always fetishized and commodified as decorative, artificial costumes. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that “slender women in chong sams and kimonos” (91) become the primary visual obsession in Gallimard's vision of the Orient. Accordingly, Song, a superb female impersonator in Peking opera, makes full use of Oriental costumes in his/her cultural/gender performance to play up to and exploit the feminine image in Gallimard's imperialist sexual fantasy.

During the play, Song's body is always heavily costumed by indices of Oriental identity. At the very beginning of the play, Song, “who appears as a beautiful woman in traditional Chinese garb,” dances a traditional Peking Opera piece, “surrounded by the percussive clatter of Chinese music” (1). When performing the death scene from Madame Butterfly at the German ambassador's house, Song puts on a kimono to play the passive and delicate Japanese woman. Later on, dressed in a chong sam, Song curls up at Gallimard's feet as his Chinese mistress in their flat on the outskirts of Peking. (43). These costumes have successfully helped Song to masquerade in Oriental submissiveness and feminine docility. However, Song's “Oriental womanhood” is also subverted at the same time by his/her constant change of costumes. The sartorial difference between Western and Eastern costumes is constantly destabilized by the sartorial differences within Western and Eastern costumes. When dressed in a Japanese kimono after his/her performance of Madame Butterfly, Song retorts to Gallimard's compliment: “Convincing? As a Japanese woman? The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war, you know. But I gather such an irony is lost on you” (17). For Gallimard, Song is much more believable than those huge Western women in bad makeup who used to play the role of Madame Butterfly. But for Song, the cultural difference and historical antagonism between China and Japan are totally denied in Gallimard's fantasy of the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel White man. Song's reaction shows his/her indignation against the imperialist gaze which can only homogenize the “Oriental” as an undifferentiated and fetishized entity.

The costume that Song adopts during the transitional scenes of the Cultural Revolution is the Mao suit, a communist uniform designed to eliminate the traces of class, gender and cultural difference. In Act 11 scene ix, Song's “rehabilitation” is achieved partially through his/her public confession of moral corruption by the West and partially through the process of “re-habilitating” the Mao suit. This uni-class and uni-sex uniform once led Roland Barthes to take China as the end of hermeneutics:

As for the body, the apparent disappearance of any concern with stylishness in dress (no fashion, no makeup), the uniformity of the clothing, the prosaic gestures, all these absences, multiplied throughout the dense crowds, are an invitation to this extraordinary impression—perhaps a heartrending one—that the body no longer has to be understood, that here it stubbornly resists signifying, refusing to allow itself to be caught up in any reading, erotic or dramatic (except on the stage).

(Barthes, “Well, and China?” 117)

Although the Mao suit in the above quotation seems not to function as cultural signifier and thus renders China a pluralistic void in the eyes of a Western theorist, it ironically becomes in the play another fetish whose power comes mainly from the Western fascination with Red China.

Besides Oriental costumes and the Mao suit, Song is also alternatively dressed in Western clothing, first in the feminine and then in the masculine forms. If Oriental female costumes are used in the play as exotic signifiers of seduction, then these Western clothes are primarily adopted as markers of modern, advanced societies. In Gallimard's first visit to Song's apartment in Beijing, Song is dressed elegantly in a black gown from the twenties. This seductive evening gown makes Song look like Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress who performed stereotypical roles in Hitchcock's early movies. Moreover, this Western feminine gown is manipulated shrewdly by Song as a counter-cultural disguise to create the alleged conflict of outward forwardness and inward timidity:

Song: Please. Hard as I try to be modern, to speak like a man, to hold a Western woman's strong face up to my own … in the end, I fall. A small, frightened heart beats too quickly and gives me away. Monsieur Gallimard, I'm a Chinese girl. I've never. … never invited a man up to my flat before. The forwardness of my actions makes my skin burn.


Song's very “Chineseness” is now identified not by his/her costume but in an even more essentialized way by his/her Chinese heart which is “strapped inside this Western dress” (30). In Gallimard's words, “it is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education” (27). This essentialist emphasis will continue in the play to suggest a double discrepancy between the outer appearance and the inner essence both on the cross-cultural level (Western outside/Eastern inside) and on the cross-gender level (feminine outside/masculine inside).

During the five-minute intermission between Acts II and III, Song starts to remove his/her makeup and wig in front of a mirror. The process of his gender transformation is thus achieved when he removes the “surface” kimono to show the “underneath” western suit. Since this well-cut Armani suit still cannot force Gallimard to forsake his illusion, Song decides to strip himself in front of Gallimard to reveal the “nakedness” of his masculinity hidden beneath the covering of clothes. As the necessary sign of a “naturalized” sexual identity, the gendered surface of the body shifts first from the feminine kimono to the masculine suit and then from costumes as cultural signs of gender demarcation to the genitals as the physiological bedrock of sexual differentiation. Song's naked male body is now taken as the ultimate truth of his sex. Ironically, it is exactly when Song is undressed by himself on the stage that the issue of the fictionality of sex and gender is left unaddressed.


The above section has discussed the function of the costume in its (de)construction of cultural/gender identity and difference, this section will focus on the place of the costume in the (dis)orientation of desire, especially in terms of the relationship between transvestism and gender confusion. I will argue that while the political is successfully eroticized, the sexual is not sufficiently politicized since the connection between transvestism and homosexuality is not fully addressed in the play. I will further explore how this unbalanced political/sexual complication renders the final role reversal ideologically ambivalent.

As a play intended to “link imperialism, racism and sexism” (Savran 127), M. Butterfly successfully enacts a process of “gendering” imperialism by combining two systems of domination: the West over the East and men over women. In Act II scene iv, speaking from his own experience with his Oriental butterfly, Gallimard assures Toulon, the French counsel, of “the natural affinity between the West and the Orient”: “Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (46) just as women will eventually submit to men's sexual power. In Act II scene vi, in his extramarital affair with a liberated Danish female student named Renée, Gallimard is shocked by her “emasculating” remarks which sarcastically relate international warfare and colonial expansion to men's anxiety about phallic potency:

Renée: Like, I think the reason we fight wars is because we wear clothes. Because no one knows—between the men, I mean—who has the bigger … weenie … I mean, you conquer the country, or whatever, but you're still wearing clothes, so there's no way to prove absolutely whose is bigger or smaller. And that's what we call a civilized society. The whole world run by a bunch of men with pricks the size of pins.


Under this explicit phallus/penis connection, Renée, the daughter of a merchant who “exports a lot of useless stuff to the Third World”(52), regards men's political ambitions to conquer, to colonize, and to dominate as ways to compensate for their sexual insecurity. Similarity, in Act III scene i, when testifying in a French courtroom, Song gives the definition of the West's rape mentality towards the East:

Song: Basically, “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.” The 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.

Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can't think for herself.


Political power deployment between the West and the East is depicted here as a sado/masochistic sexual relationship between men and women. This colonial/sexual association in which the Orient can only be feminine and women submissive explains perfectly Song's culminating courtroom self-parody—“And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (83).

However, while the play has effectively eroticized the political in a combined critique of sexual imperialism, it leaves the sexual issue in limbo by refusing to name the unnameable. At first sight, the play seems to promise a radical questioning of gender identity: the polarized difference between Man and Woman is continually displaced by the difference within men (straight and gay) and women (independent and submissive). For example, Gallimard is constantly troubled by the problem of sexual identification. At the age of twelve, he gets his first chance to read pornographic magazines hid in his uncle's closet; however, this scopophiliac experience turns out to be a mixture of power, lust, guilt and frustration. To his astonishment, the pinup girl in a sexy negligee now performing seductive sexual gestures on the stage returns his gaze: “I know you're watching me” (10). Gallimard is thus immediately degraded from an invisible thus powerful voyeur to a masochistic masturbator caught in the middle of his sexual fantasy. This intense sexual arousal caused by the other sex leads only to an embarrassing physical impotence: “My skin is hot, but my penis is soft” (11). Similarly, his first sexual experience is also scary and traumatic, full of rape images in an inverted power/gender relation. When making love with Isabelle, a schoolgirl who loves “the superior position” (33), Gallimard is pinned down to the dirt in the bushes and can only look up helplessly at the woman bouncing up and down on his loins. Besides, Gallimard has long felt inferior to his handsome friend, Marc, “the most popular guy in school” (32). After refusing to join a sexual adventure, he is even ridiculed by Marc as a “wimp” (9). If Marc reminds him of how far he falls short of the ideal of the heterosexually potent man, then Gallimard's sexual confidence is completely destroyed by Renée, the blonde Danish student portrayed as the stereotype of Western liberated women with the power to castrate. If the identically sounding first names, Rene and Renée, are supposed to represent respectively the masculine and feminine forms, then M. Butterfly plays successfully on the binary system to create a gender parody of the “masculine” woman and the “feminine” man.

Therefore, the cultural/gender confusion can never be fully resolved even after Song's act of undressing. Another cultural/gender confusion created by costume appropriation culminates in the play's final role reversal: a white man is transformed on the stage into an Oriental Butterfly. While the dancers help him make up his face and put on the kimono and the Butterfly wig, Gallimard starts lamenting about the sexual mistake he has committed: “Love wrapped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face- … until I could look in the mirror and see nothing but … a woman” (92). The image of the mirror here suggests the complex psychic dynamics of projection and interjection; of gaze and reflection; and of narcissism and idealization. Repeating Madame Butterfly's last line, “death with honor is better than life … life with dishonor,” he imitates further the very Japanese ritual of seppuku to end his own life, while upstage Song in Western outfits “stands as a man” (93), smoking a cigarette and repeating Gallimard's first two words which begin the play—“Butterfly? Butterfly?” (93).

The central issue thus becomes whether the role reversal at the end of the play subversively foregrounds the artificiality and fluidity of cultural and gender identity, or it merely elides the racial/sexual power relationship and thus perpetuates the social hierarchy based on cultural and gender differences. Instead of reading it apolitically as “an androgynous fulfillments” (Skloot 60), I will try to explore not only how a white man (mis)recognizes his image in the fantasy of an Oriental Butterfly but also how the sexual deflects the political under this final clash of signs. From the psychoanalytic perspective, we are tempted to read the image of a white man in Oriental female costumes as doubly fetishistic in terms of its cross-cultural transposition and cross-gender appropriation. By donning the garments of his cultural/gender opposite, Gallimard seems to undergo a psychic transformation which might suggest an orgasmic release of libidinal energy at the culminating moment of his ritualistic death performed on the stage. However, from a more political perspective, this final transformation seems to blur the line between the master and the slave that is politically necessary for a critique of colonialist imperialism by making the colonizer a pitiful victim and the colonized a cunning manipulator. Gallimard, the “adventurous imperialist” (21), is now portrayed as an exploited and subjugated victim on the basis of his “ambiguous” sexual inclination. His denial of homosexual tendency is further caricatured when he is literally “unmanned” on the stage by putting on Japanese white face makeup and feminine kimono. Therefore, his appropriation of Oriental costumes leads not to a mastery and control of the threat of the Orient/Woman; instead, it leads to a self-inflected humiliation under the feminized and thus castrated appearance. In a word, this final role reversal fails not only to disrupt the existing hierarchies in its reinscription of the Orient/the feminine as inferior but also to subvert thoroughly the gender binary opposition in its denial of gender/sex/desire complexity.

Besides, the play's treatment of Gallimard's sexuality also enhances the sexual/political ambivalence of the ending. Gallimard is neither identified as a “straight gay” who might prefer his male sexual partner cross-dressed as a woman nor a “Rice Queen,” a gay Caucasian man primarily attracted to Asians. As the playwright has explained:

To me, this is not a ‘gay’ subject because the very labels heterosexual or homosexual become meaningless in the context of this story. … Since I am telling the story from the Frenchman's point of view, it is more specifically about ‘a man who loved a woman created by a man.’ To me, this characterization is infinitely more useful than the clumsy labels ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’

(Kondo 21)

However, the decision to render the heterosexual and homosexual categories as irrelevant in the play is itself a double-sided sword. On the one hand, when the question of Gallimard's sexual inclination is left unanswered at the end as the ultimate secret, the play seems to suggest the complexity and instability of human desire which cannot be exactly defined by strict sexual categories. More importantly, this “ambivalent” treatment of Gallimard's sexuality also keeps the sexual imperialist parallels of West/East and men/women at the center of M. Butterfly since the gendering of imperialism functions primarily under the unstated presumption of heterosexuality. On the other hand, the silence on the implicit connection between transvestism and homosexuality elides any in-depth exploration of the social system of compulsory heterosexuality and homophobia. Gallimard is finally left on the stage less as a repressed homosexual than as a laughing stock who has not even learned about the truth of his lover's sex after twenty years.


The above two sections have tried to foreground the cultural and sexual ambivalence in M. Butterfly by situating its intriguing politics in the context of a sexual/political (dis)connection. In what follows I will shift the focus to the theatrical aspects of the play with respective attention to the issues of the Oriental appeal, the stereotypical representation, and the male transvestite convention.

Given the glamorous Oriental spectacle it creates on the stage, M. Butterfly is theatrically ambivalent in the sense that it seems to criticize the Oriental myth which fetishizes cultural/gender differences, and simultaneously to perpetuate it by making the Oriental exotic elements—costume, music, dance—as the play's major market attractions. As I have elaborated in early part of this paper, Oriental costumes are used not only as the emblematic totem of the East but also as the play's major visual signifiers of mystic and eroticized romance. Set against the background of huge decorative curtains of Oriental birds, Song, the leading fe/male, performs stylized dances as an ancient Chinese beauty in embroidered feminine garb. S/he moves around in mincing lotus steps, following the Peking Opera music played by a Chinese band with traditional instruments on stage. Identified at the beginning of the play as ideal listeners (or misplaced psychoanalysts) to Gallimard's confession, the audience in the theatre are thus constantly seduced by the play's cultural/gender illusions and become sexual and theatrical voyeurs themselves. If the Orientalist gaze is activated by a knowledge/power regime to see, to structure and to order the racial other for pleasurable consumption, to what extent can we argue that the play actively seduces and confirms such a disciplining and voyeuristic eye/I without successfully estranging or deconstructing it? To what degree does the international consumption of the play ironically testify to the prevalence of global neocolonialism?

According to one theatre critic, instead of articulating Asian desire in a subversive mode, M. Butterfly shows its complicity with Anglo-American desire in its representation of otherness: it provides “a good evening's entertainment and then float[s] as exotic Oriental fetishes articulating Anglo-American desire, now doubly displaced into the new order of stereotypical representations created by Asian-Americans” (Moy 55). However, whether the audience gains insight after the play's dismantling of traditional cultural and gender assumptions or whether they merely indulge themselves further in the theatrical illusion of the exotic Orient and femininity is still debatable. As Hang himself has noted when addressing the inherent danger and difficulty in the play's cultural and gender representation, “Butterfly runs the risk of indulging the sin it condemns, like violent movies that are supposedly antiviolence” (Savran 128). Although I should acknowledge Hwang's efforts at combining Western and Asian theatre forms, his stated intention to first present Chinoiserie in its full glory and then to question the audience's indulgence and the textual/theatrical needs of Oriental spectacle in M. Butterfly, I still believe that any discussion of the containment/subversion of the play's Oriental seduction should be constantly questioned as to whether the theatrical representation caters more to the appetites for cultural stereotypes and cliché than to a new politics of self-representation.3

Accordingly, the issue of stereotypical representation in M. Butterfly further complicates our discussion of the play's Oriental appeal. M. Butterfly is regarded by some heterosexual Asian-American men as a stage play pandering to mainstream stereotypes since they “apparently felt their masculinity impugned by the ‘effeminate’ stereotype of the Asian man” (Kondo 27). This accusation can be easily questioned on three accounts. First, if the Broadway success should not be celebrated naively as a positive gesture toward multiculturalism, it also needs not to be immediately accused of a “sellout,” an index of the inevitable assimilation into white culture. Secondly, these heterosexual Asian-American men's indignation against “effeminate” stereotype should be read not only in light of the historically enforced feminization of Asian American men but also in light of the gender conflict long existing in Asian-American literary studies (Cheung). Thirdly, M. Butterfly is itself a play about stereotypes, dealing directly with the dual form of cultural misconception/stereotyping about how the West misperceives the East and vice versa. As Hwang has pointed out, Gallimard has fallen in love, “not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype” (“Afterword” 94). However, the idea of reinscribing stereotypes in order to subvert them inevitably puts the play in a demythologizing/remythologizing dilemma. In terms of theatrical politics, we are entitled to doubt whether Comrade Chin is “more stereotypical and cartoonish than the worst of the nineteenth-century stereotypes” and Song is “little more than a disfigured transvestite version of the infamous Chinese ‘dragon lady’ prostitute stereotype” (Moy 54). In other words, the play seems to repeat and to deconstruct at the same time the stereotypical representation of the Orient.

The third theatrically ambivalent dimension of the play comes from its self-conscious use of the male transvestite convention found in both the Eastern and Western theatres. In Act II scene vii, Song explains to Comrade Chin why women's roles are played by men in Peking Opera: “Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (63). This self-reflective comment on the textual and theatrical male transvestism is intended to attack this inherently misogynist belief that only a man can be a man's idealization of a woman. In Hwang's words, M. Butterfly is a play written to explore exactly “why it is that in Asian theatre and also in Shakespearean theatre men play women's roles” and to “deal with the concept of the onnagata in the context of a Western play” (DiGaetani 146). The play's transvestite acting thus carries the potential of foregrounding exactly the discursively constructed category of gender (Kondo 1990).

However, like the heated debate on the gender politics of theatrical representation, the same male transvestite convention can either be celebrated as a subversive means to highlight the artificiality and performativity of femininity, or be criticized as a male appropriation of femininity which recreates the essence of femininity by defining women according to their most essential traits (Case, Dolan). It is my contention that the playwright's decision to use a Chinese-American actor to play the Chinese female impersonator can only be fully addressed in the current debate on the issue of strategic (de)essentialization (Fuss). With the play's Chinese—American authorship and its politics of ethnic (self-)representation in mind, I will explore the implication of this casting arrangement from several aspects. First of all, if it is radical to have a man play a woman in terms of gender construction, will it be equally subversive to have a woman “perform” a man masquerading as a woman, or to have a white to play an Asian to foreground racial construction?4 Therefore, the insistence on using an Asian American actor to play the role of Song and the controversy over the casting arrangement of Miss Saigon point directly to the practicalities of employment in the theatre industry: it is not only a competition between whites and Asian-Americans but also one between men and women. The issue can be further complicated by taking into consideration the issues of theatrical essentialism—Asians must be played by Asians—and of the historical development of western theatrical institutions which have long used whites to play stereotypical Asian roles.

Secondly, in terms of the gender politics of theatrical representation, “Woman” in M. Butterfly can only be a rhetorical figure that is constantly dis-figured and re-figured through the masculine appropriation of feminine costume, gesture, movement and voice. Without sufficiently acknowledging the relationship between transvestism and homosexuality on the textual level, M. Butterfly fails also to interrogate the apparatus of desire on the theatrical level and thus sidesteps the issue of homoeroticism perpetuated by the male transvestite tradition.

Finally, although this casting decision might eliminate “the undesirable consequence of inviting the complicity of the audience in yet again enjoying the humiliation of an Asian woman” (Kondo 28, n32), it inevitably leads to a double erasure of Asian women. The “Oriental female” image perfectly portrayed in Song's cultural/gender performance substitutes the actual presence of Asian Women and thus excludes them from the spectacle of the homoerotic exchange in the theatre. In the absence of both the Orient and the women, the Oriental costume thus becomes on the stage a doubly fetishistic mask of the western masculine gaze.

The above analysis has tried to read the initial M in the title of M. Butterfly simultaneously as the gender ambivalence of Monsieur/Madame, as the political ambivalence of master/slave, and as the psychosexual ambivalence of sadist/masochist. The play's dramatic use of Oriental dress and its Orientalist mode of address are politically examined in order to map out respectively its cultural/sexual/theatrical ambivalence. This reading strategy aims at constructing the play as a text with multiple sites of struggle and contestation. It also attempts to articulate the ways in which M. Butterfly can attack the imperialist misperception of the East and simultaneously destabilize gender and cultural identity from a post-colonial/post-structuralist non-subject-centered point of view as merely a corporeal “stylization” through costume, voice, gesture and body movement. This strategy inevitably renders the play ideologically ambivalent, caught up in the dilemma of the exposure of errors and the production of truth. Like costumes, cultural and gender identities are thus presented in the play as constantly oscillating between essentialism and constructionism.


  1. All references are to the Penguin edition of M. Butterfly with an Afterword by the playwright. For further discussion on gender politics in western operas, see Clement and McClary.

  2. In “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Kondo has argued that the play offers a double movement of deconstructing and reconstructing identity: it leads the readers “beyond deconstruction of identity as Voice, Logos, or the Transcendental Signified … to a power-sensitive analysis that would examine the construction of complex, shifting ‘selves’ in the plural, in all their cultural, historical, and situational specificity” (26). She thus reads the play as more subversive than appropriative since it can provide “a thoroughly historicized, politicized notion of identity” (23). However, what I attempt to do here is to focus more on the ambivalent politics of the play's cultural/gender representation in light of its cultural/sexual/theatrical use of costume.

  3. This Oriental facade has always been used as a market promotion for Asian-American writers, e.g. the cover designs of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife.

  4. Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine can be taken here as an example in which a female character is played by a man and a black character is played by a white in the first part of the play. This casting arrangement is intended to foreground the internalized white male standard in women and other minority people.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Cape, 1983.

———. “Well, And China?” Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 1986-87): 116-20.

Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Case, Sue-Elle. Feminism and Theatre. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Cheung. King-kok. “The Woman Warrior versus The Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American Critic Choose between Feminism and Heroism?” Conflicts in Feminism. Eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. 234-51.

Chruchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine. London: Pluto Press and Joint Stock Theatre Group, 1979.

Clemént, Catherine. Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

DiGaetani, John Louis. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” The Drama Review 33 (Fall 1989): 141-53.

Dolan, Jill. “Gender Impersonation Onstage: Destroying or Maintaining the Mirror of Gender Roles?” Women and Performance 2:2 (1985): 5-11.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Gilbert, M. Sandra and Susan Gubar. “Cross-dressing and Re-Dressing: Transvestism as Metaphor.” No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Vol. II: Sexchanges. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. 324-376.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Kondo, Dorinne K. “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Cultural Critique 16 (Fall 1990): 5-29.

Los, Gail Ching-Liang. “His Stories? Narratives and Images of Impenialism.” New Formations 12 (Winter 1990): 97-123.

———. “White Skins/Black Masks: The Pleasures and Politics of Imperialism.” New Formations 9 (Winter 1989): 83-103.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Boundary 2 (1984): 333-58.

Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42:1 (March 1990): 48-56.

Peckham, Linda. “Not Speaking with Language/Speaking with No Language: Leslie Thornton's Adynata.Discourse 8 (Fall-Winter 1986-87): 103-13.

Rowse, Tim. “‘Interpretive Possibilities’: Aboriginal Men and Clothing.” Cultural Studies 5:1 (Jan. 1991): 1-13.

Said, Edward, Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Savran, David. “David Hwang.” In Their Own Works: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988. 117-31.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33:1 (March 1990): 59-66.

Wollen, Peter. “Fashion/Orientalism/the Body.” New Formations 1 (Spring 1987): 5-33.

Yau, Esther. “Is China the End of Hermeneutics? Or, Political and Cultural Usage of Non-Han Women in Mainland Chinese Films” Discourse 11:2 (Spring-Summer 1989): 115-136.

Kathryn Remen (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4852

SOURCE: Remen, Kathryn. “The Theatre of Punishment: David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.Modern Drama 37, no. 3 (fall 1994): 391-400.

[In the following essay, Remen draws on Michel Foucault's theories of vision and power to examine the staging of the central characters and the discursive positioning of the audience in Hwang's play M. Butterfly.]

It's an enchanted space I occupy.1

Mainstream American drama generally allows its audiences to slip into a passive role. With the exception of experimental theaters, such as the Living Theater, that rely directly on audience involvement and participation, dramatic productions tend to encourage their audiences to sit back and observe. Particularly on the Broadway stage, an audience comes with the expectation of entertainment without undue effort. The unsaid intention is to learn from the story, to watch and gather information about the characters, the plot, the themes, and to leave the theater with some distilled understanding, moral, or catharsis. If we apply Foucault's analysis of the prison system from his book Discipline and Punish, we begin to see that the theater and the prison operate in similar fashions with similar purposes: they are both “[architectures] … built … to render visible those who are inside … [architectures] that [operate] to transform individuals.”2

Both observational theater and punishment rely on a psychoanalytic privileging of knowledge. As members of the audience, we assume that we can gather enough information from the actions of the entrapped figure to come away with a better understanding of the internal workings of people.3 In this fashion, both the theater and the modern prison system attempt to “[function] … as an apparatus of knowledge” (Foucault, 126). Both institutions “[distribute] individuals in a space in which one might isolate them and map them” (144). The structure of the stage and the use of spot lighting isolate M. Butterfly's main character, René Gallimard, and allow the audience to “map” him without distractions. In such a situation, the only activity that the audience in the theater need perform is a close observation. They remain distant and removed, literally in the darkened house while the actors, the specimens of study, are under light.

M. Butterfly begins with this observational system. In many ways the play employs conservative theatrical elements that come from such mainstream modern dramatists as Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Miller. Like Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie,M. Butterfly is a memory play with themes of illusion and reality, continual references to confinement, dramatic lighting and musical motifs for the characters; as in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and Arthur Miller's After the Fall, our narrator steps in and out of the action of the play, commenting on scenes and playing different characters. Rather than inferring that these similar elements are merely following in a tradition established by Hwang's predecessors, we can see them as intentionally deceptive devices. As an audience, we are lulled into passivity by seeing a form that is familiar. We believe that this will be a drama in which we know our role: we are in the theater to watch. Even if the audience is not aware of the subject matter of the play, as soon as we open the program we find the following:

A former French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer have been sentenced to six years in jail for spying for China after a two-day trial that traced a story of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity. … Mr. Bouriscot was accused of passing information to China after he fell in love with Mr. Shi, whom he believed for twenty years to be a woman.

NY Times, May 11, 1986.

This notice informs us of an atypical content (especially when compared to the earlier mentioned plays), but any residual anxiety about the form following the subject matter and straying from traditional boundaries disappears as the play begins. Tom in The Glass Menagerie announces to the audience, “I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”4 He establishes the play as one that comes from his memories, in which he is the narrator who will introduce us to the other characters and point out significant passages. Similarly, René Gallimard tells us, “Alone in this cell, I sit night after night, watching our story play through my head …” (Hwang, 4). He secures us in our observational mode by announcing that he has been searching for us, the “ideal audience—who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy [him]” (4). This invitation to “understand” him allows us to sit back and watch him take us through the story step by step, while we gather information and try to fulfill the task that he has placed before us.

But by the end of the play, and crucially the final scene in which Rene Gallimard commits ritual suicide, this observational mode disappears and Hwang replaces it with a system of theater and of punishment that directly implicates and involves the audience. We realize that Hwang intentionally employed the familiar elements to lull us into an accustomed passivity. Gallimard has been lying to us by making us believe that we will remain passive; he transforms the audience from passive observers into the main characters of the play and we leave the play with the burden of responsibility and a greater understanding of our involvement, as active participants in punishment. In analyzing the process of implicating the audience by drawing parallels with Foucault's study of punishment, we come to see that rather than leaving the play with a greater understanding of our interiors, we have witnessed and participated in the operation of power and resistance on physical bodies in a Foucauldian system.

Much of the criticism on M. Butterfly has focused merely on the plot and indeed the content of the story is such that it ought to incite interest. Most mainstream plays do not have a collection of “tabloid” topics such as cross-dressing, international intrigues, mistaken identity, and illicit homosexual affairs. However, critics who look only at the plot are allowing the sensational aspects of the plot to distract them from the theoretically radical structural effects of the play. Robert K. Martin and Robert Skloot only seem concerned with interpreting the play on the most basic level. Both have difficulty making sense of the ending of the play. In his interpretation, Martin goes so far as to reduce the final scene to the statement that “Gallimard, at the end is after all simply the dying queen.”5 Skloot at least seems to see the play as more than a case of cross-dressing, but his analysis remains firmly in a psychoanalytic understanding of Gallimard that leaves him confused with the ending: “Gallimard's transformation into Butterfly has several possible interpretations. … Is his suicide confessional transcendence or humiliating defeat? Has he accepted or rejected the woman in himself? Is one culture superior to another or merely different?”6 Skloot does not arrive at any conclusion and attempts to justify the ambiguities by saying that the unanswered questions make us think about our own interiors. Dorrine K. Kondo has a perspective that goes beyond Skoot's binary concerns. Her argument focuses on “the multiplicity of Asia and of women,” and her article is useful in understanding Hwang's condemnation of binary assumptions about “aesthetics and politics, the personal and the political, woman and man, East and West.”7 She shows how the webs and matrices of power relations operate on the specific characters' perceptions of self. Hwang's play tells a story that is both fabulous and based on a true incident, but his purpose for telling the story is not merely to serve as a news service and inform us of a bizarre case. Instead he appropriates Mr. Bouriscot's story for his own purpose: to discuss power and fantasies of dominance between different cultures. Kondo addresses how his Foucauldian understanding of power forms “identities”; I will discuss how these powers transform our theater from one of a traditional, observational arrangement into a spectacular theater of punishment that both involves and implicates the audience.

Foucault says that “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production” (194). This power has the authority to punish. As a French diplomat in China, Gallimard's initial mistaken understanding of power follows the liberal interpretation: he thinks that, because he adopts the Western, white male position, he has the power. He doesn't understand that the power is not fixed, that the resistance is mobile, and that the rules can and do change. He is so caught up in his fantasy of being a powerful exploiter, which depends on this basic and inadequate view of power, that he does not acknowledge any information that may challenge these beliefs.

Gallimard comes to the understanding of the Foucauldian definition of power by the end; this is how we explain his resistance to it. Gallimard, the narrator, has this understanding of power at the beginning but he plays along with the audience; he encourages us to believe that he has submitted to our gaze, that he has given in to the proscribed observational punishment. Only at the end does the audience realize that he has been showing us his mistaken view of power and that his current understanding not only exhibits a clear knowledge of Foucauldian power but also allows him to employ the best mode of resistance. If the force of law produces the possibility of resistance, then Gallimard is resisting and rebelling in the final scene. Here we realize that he has changed the game and the rules of the game, without the audience being ready for this or even aware that he can do this until his actions occur.

Song Liling has a clear knowledge of Foucauldian power from the moment she begins her deception.8 She understands that lying is the best form of resistance to a power intent on fact-collecting; by supplying that power with false facts, with lies that the observer would prefer to believe, Song changes the rules of the game. Song justifies her lies by explaining that Western eyes will never accept her oriental male body as a body with any power: “being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (Hwang, 83). By assuming another identity, she undermines the powers more effectively with lies than she could with truth. Song creates the character and information that Gallimard wants to read into his fantasy of dominance. She creates a body that is a lie and Gallimard falls in love with this body, not with the physical body underneath the lies.

Gallimard's ignorance helps to make Song's lies more effective. Though Gallimard is imprisoned for treason, a part of his “crime” is his misunderstanding of the body—of his own body and Song's body. Not only does Gallimard lack a biological understanding, he also ignores the historical, political, and geographical specificity of Song's body. Gallimard would have known that Song was a man if he had known some details about Chinese culture. In a particularly effective scene between Song and Comrade Chin, Song asks and answers her own question about “Why, in the Peking Opera, are all women's roles played by men? … only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (63). Song recognizes what Gallimard wants to see and, as an experienced actor, carries out the lie. Song's lies are so powerful as to make physical information virtually insignificant. While on trial, Song explains her sexual relationship with Gallimard: “he never saw me completely naked. … I did all the work. … I suppose he might have wondered why I was always on my stomach. … it was my job to make him think I was a woman” (81-82). Only at the end of the play does Gallimard recognize Song's “job” and realize that he has loved and been manipulated by an impersonation, a collection of carefully coordinated lies. Gallimard's fantasy of how power operates, his adoption of a liberal definition of power, prevents him from recognizing his lover's physical body and from seeing his own body as a homosexual body.

At the end of the play, when Song strips before Gallimard and forces him to see the physical body, he responds by saying: “You showed me your true self. When all I loved was the lie” (89). Truth and knowledge create different bodies and in this realization Gallimard shows us the moment that he begins to understand a different system of power. He loves a different body from the one Song strips to show him because it is formed of truths that are different from those that he wants to believe.

As Song outwitted Gallimard, her observer, so Gallimard learns from this experience and employs similar deceptive techniques to outwit the audience, his observers. But before embarking on an explanation of how he lies to us, we must first clarify the audience's position in the punishment. The play begins with Gallimard in his cell in a prison on the outskirts of Paris; thus we instantly are introduced to a form of punishment and it is a punishment with which we are familiar. Punishment in our time is, as Foucault explains, a matter of observation. We do not expect any torture or inscription on the body of the condemned, only confinement and observation. Foucault fittingly describes the modern prison cell as “so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible” (Foucault, 200). In Hwang's play we see the cell as small theater, and the theater as a prison. Throughout the course of the play, Gallimard never leaves the stage.9 Thus, we are invited into his prison cell at the beginning of the play and we don't leave until he is dead. He is under continual scrutiny and all of his costume changes occur in direct lighting under the observer's eye. The breakdown of the action into short scenes parallels the observational form of punishment where “The ‘seriation’ of successive activities makes possible a whole investment of duration by power: the possibility of a detailed control and a regular intervention … in each moment of time” (160). Our “control” heightens the pressure and the punishment on Gallimard.

His only relief is to wander in his memories, but even here he is trapped. If discipline is a form of enclosure, then not only is he enclosed in his cell on the public space of the stage, he is also trapped by his memories and not fully able to control them. At the point when Song strips for him, Gallimard becomes an unwilling captive of his memories. He says, “once again, against my will, I am transported” (Hwang, 85). He tries to stop the reenactment of the scene and end the story when his love of “the Perfect Woman” is still intact. He says, “You're only in my mind! All this is in my mind! I order you! To stop!” (87), but Song does not stop.

Gallimard's mental mutiny tempts the audience to try to understand the workings of his mind. Foucault says that “The publicity of punishment must not have the physical effect of terror; it must open up a book to be read” (Foucault, III). The audience is trying to read Gallimard through the exposure that his punishment provides. In the early scene at the cocktail party, the audience sees the public fascination with his story. The people who gossip on the stage act as a mirror of our own fascination. Gallimard's sexual “crime” has elevated him to something of a minor celebrity so that “In the world's smartest parlors” the people “say [his] name, as if it were some new dance” (Hwang, 2-3). They all want to know the secret to his story; they want an explanation of how he could have had an affair for twenty years and not known the real sex of his lover. This is the story that we came to the theater to see, but it is not the only story. Significantly, we never get a real answer to this question. The other story that we are watching is an enactment of punishment methods and the execution of and resistance to power.

As we can see by the fascination of the men and women in the cocktail party scene and by our own draw to the “tabloid” subject matter, what is occurring is a judgment of the soul of the condemned rather than the actual crime he committed (Foucault, 19). As Foucault says, this “introduction of the ‘biographical’ is important. … [b]ecause it establishes the ‘criminal’ as existing before the crime and even outside it” (252). By attempting to see to the depths of Gallimard's soul we are ordering a “punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16).

The role of the audience early in the play is to remain removed as “anonymous and temporary observers” and to judge Gallimard (202). Our judgment of him rests on our views of “normality.” As observers and a part of the “carceral network,” the audience “[supports] … the normalizing power” (304). We objectify Gallimard to both learn about “Knowable man” and to try to “normalize” the criminal (305). We also heighten the inmate's “anxious awareness of being observed” (202). Immediately after the scene at the cocktail party, Gallimard announces his search, night after night, for an “ideal audience,” one who will “envy” him (Hwang, 4). In the observational mode of punishment this goal seems impossible; after all, one of the pre-stated purposes is to make him like everyone else, to destroy any uniqueness that may be enviable and “normalize” him. Only when we interpret the final scene as a spectacular form of resistance is this “envy” possible.

In the final scene of the play, Gallimard costumes himself as Butterfly and commits the Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku, which involves disemboweling oneself with a hara-kiri knife. Before he plunges the knife into his body he makes this announcement to his observers:

I have found her at last. In a prison on the outskirts of Paris. My name is René Gallimard—also known as Madame Butterfly.

(Hwang, 93)

In this action, Gallimard joins the Foucauldian world; in Discipline and Punish Foucault traces the evolution from spectacular to observational punishment. He uses specific and gory examples to show how punishment used to be unique, individual and specific to the crime that the criminal had committed. Modern observational punishment “automatizes and disindividualizes power” (Foucault, 202). Gallimard rebels by creating a punishment that suits the individual and the crime. His suicide follows the old form by making it into a punishment that is specific to his crime in ritual, costume, and penetration. The Japanese ritual disemboweling refers to his misunderstanding of the “Orient.” Though he was a diplomat in China, his fantasy involves a Japanese stereotype because he assumes that all Asians are the same. He dresses as Butterfly, his perfect “lotus blossom,” with the white Geisha make-up, a wig and kimono. Thus his surface presents the culture that he misunderstood while the Western, white man hides underneath. Just as he attempted to dominate Song, as Puccini's Pinkerton dominated Butterfly, the white man plunges the knife into the Oriental woman. Here, however, one character embodies both figures: the Western, white man dies along with the Oriental woman. This form of suicide involves penetration, and, in many countries, suicide, like sodomy, is illegal. Thus his “improper” penetration of his own body mimics his improper penetration of Song. Like Foucault's pre-eighteenth-century criminals, he tailors his punishment to his crime. In the public execution, “the body [produces] and [reproduces] the truth of the crime” (47). Gallimard can only reproduce this truth; earlier in the play we discover that he is most likely infertile. His wife, Helga, asks him to go to a doctor, and Gallimard, fearing this additional threat to his fragile manhood, refuses. One of the most brilliant elements of Song's deception occurs when she presents Gallimard with a child, thus enforcing his fantasy of being a powerful, fertile male. But at the end, Gallimard realizes that it is impossible for him to physically reproduce himself and he uses his body, the body that produced the crime, to reproduce the crime. He violates his bodily unity in a ritual fashion and with this ritual he tries to make his death more meaningful than his life has been.

The suicide, or execution, takes place in public, and in this way Gallimard also forces the audience back to an earlier form of punishment—from observation back to spectacle. As Foucault recounts, the public execution takes on “the intensity of [a festival]” with “sensual proximity” (216). Gallimard's death plays on the senses with music, costumes, special lighting and invocations of specific rituals. “The public execution formed part of the procedure that established the reality of what one punished”; it establishes truth and “[provides] the spectacle with … power” (56). He also enforces this past method of punishment by confessing before his death: “Through the confession, the accused himself took part in the ritual of producing penal truth” (38). Gallimard's final confession about fantasy and reality is his contribution to this “truth.” “Tonight” he says, “I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy” (Hwang, 90). In some ways, Gallimard's fantasy and his transformation into Puccini's Butterfly require the suicide. To follow through with the assumption of the stereotyped submissive Japanese woman he must kill himself for himself.

Gallimard's suicide is an effective form of resistance and is the climax of the play. If “Disciplinary punishment … [is] essentially corrective” (Foucault, 179), then Gallimard does not want to be corrected—he “chooses fantasy” over reality. Though officially he is being punished for treason and betraying the state, really he is being punished for the sexual “abnormality” and the mistake that allowed the treason to occur. He refuses to have his sexuality corrected. He would rather live and die in the world of fantasy where his sexuality, his dreams, and his desires can remain intact. He does not just fade away under observation; he transforms himself into a spectacle. Gallimard, by enacting a different form of punishment, creates a different type of body. The suicide is his reclamation of his body. Observation has tried to transform him into a docile, observable body and he is changing himself back. A key part of Gallimard's resistance is his refusal to be pliable raw material. He refuses the “training” of his body, the compartmentalization that the observers are attempting. He makes his body back into a fragile body, one that, he exhibits, is very capable of being broken.

Power never intended to bend Gallimard into a Butterfly, but the observation punishment was excessive. Every night he is on display for a new audience and he (unpredictably) rebels and refuses to be the ends and means of the functioning of power. Gallimard refuses to operate as “the lesson, the discourse, the decipherable sign, the representation of public morality” (Foucault, 110). He remains in-decipherable to the observers.

Gallimard's suicide/execution/resistance shows the audience how we have been duped. We realize that the punishment we have been a part of inflicting is inappropriate, thus he resists and his resistance is unpredictable. We don't expect our narrator to exit the play, to leave us alone at the end. The narrators in other plays such as The Glass Menagerie and Our Town do not die and leave us without a main character. Foucault explains that “In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people” (57). We replace Gallimard in the story: the play is not about his “bodily crimes” but about our involvement in a process of punishment. Though we know that Madame Butterfly in Puccini's opera does commit suicide, we don't expect Gallimard to do this because, until the last scene, we think that the name “M. Butterfly” applies to Song Liling, not to René Gallimard. We think that we know something that Gallimard does not—that who he thinks is Madame is actually Monsieur Butterfly. But he shows us how little we really know by assuming this name.

The audience also expects “a reasonable aesthetic of punishment” because “the law must appear to be a necessity of things, and power must act while concealing itself beneath the gentle force of nature” (106). The violent suicide displays the power of punishment. We are accustomed to carefully controlled and hidden forms of punishment that mask the violence against the body. Here the violence and the effects of power are not concealed, nor does his death seem “natural” because of the layers of disguise and impersonation that Gallimard has used to stage this spectacle. It is unnatural that the victim, the criminal and the executioner all are contained in one body.

Only at the end do we realize that the structure of the play has been a deception, that the ending will not follow the secure patterns that we are used to. Gallimard asked us to join in the observational mode and he has been lying to us. By unwittingly becoming “the main character,” we have to accept the burden of responsibility for what we have done, for the role we have been playing, for the objectification in which we are complicit. Earlier, Gallimard showed us how Song Liling fooled him and undermined his fantasy of power by a set of carefully constructed lies. So too has René Gallimard fooled us; he has employed the entire familiar structure of the observational theater to lull us into a complacent and falsely secure role and then, in his final destructive stroke of brilliance, he has transformed the system of punishment. As witnesses to the execution we are shocked and repulsed by the apparent “excessive” cruelty of the suicide/execution.

We think that our power relies on the technology of psychoanalytic observation and that it will yield some understanding or “enlightenment” for us. Instead Gallimard adopts a Kafkaesque form of punishment where the body of the criminal, by inscription, receives the enlightenment, not the observers. Our power doesn't work. It doesn't induce Gallimard to submit to it; he changes the punishment and denies the observers/punishers the observable subject. Because “the truth-power relation remains at the heart of all mechanisms of punishment” (55), in searching for the understanding that Gallimard invited us to seek at the beginning of the play, we have, almost unconsciously, aligned ourselves with the punishing powers. We want one “truth” or explanation from Gallimard, but we get another. We were fooled in thinking that observation would reveal a set of facts that would explain the affair and the “tabloid” topics. But Gallimard's self-imposed punishment offers another truth that does not answer the questions of the prior actions of his body and instead instructs us in the workings of mobile matrices of power.

Gallimard announced in the beginning that he was looking for an audience to envy him. He seems to know that he will never be able to accomplish this in a psychological method of punishment. Indeed we don't envy him for his fantasy, for loving the “Perfect Woman,” for becoming the “patron saint of the socially inept” (Hwang, 4). However, he has transformed us into the audience who envies or, at the very least, respects him for his resistance to power, for his ability to reclaim himself from our possessive gaze. Our theatre, which we believed was “a procedure … aimed at knowing, mastering and using” (Foucault, 143) has been proved ineffective, and we, the audience, also suffer from this inadequacy. Like the humbled and shamed Gallimard at the beginning of the play, we too have been tricked into seeing our own ignorance and incompetence.


  1. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York, 1989), 2. All subsequent references to this edition will appear (as “Hwang”) in parenthesis in the text.

  2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1979), 172. All subsequent references to this edition will appear in parenthesis in the text.

  3. I will use the pronoun “we” throughout the paper to refer to the audience and the readers; I include myself among the intended audience.

  4. Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie, (New York, 1972), 29.

  5. Robert K. Martin, “Gender, Race, and the Colonial Body: Carson McCullers's Filipino Boy, and David Henry Hwang's Chinese Woman,” Canadian Review of American Studies 23:1 (Fall 1992), 95-106: 104.

  6. Robert Skloot, “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang,” Modern Drama 33:1 (March 1990), 64.

  7. Dorrine K. Kando, “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity,” Cultural Critique 16 (Fall 1990), 5-29: 28-29.

  8. Though it is difficult to select a pronoun to refer to Song, (perhaps “s/he” would be the most appropriate), for ease of reference in the scenes with both Song and Gallimard I have chosen the feminine “she.”

  9. The only exceptions occur when Song talks with Comrade Chin in Act Two, Scenes Five, Nine, and Ten. But this is not a real escape for Gallimard: Hwang makes it obvious that Gallimard is afraid of Chin and is hiding only from her aggressive presence, not from the audience's gaze. After Chin's exit, Gallimard peeks out from the wings and asks “Is she gone?” (Hwang, 49).

Suzanne Kehde (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4917

SOURCE: Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)Construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American.” In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, pp. 241-54. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Kehde argues that M. Butterfly functions as a powerful critique of imperialism by exposing the underlying gender-based structure of imperialistic thinking.]

By the time of his death this month at the age of eighty-six, Greene had become a kind of Grand Old Man of the left, and The Quiet American stood as his anti-imperialist masterpiece.

—Richard West, “Graham Greene and The Quiet American

Richard West's summary judgment1 described a text so different from the one I remembered that it sent me back to reread Greene's novel set in Vietnam at the moment when, unnoticed by the American public, the U. S. military was about to replace the French forces being driven out by the Vietminh. Written by a member of the governing classes,2 who during the Second World War had engaged in espionage in Africa for the British government, the novel is narrated by a character who never scrutinizes his own subject position. Here Greene's imperial attitudes, embedded in a web of colonial and gender discourses, are considerably more problematic than West's formulation suggests.

A more powerful critique of imperialism is David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, which lays bare the processes of Western male engenderment supporting the structures of imperial power. As a Chinese-American and heir to a double culture that straddles Western-Oriental alterity, Hwang is admirably situated to undertake such a critique. The play offers a useful paradigm of imperialism by exposing and elaborating the premises on which it is based.

In the New York Times report of a French diplomat accused of spying, who had lived for twenty years with a Chinese lover without noticing she was a man, Hwang saw an emblem of the imbrication of gender and colonial discourses. In M. Butterfly he lays bare the connection between Western ideas of masculinity and the rationale for imperialism by situating his critique in a rewriting of Puccini's opera. Hwang initiates his deconstruction by a gender reversal, casting his female lead with a male actor from the Beijing opera. This man, Song Liling, acts as other for René Gallimard, who projects on his lover a fantasy of femininity reflecting his own self-image—an image of the man he thinks appropriate for his class, race, and nationality. Song Liling identifies the roles in Gallimard's “favorite fantasy” as “the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.”3 Gallimard, says Hwang in the Afterword, “fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and his lover is Butterfly. By the end of the piece, he realizes that he had been Butterfly, in that the Frenchman has been duped by love; the Chinese spy, who exploited that love, is therefore the real Pinkerton” (95-96). The role identified as feminine and “Oriental” in Puccini can be played by a white Frenchman; the “dominant man” can be played by a Chinese. Further, although the structure of the play does not emphasize this reversal of gender expectations to the same degree, women can also play the dominant role, sexually, as does Isabelle, Gallimard's first lay; intellectually, as does Renée, the Danish schoolgirl who interrogates Gallimard on the rationalization for male power systems; and politically, as does Comrade Chin, Song Liling's spymaster. By describing the play as his “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” (95), Hwang explicitly aligns it with theoretical preoccupations, thus, in Judith Mayne's words, “submitting theory to the test of narrative.”4

Gallimard's fascination with the scenario of Madame Butterfly centers on the masculine power manifested by Pinkerton. Conflating Chinese and Japanese under the sign of Western alterity, he observes that “Oriental girls want to be treated bad” and congratulates himself that when he leaves Beijing, “she'll know what it's like to be loved by a real man” (6), who, the play proceeds to make clear, must be white.

For Gallimard, masculinity has always been primarily associated with sexual dominance. As a boy of twelve he had become excited by his uncle's girlie magazines—not so much by lust, as he now recognizes, but by the power he imagined himself to exert over the exposed women. When he meets Song Liling, desire and power become inextricably imbricated. The position that allows him “to abuse [her] cruelly” (36) soon comes to seem “natural,” to be built into the structure of the universe. He says, “God who creates Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed—that God is a man” (38). Thus he essentializes the engenderment that has been constructed by the contingencies of power.

But the abusive relationship he thinks to enjoy with Song Liling depends on other factors besides the expectations of Western male-female sexual relationships. Gallimard would never dare treat his wife or his girlfriend in such abusive ways—perhaps because he knows he could never make them suffer as he imagines Song Liling suffers. It is her Oriental nature, he believes, to submit to his domination. Edward Said, noting that the Orient is one of the West's most persistent images of the other, has demonstrated the historical growth of the discourse of Orientalism, which he sees as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”5 Further, he maintains that “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (20). The long tradition of Orientalism that the French and British in particular have enjoyed allows Gallimard, unchallenged, to make pronouncements like “Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (46). This dominance is not accorded to him as an individual but as a function of group entitlement. He specifically denies his personal qualifications: “We, who are not handsome, nor brave, nor powerful, yet somehow believe, like Pinkerton, that we deserve a Butterfly” (10). His sense of entitlement to a submissive Oriental Butterfly comes from his membership in the governing class of a Western imperial power.

The metaphor of man as the West, woman as the Orient that hovers in the margins of the text is not constant, vehicle and tenor being subject to reversal and recirculation. During the course of the play, the relationship between man and woman enacted between Gallimard and Song Liling comes to represent the relations between the decolonized and the imperial nations. Colonization thus entails feminization of the colonized, enforced by the masculine imperialist. This mechanism is underscored by Gallimard's feminization of Song Liling. Western imperialism has “feminized” the Third World the better to exploit it. Song Liling voices this analysis: “The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine—weak, delicate, poor” (83). The Western will to power over Asian nations parallels Gallimard's masculine bullying of the submissive Oriental “woman.” Vietnam in 1961, when the French had retreated and the United States had not yet openly committed troops to Indo-China, serves as the model for Asian colonial ventures in general. Gallimard expects the United States to take over Vietnam without opposition after the French leave because, he says, “Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power” (45). As Charlotte Bunch, among others, has pointed out, what starts out as colonization of women ends up as colonization of the world.6

The relationship between Gallimard and Song Liling thus exhibits the stereotypical signs of both male/female and imperialist/colonized relationships. As Homi Bhabha suggests, stereotyping, a fixed form of difference, exists for the production of the colonized as a fixed reality that is at once other and yet entirely knowable.7 Thus Gallimard's stereotyping comes from his intense need to establish difference between himself and Song Liling. Conscious that he is modeling his lover on Madame Butterfly, he nonetheless seems oblivious that he is inventing a character for Song. As Bhabha says, the closer the resemblance between the colonizer and colonized, the more closely the colonizer subjects the colonized to surveillance in order to discover difference (164). By fixing his gaze on Song—by keeping him under surveillance—Gallimard can avoid scrutinizing his own subject position.

Gallimard's understanding of his relations with Song is determined by his notions of the colonial situation in a classic case of the triumph of hope over experience. As Bhabha theorizes,

the construction of the colonial subject in discourse, and the exercise of colonial power through discourse demands an articulation of forms of difference—racial and sexual. Such an articulation becomes crucial if it is held that the body is always simultaneously inscribed in both the economy of pleasure and desire and the economy of discourse, domination and power.


However, in M. Butterfly the “racial and sexual” are conflated; the economy of “pleasure and desire” is imbricated with the economy of “discourse, domination, and power.”

The operant tool of this imbrication is the penis/phallus—the conflation of which, although resisted by some Lacanian theorists, is demonstrable in Lacan's work and, in any case, is manifest in Hwang's play. Gallimard has to read Song as woman, who signifies phallic lack. By concealing his penis Song can carry Gallimard's discourse. Throughout the play, various characters draw attention to the penis in both valorized and unvalorized states, from the anonymous Frenchman's suggestion of “misidentified equipment,” to Gallimard's “How's it hangin'?” A young Danish woman meditates on “this little … flap of flesh.” She continues:

No one knows … who has the bigger … weenie. So, if I'm a guy with a small one, I'm going to build a really big building or take over a really big piece of land or write a really long book so the other men won't know, right? But see, it never really works, that's the problem. I mean, you conquer the country, or whatever, but you're still wearing clothes, so there's no way to prove absolutely whose is bigger or smaller. And that's what we call civilized society. The whole world run by men with pricks the size of pins.


Gallimard refuses to listen to a “schoolgirl who would question the role of the penis in modern society” (58). One might perhaps conclude that his downfall stems from precisely his failure to theorize the penis—ironically, to give the function of the phallus in the symbolic register too little attention.

The trajectory of Gallimard's narrative shows the construction of (Western) male subjectivity on the establishment of sameness as well as difference. Gallimard's relationship to other men is based on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls homosociality, the order of “male homosocial desire,” of the “potentially erotic” (1) which marks “the structure of men's relations with other men” (2). She pointedly refuses to essentialize, however, historicizing the particular formulation of homosociality by concentrating chiefly on “the emerging pattern [in English culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries] of male friendship, mentorship, rivalry [which] was in an intimate and shifting relationship to class [and no element of which] can be understood outside of its relation to women and the gender system as a whole.”8 Although her study Between Men mainly confines its examples to the British novel of the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, her perceptions are generally applicable to the power structures Hwang posits as the factors engendering Gallimard, who appears to have been raised in a middle-class professional French family and trained to the civil service in much the same way as his historical counterpart in Britain. Gallimard's retrospective interrogation of his sexuality is marked by a strong homosocial component. During a replay of a scene from his student years, a friend invites him to a swim party with this description: “There's no moon out, their boobs are flapping, right? You close your eyes, reach out—it's grab bag, get it? Doesn't matter whose ass is between whose legs, whose teeth are sinking into who” (8). The language of pressure to engage in aggressive, anonymous group sex suggests that the most important feature is the participation of other men.

Marc, the boyhood friend at whose father's condo this group sex took place, appears as a voice “everywhere now” (32), reinforcing throughout Gallimard's imprisonment the unacknowledged premises that have constructed Gallimard's relations to other men and to women, premises that in short have engendered him. These, the premises of homosociality, are constructed on (major) sameness as well as on (minor) difference, on the acquisition and maintenance of power on “our” side as an extension of self. The exchange of women, Sedgwick points out, is one of the major ways in which relations between men are secured (179). Just such an exchange has taken place: The image of Marc demands a return on his gift of Isabelle, whom he persuaded to initiate Gallimard into sex. Gallimard, however, pinned in the dirt under her, thought only, “So this is it?” The power relations implicit in his inferior position as much as the physical discomfort of having his buttocks pounded into the ground seem to have severely restricted his enjoyment.

The acquisition of Song Liling, the ostensibly lovesick lotus blossom he delights in humiliating and neglecting, advances Gallimard in the French colonial service. The ambassador to China, impressed by Gallimard's sexual swaggering, transfers the vice-consul and promotes Gallimard. Retrospectively Gallimard understands how the ambassador's reaction reveals the operations of the homosocial order: “Toulon … approves! I was learning the benefits of being a man. We form our own clubs, sit behind thick doors, smoke—and celebrate the fact that we're still boys” (46). As suggested by Lacan's dictum that the phallus is veiled, echoed here by the schoolgirl's meditation on the “weenie,” any given homosocial order is felt to be in flux; the hierarchy of sameness, unlike the hierarchy of difference, can never be presumed permanently fixed.

The discourses of gender and colonialism whose operations Hwang sought to expose are omnipresent in Greene's The Quiet American with no critique of gender stereotypes and little of imperialist assumptions, certainly without any acknowledgment that there might be some connection between them. Like Gallimard, Fowler reads his Vietnamese lover as doubly other in her gender and nationality but, unlike him, for Fowler that fixed difference is not the focus of his most earnest scrutiny. The major strand in Fowler's engenderment—the one that occupies him most consistently, driving him at last to complicity in murder—is the homosocial, which in the colonial setting is maintained by both gender and colonial discourses. The construction of Fowler's subjectivity depends primarily on his surveillance of signs of sameness in Pyle; he needs to scrutinize all suggestion of similarity in order to focus on difference. The overt emphasis on the homosocial order throughout Greene's public school and Oxford education must have made its primacy seem natural, much in the way, satirized by Hwang, that Gallimard comes to see man's domination of woman as mandated by the universe itself.

Sedgwick's study of homosociality notes René Girard's work on “the relation of rivalry between the two active members of an erotic triangle. … The bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved.” Girard's analysis focuses on the “male-centered novelistic tradition of high European culture” (Sedgwick, Between Men, 21), a tradition to which The Quiet American clearly belongs. The rivalry that forms between Fowler and Pyle runs conspicuously along the opposed axes of sameness and difference. Seen alongside the constant surveillance this rivalry demands, the construction of Phuong as doubly other is static—always-already present, it is sited in a latent nostalgia. In Bhabha's terms, Phuong is a stereotype of the exotic. Fowler mounts a satiric critique against Pyle that sweeps from his conduct as a U.S. economic adviser to his understanding of Phuong's character, intellect, and values—matters on which Fowler feels eminently qualified to pontificate. He sneers at Pyle's reasons for the ostensibly humanitarian American presence in French Indo-China, pressing for a scrutiny of the concept of democracy, which, assuming that government depends on the consent of the governed, has been a reasonably stable component of modern concepts of liberty. He mocks the simplistic evocation of the ideal by noting the express wish of Phuong, his mistress and eventually Pyle's fiancée, to see the Statue of Liberty. He attempts to call into question the idea of liberty promulgated by Pyle. Holed up in a watchtower waiting for the Viet Cong to attack, he calls across to the two Vietnamese guards, “La liberté—qu'est ce que c'est la liberté?”, eliciting a remonstrance from Pyle. “You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do.”9 Fowler, however, objects to Pyle not only as an individual but also as a representative of the United States, whose citizens he resents as a class: “I was tired of the whole pack of them with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their too wide cars and their not quite latest guns” (31). In short, he falls back on the unexamined assumptions of privilege due nationals of a European imperial power.

In the “natural” way one understands the hidden hierarchies of one's own culture, Fowler knows how to negotiate the power structures of the multicultural homosocial order of Saigon. Lying in his bed smoking opium, he refuses to arise to greet the (Vietnamese) police officer who summons him to the Sureté. He is “fond of” and dependent upon Dominguez, his (male) Indian assistant who, like a well-trained American secretary (female) mediates the local culture for him. He recognizes the legal power of Vigot at the Sureté, who investigates Pyle's death but treats Fowler reciprocally as a comrade, just as Fowler treats Trouin, the pilot who takes him on a bombing raid, or the French officers he gambles with on trips up-country.

Such an amicable relationship between the two major Orientalist powers is a comparatively recent historical development. Said describes their intense late nineteenth-century competition for imperial acquisition, pointing out that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to carve up Arabia between them—which, ultimately determining national boundaries in the Middle East, led to the present unrest—was a deliberate attempt to control this rivalry. The Quiet American suggests that it disappeared with the collapse of both empires and, perhaps equally important, the appearance of the United States on the imperial scene. This appearance, constituting an assault on powerful members of an existing homosocial order, minimizes the focus on difference and fosters perceptions of sameness between the French and British.

Fowler mounts a verbal attack on American involvement in Vietnam in an attempt to maintain his own position in the homosocial order. Privately and publicly Fowler denies involvement, defining himself as a reporter rather than a correspondent: “I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action” (28). Denying that he himself has any “mental concepts” (94), he lays claim to an impossible objectivity, the hypothetical “view from nowhere.” Under Pyle's questioning, he admits his sympathy toward old-style imperial colonialism: “I'd rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it” (96). In the narrative economy, he figures the British attitude toward the European colonial presence, the disengagement that Captain Trouin attributes to the whole nation: “We are fighting all of your wars, but you leave us the guilt” (151). There is historical support for Trouin's position: the British encouraged the reconquest of Vietnam in 1945, providing arms to the French soldiers interned by the Japanese during World War II. In spite of his pretence of disengagement, Fowler claims membership in the club of “the old colonial peoples” (157).

The impulse to typify, which Bhabha perceives as a ubiquitous tool in the colonial's kit, plays a large role in Fowler's management of his world. Early in the novel, Phuong's function as a symbol of Vietnam is specified; she is “[le] pays qui te ressemble” (14). Successful with the labels woman and Oriental, he tries to use the same technique with American although, as his constant scrutiny suggests, he feels less secure in his attempt to constitute a white man as a “fixed difference.” He positions Pyle as “the quiet American” of the title, the man full of ironies but without ambiguities, who belongs to “a psychological world of great simplicity, where you talked of Democracy and Honor without the u as it's spelt on old tombstones, and you mean what your father meant by the same words” (90). Falling back on a trait associated with America from the time of Columbus, Fowler repeatedly comments on Pyle's innocence. His implication that there is an American character historically consistent and impervious to contingency essentializes Pyle.

This savage stereotyping comes from Fowler's intense need to repress his knowledge of sameness and establish difference between himself and Pyle. Invested as he is in the position of (ex)colonial disengagé, he must at all cost avoid noticing the resemblances between their situations. By fixing his gaze on Pyle—by keeping him under surveillance in his role of reporter—he can avoid self-scrutiny. However, Fowler is quite aware of the similarity in their colonial empowerment: the Vietnamese “don't want our white skins around telling them what they want” (94). In a racist conflation of the peasants and their animals, he tells Pyle that “in five hundred years … small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don't like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember—from a buffalo's point of view you are European too” (95). In order to prove Pyle wrong, Fowler insists on both their common imperial status and the continuity of Western imperialism.

In spite of Fowler's frenzied attempts to establish and maintain difference, the similarities between Fowler and Pyle are brought into focus by their common attraction to Phuong. Until Pyle declares his interest in her, Fowler regards him as “a prize pupil” (24). In a classic demonstration of the structure of the homosocial, Fowler's posture toward Pyle is paternal, with the familiarity an older man from an older culture feels free to use toward a younger one. He interrogates Pyle and berates him about the simplistic nature of his mental operations, his dependence on romantic abstractions (though Fowler's cynicism itself is merely an inversion of romanticism). When the dialogue goes in unexpected directions, Fowler blames these turns on Pyle. He complains that “my conversations with Pyle seemed to take grotesque directions. … Was it because of his sincerity that they so ran off the customary rails? His conversation never took the corners” (104); that is, it never follows the direction laid down by the paternal speaker, the acknowledged superior in the homosocial order. Their relationship is well established by the time Pyle becomes a rival for Phuong—a development as much a product of that relationship as a response to her. Their contest for Phuong echoes the contest between European and American imperialism: it is a question of who has the biggest resources at his disposal (Hwang's Danish schoolgirl could provide a Lacanian insight here). Pyle can offer her “security and respect” (78). Because he possesses “the infinite riches of respectability,” he can marry her, whereas Fowler, whose wife refuses to divorce him, offers only a temporary home. Fowler becomes so obsessed with Pyle that he reflects, “It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy” (140). This perception gestures toward the structure of his relationship with Pyle but does not acknowledge it. Only with Pyle's death—in which Fowler tells himself he must connive because Pyle's endorsement of terrorist activities endangers the civilian population—and the consequent disappearance of Pyle's threat to Fowler's domestic peace can Fowler acknowledge his affection for Pyle. Pyle's death forces Fowler to ponder the similarities from which he has averted his gaze: “Was I so different from Pyle? … Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?” (186).

The Oedipal nature of the homosocial relationship10 with its antifilial outcome is underlined by Fowler's observation that “the sight of Oedipus emerging with his bleeding eyeballs from the palace at Thebes would surely give a better training for life today” (182)—better than the American movie articulating Pyle's fantasy, in which the hero rescues a girl, kills his enemy, and leads a charmed life. In Fowler's reinscription of the Oedipus myth, the father triumphs in the ritual agon.

Quite capable of understanding that he is “inventing a character” (133) for Phuong (as he has for Pyle without acknowledgment), Fowler is nonetheless oblivious to his part in her expropriation. Abjuring “mental concepts” and thus construing his environment in material terms, he thinks of Phuong much as the drunken Granger does, as “a piece of tail” (36). He muses “she was the hiss of steam, the clink of the cup, she was a certain hour of the night and the promise of rest” (12), but his characteristic thought of her is of “the soft hairless skin” when he goes off to sleep with his hand between her legs—in which position, not so incidentally, he formulates his last idea about Pyle, which is inextricably imbricated with his idea of himself: “Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?” (22). His irritated response to Pyle's concern for Phuong's best interest shows his perception of Phuong: “‘If it's only her interests you care about, for God's sake leave Phuong alone. Like any other woman she'd rather have …’ the crash of a mortar saved Boston ears from the Anglo-Saxon word” (59). In short, in Fowler's psychological economy, Phuong is only a cunt to be had for the asking without any obligation on his part to arouse or fulfill desire.

Fowler does not scrutinize any aspect of male engenderment beyond the parameters of homosocial rivalry; he does interrogate the sign man, but only as regards American usage. He pretends not to understand what Granger means by “a man's man” (66) or by the compliment “Anyway you're a man” (36) to an acquaintance who accompanies Granger on a quest for girls. Fowler, himself no stranger to brothels, once again averts his gaze from self-scrutiny in order to persist in his perpetual monitoring of difference in similarity.

Articulating no regrets for the British empire itself, Fowler needs only the homosocial colonial situation. Gallimard, stripped of all support for his engenderment, forced to recognize that he is object in Song Liling's narrative as well as subject of his own, has at last no site from which to position his subjectivity. Fowler, however, can continue to exist as long as he is supported by the colonial situation, a white man still comfortably engendered in a homosocial order empowering white men bent on careers of privilege and exploitation.

But the ideology of privilege is veiled from its beneficiaries. Fowler must remain oblivious to the deep structures of gender differentiation upon which imperialism, as Hwang so eloquently shows, ultimately rests. Thus the features of imperial rule rooted in the female imaginary, which are critiqued in M. Butterfly, appear as “nature” in The Quiet American. Although Greene does suggest that the rivalry of imperial nations, specifically that of Britain and the United States, can be read through the lens of the family romance, there is no hint that he recognizes the way in which imperialism subsumes the colonized into already existent structures of gender relations. Although the defining characteristics of the imperial subject fingered by Hwang are evident in Greene, the destructiveness of the model seems merely contingent, an accident. In no way does Greene address the gender assumptions underlying the justification of imperial power. Indeed, Fowler's cynicism barely covers the traces of Greene's nostalgia for the power configurations of nation and gender prevalent before the Second World War. Benedict Anderson speaks to this situation: “It is always the ruling classes … that long mourn the empires, and their grief always has a stagey quality to it.”11 This observation nicely conveys the tone of The Quiet American, which throbs with an urgent desire to seize the day when the sun is already sinking fast.


  1. Richard West, “Graham Greene and The Quiet American,New York Review of Books 24 (May 1991): 49.

  2. Greene, born into an upper-middle-class professional family, was a member of the governing classes. His father was headmaster of Berkhampsted School, where Greene himself was educated before he went up to Oxford. At both, but particularly at school, the attitudes and values appropriate to a citizen of the empire would have been inculcated: “The public schools … were geared to the empire's needs. Many of the ideals they aimed at, the qualities they worked to instill in their wards—notions of service, feelings of superiority, habits of authority—were derived from, and consequently dependent upon, the existence of an empire: of colonial subjects to serve, feel superior to, and exert authority over”; from Brian Porter, The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1970 (London: Longman, 1975), 103.

  3. David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly (New York: Plume, 1989), 17. Subsequent references will be in parentheses in the text.

  4. Judith Mayne, “Walking the Tightrope of Feminism and Male Desire,” in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987), 70.

  5. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 20.

  6. Cited in Arthur Brittan, Masculinity and Power (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 83.

  7. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in Literature, Politics and Theory (New York: Methuen, 1986), 164.

  8. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985) 1-2.

  9. Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955; reprint, New York: Penguin 1962), 97.

  10. Sedgwick, Between Men, 22.

  11. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983; reprint, 1991), 111.

Rosalind Morris (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9985

SOURCE: Morris, Rosalind. “M. Butterfly: Transvestism and Cultural Cross-Dressing in the Critique of Empire.” In Gender and Culture in Literature and Film East and West: Issues of Perception and Interpretation, edited by Nitaya Masavisut, George Simson, and Larry E. Smith, pp. 40-59. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Morris argues that M. Butterfly ultimately reaffirms and reinstates the hierarchical power structures of gender and culture that it sets out to deconstruct.]


When the curtains go up on the stage of M. Butterfly, the audience is greeted with a serenely minimalist stage. A curling ramp encircles a dark space, spot-lit to reveal a solitary character in his prison cell. Although not yet visible, the floor is crossed by several translucent sliding doors. With a few additional props, these will move and metamorphose under the lights to provide the stage settings for scenes alternately proceeding in a Parisian prison cell, a diplomat's house in Beijing, the apartment of an opera singer, and—most important of all—the mind of Rene Gallimard. The setting is the design of Eiko Ishioka and the text is the creation of David Henry Hwang. The performance itself belongs to the actors. But the story is the property of Monsieur Rene Gallimard, and it is he who greets the audience and narrates the events of the drama as they unfold during the play's three brief acts.

When the lights come up, Gallimard is fantasizing about his Chinese lover, Song Liling. Appearing first as a projection on the ramp above Gallimard's cramped quarters, Song is dancing to a “traditional” piece from the Peking Opera when the music is interrupted by the “Love Duet” of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Here, the French diplomat turns to us and begins his narrative by describing his circumstances, and filling out the simple contours provided by Ishioka's stark stage design. After an intervening scene, Gallimard again takes hold of the narrative and imagines for himself a more sympathetic hearing. Indeed, he fantasizes the “ideal audience—who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy” him.1 And so, from the beginning, the audience is caught in a labyrinthine tale of disrobings and dissimulation.

This labyrinth is comprised of four main narrative strands, woven together in layers of ironic repetition.2 The first of these is the story of Madame Butterfly, Puccini's opera about an American serviceman and his Japanese lover. The operatic tragedy is recounted by Rene Gallimard and enlivened by music from the actual score, whose sweeping libretto provides the intersection point between this and the other three narrative threads. The second level is an actual enactment of Madame Butterfly projected in and by Gallimard's imagination. Here, Rene plays the part of Vice-Consul Pinkerton and Song plays that of Cio-Cio-San. This second play-within-a-play is conducted in the casual but affected slang of 1960s America, with the result being a ludicrous melodrama (a soap opera, if you will) in which characters seem completely alienated from both their words and their acts. It stands in painful and ironic contrast to the sordid drama which is Gallimard's effort to perform alchemy by transmuting the play into his own lived reality. This latter, the third narrative, is Rene's imagining of his own affair with Song Liling—a male transvestite opera star—conducted in the image of the Puccini opera. From these emerges a fourth strand, which is the historical context in which Song and Rene confront the fictive melodrama of Madame Butterfly, and then negotiate their “reallife drama” against a backdrop of imperial aspiration and Orientalist fantasy. In the final, all-encompassing narrative the audience is a primary character. Often addressed directly by the characters on stage, it becomes a participant in this negotiation by which the narratives of desire are structured around the distinct but related images of the ideal woman and the ideal Orient.

The stance that one ultimately adopts toward M. Butterfly depends, in large part, on whether one accepts the audience positioning offered by the play. For, like most dramas constructed within the paradigm provided by dominant Western theatre, this one assumes an eminently gendered system of looking. On its surface, the play appears to take this system as its subject matter. It seems deeply concerned with gender as a social and historical construction. Yet, despite the play's overt dialogue about phallocentric politics, and despite its deconstruction of the “fashion system” by which gender is marked and remarked, M. Butterfly addresses the issue of gender only insofar as it is a locus for the construction of geopolitical difference. Indeed, for Hwang, gender is the means by which geopolitical power is naturalized and legitimated, and the play itself is an attempt to argue against that conflation. My purpose here is to examine Hwang's assault on Orientalist fantasy and to critically assess the play's success as a political statement about Western constructions of otherness. Considering the play in these terms, I hope to do justice both to Hwang's own intentions and to the project of cultural criticism as I understand it. Yet, ultimately, I shall argue that M. Butterfly is not subversive of “Western” notions of gender and the Orient. Rather, I want to suggest that the play both assumes and reaffirms the hierarchical, binary oppositions by which the bourgeois masculine “West” has conventionally imagined its others. Accordingly, the project of this paper is to show how, through the valorization of inversion as a critical tactic, Hwang has reinstated the very power system that he hopes to undo. In the language of Philip Auslander3, Hwang enacts a politics of transgression rather than resistance. In the context of this play, we might say that M. Butterfly is concerned with addressing and undressing, rather than redressing and that, as such, it never fully overturns dominant, which is to say, patriarchal theatrical practise.

The paper is divided in three main sections. In the first of these, I provide a detailed synopsis of the play in performance. From there I move to a more abstracted consideration of the play's two main thematic foci, namely gender and race. And finally, I consider how the structure of the play as a play partakes of those gendered metanarratives by which the viewer and the viewed are constituted as mutually other. The conclusion is an effort to reintegrate what has been rent apart in the analytic process, and to restore a sense of dramatic integrity, while showing how the play's various narrative lines actually sustain each other. In the end, this paper shares much of the “revelatory” project inherent in Hwang's play, and aims to show how M. Butterfly re-constitutes the gender system upon which rests not merely Orientalism but dominant narrative theatre as well.


M. Butterfly opens with Rene Gallimard's description of his Paris jail cell, then quickly moves to a party scene where he is the object of mocking discussion and lurid curiosity. There is much joking about how incompetent a lover the diplomat must have been to not have recognized the body of his lover as that of a man. The party scene ends with a guest making an ambiguous salutation, “Vive la différence”4 and the play then opens onto a baroque tale of mistaken differences. We return to the cell, where Gallimard responds to these overheard discussions by framing the play itself as his own nightly imaginings. His didacticism is surprisingly unveiled and indeed, the audience is never permitted to forget the artifice of the theater in which they experience the play.

Gallimard has, as he puts it, “known, and been loved by … the Perfect Woman.”5 The paradigm for that beauty is, of course, Madame Butterfly, and Gallimard introduces the opera as his favourite. Why? Why an Italian Opera, a realist melodrama6 about a caddish American attaché in Japan and a Japanese woman's unrequited love for him? After all, Gallimard is in China, not Japan. But the diplomat answers, “And why not? Its heroine, Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly is a feminine ideal, beautiful and brave.”7 Its hero is a rather unattractive character, both socially and physically—much like Gallimard himself. And thus, we are transported into the dark heart of the fantasy, both that of the play and that of the Orientalist imagination.

In Scene 4, we are returned to Gallimard's youth in Aix-en-Provence (1947) where the young French man is being introduced to the ways of sex by Marc, a youth of self-avowed promiscuity and tiresome bravado. Later in the play, Marc recalls for Gallimard the latter's first (laughably unerotic) sexual encounter with a woman, whom the former explains to have been a gift (Marc having sacrificed his rights to, and desire for her in order that his friend finally get laid). In the mean-time, we are returned to the cell where Gallimard is contemplating pornographic magazines in yet another dimension of his dream world. The diplomat wryly muses that “In real life, women who put their total worth at less than sixty-six cents are quite hard to find.”8 He remembers having discovered his uncle's magazines, and shaking as he “read” them “Not with lust—no, with power.”9 Whence begins the fantasy with the paper beauty. The woman pictured (both in the magazine and in Gallimard's lust) narrates her acts for the diplomat. In archetypically pornographic fashion, Gallimard imagines the woman persuading him that the pleasure is hers, while he whispers in rhapsodic surprise, “She … she wants me to see.”10

As Gallimard continues to narrate his story, we move abruptly to Act Two of Madame Butterfly, the scene in which Butterfly discovers that Pinkerton has been transferred state-side and will leave her permanently. In parallel, we learn of Gallimard's own life as an aspiring diplomat with a satisfactory but uninspired marriage to an older woman, named Helga. As part of his bureaucratic duty, Gallimard goes to China and it is there that he meets his true love, Song Liling (Mr. Shin). Needless to say, this is a departure from the original opera, where Pinkerton carries out his romance in traitorous cynicism. Unable to completely mimic his swaggering American predecessor, Gallimard is constantly thwarted in his attempt to retain emotional autonomy and personal power in the relationship with Song. Completely entranced by the Orientalist vision and believing his fantasy to be real, Rene is undone by the depth of his desire for Song. Of course, Pinkerton never loved Cio-Cio-San. Indeed it was this fact that led to her beautifully tragic suicide. In contrast, Gallimard not only mistakes Song for Butterfly, but he loves Song in anticipation of the latter's devoted passion. And herein lies his nemesis.

The relationship begins awkwardly after a performance of the Puccini Opera in which Song is starring. Although it is Song who initiates this first contact, the encounter takes the form of argumentation rather than seduction. Song counters Gallimard's infatuation with Butterfly with open disgust for Puccini's imperialist drama of “The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.”11 But, against all odds, Song invites the diplomat to attend the Peking Opera, which she/he believes to be a far superior genre. Gallimard accepts and gradually, they begin what becomes a 20 year affair. Gallimard falls wildly in love, accepting, encouraging and delighting in Song's (to him) exquisitely Chinese behavior—which includes both intellectual self-possession and a “modesty” that prevents the French diplomat from seeing her/him and thus knowing her/his anatomical identity as a man.

From his prison cell, Gallimard recalls his affair as an education in manhood, as the time when he learned “the absolute power of a man.”12 It is an ironic fulfillment of unrealized sexuality, and his remembrance of such education leads him to recall, with Marc, his first sexual intercourse—in which he (rather than his female partner) was disempowered, she having initiated the act and retained the superior position. It was, for him, a miserable failure.

Woven into this personal imperial romance is the story of Gallimard's role in China, and France's involvement in Indochina, particularly Vietnam. Gallimard becomes a trusted, if horribly inaccurate, predictor of local politics when it is learned that he is romancing a Chinese woman. Promoted to coordinator of the “revamped intelligence division,” he becomes a kind of cultural mole, providing supposed insights into Chinese character as part of France's endeavor to estimate the repercussions of their own and the United States' Indo-Chinese policy. The parallels between his own life and those of Pinkerton fuel Gallimard's desires, and it is after being elevated to the status of Vice-Consul that he goes to Butterfly to consummate their relationship. As the lights go down, darkness provides the veil that clothes no longer offer, and Gallimard allows himself to be seduced by bodily pleasure. Not only does he not recognize the sex of his lover (because it is his pleasure rather than hers that matters to him), but Gallimard mistakes his violently parasitic relationship for love. Ignoring Song's distaste for the imperial romance, he quotes Puccini to Song: “All ecstatic with love, the heavens are filled with laughter.”13 Here, the audience is invited into the play, to observe and to share in the ironic laughter as the Frenchman and his transvestite lover enact the most intimate of charades.

Of course, Song is not Butterfly and she/he also has a purpose in this affair, namely to extract information about America's intentions in Vietnam while, at the same time, feeding misinformation to Gallimard. In bits and pieces, the information is passed on to Comrade Chin, a heavy-handed and unbelievably stupid, not to mention bigoted woman, who represents the Party in China's “New Society.” Though a mere courier of information, Chin interrogates Song about the nature of his relationship with Gallimard, reminding him that “there is no homosexuality in China”14 and that Chairman Mao would not tolerate any such activity, even for the purposes of intelligence gathering. Song's physical and political cross-dressing ultimately leads him to a rehabilitation camp during the cultural revolution, but in the mean-time, he is able to carry out his performance in such a way as to make Chin believe that his transvestism is a mere requirement of his assignment. Next to Song's hyper-femininity, Chin appears cloddish and Song mocks her as the poor excuse which “passes for a woman in modern China.”15

The Western alternative to Mao's liberated woman is Renee, a young college student from Denmark, whom Gallimard meets at a party. Renee's disarming explicitness about sex and sexuality, and her frank but politically immature ridicule of both Gallimard's penis and phallocentric politics, provide the pure antithesis to Butterfly. The two (Renee and Gallimard) have a casual but extended relationship which lasts for several months. This affair is part of Gallimard's trial of Song's devotion and an exploration of his own sexual power. However, in the end, Renee proves an unexciting partner, and Gallimard returns to Song, his ideal woman.

The play continues with baroque deceptions and seemingly impossible scenarios. Song eventually has Chin provide him with a baby, which he delivers to Gallimard after an appropriate absence. The child both proves the diplomat's virility (he had been deemed infertile when his wife could not conceive), and confirms Song's own femininity, now construed as maternity. Towards the end of Act Two, Song (who has been pardoned for treason by the French president) explains to Chin that the deception of the ideal woman was possible precisely because “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.”16 Chin's stature as a woman is diminished even further here, while Song—the man-playing-woman—lectures her on her own inadequacy to the task of feminine desirability. Chin herself is reduced to pathetic self-defense, reasoning that she had been able to attract a husband and must therefore be worthy as a woman.

This is, I think one of the most profound moments in the play, a magnificent distillation of the ways in which “the feminine” operates within patriarchal societies—as the projection of a certain kind of otherness, and as the expression of a will to power as knowledge. I shall return to this topic later, but it is important to recognize that this point in the play is a moment of transition, the explanation of deceit ushering in a sequence of unravelings by which Song's cross-dressing becomes a kind of undressing, and Gallimard's life disintegrates.

Again the play shifts locale. After having offered to marry Song and divorce his wife, Gallimard is transferred back to France, his advice having proven wholly inaccurate and an embarrassment to his country. In Paris, Gallimard finds himself confronted and accused by student activists, alienated from his wife and demoted in his job. He wallows in depression, eventually leaving Helga and retreating into revery about his long-lost Butterfly. But Gallimard's imaginings of Butterfly are penetrated by the less ideal reality of his relationship as well, and Song—who is present on stage as the material embodiment of Gallimard's imagination, but also as its foil—returns to confront him. Despite Gallimard's efforts to contain him in the image of his desire, Song insists upon changing—upon a transformation of persona and of clothing. The undressing of Song's cross-dressing occurs in the interstitial space that separates Acts Two and Three. Staged as part of the staging, it is an extraordinary moment in the play, when the fact of the theatre erupts into the foreground of illusion and taunts the audience with the possibility that there is nothing behind the curtain that is not also performance. At this point, Gallimard exits and Song metamorphoses from Butterfly into a conventionally dressed (suit and tie) man. Here, Song invites the audience to leave and take an intermission while he changes. The lights actually go up and for a moment it seems as though this is, indeed, a break in the drama. But with the possibility of a glimpse behind the scenes—actually an expansion of the scene into the back-stage—the audience generally remains, unable to resist this most entrancing of the play's strip-teases.17 Song's change is utterly spell-binding; before a mirror and the audience, he removes his makeup, his wig and his feminine attire. In a few brief minutes, the actor not only redresses but reorients his entire body, adopting a new walk, a new center of gravity, a certain hipless swagger, and all those myriad unidentifiable things which mark the male body for Western audiences.

Act Three then opens in a Paris court-room in 1986. In a scene that condenses the rationale of the play in simplest form, Song explains that he arrived in Paris in 1970 with the baby and that Gallimard supported him. The two continued their spying, with Gallimard photographing documents and supplying them to Song who sent them to China. In the court-room, Song is asked to explain how he could have deceived Gallimard for so long (20 years) and replies by stating that “Men always believe what they want to hear” and that the Western Man is confused by the East toward which he maintains an “international rape mentality.”18 Because the West conceives of itself as masculine, it conceives of the East, its quintessential Other, as feminine. Song continues to explain himself as he sees himself being seen by Westerners: “I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”19 When the Judge asked him whether Gallimard ever suspected Song's identity, the latter says, simply, “I never asked.”20

Gallimard intervenes and recaptures the dramatic narrative, but shortly thereafter Song takes over again, this time dressed as a conventionally clad man. The ensuing scene, which repeats and mocks the first encounter between the French diplomat and the Chinese opera star (where Song did not fully undress), has Song disrobe for Gallimard. Gallimard resists, saying that he doesn't want “to see”21 but Song persists, turning the diplomat's own perverse logic back on him and refusing Gallimard's claim that he wants the undressing to stop.22 Song disrobes, not as Butterfly but as Song Liling, emphatically claiming the identity of a man which he then suggests was Gallimard's true desire. Song tries to persuade Gallimard that the latter had loved a man all along, and that this love might be continued—but without the pretense and the dishonesty of heterosexuality as it is enacted in transvestism. Ironically, it is Song—the actor—who must learn from this, his most intimate audience, that Gallimard could love only the charade and that appearance was indeed everything. Song, naked before Gallimard, is bereft of what he imagined to be a potential gay love and humiliated by the rejection.

In some profound sense, then, Song has become Cio-Cio-San, the jilted Asian lover. His refusal to ask Gallimard whether the latter knew of his male identity began as a subversion of Orientalist fantasy. But by the end of the play, it has become an act of complicity with the Western feminization of the East. Even so, it is Gallimard who assumes the role of Madame Butterfly, dressing in silk kimono and killing her/himself after realizing that “the object of her love was nothing more, nothing less than … a man.”23 The lights go down as Song calls out “Butterfly? Butterfly?” just as Gallimard had opened the play with the same desperate questioning.


In an interview with John DiGaetani, David Henry Hwang described his play, M. Butterfly, as being “about the nature of seduction—in the sense that we seduce ourselves.”24 At this point in the interview, Hwang is speaking about the fabulous “true story” which originally inspired the play: a story of deception and seduction by which a male French diplomat believed his Chinese transvestite lover to have been a woman during a clandestine relationship that lasted for some twenty years, and which led both into conviction for espionage. M. Butterfly plays self-consciously with the problem of seduction in a layered set of narratives that operates around the tropes of cross-dressing and undressing. It is a veritable shadow-play of Western imperial consciousness and desire: a careful unveiling of those structures of power and knowledge by which geopolitical territory is sexualized and gendered.

Robert Skloot credits Hwang with a play that “forces the [audience] … into complicity with the discovery, dismantling, and the re-establishment of theatrical illusion while at the same time confronting them with challenges to traditional cultural and gender assumptions.”25 It is, I think, a good but overly generous reading. Perhaps most worryingly, it accepts Hwang's own assumption that Western theatrical practise is, or can be, independent of the discursive formation that gave rise to Orientalism and the gendered narratives of desire on which it builds. Hwang himself seems to want the play to perform critical commentary; he wants to reveal and to contradict the nature of Orientalist fantasy, particularly its feminization of the “East.” But M. Butterfly remains blind to the ways in which Western theatrical strategies partake of the same narrative structures in which Orientalism operates. With the audience in its thrall, the play enacts and recuperates them. In order to undo what he perceives as the emasculation of the East, Hwang gives us a “gay” man who grows to accept Orientalism's heterosexual (and heterosexist) fantasy. Not only is Song drawn into the desire for the perfect Asian woman, but we, the audience are invited to identify with him in that desire. In the final cross-dressing scenes, the East goes West and the West is appropriately consumed by its own imagination. That perverse dream consumes all but the Orient, which, after everything else, remains embodied by a woman.

As will become apparent, my reading is a somewhat allegorical one, strongly influenced by feminist semiotics. And before going any further, I want to define some basic terms and assumptions. Here, I am most indebted to the work of those feminist theorists who have been concerned with questions of gender in narrative and spectacle. Much of that work has developed in cinema studies, and while considerable debate has focused on the differences between cinema and theatre, these questions, and the theoretical responses generated by them, remain relevant across the lines of genre. The discourse on Orientalism, equally crucial to my reading, is perhaps more diffuse, intersecting, as it does, with that vast body of literature living under the rubric of colonial discourse. Nonetheless, I have limited my consideration to Edward Said's first exploration of the concept in Orientalism.

Having said as much, I want to set up some of my own strategic binarisms as a starting point for analysis. As is now generally accepted, gender and sex must be distinguished from each other. Although sex and the biological body itself are, in some senses, discursive constructions, I am concerned here only with the historical constructions of gender as a social identity that encompasses but is not reducible to sexuality. I understand sexuality itself to be a nexus of discourse and practice, a fluid and historically unstable category of social being which is culturally specific at the levels of both definition and deployment. The fact that sexuality exists as a social identity, and that it is distinguishable from sex and gender, is itself a recent and local phenomenon.26

The notion and nature of sexuality is of key importance for an analysis of M. Butterfly, not merely because of the conflict between heterosexual expectation and ostensibly homosexual practise, but because the play itself seems to assume the eternal relevance of the opposition between homosexual and heterosexual, where sexual identity is defined in terms of object choice. In M. Butterfly, transvestism, which initially seems to promise a means of transcending that opposition, is ultimately contained by the heterosexual opposition between male and female; the play defines the man-as-woman (transvestite) as the emasculated rather than the liberated male. The play goes further than this in its assumption of a binary opposition between sexualities, and conflates transvestism with homosexuality. In this context then, its primary task is the “re-masculinization” of the Orient.

Yet, if the opposition between sexualities is a major locus of dramatic tension, the opposition between genders (male and female) provides the fundamental axis of theatrical meaning. The play constructs its spectacle as an experience of looking in which the object of desire is always feminine. Moreover, it positions its audience as a masculine party to that desire. And in this regard it follows the archetypical pattern of narrative meaning in Western spectacle.

In speaking about a play's narrative form, I follow Teresa de Lauretis in assuming that classic Western narrative has conventionally tracked the path of masculine desire.27 I want to make clear that I do not share de Lauretis' conviction that this structure is inherent in all narrative or that alternative narrativities are inconceivable. However, I do accept her analysis as accurate within certain historical parameters.28 Thus relativized, de Lauretis defines the function of narrative as the mapping and production of sexual difference.29 Such difference constitutes the basis of a radically unequal relationship between the viewer and the viewed. Here, the empowered (masculine) position is that of the desiring subject, while that of the disempowered (feminine) object is that of the person who desires to be desired by the other.30 For de Lauretis, whose primary concern is with cinema, the vehicle of desire and narrative positioning is the “gaze.” It is by means of looking that the subject positions himself as subject and, more importantly for de Lauretis, as a positionally masculine subject.

Insofar as I am concerned, de Lauretis' argument is a productive starting point for an analysis of classic Western spectacle, but she has, I believe, inadequately pursued the possibilities of female desire, either to construct a politics of Dis-pleasure (as Laura Mulvey31 has attempted) or as a means of recuperating desire for female viewers. So too, she has neglected questions about how gender is itself mutually determined by class, race, and ethnicity. Confining her analysis to the terms already provided (and naturalized) by Freudian psychoanalysis, de Lauretis effaces the historical dimension.32 And this despite the fact that her concern is with the social and structural construction of gender.

The historicity of gender is raised for us in slightly different terms by Michel Foucault, who argues that a gendered identity and a corresponding subjectivity understood in terms of sexuality is itself “originally, historically bourgeois.”33 But even Foucault does not take us far enough in our attempt to map the various events and processes that are entwined in the making of the Western Subject. The question of race is also crucial. For, as Gayatri Spivak34 rightfully reminds us, no theory of the modern (European) Subject is adequate without first considering how Europe consolidated itself, how the modern West came into being, on the backs of its imperial subjects.

Obviously, the problem of such articulation—of how class,35 race and gender are related in history—is beyond the scope of this paper. Yet, these complex webs of social power are in some important sense the objects of David Henry Hwang's play … just as much as seduction is its subject or deconstruction its purpose.36 It is doubtful whether Hwang would argue for the primacy of gender as the actual basis of narrativity per se, but it is clear that he shares de Lauretis' sense that other oppositions partake of gender when narrativized, and this is especially true of the Occident/Orient divide. And it is on these grounds that he dramatizes the feminization of the East in a conflict with Western imperial power. His attempt to subvert that process of othering is, however, constrained by the binary structures of gender embedded in his own theatrical practise, and by the fact that his primary critical strategy is not a rejection of opposition but an inversion of positional power relations. Thus, the opposition between male and female is never finally destroyed; it is merely recuperated as fashion in a drama wherein the dissimulating homosexual body constantly enacts heterosexual desire.

By the end of this vertiginous play, the transvestite has become a gay man, and the straight man a transvestite. The East has reclaimed its masculinity and the West now wallows in feminized debasement. One after another, these inversions seem to partake of that archetypical symbol of “enigmatic Asia”; nested Chinese boxes or dolls in a parody of infinite regress.

In M. Butterfly, the problem of inversion and its failure to ultimately destabilize the power relations between opposites can be understood in relation to the deconstructive tradition articulated by Jacques Derrida. Derrida himself describes the deconstructive project as dual in nature. In the initial deconstructive gesture, the terms of discourse and power are used against themselves through the reversal or inversion of differently empowered binaries (male/female, black/white, first world/third world, East/West, etc.).37 The other, both an alternative and a secondary gesture, involves a retreat from and rejection of the structure (of meaning and power) altogether—an eruptive break with tradition. Derrida seems to suggest that the interlacing of these two techniques is the desired mode of critique, but never provides a programmatic statement.

Because the first tactic is always dependent upon the means provided by the dominant system and because it is always carried out within an already-existent representational field, its critical potential is limited. Because it will be read by that dominant system in the latter's own terms, the tactic of “over-turning” always risks being reclaimed in the moment of reading. This is the danger of irony and parody, that it will be “misunderstood” or read literally and therefore conservatively. However, the second tactic also entails the seeds of its own negation, and it necessarily runs the risk of repetition through naiveté. Derrida himself comprehends the risk of deconstructive criticism as one of accidental restitution and encompassment.38 In the case of M. Butterfly, failure resides in the valorization of inversion as the predominant critical tactic. The feminine is empowered here only when it is undressed to reveal an essentially masculine core. In the end, the double disrobing of Song Liling/Mr. Shin merely proves that the ideal woman is a fiction, and that power resides in the male. Its own practise is less revealing of Orientalist fallacy than of the phallocracy of theatrical tradition in the West.


Thus far I have been concerned with the question of gender to the exclusion of the Orient. And I want to now consider how these issues intersect with those raised by studies of colonial discourse and Orientalist representation? How does narrative, as a social technology by which sexual difference is created and sustained, articulate with Orientalist inscription? And what are the possibilities for undermining or deconstructing these representations? Describing the genesis of M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang says simply (remarkably simply) that “It all started in May of 1986,” when the New York Times ran a story about French diplomat, Bernard Bouriscot.39 Bouriscot (and Mr. Shin) had just been convicted for selling French government secrets to the Chinese during his posting in Beijing in the 1960s.40

Hwang has had considerable opportunity to recollect and reconstrue what originally attracted him to that brief story, and to then transmute it into a what he now terms a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly”.41 In the “afterwards” to the published play, he describes the inspiration for an ironic retelling of the Puccini opera as one of almost epiphanous realization. Asking himself what Bouriscot thought he was getting in his Chinese lover, Hwang answered “He probably thought he had found Madame Butterfly.”42

Hwang imagines for Bouriscot a confused attraction in which Japan (the setting of Madame Butterfly) and China, the site of Bouriscot's tragic passion, come together in a single cobbled-together image. At the time that he first encountered the tale of Monsieur Bouriscot, Hwang had never heard the Puccini opera, nor read Edward Said's account of orientalist representation.43 Yet, pursuing his intuition, he found, as he expected, that Madame Butterfly “contained a wealth of sexist and racist clichés, reaffirming [his] faith in Western culture.”44 Within 6 brief weeks, the Times article metamorphosed into the play that won such extraordinary critical acclaim.45 Hwang himself wanted to call the play “Monsieur Butterfly,” but changed the title on the advice of his wife, who thought “Monsieur Butterfly” too heavy-handed and too obvious. The intended title would have made Hwang's own biases transparent, and the use of the French “M.” suggests an ambiguity often belied by the dramatic text itself. In any case, the play underwent other changes as it was being written. Hwang's desire to write a musical gave way to more classical theatrical form, although the play retained the libretto of the Puccini original and a score by contemporary Chinese composer and conductor, Lucia Hwong, as the core of its layered narratives.

In an interview with John Louis DiGaetani, Hwang says that he wrote M. Butterfly “as an attempt to deal with some aspects of orientalism.”46 For him, Orientalism, is the “… notion that the East is mysterious, inscrutable, and therefore ultimately inferior.”47 Of course, Said's original account, which Hwang read after his own play was in production, goes considerably further in its analysis of Western othering and it may be useful to review some of its most salient points. For Said, “Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture”48 … It is, instead,

a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also a whole series of “interests” … it is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences …), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do.49

What this means, in crude terms, is that the “Orient” is a projection of the “West,” and Said asserts as much, though he does not pursue the psychoanalytic dimensions of projection per se. Said himself has been criticized for his repetition of the totalized and homogenizing opposition between East and West in his arguments for projection, and has himself acknowledged a certain polemical aspect of the text.50 The problems attending this kind of totalization are perhaps most apparent in the refraction of the category “Orient” along Arabic and Asian lines, so that the “Orient” signifies different things for people of different class, age and national positions, and according to the historical moment of reading.51 But in many ways, the very fact of that fragmentation underlines the degree to which the category of the Orient is itself an empty signifier, the supposedly necessary Other, within whose contours “we” locate all that is different, and thus all that may be dominated through projection and encompassment.

Said's sensitivity to the theatricality of orientalist representation is particularly a propos for a discussion of Hwang's play. In the book's introductory chapter, he writes that,

the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.52

How perfect, then, seems Eiko Ishioka's minimalist stage, with its vertically bifurcated space, and its curving, encompassing ramp. Ishioka's stage design materializes the fact that, in Hwang's play, as in colonial discourse generally, the psychical space is exteriorized and the outer world interiorized through the metaphorics of the theatre. We begin and we end in the mind of M. Gallimard, which sees what it projects and projects what it desires. In between these matched interiors, the world and history—the Indo-Chinese War, the Cultural Revolution, the student uprisings in Paris, 1968—intervene, only to be excluded by a terminal fantasy of the “perfect woman” who has come home at last in the most bitter of ironies.

On this stage, Song Liling is China, resisting but also manipulating, and finally sharing the desires of Gallimard, who is Western colonial power. But Hwang's stage is not just the East; it is the world, and on that stage the East meets the West face to face. Reconstruing theatrical and geopolitical space in this manner, Hwang takes on Orientalism as the construction of a field and offers in its stead the liberal postmodern version of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Instead of being “affixed to Europe” as its Other, Hwang's theatrical space encompasses Europe, and its stage is thus set for a more complex play of differences. Moreover, this staging occurs despite the fact that, in the end, M. Butterfly re-enacts what Teresa de Lauretis has described as the narrative of heroic masculinity. The lynch-pin of that final slippage occurs in the definition of the “we” for whom this drama takes place. The stage is constructed as the space of Gallimard's consciousness, a bourgeois Western, heterosexual male consciousness. For him, the Other, the empty signifier, is a heterosexual, Oriental woman.


The drag-show element of M. Butterfly is at one with its double disrobings, with the archetypical image of the transvestite as strip-tease performer being mobilized to great effect. There are three main scenes of literal unveiling in the play, the first when the young Danish woman, Renee, undresses; the second when Song undresses for the audience; and the third when Song unclothes himself and exposes his sex to Gallimard. In the original New York production, the woman's undressing was complete, and the audience shared Rene Gallimard's experience of the young woman's (full frontal) nudity. However, in Song's disrobings, the body was never fully visible and Wong kept his back turned toward the audience at all times.53 This unequal exposure indexes the degree to which M. Butterfly, the play itself, continues to operate within classic narrative conventions, and to respond to their demand for the woman's body as the privileged object of desire.54

Recall that, in his jail cell fantasies with pornographic magazines, Gallimard's ultimate experience of power/pleasure comes not from the act of penetration or indeed, any imaginary contact of bodies, but from the sense that his gaze is desired. It is this desire “to-be-looked-at” which renders the woman's acts as acts for the male viewer, and which makes Gallimard's pleasure a truly voyeuristic one.55 Gallimard's relationship with Song follows the path of progressive unveiling, but it is an incomplete unveiling to the extent that Song refuses to be seen. In this case, seeing is not just believing; it is knowing (in every sense of that word).

In the change scene (between Acts Two and Three), Song does not undress so much as he redresses for us. We experience his transformation as a revelation of the person rather than the body, and though we look with eager anticipation, the look is not one of desire so much as curiosity. In no way does Song undress for us. Indeed, he suggests that we leave, and carries on in utter disregard for the audience.

It is important to recognize here the degree to which the audience is constructed as male, and as heterosexually male. In the opening scene, Gallimard fantasizes an ideal audience who will understand and sympathize, even envy his tale. He addresses the audience as “you,” and thereby renders this shadow of the Western imperial self as masculine. Later, in the play, Marc addresses the fact of female viewers. But here, the women in the audience are not addressed. Rather they are discussed and even included within the field of Marc's desirous vision. Marc actually refers to “great babes” and the stage directions have him leer at the women not on stage.56 Although the intent here is to ridicule Marc's juvenile libido, the scene effectively excludes the female audience from the role of active viewer and confirms what Gallimard has already intimated; that the ideal audience is always (heterosexually) male. Just as the ideal object of its vision is always female.

When Song does finally unveil, he controls the fact of vision and disrobes against Gallimard's wishes, thereby forcing the diplomat to know what he could not see and what he did not wish to know before, namely the sex of his lover. Song's transgressive disrobing, the reversal of his transvestism, is the point at which the play initially promises to become truly resistant of received gender categories. For, removing the ‘“woman's” desire to be desired’ from the domain of the heterosexual male viewer partly undermines the narrative construction of the woman as the reified object of visual pleasure. But Song's capacity to control his own objectification emerges gradually after he has assumed a fully male sexuality. Only in this new role does he become the agent of his own disclosure and pleasure, and only as a male does he escape the narrative equation of his own body as obstacle, space and field of vision.

Here, it is instructive to compare Song's disrobing with that of Renee insofar as both claim to thwart the power of the viewer and the hegemony of the gaze in Western representational ideology. Both Renee and Song unveil willingly, and both defy the gender expectations (passiveness and receptivity) which lie in the category of ideal woman. Renee initiates the sexual encounter and talks freely about sex and bodies, embarrassing and befuddling the older French diplomat. The overt text of the play leads us to believe that, in all of Gallimard's encounters with real women, he is disappointed by the fact that they are agentive beings, pursuing sensual pleasure and assuming positions of power, both physically and emotionally. This does not mean that Hwang has given us self-possessed female characters. To the contrary. Isabelle, Gallimard's first “lay”, pursues him only on the instruction of Marc, and Renee is a parody of feminist sensibility, a simplistic, overly essentializing57 and verbally unsophisticated woman. Hardly a match for the superbly self-conscious master of rhetoric that is Song Liling. And one occasionally feels that if, for Song, “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act,” for Hwang, only a man knows how a feminist should think.

Rene Gallimard denies from start to finish that he is intimately involved with a physiological male, and he denies further the possibility that he could desire such a person. He is not in love with a transvestite; he is in love with a woman and thus he will not convert his love to a homosexual one. Indeed, Song's failure to comprehend the fact that Gallimard will not desire him as a man is a function of his erroneous belief that Gallimard will love anyone who knows what he (Gallimard) desires. The assumption on which this final tragic misunderstanding rests is that the transvestite is always homosexual, that these two categories of being are somehow identical. Male homosexuality is represented as the maturation of transvestism, and becomes an odd kind of remasculinized emasculation. Thus, for Mr. Shin, the role of Song Liling is a moment of transition, a chrysalis stage. Hwang's assumption of continuity and linear progression between transvestism and homosexuality renders the change scene between Acts Two and Three a mere exercise in fashion management.

When Chin asks Song whether he is actually having sexual relations with Gallimard, Song mocks both his Comrade's naiveté and Chairman Mao's heterosexism. The exchange is one of the most delightful in the play, full of exquisite double entendre and campy humour. Chin begins by questioning Song about his/her cross-dressing and the conversation proceeds from there:

You're not gathering information in any way that violates Communist Party principles are you?
Why would I do that?
Just checking. Remember: when working for the Great Proletarian State, you represent our Chairman Mao in every position you take.
I'll try to imagine the Chairman taking my positions.
We all think of him this way.(58)

Clearly, a hidden homosexuality rather than a visible transvestism represents the greatest subversive potential for Song/Mr. Shin. This is reinforced later when Song/Mr. Shin is coerced into publicly, if cynically, confessing and disavowing the act of anal intercourse which he has performed with the diplomat. There are times when one almost feels that Song (as performed by B. D. Wong) has exceeded his writer's imagination, that the character has assumed a life of his own and realized the limitations of the script that he inhabits. At every moment when an argument for radical difference seems to be most powerfully available, the play slips into attenuation and revision. Mainly, its slippages occur around the question of what constitutes gay identity. The repulsion which Comrade Chin expresses upon hearing the act of anal sex verbalized is addressed by Hwang in his interview with DiGaetani. There the playwright explains that, in Chinese culture, gayness connotes passivity, and refers to the position one takes in sexual intercourse.59 That is, to be penetrated is to be passive, and to be passive is to be gay. So long as a man retains phallic agency, he retains his “maleness.” In the play, this privileging of phallic agency extends to Gallimard (and the West) who cannot realize his manhood even in a heterosexual encounter (with the young Isabelle) when he is not the person “on top.” Indeed, Isabelle's initiation of the sexual act and her assumption of the superior position robs the act of both meaning and pleasure for him.

In this paradigm, that of Chairman Mao and of dominant heterosexual ideology in both the “East” and “West,” homosexuality is but a mimicry of heterosexuality, where woman means passive and man means agentive. Accordingly, gay connotes femaleness—despite the obvious contradictions provided by everyday practise. Yet, the assumption of passivity and emasculation allows both Hwang and his supportive audiences to accept the inevitable trajectory of transvestite to non cross-dressing gay man. And thus, the tale of homosexual identity is contained by the heterosexual narrative, where, as de Lauretis tells us, sexual difference is defined as a binary opposition between “male-hero-human” and “female-object-boundary-space.”60


When Gallimard learns to “tell fantasy from reality” and announces that “knowing the difference, I choose fantasy,” Song rebuts, “I'm your fantasy.”61 But he is gravely mistaken, and his error draws him into the reach of Orientalist illusion; the end of the play leaves Song on stage as the grieving lover, plaintively calling out, “Butterfly? Butterfly?” Shadowing and mocking the play's opening lines, we can only read this final moment as Gallimard's (the Orientalist West's) final encompassment of the Chinese diva. For here, Song is caught in an irony he cannot control. In his confrontation with Gallimard, he has already announced that he had expected more of Rene, whom he thought would have become “more … like a woman.” He is disappointed exactly as Gallimard is disappointed, by the fact that the woman of their dreams does not and cannot exist.

Hwang's critique of the Orientalist imagination—as elegant, clever and theatrically inventive as it is—appears somewhat anaemic in the end. A facile reduction would render it something like this: the East is not weak and is not female, cannot be dominated and will not be submissive; it is powerful, self-determining, self-possessed and … therefore male. This is why Song undresses in front of Gallimard—to show his maleness. And this is why Gallimard's vision of the Orient cannot tolerate the knowledge that he was in love with “nothing more, nothing less than … a man.”62 In the penultimate scene, where Gallimard dresses himself in silk kimono and draws his sword to his own breast, he realizes that he has become Butterfly, and this realization allows him to both become and to surpass the tragic heroine of the Puccini opera. It also allows him to surpass Song, who only impersonated ideal womanhood and who could not, in the end, perform the suicidal deed that would have rendered him perfect. But Gallimard becomes the dream even to this extent. And as he prepares himself for the sword, he looks into the mirror and sees there the lines of his face rearranging themselves. His visage resolves itself into its Other (in terms of both gender and race) and he becomes an Oriental woman: the very reflection of his desire.

Unlike Cio-Cio-San, Gallimard-as-Butterfly knows that it is his love for Song that renders him that ideal woman, knows that it is his desire to be desired, and therefore to be contained within the logic of classic Western narrative, that subjects him. And so Gallimard experiences what Song had known all along, that only a man can be a perfect woman—because she is, by definition, his own creation. Such knowledge remains the preserve of the male characters in M. Butterfly, and, by contrast, the women are startlingly unsophisticated in their analysis of gender. So too, the fact that the Orient is the Occident's projection continues, in some important sense, to elude the Chinese characters. Song/Mr. Shin leaves behind his Oriental costume and adopts Western dress in the moment of his self-realization. Yet, his devotion to a homogenous “East” remains, although now revalued as masculine and hence, positive.

As is abundantly clear at this point, M. Butterfly is deeply ambivalent about the position that Song should occupy. In Hwang's universe, he must be male in order to counter the “international rape mentality” of the colonizers. But as a man, Hwang does not permit him to desire the man in Gallimard, and he seeks the woman instead. Barring the matter of whether there are indeed female and male elements in each psyche (and I have already suggested my opposition to such an analysis), one cannot but conclude that the play accommodates Song's homosexuality only insofar as it heterosexualizes it.

What I want to suggest then, is that such hetero-sexualization is the inevitable outcome of a theatrical politics which privileges inversion as its strategy of critical engagement. There are, I think, lessons to be learned here that exceed this particular play and which have relevance for theatre in general, especially insofar as theatre is a site for the construction of gender. What this means for political theatre is that resistance cannot take the form of mere opposition (in the sense of inversion); it means, moreover, that power must be understood as a diffuse entity, circulating through various means and mechanisms. To isolate gender or the Orient as loci of power, without understanding that these categories are themselves constructed in and through shared representational strategies (of which theatre is one) that both precede and sustain them, is to severely limit the scope of political critique. M. Butterfly takes on the feminization of the Orient; it does not take on the concepts of the feminine, nor the role of the female in theatrical practise generally. For this reason it cannot redress the errors of either Orientalism or heterosexist discourse in theatre or elsewhere. Instead, it gives audiences a strip-tease, a taste (albeit a delicious one) of yet-hidden possibilities. There is, of course, something irresistibly seductive about a (good) drag show, but the appeal is not the revelation so much as it is the illusion that necessitates the strip in the first-place. M. Butterfly is, as Hwang says, a play about seduction. But ultimately, Hwang is as seduced by the illusion as anyone else. This is normative postmodernism in the drag of resistant theatre.


  1. Hwang 1989, p.4.

  2. I thank Susan Turner for her acute readings of both the play and this paper, the latter of which has evolved substantially in response to her criticisms.

  3. Auslander, Philip. “Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre” (Theatre Journal 39, 1987).

  4. Hwang 1988, p. 4.

  5. Hwang 1989, p. 4.

  6. It is generally agreed that Madame Butterfly belongs to the neo-realist movement in Italian Opera, itself a reaction against German and French romanticism, and a positive response to the literary social realism of French and British writers, particularly Emile Zola. For a general overview, see The New Oxford History of Music: The Modern Age: 1850-1960. Ed. Martin Cooper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), especially “Italy and the new Realism,” pp. 153-64. Also, see Puccini: A Critical Biography by Mosco Carner (Second edition, Duckworth: Old Working Survey, 1974 [1958]), especially pp.379-400.

  7. Hwang 1989, p. 5.

  8. Hwang 1989, p. 10.

  9. Hwang 1989, p. 10.

  10. Hwang 1989, p. 11.

  11. Hwang 1989, p. 17.

  12. Hwang 1989, p. 32.

  13. Hwang 1989, p. 41.

  14. Hwang 1989, p. 48.

  15. Hwang 1989, p. 49.

  16. Hwang 1989, p. 63.

  17. Insofar as I am aware, no one has ever taken up the opportunity for drinks and refreshments. The intermission is part of the play.

  18. Hwang 1989, p. 82.

  19. Hwang 1989, p. 83.

  20. Hwang 1989, p. 83.

  21. Hwang 1989, p. 87.

  22. The relevant lines go as follows: “You know something Rene? Your mouth says no, but your eyes say yes” (p. 87).

  23. Hwang 1989, p. 92.

  24. DiGaetani, John Louis. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with Henry David Hwang,” p. 143.

  25. Skloot, “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang,” (Ref: 59).

  26. There is a large and growing body of literature on this topic. In addition to Foucault's History of Sexuality (Trans. R. Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1978), see Arnold I. Davidson's essay “Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality” (Critical Inquiry 14:17-48, 1987). Davidson argues that “sexuality itself is a product of the psychiatric style of reasoning” (p.23). Here he shares Foucault's sense that sexuality and gender are deeply entwined with the medicalization of social life in modern Europe. However, he departs from Foucault in his concern with philosophical style. I myself share Foucault's sense that sexuality is but one site among many through which power is diffused and exercised, but find the essay an extremely useful exploration of the issue.

  27. De Lauretis, Teresa. “Desire in Narrative,” in Alice Doesn't. (Blooming: Indiana University Press, 1984:103-57), p. 107.

  28. One of the most succinct, charming and convincing statements about the limits of a narrative theory constructed within psychoanalytic parameters, i.e., within the conceptual frame of the Oedipal myth, is provided by Donna Haraway in an interview with Constance Penley and Andrew Ross entitled “Cyborgs at Large: Interview with Donna Haraway,” in Technoculture, eds. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991):1-20, esp. pp. 10-13. Haraway considers African-Americans' slave experience and their exclusion from the category of humanity. What this means for Haraway is that African Americans were excluded from Western European and American myths of family, hence from the Oedipal myths. She then argues that an alternative, non-Oedipal narrativity can and does exist.

  29. De Lauretis 1984, p.121.

  30. De Lauretis 1984, pp. 142-3.

  31. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, No.3 (1975).

  32. See Mary Ann Doane's excellent essay, “Remembering Women: Psychical and Historical Constructions in Film Theory,” (in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: Routledge, 1990:46-63) for a historicist alternative to de Lauretis' universalizing theories. Doane's essay points out both the failure of such totalized accounts to address history, and the complicity of feminist film theory in upholding the paradigms of the patriarchal representation.

  33. Foucault 1978, p.127. Foucault's other works in The History of Sexuality series, and his edited volume, Herculine Barbin, Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century Hermaphrodite. (Trans. R. McDougall, New York: Pantheon, 1980) are also relevant sources.

  34. Spivak, Gayatri C. “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12:243-61.

  35. Hwang is concerned with class only insofar as he stages his drama within the upper middle class. Implicitly, he affirms Foucault's assertion, but he does so with a seeming lack of self-awareness on the subject and it is primarily race and gender which engage him.

  36. Hwang describes the play as a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” in the “afterwards” to his play, p. 95.

  37. Here, Derrida's vision of deconstructive practise runs parallel to de Certeau's account of popular cultural resistance. See The Practises of Everyday Life (Trans. S. F. Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

  38. Jacques Derrida, “The Ends of Man,” in Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 132.

  39. Hwang 1989, P. 94.

  40. The New York Times, May 11, 1986, cited in Hwang, under “Playwrite's Notes.”

  41. Hwang 1989, p. 95.

  42. Hwang 1989, p. 95.

  43. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

  44. Hwang 1989, p.95.

  45. M. Butterfly won the 1988 Tony Award for best play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for the best Broadway play, the John Gassner Award for Best American play, and the Drama Desk Award for the best new play.

  46. John Louis DiGaetani, “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,” p.141.

  47. DiGaetani p.142.

  48. Said 1978, p.12.

  49. Said 1978, p.12.

  50. For a recent statement of Said's thinking on this subject, see “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology's Interlocuters” (Critical Inquiry 15, 1989, pp.205-25).

  51. For Europeans, the Orient seems to operate primarily as a signifier of things Arabic, while for Americans, it's connotations are emphatically Asian. This may change somewhat in the aftermath of the gulf-war, but for Americans, a resurgence of Japanese-oriented xenophobia is also likely to reconsolidate the felt antithesis between Occident and Orient as one between Asia and North America.

  52. Said 1978, p. 63.

  53. DiGaetani pp. 149-51.

  54. See de Lauretis 1984, discussed above.

  55. In this regard I mean to distinguish between voyeurism in the strict sense of the word and a kind of “peeping tomism.” The locus of voyeurism's power/pleasure is not necessarily the sense of looking without the object knowing, but the sense that the object cannot return the gaze even when she does know she is being thus observed. The voyeur's ostensible power consists in the fact or the belief that what he or she sees exists solely for him or herself. The notion of a woman's “to-be-looked-at-ness” comes from Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975).

  56. Hwang 1989, p. 9.

  57. Renee attributes the world's political problems to the very existence of the penis, and thereby surrenders any possible engagement of the social construction of the phallus as power.

  58. Hwang 1989, p. 48.

  59. DiGaetani p.145. See Simon Watney for an argument against any definition of homosexuality based on object-choice, and for a critique of the binarism in the discourse of homosexuality (Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

  60. de Lauretis 1984, p. 121.

  61. Hwang 1989, p. 90.

  62. Hwang 1989, p. 90.

Colleen Lye (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13045

SOURCE: Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu, pp. 260-89. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Lye examines the portrayals of gender, race, nationality, geopolitics, and power within M. Butterfly, and discusses the variety of critical interpretations the play has garnered.]

Few works by Asian American artists have captured as much attention as David Henry Hwang's dramatic adaptation of a newspaper account of a French diplomat's affair with a Peking Opera diva later revealed to be a man and a spy for the People's Republic of China. Winning mainstream accolades such as the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year in 1988, M. Butterfly has also been taken up by many Asian American and feminist critics as an example of politically subversive theater.1 Chalsa Loo praises the play as a work of “complexity and brilliance,” in the way that it “deconstructs Giacomo Puccini's famous opera Madame Butterfly” (16), and Dorinne Kondo writes that “perhaps the most creative subversiveness of Hwang's play best emerges most clearly in contrast with the conventions of the opera Madame Butterfly, to which it provides ironic counterpoint. … Hwang reappropriates the conventional narrative of the pitiful Butterfly and the trope of the exotic, submissive ‘Oriental’ woman” (7). Robert Skloot concurs in claiming M. Butterfly to be “thoroughly subversive” by “confronting [audiences] with challenges to cultural and gender assumptions” (59). For Marjorie Garber, “The (de)construction or (de)composition of the fantasy of ‘character’ is precisely what is at work and on display in M. Butterfly” (143).

These responses mark the critical modality shared by wide-ranging commentators and the playwright, who himself calls his work a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly.2 Through its self-conscious use of the “rue story” of Boursicot as the occasion for exploring and dismantling Western perceptions of Asians, the play has been presented and widely received as a “subversive” project that “deconstructs” dominant Orientalist discourses of which the Puccini classic is treated as paradigmatic.3 As such, M. Butterfly can be said to position itself, and to be commonly positioned by critics, within the field known as minority discourse.4 The widespread characterization of the play as “deconstructive” to mean “undermine” and “expose as a (social) construction” marks a convergence between a rhetoric of political oppositionality and the modality of celebratory postmodernism. However, we may want to pay closer attention to what particular dominant representation the play seeks to “subvert.”

A struggle between two readings of the canonical Western text to which M. Butterfly constitutes a response is the substance of the very first encounter between the two protagonists in the play. After viewing Song Liling's rendition of the Italian opera, the diplomat Gallimard's expression of admiration meets with the following response from the Asian performer:

It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man. … Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner—ah! you find it beautiful.

(Act 1, scene 6, p. 17)

Song criticizes Puccini's opera for perpetuating the image of the “submissive Oriental woman” whose counterpart is the emasculated Asian man, as exemplified by the hypothetical “short Japanese businessman” proposed as the preposterous object of desire. But if M. Butterfly seems to engage the problem of the feminine gendering of Asian ethnicity with which so many Asian American texts are concerned, critics may be overhasty in assuming that objections to the “submissive Oriental woman” proceed from politically noncontradictory standpoints.5 Nationalist discourses, for instance, often articulate resistance to colonial modernity through figurations of gender that construct women as the site of “tradition,” while colonial discourses may generate the idea of “white men saving brown women from brown men.”6 Gender, in other words, often serves as the site of contestation between groups that are not particularly feminist.

The particular image of “brown women” submissive to “white men” may not stem from the desire to liberate “brown women” but in fact register, in deeply misogynist ways, the colonial anxieties of “brown men.” Hwang's own account of the genesis of the idea of M. Butterfly is particularly revealing when he says, “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” (“Afterword,” 95). In Hwang's usage, in the implied status of the “we” who invoke the Butterfly metaphor, the metaphor clearly emerges as a term of reproach used by Asian American men against Asian American women. Hwang's conceptualization of the problem of “Butterfly,” furthermore, reflects an engagement with representation as false stereotype or myth, rather than as a discourse of power.

Yet the play's effort to allegorize the sexual drama between a white man and an Asian (wo)man as a story of geopolitical relations between East and West has led critics to discuss the play's contention with “Orientalism” in terms of power relations at the simultaneous registers of minority identity and of the nation. I will argue that it is precisely the difference between minority politics and geopolitics, as well as the difference between a refusal of cultural stereotype and an analysis of power or domination, that critical discussion around the play has tended to blur—by use of the concept-metaphor of gender. For this reason, it is important that we briefly review the terms in which M. Butterfly's gender politics are appraised.

Dorinne Kondo's account of a 1989 Asian American Studies Association panel discussion on M. Butterfly describes a critical debate that breaks down between supportive feminist critics on the one hand and hostile male critics on the other. Her account posits a consistent separation between feminist and male critics on the basis of their response to the figure of the Asian transvestite—a figure whose subversive interrogation of fixed, stable identity, she implies, is measured in its profound disturbance of male critics' sense of masculinity (25-27). Chalsa Loo, who presented a paper at this panel that was later published in Asian Week, ascribes a feminist perspective to the play for affording “the Asian American woman (who is acutely aware of racism, sexism and imperialism) vicarious satisfaction in telling off the chauvinist, colonialist male” (16). Although Loo embraces the play from a humanistic standpoint with which Kondo's critique of “substance-metaphysics” would appear to be at odds, her assertion that “it matters not to many feminists that Song Liling is a woman played by a man” (16) permits us to place her in line with antiessentialist feminist perspectives that have found reason to celebrate the play. Finally, that a significant feminist critic outside the field of Asian American studies altogether has alighted upon M. Butterfly for material for her work on transvestism, arguing that the play's transvestite scandal tells the “truth” about the constructedness of gender, further reflects the insertion of M. Butterfly into broad antiessentialist trends in feminism (Garber, 143).

The few existing attacks on the play for being antifeminist, on the other hand, seem only to fortify an antiessentialist celebration of the play by basing their arguments on a notion of femininity violated by the transvestite. Gabrielle Cody's complaint, for example, that Hwang “take[s] the female gender out of Butterfly by overfeminizing her” and that her “grotesque idealized femaleness” suggests a presence that, “in short, is not female” itself seems to operate from a feminist position scandalized by gender parody (26). Hence, although Marjorie Garber's reading also acknowledges the presence of a certain misogynist humor and concludes that by “focusing on male pathos and male self-pity, M. Butterfly is intermittently anti-feminist and homophobic” (141), these misogynistic traces are ultimately reconciled in her reading of the play as an example of antiessentialist gender performance. Rather than permitting the misogyny to present a contradiction to her assessment of the play's subversive gender politics, Garber integrates misogyny as an effect of male transvestite theater, which often implies that “a man may be (or rather, make) a more successful ‘woman’ than a woman can” (141). Furthermore, the antibutch humor of Song's put-down of Comrade Chin as “passing for a woman” seems to betray a fear of women and women's difference but, according to Garber, this fear actually reflects the “subconscious recognition” of the “artificial” nature of “woman” in patriarchal society and, concomitantly, the artificiality of “man” (142).

It is precisely the reading of the play in terms of gender performativity that enables critics, in different ways, to link gender and national politics in a double subversion of the binarisms understood to be constitutive of Orientalism. Garber focuses on the Asian transvestite as the scandal that stands at the “crossroads of nationalism and sexuality.” The single figure of the transvestite, in other words, serves as the vehicle for category crisis; one category crisis leads metonymically to another, and “as the figure of the transvestite deconstructs the binary of male and female, so all national binaries and power relations are put into question” (Garber, 130). Kondo likewise argues that “through its use of gender ambiguity present in its very title … through power reversals, through constituting these identities within the vicissitudes of global politics, Hwang conceals, reveals and then calls into question so-called ‘true’ identity, pointing us toward a reconceptualization of the topography of ‘the self’” (Kondo, 7). Readings of the play as gender performance thus form the basis of arguments on behalf of the play's political subversiveness at various levels of identity. Of these, Kondo's and Garber's are exemplary. My essay will take issue with their arguments, not out of a particular interest in asserting just a different reading of the play, but in order ultimately to signal wider problems within contemporary feminist and minority discourse theory revealed by M. Butterfly and its reception. A much more problematic view of the play gradually becomes more visible when we observe its staging in a different site and read it alongside the textual antecedents it is thought to subvert.


In the summer of 1990, M. Butterfly opened for a brief one-week run in Singapore as the showpiece of the state-sponsored festival of arts. Much discussion around the arts festival had been filling newspaper pages in the preceding weeks, in which readers were treated to lectures by the Ministry of Culture on the barrenness of a technocratic society to which the festival was to offer antidote and relief. The festival featured cultural events that ranged conspicuously from high to low, a demarcation that neatly coincided with “Western” and “local.” Playing in the most prestigious and formal concert halls, performances by Alvin Ailey and the Houston Symphony constituted the major events in the festival's calendar; around these foreign imports were scheduled a variety of performances by local artists dubbed “Festival Fringe” and available for free consumption in informal venues such as shopping malls and hotel lobbies. M. Butterfly, which closed, and in some sense represented the finale of, the festival, straddled perfectly this divide.

A production of Theatreworks, the only professional theater company in Singapore, M. Butterfly also received highly publicized consultation from the playwright himself, who was personally flown in during the rehearsal and planning stages of the production. A local production of a foreign script, M. Butterfly thus represented a collaboration and crossover between the foreign and the local—the Western and the Asian?—a fusion the festival overtly celebrated by according it pride of place, scheduling its performance for the Victoria Theater, the nation's most prestigious of institutional spaces of culture.

How are we to understand the selection of an Asian American play for the promotion of culture in Singapore, a place distinguished by extensive state vigilance over all forms of expression? Although its Economic Development Board expressly seeks the investment of information technologies and markets the country as the communications hub of southern Asia, the Singapore government subjects all books, magazines, music, and movies to political and moral censorship.7 In a context where “consent” is “manufactured” by the state, what gets seen, heard, or read therefore bears a direct relationship to what the state apparatus decides is ideologically appropriate. Publicity given Hwang, along with other popular Asian American artists such as Amy Tan, by the state-controlled Straits Times reflects a certain overt interest taken by the Singapore state apparatus in Asian American cultural icons.8 The constant media appearance of Asian Americans in the form of “success narratives in the West” indicates their potential serviceability for helping articulate an official nationalism.

The play's directors, Krishen Jit and Christine Lim, seem particularly attracted to the play's concern with questions of multiculturalism precisely insofar as it echoes the rhetoric of Singapore's particular national self-representation. Their message, inscribed within the playbill, extols:

How we perceive others is the reflection of our own prejudices, stereotypes, obsessions and fantasies. When we diminish others, we diminish ourselves. … David Hwang is telling us that is what happens when East meets West and when men meet women. He is also telling us that we can purge our distortions if at first we can expose them to ourselves. … We find his appeal for this kind of truth to be vivid and poignant in a multi-racial and post-colonial Singapore. In a small and less dramatic way, we too have struggled to reconcile problems that inevitably arise between people of various cultures.9

Official narratives of the nation construct Singapore as the site of East-West crossing, literalized through its historical basis as an entrepôt economy dependent upon a strategic location at the intersection of international trade routes. These narratives construct Singapore as a nation of diverse racial identities, the harmonious assemblage of which has been made possible only through the activity of the state. It is perhaps no accident, then, that Hwang's play, an allegory of an encounter between East and West, exercises particular resonance in a place where an official nationalist discourse of East-West crossing and multiracial identity has long been foundational.

The appearance of M. Butterfly in Singapore may seem at first to constitute mere testimony to our “postmodern” age of information, whose uninterrupted circuits allow for such continuity between Asian cultural nationalism and Asian American minority discourse. Yet the uncanny facility with which an ostensibly oppositional project from within one context travels into another, exercising altogether different and untold discursive effects, should perhaps give us at least a moment's pause. It is important to know that official nationalism in Singapore takes a particular form and emerges in a particular historical context. After an initial and highly successful drive toward Western development in the first fifteen years after independence, the government, in a turn toward touting “Asian values,” began by the mid-1980s to construct Western liberalism as the nation's most dangerous enemy. Drawing upon and contributing to growing Western public interest in the “economic miracle” of the so-called four tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), the Singapore government, led by its former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, represents one of the loudest advocates of authoritarian capitalism—presented as an attractive, more efficient alternative to the path of Western modernity, an alternative combining “Western economics” with “Eastern culture.” As a key cultural commodity deemed appropriate for the cultural education of deracinated Singaporeans, M. Butterfly appeared on stage in the context of Singapore's more recent double drive to draw in Western capital and to filter out “Western values.”

The interest the Singapore government might take during the late 1980s in a play that critiques the “West” from an “Asian” point of view could simply be read as an act of appropriation—that of an oppositional minority discourse by a cultural nationalist project forced to ignore the contradictions of its own position. Whether promoting its major airline in international markets through slogans like “Singapore Girl: you're a great way to fly” or attempting to articulate hegemonic forms of Chineseness most suited to internal political quiescence, the Singapore government is, after all, notorious for having discovered the economic and political dividends of promoting certain essentialist notions of ethnic identity. Discussing the tactics of an “invention of tradition” that manages to insert the nation-state into a narrative of Chinese racial history through a definition of idealized Chineseness that is simultaneously consonant with the requirements of a fully market economy, Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan have called Singapore's promulgation of Confucian tenets an “internalized Orientalism.”10 Given the political complexity of its discursive effects once displaced beyond the U.S. context, what might M. Butterfly's Singapore appearance disclose about the particular terms of its Orientalist critique?

Since the play is conventionally viewed as an Asian American “response” to the “West,” of which Puccini serves as the canonical representative, its performance in Asia is particularly interesting. Staged outside Euro-America, the play's assumption of a Western performance context becomes more noticeable. Despite claims that the play “gives voice” to the Asian subject, its general strategy of defamiliarizing Orientalism from within depends upon structurally placing Gallimard at the center and Song at the margin.11 The French diplomat Gallimard, for instance, directly addresses the audience in brief asides that give the viewers direct access to his point of view and that invite them to share in his desires for an Oriental butterfly; the Asian transvestite lover Song Liling, by contrast, neither communicates directly with the audience nor offers explanations for his own actions. In an interview, Hwang implies the kind of audience he has in mind when he says, “I assumed that many in the audience would be coming to the theater because they hoped to see something exotic and mysterious, but what exactly is behind the desire to see the ‘exotic East’?”12

Directorial changes to the Singapore production, however, appeared to respond to the question of what it means to stage a cultural event outside the majority frame from within which it was conceptualized. The stage set itself appeared far less lavish in its display of Oriental design motifs than in the New York and London productions, onstage Chinese viewers were added to the Peking Opera scene and provided noisy comic relief, and the length of the Peking Opera performance was significantly condensed. According to director Krishen Jit, such adjustments were made because “You can't fool an Asian audience with the Peking Opera. There are people out there who really know it. So we decided to cut down on that scene and use the Chinese audience as a distraction.”13 In other words, the Singapore production seemed to be registering signs of discomfort with the play's implication in certain techniques of Orientalist seduction.

Not all Orientalist aesthetic strategies were modified, however. In the manner of the New York and London productions, the Singapore production made use of certain visual icons and aural devices to symbolize the eruption of the historical events of the Cultural Revolution. Giant red banners, uniform human bodies mechanically marching to the sound of slow, ominous drumbeats—all provided aesthetic reinforcement for the dramatic representation of the Cultural Revolution's Oriental despotic character.14 Since the Singapore staging intervened against the play's Orientalist aesthetics on the subject of cultural “Asia” (the Peking Opera), its uncritical adoption of Orientalist tropes deployed against political “Asia” is worth remarking. It is not surprising that a play that demonizes the People's Republic of China should find its way onto the stage in a virulently anticommunist state.

Throughout the fifties and sixties during the Malayan struggle for independence, before the destruction of a powerful communist and trade-union movement with ties to China, the colonial powers particularly feared that a domino effect sweeping down from the north would turn Singapore into the “Cuba” of Southeast Asia. A partnership between the British government and the People's Action Party (PAP), which rules to this day, managed, through a combination of legislative sleights and police repression, to exclude the communists from power. From that period of internal struggle, to the immediate “postcolonial” period of dependency upon the British military base for employment, to the present one in which Singapore has proposed itself as the alternative to Subic Bay in the insurgency-racked Philippines, Singapore not only constitutes a prominent economic counterexample to Western underdevelopment of the “Third World”—it also has a place of importance on the geopolitical map, as the island fortress that helped stem the red tide that once threatened to engulf all of Asia.

The triangulation between the United States, Singapore, and China enacted by the Singapore staging of M. Butterfly thus bears particular pertinence to the geopolitical imaginary to which Singapore belongs and which is deeply constitutive of its national identity. Historically, the political struggle between communists and the PAP was figured as the alternative between pro-Chinese and pro-Western positions, with the period of postindependence political repression entailing the massive shutdown of Chinese-language schools, newspapers, and clan associations. Only after the complete elimination of internal resistance, only in the late 1970s and early 1980s did the government begin to reverse its pro-Western rhetoric, and to temper its advocacy of pro-Western development strategies with the call for a return to “Asian”—in particular, “Confucian”—values, and to Chinese-language learning. The disjunction between where Orientalist representation is refused and where it is reproduced in the Singapore staging of the Western text may be more than a mere acknowledgment of a formal gap between the cultural and the political. Here, it may be specifically indicative of the space for a politically conservative identity to adopt a cultural nationalist position.

A reading of the play only from within the critical frame of minority discourse precludes an understanding of how the Orientalist tropes of an American play can be used by one Asian nation-state to say something about another. At the same time that this Asian nation-state seems to be establishing identity with an Asian American subject position in a critique of the “West,” it is also establishing identity with the “West” in a critique of “Asia.” In my discussion of the narratological transformations of the Madame Butterfly convention that follows, I will argue for a reading of Hwang's text that allows us to see how M. Butterfly's transformation of Puccini inherently enables this culturally contradictory ambivalence. I would say that the very unaccidental appearance of M. Butterfly in Singapore's state-sponsored Arts Festival has something to do with the way in which the play fundamentally constructs the Orientalism it sets out to subvert. The liabilities of M. Butterfly's construction of the problem of Orientalism become even more visible when read alongside the “Western” texts to which it constitutes a response.


First performed in 1904 at La Scala, Madame Butterfly the opera derives from an 1898 American magazine short story of the same name by John Luther Long and from its one-act stage adaptation by David Belasco in 1900; Long's text, in turn, draws from the 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthemum by Pierre Loti.15 A prolific writer whose many novels and stories are set in exotic Eastern locations from Turkey to Tahiti, Loti is often credited with popularizing Orientalist narrative conventions of intercultural romance within the Western literary imagination. In virtually all of Loti's stories, a Western traveler engages in a sexual adventure with a worshipful Oriental woman who elicits sensuous desire but not love. Ironically enough, it is precisely Loti's “Japanese” novel that runs counter to these Orientalist conventions.16

Madame Chrysanthemum narrates the tale of a French sailor who arrives in Japan with the intention of purchasing a wife for the duration of his ship's call to port. The arbitrary and almost accidental origin of his match with Chrysanthemum—she is noticed by his friend from among a group of women observing the intended, but failed, match with Jasmin—marks the lack of sentimental attachment within the relationship from its very initiation. While the narrator fluctuates between humorous indifference and physical loathing toward his bride, Chrysanthemum is herself shown to be impersonally deferential. Dramatic passion temporarily threatens to overcome indifference only when the hero suspects his best friend and wife of an incipient adulterous affair that ultimately proves fictitious. The dispersal of the narrator's jealous doubts leads him to project in Chrysanthemum hidden passionate attachment for himself and grief at his imminent departure. But when he revisits his house unexpectedly at the end, expecting to witness sorrow, he discovers her cheerfully counting out the money earned from the “marriage.” In a revelation that takes place at the French protagonist's comic expense, Loti's far from tragic narrative actually exposes the conscious economic relationship upon which this interracial “marriage” is based.

John Luther Long's American magazine story, “Madame Butterfly,” makes certain critical adjustments to Loti's narrative, including rewriting the French sailor as an American naval officer and renaming Madame Chrysanthemum. The sailor buddy who shows greater affection for the Japanese woman than does the protagonist is replaced by the compassionate American consul who functions as the conscience of his heartless compatriot. In Long's text, instead of being an inscrutable secondary character, the Japanese woman becomes the main character and the victim of tragic, unrequited love. While Loti's text ends with the sailor's departure, Long's story centers on the Japanese woman's lonely wait for her beloved's return, and introduces the significant plot feature of the birth of her interracial child. The story ends with Butterfly's suicide attempt when she learns of her husband's marriage to an American woman.

A collaboration between composer Puccini, librettist Luigi Illica, and dramatist Giuseppe Giacosa, the opera largely adopts the narrative of Long's short story, while following Belasco's play in ending with Butterfly's actual suicide. Perhaps the most striking feature of Puccini's Madame Butterfly lies in the significant alterations made to the original libretto as a result of the flop opening at La Scala, Milan, in 1904. The successful Paris performance of 1906, whose version of the libretto is established as the conventional one, reflects key changes made by the composers in response to what they considered awkward about the original. Critics have noted that almost all of these changes concerned the representation of the operatic “hero” Pinkerton, whose lines convey a character cruel in his treatment of Butterfly and weak in his inability to face her truthfully.17

Pinkerton deliberately avoids telling Butterfly that he can give up the lease on the house on a month's notice, and leads her to believe that the house will be paid for for nine hundred and ninety-nine years. He finds Butterfly's relations an “appalling horde,” bans them from the house, and then encourages her to adopt Christianity, which ensures her ostracization. Later in the story, the consul reflects that it was entirely like Pinkerton to take the “dainty, vivid, eager, formless material, and mould it to his most wantonly whimsical wish,” and having left her, “he had probably not thought of her again, except as the wife of another man” (Smith, 18). The Paris version's elimination of some of Pinkerton's most racially derogatory lines and behavior, as well as those of his American wife Kate, reflects the centrality of the representation of racial attitude to the problem of Madame Butterfly's “weak” operatic hero. The need to soften Pinkerton's character and to sentimentalize the interracial liaison signals the transgressive potential of this paradigmatic Orientalist narrative.

I want to argue that the narrative convention of an Oriental woman who commits suicide because of brutal treatment by a white man can incorporate a political critique. In the case of John Long's short story and the original Italian opera that followed it, the use of this convention for the stuff of high tragedy carried political implications whose discomfiting effects on European audiences of the time were measured by the libretto's continual, uneasy revision. The same narrative that proceeds according to an Orientalist ascription of Japanese female devotion to an American adventurer also hinges its tragic structure upon the dashing of that devotion. More than just meeting with betrayal, her devotion to Pinkerton is shown from the beginning to be always already founded upon a lie. This unfounded faith extends from Pinkerton the individual to a set of ideals represented by the United States in general. Her confidence in the strength of his marriage vows, for instance, is connected to her claiming of the United States as her country, which she believes, for reasons of gender politics, to be superior to Japan:

GORO and Yamadori:
She still thinks she is married.
I don't think it, for I know it …
But the law says:
What's that to me?
… that the wife who is deserted / Has the right to seek divorce.
That may be Japanese law … / But not in my country.
Which one?
The United States.
(Poor little creature!)
I know, of course, to open the door / And to turn out your wife at any moment, / Here, is called divorce. But in America that is not allowed.


Her enthusiasm for “America,” also symbolized in the moment when she instructs her child to wave the American flag, underscores the significance of the Americanization of the original French tale. The transformation of the French sailor into Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton signals a larger and important shift in the nature of the colonial relation that the “East-West” romance allegorically represents. Loti's is a travel narrative in which the Occidental visitor's relation to the foreign locale consists of the (sexualized) anthropological activities of observation, acquisition, and experimentation. The Italian opera, set in Japan, can still, of course, be read as an exotic tale. Assigning the role of protagonist to the Japanese woman, however, has the crucial effect of focusing the text away from representing Western experience of the exotic to representing Eastern desire or longing for the West. In the specific case of Puccini, Occidentalist desire takes the form of an emigration fantasy, one that is clearly peculiar to the ideological structure of American—as opposed to French—global power. Given Puccini's textual source, which is the site of the crucial transformation of Loti, the Italian opera can be read as a profoundly American text, and as such, the Japanese fantasy of emigration it articulates belongs in fact to an American discourse of immigration.

Reading the opera as a text that participates in an American discourse of immigration makes sense of the decision to turn what was originally a careless liaison in Loti into a reproductive union. The liaison's reproductive logic functions to enable the partial fulfillment of Butterfly's impossible desire through generational displacement. Ultimately, the biracial child is to be adopted by “America,” but only upon the necessary exclusion of “Japan”—doubly represented by Butterfly's death and the child's remarkable blondness. The historical context of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America witnessed a peak in anti-Asian racism, with white anxieties about the inflow of Asian immigrants expressed in the slogan of the “Yellow Peril” helping to enact policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1908 Gentleman's Agreement restricting the numbers of incoming Japanese laborers. As an expression of white American anxiety about Asian immigration, Madame Butterfly achieves a resolution that simultaneously closes and opens the door. The exclusion of Butterfly is ameliorated by the inclusion of a biracial child whose blondness erases the signs of racial difference and seems to preempt the process of assimilation. If the child's inclusion marks the moment of redemption, however, the mother's exclusion inescapably constitutes the moment of tragedy. Her sacrifice is necessary for the preservation of white America, but the dramatic power of her sacrifice stems precisely from its injustice. Her desire for America elicited only by American arrival in Japan, Butterfly is the victim of imperial deception. Blind to Pinkerton's evident attitude of racial superiority, Butterfly's tragedy consists of misconstruing relations of domination as those of openness and equality. Hence, the very same text that enacts the exclusion of “Asia” does so by exposing American principles of openness as a myth. As such, it is possible to see how the operatic text offers a stringent critique of American domination in the Pacific.


M. Butterfly plays upon the Puccini narrative by turning the tables on the Western man who thinks he has conquered an “Oriental butterfly.” Whereas the interracial affair in Puccini ends with the Oriental woman's death, in Hwang the interracial liaison takes place at the Westerner's expense. In this sense, the two texts are perfectly symmetrical: in Puccini an Asian woman's Occidentalist illusions lead to her suicide; in Hwang a Western man's Orientalist fantasy leads to his. By reversing the consequences of interracial sexual desire, M. Butterfly serves as a cautionary tale, a lesson in the potential pitfalls of Orientalist desire. Not only do Song and Gallimard switch fates, they also switch genders, and this gender-crossing, simultaneously a culture-crossing, is sartorially represented in Song's final assumption of an Armani suit and Gallimard's donning of a Japanese kimono. Although Song and Gallimard symbolically switch genders, however, they do not do so on the same register. For Song, the switch transpires on the level of “real” gender identity, an identity exposed, as it were, by the deliberate, slow process of unveiling that takes place between acts on stage. Gallimard's process of feminization, culminating in his assumption of the role and costume of Madame Butterfly, is metaphoric. His gender-crossing derives from a sexuality put into question by Song's gender disclosure. Ambiguity, I would argue, resides not in Song, whom we all “know” to be a “man,” but in Gallimard, and it involves not his gender, but his sexuality. Gallimard's symbolic regendering is an effect of his ambiguous sexuality.

Thus, in each of the two characters, homosexuality and transvestism intersect in different, but equally problematic, ways. In Gallimard, we are presented with a treatment of (homo)sexual desire that ends in the act of cross-dressing; in the case of Song we find the practice of cross-dressing in which the subject of desire is entirely suspended. Song's character seems to function as the dramatic device through which numerous other forces achieve expression—Gallimard, the Chinese state apparatus, and finally the author, who offers through Song's voice a metacommentary on the preceding events of sexual play. In the instance of Gallimard, (homo)sexual desire is reduced to an imperialist will to power; in the instance of Song, (homo)sexual desire is erased. In the way that it attaches the signs of effeminacy to (homo)sexual identity, M. Butterfly reflects a deeply problematic gender and sexual politics. The intermittent “homophobia” and “antifeminism” that Garber cannot help noticing is hardly a side effect of an otherwise politically subversive male transvestite theater, but the product of a play whose ironic twists actually depend upon enforcing the congruence of gender and sexual identity in which “male” remains associated with power, and “female” and “homosexual” with weakness and defeat. Precisely because cross-dressing is the critical vehicle that enables the reversal of power between the two characters, that reversal of power mobilizes significations of masculinity and femininity that reproduce the way in which power relations are conventionally gendered.

At the level of geopolitics, the play's strategy of reversal with regard to the two terms “East” and “West” also reflects a conceptualization of power that requires serious interrogation. It suggests to us in the first place that what Hwang particularly deplores in the Puccini opera is that, in Kondo's words, “West wins over East, Man over Woman, White Man over Asian Woman” (Kondo, 10). The trial scene in France at the end serves as a kind of reckoning and offers the play's interpretation of the conditions of possibility for Gallimard's mistaking of Song's gender identity:

You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That's why you say they make the best wives.
But why would that make it possible for you to fool Monsieur Gallimard? Please—get to the point.
One, because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.
Your armchair political theory is tenuous, Monsieur Song.
You think so? That's why you'll lose in all your dealings with the East.

(Act 3, scene 1)

The representation of geopolitical relations of power by the sporting or military metaphor of winners and losers provides some insight into the terms in which the play addresses the problem of Orientalism. If what Hwang objects to in Puccini is that the West “wins,” then it is not surprising that the response should present a scenario in which the East “wins” instead. This structure of winning and losing expresses itself, as we have already seen, in problematically conventional ways, through gender and sexual signification. The feminizing effect of Song's gender disclosure upon Gallimard follows from M. Butterfly's proposal that Orientalism functions to secure Western masculinity. Just as his affair with Butterfly marks a rise in Gallimard's masculine confidence as lover and as diplomat, the exposure of his conquest as pure fantasy once again throws his masculinity into jeopardy. The problem, however, is that M. Butterfly attempts not just to dramatize the effects of Orientalist desire, but to naturalize its origins. Orientalist fantasy in M. Butterfly serves to secure Western masculinity because the West is shown as “actually” emasculated.

The play begins with scenes of Gallimard's adolescent experiences of (hetero)sexual failure, and insinuates that Gallimard's Orientalist desires derive from an original condition of sexual inadequacy—to which his final emasculation therefore only symbolically enacts a return. This story transpires at the parallel levels of sexual and political drama: just as Gallimard was always already emasculated, his foreign policy predictions on Vietnam are also proved to be woefully “wrong.” Hwang's response to Orientalism consists of a double assertion of intrinsic Asian masculinity that takes its revenge against the feminizing imperative of Western discourses at the level of love and of politics. The play's linking of the levels of sexuality and politics has the effect not of complicating each by implicating it in the other, but of reducing each to the other—(homo)sexual desire is reduced to a greater reality of political power and political power as a reaction to sexual inadequacy.

What are the consequences of representing the Western state as intrinsically weak? The historical instances of Vietnamese victory against the United States and the resurgence of Chinese anti-Western nationalism during the period of the Cultural Revolution serve as a backdrop to a parable about a Westerner's reversal of fortune. Especially troubling about the play's representation of anti-imperialist Asian nationalism is that, on the one hand, it seems overly sanguine in imagining that certain instances of militarily successful Asian anticolonial resistance have mounted enough historical weight to tip the scales of Western imperialism. On the other hand, the play is also politically derisive of such anticolonial movements. It caricatures the Cultural Revolution and its representatives in the construction of the character of Comrade Chin, whose androgyny is also the target of antifeminist humor. Song's miming of a traditional Oriental butterfly is juxtaposed to the sartorially and gesturally unfeminine Comrade Chin, who is now “what passes for a woman in modern China” (act 2, scene 4). In fact, whether by ridiculing contemporary Chinese women's struggles against traditional standards of femininity, or through remarks such as Gallimard's about finding “better Chinese food” in Paris than in China, the play seeks humorous mileage from establishing a connection between political movements in Asia and a fall from cultural “authenticity.”

In this sense, the play's assertion of Asian masculinity can hardly be read as an avowal of nationalist resistance to Western—or feminist resistance to patriarchal—domination. On the contrary, its assertion of “actual” Asian masculinity actually seeks to expose Asian submissiveness as a myth, and to demystify Western power as a fantasy. According to the logic of “actual” Western emasculation, Asian nationalist resistance carries no political purchase, and any direct representation of Asian politics in the play thus assumes a reductive and absurdist form. In fact, the places in which the play portrays Asian politics are precisely those of extreme farce. Among the three secondary female characters, who are all in some sense caricatures, Comrade Chin alone cannot be read against the grain of her comic reduction. Gallimard's wife Helga is the caricature of a shallow and racist white woman, but her final abandonment generates pathos and a reproach of Gallimard's position. Renée, the Swedish exchange student with whom Gallimard has a brief fling, functions to convey the absurdity of the sexually liberated woman, but she ceases to be attractive precisely because she exposes Gallimard's phallic inadequacy by deflationarily referring to his penis as a “weenie.” The single Chinese woman in the play, who also happens to represent the Asian political subject, is the only character who presents no implicit critique of Gallimard, and against whose homophobia, unpleasant stupidity, and political repressiveness the Western male subject position and the Western state achieve relative validity.

As some readers have uncritically observed, M. Butterfly is indeed a revenge fantasy.18 By fulfilling “the desire of Asian American women to be able to ‘stick it to 'em’” (Loo, 16), M. Butterfly enacts a reversal that keeps the binary terms of East/West and female/male in place, and that actually renders invisible the structure of power that constitutes them. By reversing the gendering of ethnicity, the play reflects a concern with Orientalism as a problem of cultural stereotyping or myth and therefore as a problem whose rectification involves restituting the masculine as the sign of the “human truth” of Asian identity. Hwang's afterword clarifies that his critique of Orientalism has very little to do with “East” and “West” as markers of materially differential locations:

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.


There are obvious limitations to assigning authority to authorial intention. Hwang's reading of his own play, a reading that subordinates a political critique to a universal humanist reflection, is worth considering only in its resemblance to other readings. In particular, we are reminded of the Singapore directors' message: “If we have done our job well, you will find no heroes or villains in this play. No one character in David Hwang's drama can be singled out for praise or for blame. … When we diminish others, we diminish ourselves.”19


Readings that celebrate the play's subversiveness do so on the basis that it exposes the constructedness of gender identity, and therefore other kinds of identity. My own reading has argued that if we conceptualize the problematic of Orientalism in terms of power, rather than in terms of identity, we find the play reinscribing the binarisms it ostensibly sets out to undo. The current feminist preoccupation with the problem of essentialism, converging with “post-Marxist” theoretical developments in general, should be understood as the outgrowth of the need to challenge earlier theoretical formulations for their racial, sexual, geographic, and class omissions.20 However, the radical critique of what was the starting point of the feminist project—the attempt to define “woman”—appears to have altogether displaced its end point: the emancipation of women. Although antiessentialist feminist theorizing emerged out of the need to broaden and complicate a political agenda founded on naturalized assumptions about identity, the concern with identity categories, identity as category, seems to have hegemonized the content of the feminist political agenda itself. Thus, I would hold that although this form of feminist theory is rightly critical of identity politics, it has actually failed to move us beyond the frame of identity-based politics.21

The isolated act of demonstrating the discursive constitution of identities can be construed as adequately “political” only if we homogenize the dispositions of, and differences in power between, various kinds of discursive formations. To reintegrate the question of conditions into a discourse analysis requires acknowledging the priorities necessary to building what looks like an external (though not necessarily temporarily prior) frame of reference within which to place discourses, but “post-Marxist” theorists have been reluctant to run the risk of being accused of reductionism or exclusionism that attends committing to a set of political or conceptual priorities. The incoherence into which Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's influential model of open-ended articulations descends exemplifies the costs that accompany the refusal to accept the burden of staking priorities. In the first place, their model of multiple articulations presents so vague a geometric figure for relating oppressions that it lends itself to category confusions and slippery parallelisms of all kinds, as we will see in Garber and Kondo. In the second place, the logic of their argument for a “radical democracy” that establishes a theoretical, and by implication a developmental, partition between authoritarian societies and advanced capitalist ones, only to which the “democratic subject position” is appropriate, reflects the foreclosure of an internationalist praxis.22

The textual readings performed by Marjorie Garber and Dorinne Kondo on M. Butterfly indicate the limitations of identity-based approaches when placed within an international frame. Garber's treatment of the transvestite as a figure of gender and sexual subversion leads her to posit a conceptually parallel argument with regard to national binaries. The levels of nationalism and sexuality are linked through establishing the activities of transvestism and espionage as structurally cognate: both involve border crossings. “These border crossings,” she writes, “… present binarisms in order to deconstruct them. As the figure of the transvestite deconstructs the binary of male and female, so all national binaries and power relations are put in question” (131). The first instance of national border crossing lies in Gallimard's conflation of China and Japan, but this is read by Garber, quite rightly, as a reflection of Gallimard's Orientalist perception. Garber then proceeds to point out a second instance of the conflation of national qualities, this time between China and France. Gallimard's discovery of “better Chinese food” in France and the eruption of French Maoist demonstrations are read by Garber as examples of the circulation of signs in a “global cultural economy” whereby “all constructions are exportable and importable” (130). While the instance of Gallimard's conflation of Japan and China is a “bad” example of border crossing—indeed, an instance of Orientalism in operation—this conflation of Chinese and French national qualities is presumably “good.” Presumably, it constitutes a transgression by putting “all national binaries and power relations in question.”

What does it mean to propose national crossing between France and China as a transgressive scandal? Following the work of the subaltern historians, cultural critics everywhere are trying to counter hegemonic nationalist discourses by undertaking critiques that expose the nation as an “imagined community.”23 Garber repeatedly refers to the “crisis of nationalism and sexuality troped on the transvestite figure” (125) and to the “crossroads of nationalism and sexuality” (127). Yet at stake here is in fact not the subject of the nation, much less nationalism, but the inter-national relationship between two countries of unequal and uneven development. The uncritical reference to the “global cultural economy” of which Garber suggests French-Chinese national crossing is a function reflects the way in which the attempt to model global relations upon the binary relations of—in this case, gender—identity entirely occludes the questions of imperialist power and global capitalism. In fact, it sanctions them. In her reading, the global cultural economy of late capitalism actually enables national crossing, and to that extent, we might read the slip as symptomatic of how contemporary identity-based theories are themselves a part of the culture and practices of late capitalism they are unable to critically address.24

Dorinne Kondo's celebration of M. Butterfly's both sexually and globally transgressive politics also depends upon assuming the possibility of simply homologizing categories of “gender,” “race,” and “nation.” Kondo, for instance, writes:

Hwang de-essentializes the categories, exploding conventional notions of gender and race as universal, ahistorical essences or as incidental features of a more encompassing, abstract “concept of the self.” By linking so-called “individual” identity to global politics, nationalism, and imperialism, Hwang makes us see the cross-cutting and mutually constitutive interplay of these forces on all levels. M. Butterfly reconstitutes selves in the plural and shifting positions in moving, discursive fields, played out on levels of so-called individual identities, in love relationships, in academic and theatrical narratives, and on the stage of global power relations.


As this quote shows, Kondo actually believes herself to be engaging with the question of Orientalism in a social and political sense. Yet her argument is disturbingly not so different from Garber's in the way it invokes an unelaborated “linking” of individual, national, and global entities, whose relationship to each other ultimately depends upon a conceptual parallelism. Kondo expressly questions the adequacy of “a simple calling into question of fixed gender identity,” but on the reductive basis that “deconstructive analyses of identity” result in “a fixed meaning … always [being] deferred in a postmodern free play of signifiers” (25). Her celebration of Hwang for offering a “power-sensitive analysis” (26) seems to be based on the idea that this devolves from embracing “selves in the plural.” Hwang is to be praised because he “de-essentializes the categories, exploding conventional notions of gender and race as universal, ahistorical essences.” As against “refigurations of identity as an empty sign” (25), Kondo presents us with the alternative of “complex, shifting ‘selves’ in the plural” (26); as against the “postmodern” emptying of meaning, we are offered an overabundance of meaning. The claim that this resulting multiplicity is somehow contestatory conceives power relations as binary relations whose “deconstruction” is to be effected by de-essentializing the individual terms of which they are composed.25

It is only Kondo's concluding comments that fully expose the extent to which the capacity to homologize the global and the individual derives from a theoretical position blind to its own national frame. “Hwang's distinctively Asian-American voice,” Kondo writes, “reverberates with the voices of others who have spoken from the borderlands, those whose stories cannot be fully recognized or subsumed by dominant narrative conventions, when he speaks eloquently of the failure to understand the multiplicity of Asia and of women” (28). This plea for the recognition of identity's heterogeneity, the plea familiarly articulated from the standpoint of a postmodern minority politics, must fundamentally be understood as conditioned by its location. Its subsequent transposition out of that location into the international arena—the extension of the deconstruction of a topography of closure onto geopolitical terrain—threatens to be depoliticizing when the logic of Kondo's argument leads her to uphold Hwang for suggesting that East and West should not “form closed, mutually, exclusive spaces where one term inevitably dominates the other” (29). Set within the space of geopolitics, Kondo's antiessentialist argument appears little removed from Hwang's liberal humanist avowal. The linkage between the different registers of relations, instead of effecting the politicization of the personal, ends up abolishing a notion of power in any register. If the problems in the love relations between a white man and an Asian (wo)man reflect the larger problems of East-West relations, we are told that East-West power relations can be, in Hwang's terms, reconciled, or in Kondo's, “deconstructed.” In the end, it would seem, the antiessentialist political project, despite its ostensible antihumanism, lands us not so far afield from a liberal multicultural identity politics. Both propel us toward demanding the recognition of “our” heterogeneity, which often homogenizes the differential locations, the conditions of possibility, or the usefulness of that demand.


Setting M. Butterfly within a genealogy of Orientalist romantic conventions allows us to perceive Orientalist form historically, to allow for different kinds of Orientalist tropes and for historically shifting kinds of power relations between East and West. All too often, Edward Said's theorization of European colonial relations with the Middle East has been unimaginatively hypostasized and at the same time loosely extended to a heterogeneity of Oriental sites.26 The Orientalist romantic convention to which M. Butterfly responds is in fact not singular, but plural and ambivalent. It may be important to note, for instance, the ways in which Loti's Japanese novel resists the Orientalist romantic conventions Loti was instrumental in popularizing. Not only does it expose the economic relation on which cross-cultural marriage is based, refusing the possibility of “love,” but Madame Chrysanthemum also refuses to take bodily desire for granted. In observing three geisha girls performing for Japanese customers in a neighboring room, Loti's protagonist remarks upon the unnatural allure of “Japanese woman” to Western eyes. Viewing the performing geishas from behind, the narrator expresses the fear that they may turn around and reveal “faces which might destroy the enchantment.”27 Existing only in performance (gesture and ritual behavior) and in outward signs (costume and headgear), Japanese femininity can be read as the sign, in Loti's text, for artifice itself.

We may choose to read Loti's text as telling us the “truth” about gender as (always and everywhere) a construction, or explore the particular historical dispensations of a given Orientalist construction. The former approach would make the same discoveries in Loti's text as it does in Hwang's. The latter approach might use the reading of the artificiality of Loti's “Japanese woman” in order to argue how the site of gender registers fin de siècle Western discomfort with Japanese modernity, a modernity of which the impossiblity of Western power/knowledge/desire in Japan is the sign.28 Ironically, despite the many aspects of Madame Chrysanthemum's nonconformity to Orientalist convention, its diminutive representation of Japan is said to have informed the imagination of the Russian court, which disastrously underestimated Japan's military strength.29 The operatic staging of an aestheticized and tragic version of the original French text just nine days after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War could therefore also be read as a fantasy of Japanese submissiveness at perhaps the most famous early moment of East-West military reversal.

For Dorinne Kondo to suggest, therefore, that Hwang's 1988 play reflects the disjunctures of a moment when power relations have shifted but the “West” continues to perceive the “East” as essentially weak (29) overlooks the way in which the constantly evolving figure of Madame Butterfly has long embodied Western perception of Japanese power. Indeed, the discursive impossibility of assimilating Japan to the image of a submissive and weak Orient, the construction of Japan's Oriental exceptionalism, seems to underlie the figure of Madame Butterfly.30 The failure to recognize the heterogeneity of Orientalist discourses—the heterogeneity of the construct “the Orient”—may very well lead us to think that valorizing the late twentieth-century “rise of Japan” disrupts Western hegemony rather than participates in a discursive formation that may well be a decisive and long-standing component of that hegemony.

In another sense, Hwang's version of Madame Butterfly, performed against the backdrop of Vietnamese and Chinese anticolonial nationalisms, represents more than just a repetition of Western perceptions of the “Asian challenge” since the Russo-Japanese War. As my essay has argued, the historical occasion of M. Butterfly also marks the limitation of a prevailing critical discourse whose preoccupation with essentialism reflects a politics profoundly circumscribed by a national frame. The difficulties of extending postmodern minority discourse onto international terrain, however, may only make visible its inherent liabilities for minority oppositionality itself. We must question what is at stake in a politics currently grounded upon demonstrating the constructedness of identity, whether with regard to ethnic minorities or women. The ostensibly paradoxical humanism disclosed by certain types of antiessentialist projects' demand for recognition of “our” heterogeneity reflects the profoundly liberal sentiment that often underwrites multiculturalist politics—especially when, in the instance of an author's apologia and a state-sanctioned message, we notice that the reading that posits this demand functions as the alternative to a political reading. Madhava Prasad's critique of the way in which the subalternist intervention has “led to its appropriation by a kind of politics that … regards celebration of the other as the only possible source of a new politics” can perhaps be extended to certain trends within the minority discourse project here.31 “The current tendency,” Prasad writes of subalternist-inspired approaches, “is to find new and multiple subjects of fragmented histories, so that history itself is divided into any number of independent, self-propelled trajectories, each with its own share of the ‘homogeneous, empty time’ of capitalism” (67). In their introductory notes “Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse,” Jan Mohamed and Lloyd do insist upon the “class basis of discrimination and the systematic economic exploitation of minorities that underlie postmodern culture” (10), but their critique of pluralism insofar as it may be “mendacious” and “disguises the perpetuation of exclusion” leaves room for subsequent critics to recuperate “genuine” pluralism as the final, limited objective of a minority politics.

M. Butterfly's response to Orientalism as fundamentally a problem of the false representation of Asian identity seems to structurally require that it erase the critique of imperialism present in Puccini. Kondo's argument exemplifies the way in which the antihumanist critique of totality and of essence can simply result in a pluralist claim that is often interchangeable with the desire to overturn stereotypes. The belief in the political subversiveness of questioning binary identities alone actually rests upon conceptualizing power in reductively binary terms. A minority discourse project that proceeds along these presuppositions will have difficulty theorizing Orientalism beyond a problem of East-West relations at a moment when the practitioners of Orientalism are getting even more heterogeneous, its form more varied, and its location and movement more dispersed. Orientalism constitutes a discourse of power about the “East,” implicated in the globalizing logic of capital. If, however, nineteenth-century capital expansion took the form of Western imperial domination, which turned various parts of Asia into the administered colonies and semicolonies of the West, the uneven and unequal development of Asia that now includes such disparate economies as Japan, China, and Vietnam makes it ever more impossible to assume that Asian countries exist in the same relationship to the “West” or, for that matter, to each other.

One of the consequences of the uneven and unequal development of capitalism in Asia is that we must avoid positing any homogeneous relationship between Orientalist discourse and the geographical location of its articulation. Orientalist fantasies are deployed by and pitched to a variety of subjects in different sites, many of which are themselves “Asian.” The way Thai agencies sell sex tours to Japanese customers or the way the Malaysian development board markets the country's female labor to Japanese multinationals, for example, are prime examples of the use of Orientalist discourses by, and their direction toward, Asian subjects. This does not mean that Westerners still do not constitute the major audience/market for Orientalist representations of Asia, but the extent to which Asian governments or comprador elites themselves profit from constructing various kinds of essential representations of Asian identity requires that we detach our comprehension of Orientalism from the binding constraints of East-West terms. The bipolar conceptualization of Orientalism is as inadequate as the unidirectionality of the relationship between the two terms. That an authoritarian capitalist state like Singapore does not find M. Butterfly subversive suggests how the play articulates a kind of Asian rejoinder to the “West” in a register that does not in the least threaten Western capital. At a time when capital is no longer strictly “Western”—and, in the context of Southeast Asia, largely Japanese—an Asian rejoinder to the “West” may in fact be altogether beside the point.

A historical-materialist approach to Orientalism presumes the recognition that identities are constructed and in heterogeneous ways, but does not make that recognition a political end in itself. Only by investigating the various, and often contradictory, interests invested in the construction of different identities can we hold out a challenge to hegemonic formations. To insist that we attend to the material conditions that form all kinds of identity does not preclude the need to think through the mutually constitutive nature of identities.32 Indeed, it requires it, because a historical-materialist approach proceeds from an antiessentialist view of identity—refusing any unchanging gendered form of race or raced form of class—while retaining a notion of the political still measured by social change. In this sense, the liminality of Asian Americans as a minority identity within a contemporary discursive formation that includes the production of “the model minority” and “the Asian economic miracle” can, instead of being disabling for constructing our oppositionality, actually serve as the lever for a critique of minority discourse as a whole.33 Insofar as that which makes Asians signify obtrusive danger from beyond U.S. borders also makes them invisible as minorities within, the particularly visible porousness of the relationship between Asians and Asian Americans should be used to help us think beyond the national frame. Indeed, it is precisely the national conditioning of identity-based approaches that is responsible for generating oppositional projects that can prove dangerously reactionary in different contexts.

If Asian American and Asian Studies work toward eliminating their own disciplinary borders,34 and given a persistent politicization of the shared object of study, critics within this field may find themselves particularly well placed to contribute to discussions of the global economies of race and gender, as well as the contradictory and always shifting identitarian features of capital. After all, that post-Fordism should exercise a particular preference for the labor of Asian women has not yet been satisfactorily theorized as an integral component of capital logic, while the implications of this development for theories of gender oppression have barely made an impact on the current direction of feminist theory.35 It is the “nimble fingers” attached to these women's bodies that we must keep in view in any attempt to rethink the contemporary political significance of Madame Butterfly.


  1. Major press coverage of Hwang includes: “David Hwang: Riding the Hyphen,” New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1988, and “Seductive ‘M. Butterfly,’” Los Angeles Times Calendar, July 5, 1991. For critical praise for M. Butterfly, see Chalsa Loo, “M. Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective,” Asian Week, July 14, 1989; Robert Skloot, “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang,” Modern Drama 33:1 (March 1990): 59-66; Dorinne Kondo, “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender and a Critique of Essentialist Identity,” Cultural Critique 16 (fall 1990): 5-29; Marjorie Garber, “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism,” in Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, Doris Sommer, and Patricia Yaeger, eds., Nationalisms and Sexualities (New York and London: Routledge, 1992). One of the few negative responses to the play I have come across is Gabrielle Cody's “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth,” Theater 20:2 (spring/summer 1989): 24-27.

  2. David Henry Hwang, “Afterword,” in M. Butterfly (New York: Plume, 1986), 95.

  3. Nowhere does the specific term “Orientalism” itself get used in the play to describe the issues at stake in the interracial sexual drama, nor does Hwang's anecdotal account of the genesis of the idea for M. Butterfly include reading Edward Said's Orientalism. However, extratextual evidence that supports reading the play in terms of Said's critique of Western representation of the East can be found in Hwang's 1989 Introduction to FOB and Other Plays. Hwang writes: “While in London recently preparing the West End production of M. Butterfly, I wrote an article for The Guardian about Orientalism, defined by the scholar Edward Seyd [sic] as a view of the East as mysterious, inscrutable, and ultimately inferior” (Introduction, FOB and Other Plays [New York: Plume, 1990]). In her essay on M. Butterfly, Dorinne Kondo writes: “Hwang—in a move suggestive of Edward Said's Orientalism—explicitly links the construction of gendered imagery to the construction of race and the imperialist mission to colonize and dominate” (24-25).

  4. The term “minority discourse” is given articulation by Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd, who write: “An emergent theory of minority discourse must not be merely negative in its implications. Rather the critique of the apparatus of universal humanism entails a second theoretical task which the recovery of excluded or marginalized practices permits” (“Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse,” which introduces two special issues on the theme “The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse” in Cultural Critique 6 and 7 [spring-fall 1987]).

  5. In a study of literature by Chinese immigrant and American-born writers, Wong makes the point that the concern with the gendering of ethnicity is specific to works by American-born Chinese writers, while first-generation writing tends to focus on the ethnicizing of gender. See Sau-Ling Wong, “Ethnicizing Gender: An Exploration of Sexuality as Sign in Chinese Immigrant Literature,” in Reading the Literatures of Asian America, ed. Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Amy Ling (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

  6. The phrase comes from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 297.

  7. Banned materials include old Beatles favorites such as “Yellow Submarine” and some albums by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Elton John, often because song lyrics contain references to drugs. Magazines banned on account of sexual immorality include not just Playboy, but Cosmopolitan. Unable to prevent foreign transmissions from penetrating the nation's airwaves, the government has banned satellite-reception dishes so that the only news programs available are those the Singapore Broadcast Corporation (SBC) chooses to broadcast. See Stan Sesser, “A Reporter At Large: A Nation of Contradictions,” New Yorker, January 13, 1992.

  8. As an example of the big press accorded Hwang in Singapore even before the local arrival of M. Butterfly, see Alan Hubbard's “Mr. Butterfly Takes Flight,” Sunday Times, June 11, 1989. The casting of Singaporean actor Glen Goei in the London West End production helped trigger early interest in a play that could not (yet) be seen in Singapore.

  9. From playbill for Singapore Theatreworks production of M. Butterfly, 1990.

  10. The term is particularly appropriate because state efforts to promote Confucian ideology as the “authentic” content of the citizen-subject have derived from the knowledge base of American academic institutions. Work by scholars from the East Asian Languages and Literatures departments of universities like Harvard and Columbia is used to authorize the government's case; they are invited to design educational textbooks and to participate in the Institute of East Asian Philosophy, founded specifically for the purpose of promoting Confucian scholarship. See Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan, “State Fatherhood: The Politics of Nationalism, Sexuality and Race in Singapore,” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Parker et al.

  11. Skloot makes a similar point when he writes that the play operates by forcing audiences into complicity with “the discovery, dismantling, and re-establishment of theatrical illusion” (59).

  12. From John Louis DiGaetani, “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang,” Drama Review 33:3 (fall 1989): 141-53.

  13. Author's interview with director after the performance.

  14. The term “Oriental despotism” can be traced to eighteenth-century European texts of political economy to characterize India, and particularly, China. Karl Wittfogel's influential Oriental Despotism is an exemplary contemporary text that attributes an inherent despotic tendency to China as a “hydraulic society”; see Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957). The aesthetic strategies used by M. Butterfly to represent the Chinese communist state bear a striking similarity to those used by Miss Saigon to represent the demonic rise of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. The similarity is particularly ironic given the widespread recognition that Miss Saigon, a musical produced after M. Butterfly, is an updated version of the very Madame Butterfly convention Hwang's play critiques. In Miss Saigon, an American GI in Vietnam gets involved with a local prostitute with a heart of gold, whom he is forced to leave behind in the panic of American withdrawal. She bears his child, longs for his return so that he can take her to America, and refuses an important offer of marriage. In the meantime, the American has married a white American woman, with whom he travels to Thailand, where his former Vietnamese lover lives in a refugee camp. When she discovers that he has remarried, she commits suicide so that her child may be adopted by the American couple. The hidden similarity between this modern version of Madame Butterfly and its Asian American parody could be productively examined by also taking into account Hwang's stance on Miss Saigon. Although the musical was later criticized by Asian American groups for its content, the initial protests—led by Hwang and actor B. D. Wong, who played Song Liling in the Broadway production of M. Butterfly—revolved around the demand for greater inclusion of Asian American actors.

  15. Critics differ over whether or not to treat Belasco's play as distinct enough from the Long short story to constitute a separate textual influence on the opera. Compare Arthur Groos, “Lieutenant F. B. Pinkerton: Problems in the Genesis of an Operatic Hero,” Italica 64:4 (winter 1987): 654-75, and Julian Smith, “Tribulations of a Score,” in the English National Opera Series edition of Madame Butterfly (London: John Calder, 1984). For the purposes of my argument, Long's remains the more important of the opera's two sources, as it is the text that critically transforms the French novel into an American narrative.

  16. Aziyade, the novel set in Turkey, is exceptional in almost an opposite sense. While his novel about Japan represents the most indifferent extreme of exotic love, the novel about Turkey represents the most deeply invested. For a discussion of Loti's special attachment to the subject of Turkish women, see Irene Szyliowicz, Pierre Loti and the Oriental Woman (London: Macmillan, 1988).

  17. Both Groos and Smith agree that the weakness of the unconventional hero in this opera accounts for its initial failure.

  18. Chalsa Loo praises M. Butterfly for allowing “women who have felt the sting of male abandonment and betrayal [to] silently rise in applause as Butterfly's death is avenged” (16). The inconsistent reading, however, is the one by Kondo, who celebrates Hwang for, on the one hand, subverting or displacing essential dualisms, and, on the other hand, for reversing them. Her critique of Puccini for representing the victory of West over East, and for the “tragic—but oh so satisfying—denouement: Butterfly, the little Asian woman, crumpled on the floor” (10), suggests that, despite her poststructuralist critique of humanism and her political critique of imperialism, Kondo, like Loo, basically objects to the stereotype of Asian/female weakness.

  19. Playbill, Theatreworks production of M. Butterfly, Singapore.

  20. By essentialism-preoccupied theory, I refer to the influential work of Diana Fuss, Judith Butler, and Chantal Mouffe. Michele Barrett's work—as seen in the trajectory from Women's Oppression Today to its apologetic new Introduction in the revised edition, and finally to The Politics of Truth—exemplifies the shift from Marxist feminism to discourse theory. Barrett is responding to Hazel Carby's accusations against her for racial occlusions in her treatment of the family. Within Marxism, it is worth noting that the critique of totality on the basis of its essentialism authorizes itself by pointing to, among other things, discussions on the “subject” of feminism. In the key text that makes the argument for a post-Marxism, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe point to theoretical developments within feminism that have problematized the idea of a single mechanism of women's oppression, which “opens up” an “immense field of action … for feminist politics” (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy [London: Verso, 1985], 116-18).

  21. Teresa Ebert refers to this trend as a ludic postmodern feminism, against which she proposes a resistance postmodern feminism. See Teresa Ebert, “Ludic Feminism, the Body, Performance and Labor: Bringing Materialism Back into Feminist Cultural Studies,” Cultural Critique 23 (winter 1993): 5-50.

  22. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 131. It is no accident that Mouffe's later work—on citizenship—should follow increasingly nation-state-centered directions. For example, see Chantal Mouffe, “Feminism, Citizenship and Radical Democratic Politics,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992). For a critique of the looseness of their theoretical model, see Norman Geras, Discourses of Extremity: Radical Ethics and Post-Marxist Extravagances (London: Verso, 1990).

  23. The term comes from Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).

  24. Efforts to link questions of sexuality and gender with questions of the nation bear great potential for breaking down artificially enforced distinctions between the public—the realm of work and the state—and private, to which issues concerning women have been thought to be restricted. How nationalist discourses articulate the nation through figurations of gender, and how on the other hand, the most apparently “private” domains of sexual or reproductive choice are ideologically interpellated, are crucial in the way they help extend our understanding of the constitutive relation between individual and collective identities, and power. But this is not what Garber does. Her linkage of nationalism and sexuality consists of a conceptual parallelism, not even an “intersection,” itself a popular and overused concept; her argument also has nothing to do with questions of power.

  25. In her critique of Michel de Certeau's reification of the opposition between the World Trade Center and the street, Meaghan Morris is making a similar argument when she writes: “‘The Tower’ here serves as an allegory of the structural necessity for a politics of resistance based on a bipolar model of power to maintain the imaginary position of mastery it must endlessly disclaim” (Meaghan Morris, “Great Moments in Social Climbing: King Kong and the Human Fly,” in Sexuality and Space, ed. Jennifer Bloomer and Beatrix Colomina [New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992], 13).

  26. An example of the simple application of Said's definition of Orientalism to another set of discourses about another site is Rolf Goebel's “Constructing Chinese History: Kafka's and Dittmar's Orientalist Discourse,” PMLA 108:1 (January 1993): 59-71.

  27. Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthemum (London: KPI Limited, 1985), 41. To the extent that the representation of “Japanese woman” receives any embodiment, she is represented as a “darling little fairy” (42), whose appeal rests not upon sexual fullness but a prepubescent asexuality.

  28. Szyliowicz notes Loti's particular dislike for Japan (Pierre Loti and the Oriental Woman, 33).

  29. See William Schwartz, The Imaginative Interpretation of the Far East in Modern French Literature (Paris: H. Champion, 1927).

  30. In his examination of Japanese and American representations of each other recorded during the first Japanese embassy to the United States in 1860, Masao Miyoshi notes American rhetorical approval of the Japanese that depends upon establishing their difference from Chinese coolies. The San Francisco Daily Alta California declares, “The countenance of these people wore a far more intelligent look than any Chinese that we have seen.” Marking Japanese difference from other Asian races, moreover, often converged with postulating Japanese identity with the “West”: for example, the Daily Evening Bulletin writes, “Their dress bears some resemblance to that of richer Chinese, but exhibits a taste more in harmony with our own” (Masao Miyoshi, As We Saw Them [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979], 67).

  31. Madhava Prasad, “On the Question of a Theory of (Third World) Literature,” Social Text 31/32 (1992): 64.

  32. Sau-ling Wong's analysis of Chinese immigrant literature is an excellent example of work that moves beyond positing the simultaneous and mutually determining relation between all categories by seeking to make careful and precise distinctions in the way ethnicity and gender constitute each other. In an argument that does not shy away from distinguishing the conditions under which different categories may assume analytical priority, Wong hypothesizes that first-generation writing focuses on the ethnicizing of gender, whereas works by American-born writers reflect the concern with the gendering of ethnicity (Wong, “Ethnicizing Gender,” 124).

  33. In the double issue of Cultural Critique devoted to the study of minority discourse, Sylvia Wynters's article on the “disenchanting” dimensions of minority discourse, without explanation or further discussion, positions “Asian” on the side of the “Caucasian.” “Asian” and “Caucasian,” as owners of “capital-as-moveable wealth,” together form the hyphenated majority term against which “negroid peoples” are defined (Sylvia Wynters, “On Disenchanting Discourse: ‘Minority’ Literary Criticism and Beyond,” Cultural Critique 7 [fall 1987]: 233). Whether we read Wynters as critically or uncritically placing “Asian” within the majority term, this grouping must be taken seriously as symptomatic of a larger discursive formation that considers Asian Americans a dubious minority. The most significant policy reflection of this lies in the way Asian Americans were positioned in the affirmative action debates of the 1980s, and their continuing disqualification from major national and local minority fellowships. For a discussion of the problematic marginality of Asian Americans and a critique of the pursuit by Asian American writers of “molecular micropolitics,” see E. San Juan, “Beyond Identity Politics: The Predicament of the Asian American Writer in Late Capitalism,” American Literary History 3:3 (fall 1991): 542-65. Interestingly, San Juan ends his critique of identity politics by invoking M. Butterfly as a “provisional example of the ‘and/or’ strategy of disruption.”

  34. My thoughts on many of these questions owe much to stimulating discussions with Nikhil Pal Singh. For an excellent analysis of the need to connect Asian American and Asian Studies, see Sucheta Mazumdar, “Asian American Studies and Asian Studies,” in Asians and Asian Americans: Comparative and Global Perspectives, ed. Shirley Hune et al. (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1991), 29-44.

  35. It has been more than a decade since the publication of Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich's Women in the Global Factory (1983), which made famous the Malaysian government investment brochure touting the “manual dexterity of the Oriental female.” Work that has brought together gender and political economy has developed largely within the social sciences. See, for instance, Swasti Mitter, Common Fate, Common Bond (London: Pluto Press, 1986). With a few exceptions, such as the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, however, feminist theory seems to have moved farther and farther away from theorizing gender in connection with global inequalities.

An early version of this essay was delivered at the Modern Language Association in 1991. Many thanks to King Kok Cheung for supporting the initial project and to Geraldine Heng for taking me to see M. Butterfly in Singapore. I am indebted to Joseph Cleary, David Pickell, and Alys Eve Weinbaum for their rigorous criticisms and suggestions. I also wish to thank Jean Howard, Qadri Ismail, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Sau-ling Wong for commenting on drafts of this essay.

Anne Anlin Cheng (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11234

SOURCE: Cheng, Anne Anlin. “Race and Fantasy in Modern America: Subjective Dissimulation/Racial Assimilation.” In Multiculturalism and Representation: Selected Essays, edited by John Rieder and Larry E. Smith, pp. 175-97. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Cheng examines the intersection of fantasy and representations of the racialized body in M. Butterfly and Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.]

Why does race have such a hold on us?

This paper explores the role fantasy plays in the narrations of race and ethnicity in American cultures, with the goal of expanding our understanding of fantasy beyond its conventional terms. While much critical energy has been directed towards deconstructing categories such as race and gender, less attention has been given to the ways in which an individual, as well as a community, remains invested in maintaining such categories, even while such identifications prove to be prohibitive and limiting rather than enabling. The fantasm of “race,” with its assimilative and dissimulative effects, requires further rethinking in such a way as to neither dismiss nor sentimentalize the racial subject.

In the vexing and varied vocabularies surrounding the discourse on race and ethnicity, the term “fantasy” remains troublingly untroubled: that is, fantasy is most often understood as ontologically negating, politically suspicious, and a prerogative of the “dominant” culture. Yet can we so easily extract the minority subject's self-representation from hegemonic representation? When we claim with political savvy that women and/or minorities have internalized dominant cultural demands, do we really know what that means? How do we begin to conceptualize that identificatory assimilation in such a way as to both critique and accommodate the desire for identity? To what extent is the concept of “minority” itself the formation of popular fantasies and representations? What is the relationship between the public repertoire of racial images and the individual's process of self-fantasy? What are the normative (in the sense of the usual and the normalizing) fantasies of race, and what would be the effect of reading alternative fantasies into these models? Is there such a thing as private fantasy?

In order to begin to answer these questions, this paper focuses on David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (and in particular, the figure of Rinehart) as two instances where fantasy is revealed as constitutive of and fundamental to the formation of any racialized body. Both texts proceed from the premise that fantasy provides a mechanism of identification which has profound structuring effects on the individual's self-conception with respect to race, class, and gender. Central to my analysis is an exploration of the connection between racial assimilation and other forms of subjective dissimulation. Both Hwang and Ellison, diverse in their ethnic backgrounds and relationship to America, suggest that the fantasies of communal assimilation always require acts of private dissimulation. This connection can be easily and conventionally understood as the price of “fitting in.” My essay, however, attempts to re-theorize the notion of inauthentic performance and its relationship to assimilation and fantasy. I want to suggest that these terms are not causal but structurally identical and mutually effective. Consequently, the traditional understanding of their political implications needs to be recast.

Re-reading psychoanalytic theories of fantasy and melancholia and drawing from post-colonial theories on mimicry, I argue for fantasy first as an identificatory structure that operates assimilatively and dissimulatively: in fantasy's tableau, “I” enjoy myself as an “Other,” the other that is me. Does this identificatory structure translate into our colloquial understanding of cultural assimilation, and what would that tell us? I propose that this making-the-self-as-other provides the melancholic precondition for identity. This proposition radically re-signifies the notions of cultural interpellation and racial identification, and how we read racial fantasy (its pleasure of the other) as a political concept. Hwang's M. Butterfly and Ellison's Invisible Man offer complex and sometimes troubling representations of the negotiation between self and other at the juncture of fantasy and disguise. Until we relocate these terms at the convergence of the often agonistic discourses of critical theory, psychoanalysis, and political exigencies, we cannot begin to address fully these texts' theoretical preoccupation with the fantasies of identification and their political ramifications.


Many readers may assume quite reasonably that the phrase “race and fantasy” alludes to fantasies about minority subjects: stereotypical images generated by mainstream culture about the exotic or unknowable Other. Indeed, in the field of minority literature, fantasy is almost always seen as a privilege of the dominant. It has been largely inflected in negative ways as something that is at best an unreal or false projection, and at worst, objectifying and ontologically impoverishing. It is, in other words, a political taboo. This line of thinking was dramatized for me a few years ago at an academic conference, where following a talk I gave on fantasy and ethnicity in Maxine Hong Kingston, a member of the audience stood up and informed me in no uncertain terms, “We minority subjects cannot afford to have fantasies.” Although I understood the political concerns which prompted such a pronouncement, I was nonetheless disturbed by its disavowal, as though one could not have fantasies, and as though to be a fantasizing subject is to have already failed to be a political subject. It seems to me, on the contrary, that fantasy and political conviction are far from mutually exclusive; in fact, one might go as far as to say that they are profoundly related. I am thus interested in pursuing a concept of the “fantasmatic,” which is not at all about what is real or unreal, but rather refers to a psychical principle which organizes our beliefs and faiths—organizes, above all, our faith in ourselves socially, racially, sexually, and ontologically.

I open with David Henry Hwang's award-winning drama of political and sexual faith M. Butterfly. The story of a French diplomat who after ten years discovers that his Chinese mistress was not only a spy but also a man, M. Butterfly has become an almost-classic text of how racial fantasies can facilitate sexual fantasies. Central to much critical attention has been the play's exposure of the consistent emasculation of the Asian male in white society (Eng, Fong, Garber, Horn, Remen, Skloot). Song's “ruse” deploys the very racial, cultural, and gender stereotypes that Gallimard has in order to seduce and manipulate the latter. As Song's infamous and much-quoted lines state:

because when [Gallimard] finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And … I am an oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.

(Hwang, 83)1

Song attributes the success of his sexual disguise to the over-determinacy of race: his racial difference facilitates his sexual disguise. He believes that Gallimard's sexual blindness derives from his racial ideology, so that a man can walk up to Gallimard, even sleeps with Gallimard, and still convinces Gallimard that he is a woman because he is Asian and thus already emasculated. Song, the play's internal political critic, explains to us that the “Perfect Woman” culturally connotes the passive “China doll,” which in turn connotes the effeminized Asian male. In the political agenda of M. Butterfly, the fact that the cultural emasculation of the Asian male makes possible his sexual “passing” is quite clear.2

What have been critically neglected and cannot be as easily accounted for are alternately: 1) Gallimard's repulsion for the racial myth that he enacts, and 2) Song Liling's investment in the very myth that he exploits. If one were to read racial stereotype as the sole cause of Gallimard's blindness, then one would also have to assume that if he had been more politically and culturally savvy, he would not have been duped by the deception. Yet can “knowing better” or “political correctness” redirect, correct as it were, one's desires and fantasies? Gallimard the character seems at times, oddly enough, to “know better.” Among the oddest aspects of Gallimard's dupability are those moments of seeming self-derision and awareness, his repeated and conscious re-staging of himself as a “player” within the cultural cliché of Madame Butterfly. How do we account for the co-existence of fascination and contempt within Gallimard towards his assigned role?

Cio-Cio San … is a feminine ideal … the man for whom she gives up everything, is—(He pulls out a naval officer's cap … pops it on his head, and struts about)—not very good-looking, not too bright, and pretty much a wimp.


In parodically miming Pinkerton, Gallimard exposes the racial and cultural assumptions underlying the logic of that story. He has understood the racial “trade-off” in this Pinkerton-Butterfly contract. If, as recounted by Gallimard, “he” gets the beautiful feminine ideal, what does “she” get—except the badge of his whiteness? The first time Gallimard meets Song in person, he is intrigued by the latter's political shrewdness and refusal to fit into a stereotype. Song essentially gives him a lesson in cultural politics. They meet backstage after Song's theatrical performance of Madame Butterfly:

You were utterly convincing. …
Convincing? As a Japanese woman? The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war … But I gather such irony is lost on you. …
It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man. …
What would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese business man. … I will never do Butterfly again, Monsieur Gallimard. If you wish to see some real theater, come to the Peking Opera sometime. Expand your mind.
So much for protecting her in my big Western arms.


Their first exchange circles around the topos of demythification. Gallimard's last statement (an aside to the audience) ironizes his own clichéd position as the “powerful white man.” Song appears to be offering Gallimard anything but fantasies. Song has given Gallimard a quick lesson against an ideology of authenticity. In this first meeting of lovers, the play's central conceit (the question of who is really a “Butterfly”) has been deconstructed by the dissimulator. We (as well as Gallimard) have already been told that the image can be a lie.

If Song has refused outright to play Butterfly and proceeded to humiliate Gallimard's white assumptions, then why does Gallimard and even Song himself continue to narrativize and experience the affair through that myth? It is at the conjunction of Gallimard's repulsion and Song's investment that we arrive at an issue more disturbing than popular racial fantasies: the draw and promise of identificatory possibilities inhering in those fantasies.

In order to help us understand the significance of re-reading fantasy not as content per se but as a promise of indentificatory structure, I want to take a detour through the writings of Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis and their notion of fantasy. One of the more fascinating moves in their seminal essay “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality” is how Laplanche and Pontalis read Freud's seduction theory and its vicissitude, not as a simple turn from reality to fantasy (from experience to fantasized memory), but its very opposite—that the turn turns out to be not a turn, that due to Freud's own anxiety of origin, although a fantasized scene has replaced an actual scene, the conceptual effect remains the same. And it is in this “failed turn” that Laplanche and Pontalis believe Freud to have opened up, almost in spite of himself, new dimensions for rethinking fantasy.

Let me crudely sketch out how their thesis works. The big discovery for Freud in the case of the hysteric is his abandonment of the idea of an “original, real” scene of seduction for fantasized memory. Freud initially posits an original scene of parental seduction, the memory of which can be triggered by a later event. Half way through his career, however, Freud abandons the “original, real” scene of seduction for a scene of fantasized memory (i.e., the child fantasized the seduction, which comes to acquire a psychical reality). It would seem that Freud has uncovered the heart of psychoanalysis: the existence of a fantasy that is so powerful as to achieve the paradox of “psychical reality.” Yet Freud goes on to claim that the fantasized memory exists to mask the development of infantile sexuality. This implies that sexuality is endogenous, traumatic, and therefore needs masking. Laplanche and Pontalis draw the following implications: 1) the retroactive, theoretical model has stayed the same for Freud: real or not, there is this so called first scene, and then there is the second scene which triggers the first; 2) Freud still offers us a conceptual scheme which divides the external from the internal, the event from its constitution; and 3) the description of a spontaneous infantile sexuality (which was disguised by the fantasy) is nonetheless basically endogenous in development, so that when Freud relegates the first scene to fantasy, he has actually undermined the point of “psychical reality” because the move merely signals a return to biologism. Fantasy in fact serves as a “double disguise” for Freud (L&P, “Fantasy,” 14). By claiming that the fantasy of seduction is a disguise for infantile sexuality, Freud is in fact disguising his old allegiance to “reality.” This suggests the following paradox: at the very moment fantasy is discovered by Freud, it is also in danger of being obscured by endogenous reality. As Laplanche and Pontalis conclude, “We have indeed the fantasy, but we have lost the structure” (L&P, “Fantasy,” 16). That is, Freud is still trapped by needing to show “what's under the counter” even though he has said that there is nothing—nothing “real” that is—under the counter.

Although Freud seemingly uncovers the “truth” (which is fantasy), he still feels the need for further truths—in other words, for some form of “original scene” in some way. His next step then is to posit a “primary or original fantasy” which is phylogenetic and pre-historic. What is radical in Laplanche and Pontalis' assertions is the implication that Freud's fantasy of origin is exactly that: myth of a myth, fiction of a fiction, the analyst's fantasmatic projection of an origin to cover up the gap between “the before and the after.” Laplanche and Pontalis are not so much interested in validating the Freudian concept of “original fantasy” as they are interested in fantasy's originating function. What they want to salvage from this Freudian blind spot is the discovery of “the unconscious as a structural field, which can be reconstructed since it handles, decomposes and recomposes its elements according to certain laws”(L&P, “Fantasy,” 16). We can infer that this composition—maybe the very work of the unconscious itself—is subjected to fantasmatization—novelizing we might say. The term the fantasmatic stresses the structuring action of fantasy and designates not mere daydreams, but a “principle of organization” that shapes our life as a “whole” (Laplanche, The Language, 317). We can infer that this composition, subjected to fantasmatization, provides the narrative for the subject's life. In other words, the fantasmatic renders autobiography possible. What is at stake in distinguishing a vernacular understanding of fantasy from the Laplanchean sense of the word is the question of agency in relation to that autobiographical narrative. Rather than presupposing a fully-formed subject day-dreaming, fully in control of his/her fantasies/stories, Laplanche and Pontalis propose that fantasy provides the scenario which poses subjective possibilities: “it is a scenario with multiple entries, in which nothing shows whether the subject will be immediately located” (L&P, “Fantasy,” 22). This suggests that fantasy always structurally entails some kind of subjective dissimulation; the subject in fantasy can be disguised in various roles. In fantasy, not only do we witness a subject in disguise, but it is the disguise that conditions the subject position.

For our reading of M. Butterfly, the concept of the fantasmatic drastically rearranges the identificatory implications of the racial and sexual fantasies for Gallimard and for Song. It is easy enough to locate racial fantasies within the play, but what if we were to read those very fantasies as the psychical reality which constitutes the very idea of race in the first place? The “original secret” of this dramatic plot may be said to be another question of “what's under the counter”: does “she” or does “she” not have a penis? How could drama come from a fact that everyone in the audience knows? The audience may feel safe from deception since they are not the ones fooled and are there merely to watch for Gallimard's rude awakening. Yet why is it then the three times I have seen the production on Broadway, each time the infamously jaded audience of Manhattan still gasped when Song undressed and revealed his masculinity? The physical reality of Song's manhood can neither be news to the audience nor finally that astounding. As Gallimard himself comes to say, Song's physical body is quite irrelevant (90). We might relocate our focus from what is beneath the costume to the surface of the costume itself. Both the audience and Gallimard himself, I propose, have been enthralled not by the question of “what's under the counter,” but rather by the structure of the counter itself, the simultaneous operations of display and concealment. We do not want to know the secret (because we already do); we want to know how the secret came to be a secret. The question of truth versus falsehood has been replaced by the more vexing question of how do we process the real and the fictive. The question of fantasy is finally not one of truth versus fiction or the real versus the unreal; rather it is a question of how those categories come to acquire their particular status and currency. It is within the elaboration that Gallimard undertakes to explain radically disjunctive experiences (i.e., the gap between his instinctual and social desires) that we can begin to discern the deeper structure of fantasy and what it achieves for Gallimard.

Gallimard finds himself enacting, not so much the content of the Madame Butterfly story, but the fantasy of that fantasy: the fantasy of being able to act “the Pinkerton.”3 The “real theater” to which Song directs Gallimard and that which Gallimard comes to enact is not the content of Madame Butterfly, but its theatricalization of positionality. He falls, not for the fantasy, but for its structural guarantee: an organization of roles which shapes identificatory possibilities. Let us trace out the connection between fantasy and identificatory formation within the play. We have been told that racial fantasy comes to supply the explanation for and the narrative of Gallimard's life: how he could have mistaken a man for a woman; that is, how he could have desired a man. Fantasy bridges the disjunctive experiences of Gallimard's erotic life: his instinctual lack of heterosexual desire and its social injunction. As a child and later as a young man, Gallimard suffers acute abjection in face of his own pornographic tableaux (10). He remains passive in front of images of available women and is impotent within his own fantasies. The problem with Gallimard then, prior to meeting Song, is not one of weakness but desire. The real anxiety derives not from shyness, but from Gallimard's lack of desire for women. What requires explanation is Gallimard's lack of proper desire. What comes to supply the desire is the Madame Butterfly fantasy. Indeed, as Laplanche and Pontalis point out, fantasy tells us less about desire itself than the setting/staging of desire. To categorize the “reality” of Gallimard's sexuality—whether he is simply a foolish, racist straight man or a gay man pretending to be straight and racist—is finally not as revealing as how Gallimard comes to stage himself as a desiring subject. The initial “social” desire represented by Butterfly/Song, a desire that is colleague-approved and socially expected, allows for Gallimard to stage social injunction as an “original” or “subjective” desire. The fantasmatic helps us locate, not the content of Gallimard's fantasies, but how those fantasies structure his self-organization and provide the story of his (homosexual/heterosexual) aspirations. To read Gallimard's faith in Song-the-woman as a “fantasmatic constraint against homosexual desires”(Eng, 95-6) or its inverse (a fantasmatic investment in homosexuality, a mise en scène designed to stage homosexual possibilities) is to miss a crucial Laplanchean point: that the event cannot remain discrete from its constitution. Analogously, the content of desire cannot precede its staging. Indeed, desire does not give rise to fantasy, nor does fantasy satisfy desire per se. For “fantasy is not the object of desire, but its setting”(L&P, “Fantasy”, 18). Fantasy merely and solely performs a mode of desire, not the mastery of desire.

What operates as the fantasy of racial certitude in Madame Butterfly thus disguises another story, performs yet another process of elaboration: the staging of power. The racial stereotype embodied within Madame Butterfly turns more on power relations than racial assumptions. Or rather, racial assumptions tell us less about race than power. Let us return again to that first meeting. Song's message for Gallimard in that encounter about Madame Butterfly is above all a lesson in power. Song was derisive and dismissive of Gallimard. Song's analogy of the “blonde homecoming queen with the short fat Japanese businessman,” more than it mocks racial stereotypes, highlights the play of power underneath. Although Song's analogy is designed to point out the unlikeliness of that pairing due to racial assumptions, one could very well believe in Song's scenario in light of the recent, increasing white anxiety regarding Asian “buying power.” That is, one would quickly believe the scenario if the “short, fat Japanese businessman” was, say, the president of Mitsubishi. The point is that Song's version of the reverse myth is indeed quite believable, thereby exposing the power structure underlying the racial discriminations. Consequently, instead of demonstrating the fact of racial inequality, Song betrays its contingency. He himself exercises that power in this conversation with Gallimard: he dismisses and acquires supremacy over the white man by denigrating the white man's racial assumptions. His derision, based on cognitive advantage, reverses their supposed racial hierarchy.

One may say that Gallimard learns his lesson in humiliation so well that he repeats it as the master. Gallimard's coming-to-love parallels his coming-to-sadism:

I began to wonder: had I, too, caught a butterfly who would writhe on a needle?
… I felt for the first time that rush of power …
Watching the secessions of her humiliations is like watching a child under torture.

(32-3, 42)

The table has been turned. Gallimard has not learned the “truth” of Madame Butterfly as taught to him by Song in that first meeting. What he learns, instead, is the structure of that interaction, which he now repeats with role reversal. Already, we see how the performance of power functions reflexively. In the fantasy tableau of Madame Butterfly, Gallimard's racial and gender positions (as the white man and the dominant male) do not remain stable, and that is precisely why the fantasy holds him. In other words, Madame Butterfly affords Gallimard the luxury of “multiple entries,” so to speak. The tale of Madame Butterfly allows Gallimard to play out not only the white male position but, more crucially, his identification with the passive woman. According to existing cultural formulæ, Gallimard appears as something of a “manly” failure since the beginning of the play. Already a “racial” cross-breed and far from being the “great white man,” Gallimard is shy, effeminate, married to an emasculating wife, does not know what to do with girls, has a phonically gender indeterminant name. Critics have pointed out that Song's super-femininity allows Gallimard to compensate for his uncertain masculinity. Yet Gallimard's attraction to Song goes beyond mere compensation to one of replication. Song provides a mirror image of Gallimard. They are both described as shy, passive, not wanting to undress, etc. Indeed, Song-as-woman very much resembles Gallimard-as-man. Gallimard's moments of mastery over Song speak more profoundly of moments of identification with the victim. Gallimard's sadistic position derives its pleasure and potency precisely through identification. Gallimard enjoys the sadistic position because it ensures his own subject position. “I” get to do this to “her”. Thus even while sadism promises mastery, it also denotes a mastery that is based on denial. As much as Gallimard can say, “she is a butterfly on a needle” or a “child under torture,” he is also saying, “I am not that.” I am not the butterfly on the needle; I am not the child under torture.

Every statement of imaginary coherence that Gallimard utters merely inverts its negation. The heterosexual injunction, which Gallimard experiences as instinctual displeasure or anxiety, has been apprehended, mastered, and managed by the subject as the social pleasure of sadism. That is, after all, the heart of the cultural lesson itself: that we are to learn to transform instinctual displeasures into cultural pleasures and, in Gallimard's case, the cultural pleasure of being a man, a master. The cultural position of being a “man” allows him to re-manage his own instinctual uncertainties as cultural triumphs (being “one of the boys at the office,” etc.). His capacity for abjection suggests, however, that his pleasure in these moments of sadism, his fascination of the sadistic point of view, may be merely that it provides the best vantage point, the best seat in the house, from which to witness the masochistic story unfold.4 I might even go as far as to say that it is Song the victim, the figure who supposedly occupies the passive position whose subjection Gallimard experiences as a pleasurable repetition of his own history.5 It is exactly that subjective uncertainty and even multiplicity, rather than certitude, that holds Gallimard. Within the power structure of Madame Butterfly, it is the reflexivity of the sadistic and masochistic positions that Gallimard comes to mime and repeat. We have not been given the fiction of a desiring subject, but the desiring subject as fiction.

When Gallimard takes on Song's identity as Butterfly at the end of the play, he is but re-performing the incorporation that he has been enacting all along. Having established Gallimard's attraction for Song as one of identification rather than difference, what conclusions can we draw about Gallimard's racial status in this mirror structure? Gallimard tells us that the assumption of Song's role is so powerful as to effect a morphological change: “[it] re-arranged the very lines on my face”(92). What exactly is this facial change? Is it the change of lineament from man to woman, from white to Asian? This transfigurative and incorporative moment denotes a racial as well as sexual crossing on Gallimard's part. What falls apart in this last scene are his “masculinity” and the “whiteness” elicited to mask that first “failure.” His “white assumptions” paradoxically open him up for counter-occupation. Not only has Gallimard fantastically created an ideal “Asian Woman,” he literally recreates himself as the Asian Woman. The process of racialization de-stabilizes and multiplies, rather than secures, identificatory possibilities. The myth of racial certitude has been revealed as a myth, a secondary elaboration of composition and decomposition. The racialization of Song in turn racializes Gallimard. Thus racial fantasy, although obsessively thematized by the play, serves as something of a red herring. Race operates as a “double disguise”: it seems to be the key to unraveling this amazing case of misidentification, when in fact it is itself generative of cross and multiple identities. The solution itself stands as a cipher.

The exposure of Gallimard's “false” assumptions reveals (literally gives us) the process of masking. We end with Gallimard painting over his face. What can be recoverable underneath the “false type” is not a hidden “true type,” but the act of disguise that goes into creating a type at all. The “origin” or “truth” of race has been disclosed to the extent that it has been revealed as a myth of disclosure, a myth of explanation. In speaking about “original” or “primal” fantasies, Laplanche and Pontalis emphasize the point that what makes fantasies original or primal is not temporal antecedent or phylogenetic inheritance (as Freud posits), but that they are already secondary elaborations in order to address an enigma. “Original fantasies” are original in that they are originating:

the origin of the fantasy is integrated in the very structure of the original fantasy. …

Like myths, [original fantasies] claim to provide a representation of, and a solution to, the major enigmas which confront the child. Whatever appears to the subject as something needing an explanation or theory, is dramatized as a moment of emergence, the beginning of a history.

(L&P, “Fantasy,” 18-9)

What interests Laplanche and Pontalis about original fantasies is not their original status as such, but how they constitute, help to originate sexuality and identity. What interests us here is how race offers an originary fantasy of its own. If as Laplanche and Pontalis write, “the origin of fantasy is already integrated in the very structure of original fantasy,” then suddenly we have this radical notion that the so called fantasized, secondary scene may always already be the beginning. The schema of division between first and second scenes turns out to be profoundly unstable. Instead of a forgotten or repressed original scene to be recalled, original fantasy can be seen as something that happens repeatedly—every time something needs explaining. It is dramatized as a moment of emergence, the beginning of history. I submit that racial fantasies are also “original” and “primal” in that they are secondary elaborations which dramatize both emergence and history: they place a subject in relation to self and history, an autobiographical ma(s)king. Anthony Appiah once wisely said, “there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us”(Appiah, 45). But it is also precisely race's surplus value as value that masks its non-referentiality. In M. Butterfly, rather than seeing racial difference as facilitating sexual dissimulation, it is the fantasm of that difference which enables a racial “presence” to come into being.

But what about Song's role in this reflexive drama? Where is his desire? We now come to the other puzzle of M. Butterfly: Song's investment in the very role that he claims he despises. Aside from his “professional” objective to fool/seduce Gallimard, does Song “get” anything out of his disguise? And what would it mean for the political agenda of the play if he does? Song has been seen through the play alternately as either the object of Gallimard's desire or the critic of Gallimard's desire. Song's “private” desires remain largely unspoken and untheorized by both the play and the criticism surrounding it. This omission brings up the larger question of fantasy at the juncture of the private and the public. Can a subject loaded down by stereotypical projections come to have private fantasies discrete from that persistent repertoire of public images? Is it even possible for the cultural Other to remain un-assimilated? In his essay “The Other Question,” Homi Bhabha points out, “… the stereotype, which is [colonial discourse's] major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place,’ already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated”(Bhabha, “The Other Question,” 18). Bhabha locates the stereotype as a specific discursive mode that identifies and isolates. Who, however, is “anxiously repeating” this discursive mode, the colonizer and/or the one stereotyped? Who performs for whom? As we see from M. Butterfly, within the dynamics of specularity, the line between audience and performer (even between performer and performance) remains far from discrete. We are all too painfully familiar with the clumsy, popular racial fantasies that circulate within our public sphere. But rather than citing again and again those obviously troublesome stereotypes, it seems more fruitful and important to go on to the more vexing question of how exclusion in the forms of those clumsy fantasies have worked to structure minority identities in the first place. In her article “Defining Asian American Realities Through Literature,” Elaine Kim rightly traces those persistent racial fantasies as part of our cultural inheritance (Kim, 89). In uncovering the “realities” of Asian-American life, however, Kim implies that some kind of “Asian-American truth” discrete from the public repertoire of images may be recoverable. I suggest instead that the minority identity as such does not exist in a vacuum, but remains structured through exclusion and loss. To propose that the minority subject may also be anxiously re-staging those fantasies is not to reinscribe him/her back into the stereotypes, but to perform the more important task of unraveling the deeper identificatory operations produced by those projections.

Not accidentally, the question of Song's desire collapses into the question of Song's identity. Let me set the stage by offering three incidences where we get glimpses of Song's desire (the fact he may have one at all). The first moment is provoked through an observation made by Comrade Chin:

You are wearing a dress! And every time I come here, you're wearing a dress. Is that because you're an actor? Or what?
It's a … disguise, Miss Chin.


The unspeakable possibility residing in Comrade Chin's “Or what?” has been confirmed and silenced within Song's pause. The second incident comes from Gallimard's query:

Don't you, even a little bit, wish you were here with me?
I'm an artist, Rene. You were my greatest … acting challenge.


One might imagine other options for that telling pause. The third moment comes from the trial:

Just answer my question: did he know you were a man?
You know, your Honor, I never asked.


In the series of cryptic moments cited above—moments of deferral and pause, of blanking out and of “disguise”—Song's desire is not articulated. Or rather, Song's desire can be located precisely in these pauses … culturally and subjectively un-uttered. It is as though to articulate Song's desire would render him less “cool” or jeopardize his position as a proper critic of Western male fantasies. The moment of self-revelation for Song is made possible only through relegating that revelation to the realm of disguise. In other words, Song's inauthentic performance must remain inauthentic in order to guarantee the authenticity of his critique.

However, if we have learned anything from tracing Gallimard's fantasmatic identification with Song, then we would have to re-examine Song's investment in his disguise. In particular, we need to focus on Song's self-identification within the play. We recall that Song appears quite critical of the elision of national identity by racial identity. In their first meeting, (s)he informs Gallimard that he should not confuse the Chinese with the Japanese. As a Chinese, (s)he therefore could not possibly make an authentic Cio-Cio-san, nor would (s)he want to assume such a false role. By the end of the play, however, Song does take on another racial role, that of the white man. Clad in Armani slacks, Song assumes the colonial voice:

You think I could've pulled this off if I wasn't full of pride? … Arrogance. It took arrogance, really—to believe you can will … the destiny of another.


His earlier statement that he has “learned a few things about Western men”(82) must now be understood as implying not only that he has learned how to be with a western man, but also how to be a western man. This suggests that, within stereotype's necessary repeat performance, the other identificatory position available for the one stereotyped is not another stereotype (“don't mistake me for the Japanese”), but the role of the master.

It is through identifying with the master that Song assumes a fantasy of his “selfhood.” In his final gambit for love (not belief) from Gallimard, Song says startlingly and revealingly, “So—you never really loved me? Only when I was playing a part?”(89). By insisting on his subjective essence prior to “playing a part” and discrete from the dissimulation, he has missed the very crux of the power he exercised through the play. We can no longer accept his sexual disguise as pure performance; rather, we begin to see that disguise itself has had a performative effect on Song. We find Song protesting to Gallimard: “I'm your butterfly. … It was always me. … You adore me”(89). His failure to play his own game to the end reveals that within a fantasy structure, a “correct” political position is difficult to maintain since positionality is exactly what has been placed under question. This failure of complete mastery on Song's part must be further understood as revealing a desire for identification. The seduction of dissimulation—the making of oneself into another/the other—turns out to promise nothing less than the possibility of a “self.” When Gallimard “choos[es] fantasy”(88), he too chooses the fantasm of subjecthood: “‘I’ am pure imagination”(91; my emphasis). Only through the detour of the “other” can a self be most effectively simulated. For both Song and Gallimard then identification resides within disguise, and the racialization of their respective subjective positions is but an effect of that dissimulation.

In Gallimard's repulsion and Song's investment, we come to see racial fantasy as at once productive and prohibitive of identity. Because race as a fantasy promises a subject both origin and narrative, it has come to acquire primacy over other modes of identification. It mimes a structural basis for self-identification: I am the other that is me. The difficult lesson of M. Butterfly is not the existence of fantasy stereotypes as the playwright himself asserts in the Afterword, but the more disturbing idea that fantasy stereotypes may be the very ways in which we come to know and love someone … to come to know and love ourselves.


Is there any getting over race? Freud distinguishes mourning from melancholia by designating the latter as the pathological version of the former—pathological because, unlike the successful work of mourning, the melancholic cannot “get over” loss. According to Freud, that loss becomes internalized, incorporated, and disguised (my addition) as a part of the melancholic's ego. Melancholy is thus this incorporative fantasy designed to hang on to a loss that cannot be grieved.6 That incorporated loss, furthermore, has a constitutive effect on the ego. I want to propose that race lives in America as a melancholic presence. Race—or more specifically racialization—may be considered to be profoundly melancholic: that is, racial identification operates by incorporating an exclusion that cannot be admitted. Toni Morrison's well-known thesis in her article “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” arrives at one side of this equation when she describes the formation of the nineteenth-century American literary canon as having been built on “things unspoken,” the negative space that is “Afro-American presence.” I say “one side” of the equation because, in addition to identifying African-American presence as the symptom of American melancholia, I want to emphasize that the process of racialization itself functions as that melancholic double-movement of denial and incorporation within the pluralist project of American cultures. The fantasy of multiculturalism depends as much on the exclusion of cultures as on their melding. Furthermore, the ontological status of that lost “presence” requires analysis as well.

What I hope to accomplish in this second half of the article is to rethink race in Ellison in terms of a cultural exclusion and its subsequent melancholic incorporation.7 If melancholia is ungrieved loss and if the ideology of “American cultures” sustains itself via the repeated exclusion and staged re-incorporation of excluded Other(s), then one may begin to read “racialized America” (for both the minority and the dominant) as a fantasy built on absences. In light of the American rhetoric of equality and freedom, loss and exclusion are especially inadmissible (though active) in America. This is why I said that race lives in America as a melancholic symptom. It is crucial to recognize that identity structured by loss operates on both sides of the mainstream and the marginalized, because a melancholic identity is built on incorporative confusion, a mimetic identity. In his introduction to Abraham and Torok's The Wolf Man's Magic Word, Jacques Derrida meditates on the fantasy of incorporation, interestingly enough, in a vocabulary that runs closely to what we have been examining:

The first hypothesis of The Magic Word … supposes a redefinition of the Self (the systems of introjections) and of the fantasy of incorporation.

The more the self keeps the foreign element as a foreigner inside itself, the more it excludes it. The self mimes introjection. But this mimicry with its redoubtable logic depends on clandestinity. Incorporation operates clandestinely with a prohibition it neither accepts nor transgresses.

(Abraham and Torok, xv, xvii)

The “foreigner inside” lives as the “self.” Earlier with M. Butterfly, we have traced how the internalization of the other holds profound subjective effects, how taking on a role can mean taking in an identity. We saw too how the activity of dissimulation stages subjectivity. To racially assimilate (in the senses of blending in and taking in) implies an act of private and subjective dissimulation.

In the field of post-colonial studies, Homi Bhabha's work on mimesis adds another slant to this issue of incorporative identity. He identifies in his article “Of Mimicry and Man” an injunction to assimilate within what he calls the “colonial discourse of mimicry.” Bhabha sees mimicry as a disciplinary device, one that is nonetheless doomed to fail. He explains, “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha, “Of Mimicry,” 126). By this account, the colonized subject finds him/herself in the position of melancholically echoing after the master: incorporating the master as well as his denigration. What we have been calling the “internalization of the other” he attributes to colonial strategy itself. Within this context, we see a sophisticated version of the “price of fitting in.” To put it crudely, Bhabha has located the social injunction to assimilate and that injunction's built-in failure. The colonized subject must be disguised, mimed, as almost the same, but not quite. His/her incomplete imitation in turn serves as a sign of assimilative failure, the failure of authenticity.

But if we were to interject at this point what we have learned about the structuring and reflexive effects of fantasy and dissimulation, then we would have to broaden Bhabha's theoretical trajectory. What if “colonial desire” itself is melancholic and longs clandestinely to mime the “foreigner” inside? What if we recast that disciplinary failure (built into the injunction for mimesis) as instead an allowance for dissimulation? What if we alter the value attached to dissimulation? And what if dissimulation—the Other that is me—provides the very structure of identification? These alternative possibilities expand our assumptions about the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. To return briefly to M. Butterfly, the play theorizes through the figure of Gallimard the inherent inverse of the Bhabha paradigm: that the colonizing subject may himself counter-identify with the Other. It is the failure of the colonizer—to be the same but not quite (as the Butterfly)—that opens up the space of re-inscription within the colonizer's subjectivity. The play also suggests that the colonized may have internalized the very fable that he debunks precisely because it is profoundly difficult to dislodge the very internalization that is productive of identity: “I'm your Butterfly. … It was always me”(89; my emphasis).

I turn now to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man because its narrative of fantasy, disguise, and identity offers us an opportunity to develop further our examination of cultural loss as constitutive of racial identity. The benefit of linking a colloquial understanding of racial assimilation to a psychoanalytic notion of melancholic incorporation lies in how we learn to read cultural loss and foreclosures. By locating cultural and racial exclusion as a loss, Ellison's text offers a theorization on identity which does not recuperate that loss as presence, but as invisibility. Or, more specifically, Ellison re-valuates invisibility as strategy to identify that absence without denying that absence's constitutive power for the formation of the racialized subject (for both the master and the oppressed).8

The question of “how to master the master's tongue” can be said to be a central question confronting the narrator. Metaphors of mirroring, swallowing, and even gagging abound in Invisible Man. The novel offers a series of assimilative fantasies: the yes'em to death of the grandfather, the mad internalized cynicism of the vet, Trueblood as the fantasy of in-bred narcissism, the incorporating politics of the Brotherhood. Remember Mr. Norton who sees himself in the invisible man's face (Ellison, 42)?9 Or Dr. Bledsoe who had to act like what the white men think (“‘I had to act the nigger!’”[143])? Here we have the double equation of mutual, counter-incorporation where the white man and the black man mime one another, both trying to approximate their own identity through the other, supported by their fantasmatic image of the other. In fact, the novel is constructed around a series of reflexive mimetic figures. In this world of mirrors, the individual characters, for all their striving for individuation, more often than not find themselves in a crowd, or worse, inevitably served up for crowd consumption.10 There is no gaze that is not always already a mirror of another gaze. Consider, for example, the narrator's high school graduation. Instead of finding an audience for his speech, the narrator finds himself in a spectacle of humiliation arranged for the enjoyment of the white audience. The blond dancer, as well as the staged blind fighting afterwards, enable the white audience to witness the “bestial” nature of the black boys. The description of the woman offers a curious mixture of in-animation and bestiality:

The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon's butt.


The dancer's face and body mirror the very qualities that the men have attributed to the black students. When the narrator reacts to her with desire and hatred, “to caress and destroy her, to love and murder her”(19), he is but performing the inseparability of desire and shame that he is supposed to feel. What has been exposed in that moment is not so much his subjectivity, but a reflection of the constitutive history of the representation of black male sexuality in relations to white men and women. The mise-en-scene exposes the black gaze as a confirming mirror for white male anxiety: the fantasy of black male hyperbolic sexuality. What is fascinating here is not that the fantasy exists, but that that fantasy needs to be staged and re-staged, for the re-staging provides the tableau in which the white audience can mediate and witness their own desires through the Other. The spectacle offers that detour, that doubling. The blonde's display exhibits the spectacle of the boys' arousal and shame, which in turn reflect the arousal of the white audience.

If the invisible man's response in front of that nude is but assenting to a stereotype, then is there any escaping that history? If a subject position has been preconditioned by certain laws and prohibitions, the exposure of that law/prohibition alone cannot suffice to restore that subject to a “wholeness” it never had. The “black gaze” is always already a historical construct. The one character who manages to “fall outside history,” Clifton, does so by acting out, not denying, that history. After recognizing that he has been duped by the Brotherhood, Clifton takes to the streets of New York performing the Sambo doll. Rather than reading his action as a concession to stereotype, I suggest that he is dramatizing and exposing the role that had been assigned to him. In taking up the Sambo doll, he is acting out what the Brotherhood has made him. The idea of a healthy progressive history, in which events can be successfully mourned and left behind (that is, gotten over) echoes far too closely the kind of blind, corrective, historical logic which undersigns projects like the Founder's dream (“the history of the race a saga of mounting triumphs”[134]) or the Brotherhood's idea of progressive history.11 How can one restore invisibility?

Description—the delineation of presence and absence—turns out to be both the problem and the critique of the problem of invisibility. Beyond the standard reading of invisibility as a metaphor for exclusion (that the black man is invisible because white society refuses to see him), the text offers us invisibility as a strategy of critique: a metaphysical, intellectual meditation about invisibility as it comes to be associated with abstraction, the power of disembodiment and illusion. In the Prologue, the narrator relates an incident where he runs up against his own invisibility:

One night I accidentally bumped into a man. … He … called me an insulting name. … I sprang at him. … But he continued to curse and struggle. … I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat … when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare! … a man almost killed by a phantom.


This collision literalizes the question: if the black man is the melancholic ghost of American culture, what happens when that culture runs up against this ghost? Furthermore, is the white man not constituted by the very nightmare he dreamt up? The image of the narrator as a phantom denotes not only the narrator's erasure but, more importantly, signals that erasure as the principle fantasmatic which shapes the reality of the white man.

As the inadmissible fantasm configuring (not just configured by) social visibilities, the narrator's invisibility is not only an effect of, but affects social reality. As we know from M. Butterfly, prohibition, like most injunctions, operates reflexively. Ellison's narrator gives us the vocabulary with which to conceptualize this reflexivity:

I am invisible. … Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.


Within that mirroring structure, who distorts whom? As much as racial blindness renders the narrator invisible, surely his invisibility reflects emptiness back on those gazers as well? If he has been assimilated only through his invisibility, then he also dissimulates—renders dis-similar—the status of their visibility. Here we have the potential for a kind of subversive assimilation, a kind of mimetic dissimulation inherent in, though differently inflected by, Bhabha's “discourse of mimicry.” The fantasm of the narrator's invisibility imitates the fantasm that is mainstream society. While blackness has traditionally been seen as all too visible/readable, whiteness operates through invisibility:

Trying to think about the representation of whiteness as an ethnic category … is difficult, partly because white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular. … This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power.

(Dyer, 44-5)

The narrator in the Prologue (which is also the end) assumes this representational power through camouflage. He hides under the city, so in it that he becomes undetectable. The city's “Monopolated Light & Power” company observes a source draining their energy but whose origin they cannot determine. The narrator is at once everywhere and no where.

The character who anticipates this strategy of omnipresent non-description is of course the fantasmatic figure of Rinehart. Perhaps the real invisible man in the text, Rinehart never appears—except as pure appearance: Rinehart the runner, Rine the gambler, Rine the briber, Rine the lover, pimp, and reverend. He stands as the figure of a figure. He represents form without substance, yet his substancelessness provides him with pure potential. The narrator muses:

Could [Rinehart] himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? … His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. … It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie.


We return to the issue of authenticity. When it comes to identity, the question goes beyond what is culturally real or racially genuine to the question of context. To try to locate Rinehart's “true” identity would be to miss the lesson of Rinehart: who you are depends on whom you are talking to, which community you are in, and who is watching your performance. Embodying dissimulative potentials, glaringly visible in his invisibility, Rinehart operates and structures a network of connections in Harlem from religion to prostitution to the law. He is at once the ultimate “outsider” and “insider,” making visible the contingency of division and perverting the lines of power—or at least, exposing power as positionality. As a parable for plurality, as a continually re-signifiable sign, Rinehart critiques the ideal of an uncompromising individuality.

But what does this figure of re-signable tabula rasa mean in racial terms? Is Rinehart a racialized figure in the text? Rinehart (and even, the narrator) is all too easily recognizable as “Rinehart” in his glasses, his hat, and even shoes. As a type (“poppa-stopper,” “daddy-o,” the “stylin'” one), Rinehart seems more stylized than racialized. More to the point, he exposes the idea that racialization is always a matter of style, rather than essence—a performance of type that can either be stereotyping or employed by the Other as self- identification. As the narrator says, “I was recognized [as Rinehart] not by features, but by clothes, by uniform, by gait”(485). It is no coincidence that the narrator does not run into Rinehart, but becomes Rinehart in an identificatory collapse. His disguise (the dark glasses which throws him into a sequence of “dreamy, distorted” events) literally calls forth Rinehart. Rinehart as an event of visual performance demonstrates that 1) the act of identification is not far from representation (and thus involves and requires our attention to the power dynamics of viewer and spectatorship); and 2) that any act of identification tends to involve simultaneously an act of dis-identification.

By assuming Rinehart's subject position, the narrator at once acquires an identity and loses his capacity for naming. Even as he enjoys the disguise, he asks repeatedly, “who actually was who?” The site of identification is presented as difficult and ambivalent precisely because there is a cost in every identificatory staging. “It” is not just a costume, as Song and Gallimard have discovered. To impersonate Rinehart is to personify Rinehart. The narrator finds himself not only acting like Rinehart, but acting Rinehart. The narrator tells us, “Something was working on me, and profoundly”(486). Rinehartism exemplifies the contextuality of identity, a question of “place and circumstance”(489). By dissimulating the dissimulator, the narrator perceives for the first time the originating, rather than trapping, possibilities of identity: “being mistaken for him … my entire body started to itch, as though I had just been removed from a plaster cast and was unused to the new freedom of movement. … you could actually make yourself anew” (498-99).

It is crucial, however, to nuance this liberation as provisional, if not downright shattering. By impersonating Rhinehart, the narrator arrives not at an identity, but the fantasm that is the mode of identification. To follow Rinehartism is to plunge into the very heart of racial melancholia:

So I'd accept it, I'd explore it, rine and heart. I'd plunge into it with both feet and they'd gag. Oh, but wouldn't they gag. … Yes, and I'd let them swoller me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refuse to see.


The metaphor of gagging instantiates the melancholic condition of race in America: we gag on what we refuse to see. American culture is continually confronted by a ghost (the ghost of race) that it can neither emit nor swallow. Rinehart as a “Spiritual Technologist” recommends a remedy for that social malady: “Behold the Invisible”(495)—the invisibility that serves as a precondition for visibility. When Toni Morrison speaks of the “African-American presence” in American literature, what is the status of that “presence”? Is she referring to “real” African-American presence or the fantasm of African-American presence? I propose that the answer can only be the latter. The racialization and phantomization of African-Americans exist to condition “American” presence. The always already ghostly presence of African-Americans in American literature implies that the entire process of racialization, of configuring visibility (who is white, who is black; who is visible, who is not), must be considered as itself a wholly melancholic activity. The act of delineating absence preconditions presence. Race in America is thus “stuck” within the moebius band of inclusion and exclusion.

Invisible Man finally hints that the first solution to that melancholic condition is not to recover a presence that never was, but to recognize the disembodiment that is both the master and the slave. Disembodiment, metaphorized by Rinehart, becomes literalized in the narrator's hallucination, the scene of castration. In that state of neither dreaming nor waking, he confronts the groups that he has encountered and their particular brands of incorporative histories and ideologies:

I lay the prisoner of a group consisting of Jack and Emerson and Bledsoe and Norton and Ras and the school superintendent. … They were demanding that I return to them and were annoyed with my refusal.

“No,” I said. “I am through with all your illusions and lies. …”

But now they came forward with a knife … and I felt the bright red pain and they took the two bloody blobs and cast them over the bridge, and out of my anguish I saw them curve up and catch beneath the apex of the curving arch of the bridge, to hang there, dripping down through the sunlight into the dark red water.

“Now you're free of illusions,” Jack said, pointing to my seed wasting upon the air. “How does it feel to be free of one's illusions?”

And now I answered, “Painful and empty. … But look … there's your universe, and that drip-drop upon the water you hear is all the history you've made, all you're going to make.”


The narrator's dismemberment, his scattered, castrated ego becomes the resistance against group consolidations and signifying processes. By trying to recruit the narrator as a mirror image of themselves, by castrating him to do so, the various social organizations incorporate the very loss that they instigate. If history enacts denigration, then history will be structured by that brutalization. This scene demonstrates that “to be free of illusions and lies” is viscerally brutalizing and produces loss, but the scene also theorizes the possibility that that place of violent intra-subjectivity might also be the very place where freedom lies.

This scene speculates that freedom comes not from historical or social liberation, but specifically identificatory renouncement (“painful and empty”), because the vocabulary of freedom itself can be deployed by the rhetoric of enslavement (as illustrated by the rhetoric of the Brotherhood). “To be free of illusions” paradoxically and crucially means to be free of the ideologies of authenticity. Like the white man whose reality can only be shaped by his nightmare, the narrator's perception has for the most part, prior to this scene, been shaped by the ideologies which he tried to assimilate, his “soul-sickness”(575). Throughout the body of the narrative, he had been searching for visibility, individualism, as well as communal identification. The only kind of possible individualism however comes from the state of disappearance, of pain and emptiness—a shattered rather than reconstituted subject. In that scene of castration and relinquishment, invisibility has been theorized as a condition of disembodiment and abstraction, as an escape from “illusions.” Ellison locates identity, not in uncompromising individualism, but in intra-subjective negotiations—negotiations that are experienced intersubjectively and violently. The narrative has consciously tried out various political positions/strategies and then undermines them so that the resolution of Invisible Man remains far from certain. What is the “socially responsible role” that he will play by the end of the novel? The narrative has offered us more questions than any final affirmation or particular course of action. The narrator informs us: “So it is now I denounce and defend. … I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. … So I approach it through division”(580). The politics of this novel offer us description rather than prescription.12

“Community” embodies its inverse: exclusion. Invisible Man remains wary of the very group ideologies which “create” and isolate African-American communities in the first place. As the enclave that protects but also marginalizes, Harlem is not free from that “soul-sickness.” The narrator tells us that he had been “as invisible to Mary (the nurturing ‘mother’ in the heart of Harlem) as [he] had been to the Brotherhood”(571). When he asks of Clifton's death, “Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, laying outside history”(441), he anticipates his own falling underground, significantly on the edge between the margin of Harlem and the mainstay of the city. Invisible Man collapses the literal question of “where you stand” into the metaphoric and political question of “where you stand” and exposes its positionality. The discourse of identity fosters division and disidentification as well (I am this; therefore I am not that). The Brotherhood provides a quintessential example of group ideology: its membership requires the forsaking of other identities. Furthermore, its recruitment works through the borrowing of another communal value: “black brotherhood.”

Ellison's political thesis has always seemed to me more radical than minority politics find comfortable. It is radical in its profound undermining of group ideology and of communal possibilities. The political platform of Invisible Man, contrary to the appeal of the representative novel and its ethnic bildung, relies not on identity—because the protagonist never arrives at one—but on the non-existence of identity, on invisibility with its assimilative and dissimulative possibilities. Yet this place of political discomfort provides the most intense examination of what it means to adopt a political stance. The invisible man tells us in the Epilogue, “you carry part of your sickness with you”(575). You carry the foreigner inside. This malady of doubleness, I argue, is the melancholy of race, a dis-ease of location, a persistent fantasy of identification that cleaves and cleaves to the marginalized and the master.


  1. All further citations from this text will come from this edition.

  2. For a critical, cultural examination of the consistent emasculation of the Asian male—this time in the field of gay pornography—see Richard Fung's provocative essay, “Looking For My Penis?” The title of the essay derives from the piece's thesis that in gay male pornography the Asian man is repeatedly displayed in the passive “female” position; consequently, one rarely actually sees the Asian male penis.

  3. In fact, Pinkerton was always already a type, a role. Power has never come from him per se, but from his cultural position, the colonial privilege of being a “Pinkerton.”

  4. See Kaja Silverman's article on “Masochism and Subjectivity” for an insightful look into the reversibility of masochism and sadism as identificatory positions.

  5. A pleasure, by the way, that can in no way be admissible. Since for centuries the writing of masculinity constitutes an elaborate denial of passivity and masochism, Gallimard could no more admit his masochistic pleasures than he could his homosexual desires.

  6. My reading of melancholia as incorporative fantasy is indebted to the works of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok. See The Wolf Man's Magic Word.

  7. To my knowledge, melancholia has been theorized only in gender terms: in terms of female subjectivity for Kaja Silverman in The Acoustic Mirror and in terms of homosexuality for Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter. In the former, Silverman in analyzing Luce Irigary speaks of how the female subjectivity has been constructed as inevitably melancholic, via the negative oedipal complex (i.e., not getting over the mother). Silverman recasts that melancholia over the mother as an instance of identification that is productive. In Butler's argument, melancholia has been read in terms of gender in two ways: 1) homosexuality as the pathologized version of heterosexuality; 2) homosexuality as the melancholic loss for which the heterosexual norm cannot grieve, but a loss that must be maintained and managed all the same.

  8. More than Asian-Americans, Afro-Americans hold a problematic and particularly melancholic relation to American culture as that presence which has been historically excluded and simultaneously and consistently re-gathered as exclusion.

  9. All further citations from this text will come from this edition.

  10. See Phillip Brian Harper's article for an excellent reading of the struggle of the invisible man as a continuous negotiation between the demands of individual versus communal voice.

  11. It is outside the scope of this present paper, but Ellison's meditation on subversive strategies in relations to the “master's tongue” can be placed very interestingly within the context of existing debates regarding the critical treatment of minority literature with respect to mainstream literary criticism. See, for instance, the debate between Barbara Christian and Henry Louis Gates in Cultural Critique.

  12. Indeed, Ellison's questioning of stable political grounds and acts of political intervention has led critics to accuse him of neglecting “Negro duty” (Bone, 110). The counter critical tendency to read the text as a manual for the achievement of black identity equally neglects this text's unease with individualism as an uncompromising ideology.

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicolas and Maria Torok. The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy. Trans. Nicholas Rand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28 (Spring 1984), 125-133.

———. “The Other Question—the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse”. Screen. 24:6 (1983), 18-36.

Bone, Robert, “Ralph Ellison and the Uses of the Imagination.” Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Hersay. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974, 95-114.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique (6: Spring 1987), 51-63.

Dyer, Richard. “White.” Screen 29:4 (1988), 44-64.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Eng, David. “In the Shadows of a Diva: Committing Homosexuality in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Amerasia Journal 20:1 (1994), 93-116.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia (1917).” Collected Papers: Vol. IV. London: Hogarth Press, 1953, 152-170.

Fung, Richard. “Looking for My Penis: The Exocitized Asian in Gay Video Porn.” How Do I Look? Queer Film and Videos. Eds. Bad Object Choices. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Gates, Henry Louis. “Authority, (White) Power and the (Black) Critic; It's All Greek To Me.” Cultural Critique (Fall 1987), 19-46.

Harper, Phillip Brian. “‘To Become One and Yet Many’: Psychic Fragmentation and Aesthetic Synthesis in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.Black American Forum. 23:4 (Winter 1989), 681-700.

Horn, Miriam. “The Mesmerizing Power of Racial Myths.” U.S. News & World Report (March 28, 1988), 52-53.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Kim, Elaine. “Defining Asian American Realities Through Literature.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987), 87-111.

Laplanche, Jean and J. B. Pontalis. “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality.” Formations of Fantasy. Eds. Victor Burgin, et al. New York: Methusen, 1986, 5-34.

———. The Language of Psychoanalysis. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1993.

Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter 1989), 1-19.

Remen, Kathryn. “The Theatre of Punishment: David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punishment.Modern Drama 37 (1994), 42-58.

Silverman, Kaja. “Masochism and Subjectivity.” Framework (no.12), 2-9.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33 (1990), 59-66.

Angela Pao (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3760

SOURCE: Pao, Angela. “M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang.” In A Resource Guide to Asian American Literature, edited by Sau-ling Cynthia Wong and Stephen H. Sumida, pp. 200-08. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2001.

[In the following essay, Pao provides an introductory overview of M. Butterfly, including information about its critical reception, its historical context, and its major themes.]


M. Butterfly premiered in Washington, DC, at the National Theatre on 10 February 1988 and opened in New York on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on 20 March 1988. The play was originally published by Dramatists Play Service in 1988. New American Library-Plume has published a paperback edition of the text since 1989.


M. Butterfly is a play in three acts and twenty-seven scenes that unfold in nonlinear sequence. The action begins in the Paris prison cell of René Gallimard, a French diplomat who has been convicted of spying for the People's Republic of China. Gallimard serves as narrator for the subsequent scenes as he recalls how his infatuation with a Chinese opera singer, Song Liling, led to his downfall. In flashback scenes, Gallimard recalls his social ineptitude as a younger man and his growing acquaintance with Song Liling, who flattered his masculinity. The episodes from Gallimard's past are interspersed with reenacted moments from Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly.

By act 2, Gallimard and Song have become lovers. Their relationship appears idyllic to Gallimard, in contrast to his marriage with the outspoken Helga. Song, however, has been passing on information about United States troop movements in Vietnam gleaned from Gallimard to Comrade Chin, an agent of the Communist government. To ensure Gallimard's devotion and to counter his discontentment with the fact that Song will make love only in the dark, Chin agrees to supply a baby who Gallimard will be told is his and Song's child. Throughout the second act, in the course of exchanges between various characters, the politics of East-West relations are debated.

During the intermission between acts 2 and 3, the actor playing Song removes makeup, wig, and kimono to become a man in a fashionable suit. This transformation takes place onstage, in full view of the audience.

As act 3 begins, Song takes over the narrative as he tells a French judge how he followed Gallimard to Paris with “their” son and continued to engage in espionage. Song explains that he was able to manipulate Gallimard so easily because the latter was predisposed through various prejudices concerning both women and Asia to believe that he had indeed met his “fantasy woman.” Song also suggests that the common Western perception of the West as dominant and masculine and the East as feminine and submissive would similarly lead to the defeat of Western imperialist and military enterprises in Asia. In a climactic confrontation between Song and Gallimard, Song strips completely, forcing Gallimard to confront the truth of his self-delusions. In a final act of acceptance and resistance, Gallimard dons the cast-off wig and kimono, applies women's makeup to his face, and then reenacts Madama Butterfly's ritual suicide to the “Love Duet” from Puccini's opera.


The first play by an Asian American playwright to reach a broad mainstream audience, M. Butterfly initially met with a mixed critical response. Many audience members and critics were confused about the protocols of interpretation to be applied to a play that did not fit into preconceived notions of a play with “oriental” subject matter. Other critics, however, recognized the originality and innovative aspects of Hwang's work and were receptive to his interrelated critiques of the stereotyping of Asians, social constructions of gender and sexuality, and the imperialist history of European and American foreign policy in Asia (Skloot). Some gay critics recognized the work as an exploration of the nature of masculinity and love. For others, the play's submersion of the issue of sexual preference raised the question of whether M. Butterfly was homophobic.

Opinion regarding the play's ultimate effect on how Asians are perceived has diverged widely. While many Asian Americans of all ethnicities celebrated the first international recognition accorded an American dramatist of Asian descent and the publicizing of views that had previously received little attention outside the Asian American community, others felt that Hwang ended up perpetuating the very stereotypes he intended to subvert (Moy, M. Butterfly and Sights; Wong). It has been argued, for instance, that M. Butterfly continues to promote an exoticized view of East Asia as well as the perception that Asians are devious, manipulative, and cunning. Reactions broke down to a large extent along gender lines. Women were inclined to appreciate the play for its overturning of long-standing stereotypes of the submissive “lotus blossom” (Kondo, About Face and M. Butterfly; Loo), while men were more likely to protest the continued effeminization of the Asian male (Moy, M. Butterfly and Sights). From an international perspective, the play has also been criticized for its superficial treatment of the Asian political situation, notably its cartoonish portrayal of Chinese communism, and for failing to remark that its account of East-West relations proceeds from a dominant Western positioning (Lye).

M. Butterfly received several major awards, including the 1988 Tony Award for the best play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for the best Broadway play, and the Drama Desk Award for the best new play. The play had a successful run in London, was taken on tour in the United States and translated for performance in about two dozen other countries in Asia and Europe, and continues to be regularly produced by regional theater companies.


David Henry Hwang, a second-generation Chinese American, was born in 1957. His father, who was from Shanghai, emigrated from China in 1948, moving first to Taiwan and then to the United States, where he went into banking. His mother, a pianist and music teacher, was from a Chinese family living in the Philippines. They met in the United States and raised their children, David and a younger sister, in San Gabriel, California. The community was predominantly Euro-American, and Hwang's main contacts with other Chinese came through the family's membership in a Chinese church. He received his BA from Stanford University in 1979, writing his first play, FOB, during his senior year. After graduation he attended the Yale School of Drama. His work attracted the attention of Joseph Papp, who mounted FOB for the Public Theatre in New York in 1980. The play, which portrays tensions between native-born Americans of Chinese descent and recent immigrants in a nonrealistic mode, won an Obie Award for best play of the 1980-81 season. Hwang's second drama, The Dance and the Railroad, inspired by the experiences of the Chinese workers who built the transcontinental railroad in 1867, was written and produced the following year. Family Devotions, an almost surrealistic farce that examined the unique chaos produced by Christian fundamentalism in a suburban Californian Chinese-American family, was also produced by the Public Theatre in 1981. The last two plays were nominated for Drama Desk Awards, and in 1982 Hwang was also honored with a Chinese American Cultural Council Award for his “Chinese-American trilogy.”

In addition to works that deal directly with aspects of Chinese American experience, Hwang has written a pair of plays based on Japanese sources, The House of Sleeping Beauties (1983) and The Sound of a Voice (1983), both of which deal with relations between the sexes. A one-act play, As the Crow Flies (1986), explores the relationship of two older women, the one Chinese American and the other African American. Following the success of M. Butterfly, Hwang undertook a variety of creative projects, notably the book for One Thousand Airplanes on the Roof (1988); the libretto for Philip Glass's 1992 opera, The Voyage; and several screenplays, including Golden Gate. With Bondage (1992), Hwang returned to an examination of the power politics of race and sex in interracial relationships. A farce, Face Values (1993), attempted to use the issues arising from the Miss Saigon casting controversy to make audiences think about whether the notion of race is “real” or simply a form of mass delusion. Hwang's 1997 play Golden Child, set in China, examines the effect of early East-West encounters on Chinese social structures as a man decides to have his family, including his three wives, convert to Christianity.

Since 1980, Hwang has moved between New York and Los Angeles.


M. Butterfly is based on an actual affair that came to light in 1986. Bernard Boursicot was an accountant assigned to the French embassy in Beijing after France recognized the People's Republic of China in 1964. Within a few months of his arrival, he met Shi Pei-pu, a Chinese opera singer, at an embassy party. The two became lovers. They maintained sporadic contact over the next nineteen years, primarily because of the existence of a child, who Boursicot believed was his son by Shi. In 1983, French intelligence officials began investigating the relationship between Boursicot and Shi, who were now living in Paris. Boursicot admitted that to protect Shi from persecution during the Cultural Revolution, he had passed on confidential embassy documents to a Chinese contact. In the course of Boursicot's trial for espionage, it was revealed that Shi was a man—not a woman as Boursicot had believed. Boursicot maintained that he never realized that his lover was a man because he never saw Shi naked. He said he accepted her modesty as a “Chinese custom.”

Whereas the most common public reaction was to see Boursicot's claim of ignorance regarding the true gender of his lover as a denial of his homosexuality, Hwang (as he explains in the afterword that accompanies the published play) concluded that the Frenchman was deceived because “he had fallen in love not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype” of Asian women as “bowing, blushing flowers” (94). Hwang interpreted the situation as a reversal of the Madame Butterfly paradigm in which a naive Asian woman is deceived by a worldly Western man. Here, a clever Shi Pei-pu had apparently been able to turn the tables on a gullible Boursicot. In Hwang's estimation, the Frenchman must have fantasized that he was Pinkerton and that his “oriental” lover was Butterfly. By the end of the play, however, the Frenchman realizes that, as the dupe of love, he has been playing the part of Butterfly all along, while the Chinese spy who exploits that love has been the real Pinkerton.

The stereotype of the Asian female to which Hwang is referring can be traced to the late nineteenth century after the forced “opening” of Japan to trade with America and Europe. By the turn of the century, the figure of the Japanese geisha had entered Western popular culture. The narrative of Madame Butterfly, introduced in the United States in a novelette by John Luther Long (based on a French version by Pierre Loti), was first adapted for the stage as a one-act play by David Belasco (1900). It appeared in its most famous incarnation, Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, in 1904. The narrative of an attractive young Asian woman who rejects a suitor from her own culture (always portrayed as insensitive and tradition-bound) in favor of a European or Euro-American man, whom she continues to love even after he abandons her, would become one of the twentieth century's most common paradigms for representing Asian women (Marchetti; Pao, “Eyes”).


Hwang's deconstruction of the Madame Butterfly motif must be placed in the context of Asian American political and cultural awareness that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. One of the most significant aspects of this movement was the challenging of stereotypes of Asians that had been created and perpetuated by Western literature, theater, film, mass media, and popular culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hwang himself acknowledges that he avoided inquiring into the details of the case so that this information would not interfere with his own speculations—speculations that proceeded from his positioning as an Asian American. This positioning is reflected in his deliberate conflation of various Asian national experiences or traditions (e.g., Chinese opera, Japanese geishas, the Vietnam War) in M. Butterfly. This conflation parallels the blurring of ethnic differences in favor of a common Asian American experience that has prevailed until recently.

The American experience in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s provided the most immediate context for Hwang's observations regarding the relation between United States foreign policy in Asia and popular perceptions of Asia and Asians.


  • stereotypes of Asian women and men
  • the exoticizing of Asia in general and Asian women in particular
  • the gendering of ethnicity
  • the relation between foreign policy or international relations and popular cultural representations
  • essentialist versus constructivist models of gender and race
  • the politics of sexuality and sexual preference
  • cross-dressing and gendered identities
  • performance and identity
  • gender as performance
  • the relation of the real and the imaginary


The interest excited by M. Butterfly is due largely to its timely integration of themes involving the complex nature of gender and sexuality with the question of historical relations between East and West. The ambiguity of the title announces the destabilizing of gender distinctions that will take place during the course of the play. The action of the play is in effect an argument against essentialist notions of both gender and race and the concept of a unitary identity. Gender and race are shown to be as much the product of imaginary constructions and concrete social practices as they are the result of biological or genetic determinants (Butler; Garber; Kondo, About Face and M. Butterfly). Critics concerned with constructions of masculinity have found highly relevant material in M. Butterfly (Kehde; Q. Lee).

While the questions about constructions of gender hold relevance for all cultural groups, Hwang treats them from a specifically Asian American point of view. In M. Butterfly, issues of gendered identity are inseparable from the stereotyping of Asian women and men and the gendering of ethnicity that has taken place in American culture and society. While the play most overtly addresses the exoticizing of Asian women (Kim; Ling; Tajima), this phenomenon cannot be separated from the corresponding effeminization of Asian men (Chin and Chan; Kim; Moy, M. Butterfly and Sights). The play can be seen as a dramatization of Edward Said's arguments that the effeminization of the Orient and the Oriental through discursive and visual representations was integral to European and American colonialist and military activity in the Middle and Far East.

As Hwang notes in his afterword, the gendering of ethnicity figures in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. M. Butterfly offers rich material for gay and lesbian studies in its revelation of the politics of sexual preference at work in Gallimard's denial or repression of the homosexual aspects of his attraction to Song (Eng; Q. Lee).

The eminently theatrical nature of M. Butterfly has drawn the attention of critics who note that Hwang's deconstructivist project cannot be discussed apart from the performance conventions and narrative structures used to present those arguments (Chang; Chen; Haedicke; Remen).


M. Butterfly offers challenging and intriguing material for students at all levels. In an introductory-level course, the question of gender formation consistently generates the most lively discussions. The essentialist versus constructivist debate can be approached by having students recall incidents where what was considered gender-appropriate behavior was rewarded and departures from that behavior were censured by figures of authority or by peer pressure. To address the specifically Asian and Asian American aspects of the play, instructors may find it helpful to show the class examples of the stereotypes Hwang was working against. In terms of supplementary readings, the works by Frank Chin and Jeffery Chan, Chalsa Loo, James Moy (“Hwang's M. Butterfly”), Robert Skloot, Renee Tajima, and William Wong provide the most accessible discussions of the critical issues. Although the film version of M. Butterfly departs considerably in mood and focus from the stage version, excerpts are useful for allowing students to observe the gender impersonation. For more advanced students who have some background in contemporary critical theory, the play can be read in conjunction with excerpts from Edward Said and Judith Butler to introduce the students to the fundamental concepts of orientalism and gender constitution as performance. The works by Marjorie Garber, Dorinne Kondo (About Face and M. Butterfly) and James Moy (Marginal Sights) offer more theoretically informed treatments of the central issues of race, gender, sexuality, and representation in M. Butterfly.


With Frank Chin's The Chickencoop Chinaman and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: the construction of Asian American masculinity in the face of media and popular stereotypes.

With Velina Hasu Houston's Tea: interracial marriages between Japanese women and American servicemen that show Asian women as complex individuals.

With Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine: the politics of gender, race, and sexuality; the acting out of essentialist, constructivist, and performative models of identity; the links between colonialism and sexism.


Although Hwang has distanced his work from the actual Boursicot-Shi incident, it may be of interest to students to examine the equally problematic questions of gender and sexuality in the real-life case as it has been documented by Joyce Wadler in Liaison. An extensive listing of critical reviews of M. Butterfly that appeared in American and British newspapers and magazines is included in an article by Angela Pao (“Critic”). Gina Marchetti provides one of the most complete filmographies to date of Hollywood movies representing Asians. Josephine Lee's book situates Hwang's work in the larger context of Asian American theater and drama.


Slaying the Dragon is a sixty-minute film available on videocassette that reviews the principal stereotypes of Asian women that have dominated American films and media.


Berson, Misha, ed. Between Worlds: Contemporary Asian-American Plays. New York: Theatre Communications, 1990.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 270-82.

Chang, Hsiao-hung. “Cultural/Sexual/Theatrical Ambivalence in M. Butterfly.Tamkang Review 23 (1992): 735-55.

Chen, Tina. “Betrayed into Motion: The Seduction of Narrative Desire in M. Butterfly.Hitting Critical Mass: A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism 1.2 (1994): 129-54.

Chin, Frank. The Chickencoop Chinaman. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1981.

Chin, Frank, and Jeffery Paul Chan. “Racist Love.” Seeing through Shuck. Ed. Richard Kostelanetz. New York: Ballantine, 1990. 65-79.

Churchill, Caryl. Cloud Nine. Rev. American ed. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Cody, Gabrielle. “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth.” Theatre 20.2 (1989): 24-27.

Cooperman, Robert. “Across the Boundaries of Cultural Identity: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” Maufort 365-73.

———. “New Theatrical Statements: Asian Western Mergers in the Plays of David Henry Hwang.” Maufort 201-13.

Deeney, John J. “Of Monkeys and Butterflies: Transformation in M. H. Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and D. H. Hwang's M. Butterfly.MELUS 18.4 (1993): 21-39.

DiGaetani, John Louis. “M. Butterfly: An Interview with David Henry Hwang.” TDR: The Drama Review 33.3 (1989): 141-53.

Eng, David. “In the Shadows of a Diva: Committing Homosexuality in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Amerasia Journal 20.1 (1994): 93-116.

Garber, Marjorie. “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestitism.” Nationalisms and Sexualities. Ed. Andrew Parker et al. New York: Routledge, 1992. 121-46.

Gerard, Jeremy. “David Hwang: Riding on the Hyphen.” New York Times Magazine 13 Mar. 1988: 44+.

Gotanda, Philip Kan. Yankee Dawg You Die. Fish Head Soup and Other Plays. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1995. 69-130.

Haedicke, Janet. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly: The Eye on the Wing.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 7.1 (1992): 27-44.

Houston, Velina Hasu, ed. The Politics of Life: Four Plays by Asian American Women. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993.

———. Tea. Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women. Ed. Roberta Uno. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993. 155-200.

Hwang, David Henry. As the Crow Flies. Berson 97-108.

———. Broken Promises: Four Chinese American Plays [FOB, The Dance and the Railroad, Family Devotions, The House of Sleeping Beauties]. New York: Avon, 1983.

———. Golden Child. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1998.

———. M. Butterfly. New York: NAL-Plume, 1989.

———. M. Butterfly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. John Lone and Jeremy Irons. Warner, 1994.

———. The Sound of a Voice. Berson 109-26.

———. Trying to Find Chinatown and Bondage. New York: Dramatist's Play Service, 1996.

Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)Construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American.Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities. New York: New York UP, 1994. 241-54.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.

Kondo, Dorinne K. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. New York: Routledge, 1997.

———. “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Cultural Critique 16 (1990): 5-29.

Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.

Lee, Quentin. “Between the Oriental and the Transvestite.” Found-Object 8 (1993): 45-59.

Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon, 1990.

Loo, Chalsa. “M. Butterfly: A Feminist Perspective.” Bearing Dreams, Shaping Visions: Asian Pacific American Perspectives. Ed. Linda A. Revilla, Gail M. Nomura, Shawn Wong, and Shirley Hune. Pullman: Washington State UP, 1993. 177-80.

Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Anti-essentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 260-89.

Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Maufort, Marc, ed. Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama. New York: Lang, 1995.

Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42.1 (1990): 48-56.

———. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1993.

Pao, Angela. “The Critic and the Butterfly: Sociocultural Contexts and the Reception of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Amerasia Journal 18.3 (1992): 1-16.

———. “The Eyes of the Storm: Gender, Genre, and Cross-casting in Miss Saigon.Text and Performance Quarterly 12.1 (1992): 21-39.

Remen, Kathryn. “The Theatre of Punishment: David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.Modern Drama 37.3 (1994): 391-400.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Shimakawa, Karen. “‘Who's to Say?’ or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in M. Butterfly.Theatre Journal 45.3 (1993): 349-61.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33.1 (1990): 59-66.

Slaying the Dragon. Dir. Deborah Gee. Prod. Pacific Productions. CrossCurrent Media, 1987.

Tajima, Renee E. “Lotus Blossoms Don't Bleed: Images of Asian Women.” Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women. Ed. Asian Women United of California. Boston: Beacon, 1989. 308-17.

Wadler, Joyce. Liaison. New York: Bantam, 1993.

Wong, William. “M. Butterfly: A Symbol of Mainstream Success or Selling Out?” East/West News 4 Aug. 1988: 6-9.

Andrew Shin (essay date spring 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7632

SOURCE: Shin, Andrew. “Projected Bodies in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Golden Gate.MELUS 27, no. 1 (spring 2002): 177-97.

[In the following essay, Shin argues that M. Butterfly and Golden Gate both function as powerful critiques of traditional Western notions of masculinity.]

It has been barely thirty years since the inception of ethnic studies programs at San Francisco State University in 1968 and Berkeley in 1969, yet movements that seek to dismantle the liberationist energies of the 1960s—whether in the form of reinstating traditional curricula or reversing civil rights policies—are well underway. In California, the passage of Proposition 209 repealed the use of racial quotas in college admissions, resulting in an immediate and drastic reduction in the freshmen enrollment of African American and Hispanic American students at California's major universities. Ward Connerly, who spearheaded the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, has recently suggested sitting in on ethnic studies courses at Berkeley to determine whether they indeed promote racial and ethnic awareness or in fact foment radical separatism among students.1 Ironically, Connerly's neoconservative meliorism ignores the brief history of ethnic studies programs, which emerged from the anti-war protest to challenge traditional constructions of American history that elided the contributions of ethnic minorities.

This reaction against ethnic studies coincides with the emergence of the newest thing in lit crit/cultural studies: whiteness studies. Whiteness studies purports to denaturalize whiteness by incorporating a constructivist perspective and unmasking the ideological parameters of whiteness: to make visible an invisible norm. The best studies within the genre, such as David Roediger's, suggest how the working class in the nineteenth century constructed itself as white in relation to a racial other, emphasizing the constitutive reliance of the mainstream on the marginal. In this view, the whitening of an ethnicized working class occurs through a master-slave dialectic sustained politically by working-class resistance to pro-abolition alliances and through cultural forms such as blackface minstrelsy. (See Roediger, Wages; Lott, Love; and Ignatiev.) Paradoxically, various genealogies locate the inception of whiteness studies in the very period when challenges to a normative whiteness coalesced: second-wave feminism assumed an arguably self-conscious turn when women of color questioned its white, middle-class perspective (see Frankenberg, White Women 2-3); and, to some extent, the advent of whiteness studies can be attributed to ethnic studies traditionally conceived, which distinguishes the experiences of those ethnic groups subject to racialization, emphasizing the power differentials that obtain among diverse ethnicities in a nation of ethnics. It must be stressed, however, that the cultural nationalist ethos of ethnic studies was very much a response to the racialization—and racist treatment—of ethnic groups based on phenotype.

But the prominence of whiteness studies at this historical conjuncture raises as many questions as it answers because in some forms it is disturbingly indistinguishable from mainstream studies and can be readily accommodated to a rubric that, by virtue of reclaiming the margin, recenters whiteness as the primary object of study, along with an attendant realignment of institutional power and resources.2 But whether we identify its emergence in second-wave feminism's self-conscious swerve, or as a reaction formation to exclusionary ethnic programs, whiteness studies becomes a defence of the status quo when it loses its critical self-consciousness, whether conjoined with feminist, queer, or postcolonial discourses. An analysis of whiteness, however, converges in salutary ways with these very discourses—specifically in the context of paradigms of masquerade, mimicry, and the butch-femme couple—in the work of David Henry Hwang, to which I now turn.

Celebrated since its premiere on February 10, 1988 at the National Theatre in Washington D.C., David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly has been a cynosure for cultural debate on race and sexuality; less well known is Hwang's 1994 screenplay Golden Gate, dismissed in most accounts as a commercial and critical failure. Indeed discussions of Hwang's work focus on M. Butterfly, a drama that its detractors have variously stigmatized as misogynist, homophobic, and chauvinistic about the West.3 That this work has come under such vituperative scrutiny is hardly surprising given the demands of Asian American audiences for positive images of Asian Americans. This is merely another instance in a venerable tradition of conflict over the representation of ethnicity; consider, for example, the debates over the uses of the protest novel; Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint; the representation of masculinity in ethnic women's fiction of the 1980s; and, most recently, the depiction of Filipino sexuality in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging.4

But if we consider M. Butterfly in conjunction with an analysis of Golden Gate, Hwang's condemnation of Western masculinity emerges powerfully, identifying him as a critic, rather than a celebrant, of Western culture. Both works dislocate moral and sexual agency from a normative white male body and offer provocations to postcolonial and queer discourses by reconceiving notions of acting and imposture. M. Butterfly turns upon the masquerade, generally aligned with feminist and lesbian discussions of cultural subversion, which, by generating a distance between the woman and her image, installs her within the semiotic system as subject rather than object. But in the tragedy's gay context, playing the woman does not prove liberatory, and the masquerade's capacity for contestation is paralyzed. Golden Gate relocates Fanonian mimicry, the classic account of Europe's relationship to its colonies, from the third world to Hoover's America: whereas in Fanon, the native can never close the gap between himself and the colonial power he emulates, a conative situation that renders his pursuit of agency farcical, in Golden Gate this incommensurability constitutes the necessary condition for the creation of an American social conscience.

The psychoanalytic tradition of masquerade began with Joan Riviere's conception of womanliness as reaction formation in the aftermath of the intellectual woman's theft of masculinity. Mary Ann Doane, in an influential article, reslants the masquerade, giving it a subversive, feminist alignment by introducing the notion of artifice and performance: “The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade's resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness … as, precisely, imagistic” (25).5 Sue-Ellen Case, in a later essay, further wrests the feminist subject from biology and resituates her in the butch-femme couple who “constantly seduce[s] the sign system, through flirtation and inconstancy into the light fondle of artifice” (295). But in the gay realm of M. Butterfly the liberatory promptings of performance and artifice reach an impasse because the success of this project hinges on a contract between partners that is not available to the gay couple manqué.

Unlike Doane and Case, Frantz Fanon theorizes performance as dystopic insofar as it presupposes a lack that must be concealed: the colonized subject mistakes European agency for empowerment, imitating the colonial authority, an activity that exacerbates the gap he would close and ends in humiliation and neurosis.6 Hwang dramatizes the incongruity of performance as the traumatic inception of conscience: in Golden Gate the recent Asian immigrant provides the ego-ideal, not, however, in the sense that Chinese national life is presented as superior to that of America. Rather, the Chinese union organizer embodies the American norm, for he upholds the democratic values which are traduced by America's indigenous citizens, in this case, FBI agents. The incommensurability between Kevin Walker, the virile G-man, and the Asian immigrant he tragically emulates gives Walker a praiseworthy, rather than comic, incompleteness.

Both M. Butterfly and Golden Gate dismantle the sexual mythology informing Orientalism, deconstructing the oppositions that structure the worlds of East and West. Hwang's works do not simply elaborate these poststructuralist moves; each addresses a specific historical context: M. Butterfly interprets the Vietnam era through the metaphor of the gay male body, while Golden Gate dramatizes McCarthyism in terms of Asian American masculinity and homosocial desire. These works criticize the sexual and ethical construction of Western masculinity through the deviance of two white principals who challenge the cultural roles available to them. The French diplomat's fantasy of the perfect Oriental woman mediates homosexual desire in the face of pervasive homophobia, masking the wish to be the woman with the more acceptable desire for possession. Similarly, the FBI agent refuses the imperatives of his office, assuming the role of the Chinese American labor organizer whom he has destroyed, thus constructing his identity according to an ethical standard in violent opposition to Hoover and McCarthyism. Rather than offering positive images of Asian Americans, a virtually impossible task given the competing demands of various audiences, Hwang turns Orientalism against the West's own interests, opening up a world of proliferating masks in which two white men reinvent themselves by donning the personae of the East. Hwang thus invests the image with greater importance than the symbol, the realm of custom, convention, law.

M. Butterfly reverses Giovanni Puccini's 1904 adaptation of David Belasco in order to analyze the psychosexual drama underlying the enigmatic twenty-year affair between Bernard Boursicot, a French diplomat stationed in Beijing, and Shi Peipu, a Chinese opera singer and spy, an interval during which Boursicot claims not to have known that his lover was a man.7 Puccini's Madame Butterfly dramatizes the beauty and self-sacrifice of Cio-Cio San, the devoted Japanese woman who waits three years for her American husband and commits ritual suicide upon discovering that he has taken an American wife.8 Hwang's play adapts the real-life drama of Boursicot and Shi Peipu to reinterpret one of the West's most enduring tales of sentimental racism. Most critics of M. Butterfly adopt some version of psychoanalytic poststructuralism in reading it as a critique of Orientalism, an inversion of Puccini in which the French diplomat assumes the role of Butterfly and commits seppuku, a reception that Hwang's own characterization of the play as a “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” both predicts and elicits.9

Two recent Asian American scholars have faulted this approach as imbricated in racism and homophobia. James Moy, one of the play's more acute critics, observes that Hwang's deconstruction fails because, in inverting the cultural positioning of the characters, Rene Gallimard and Song Liling, the tragedy inadequately displaces the very Orientalist stereotypes it seeks to dismantle, reproducing Asian characters who are “laughable and grossly disfigured … now doubly displaced into the new order of stereotypical representations created by Asian-Americans” (“Repositioning” 55); whether this strategy is unwitting or collusive with the demands of an Anglo-American marketplace remains in question. Quentin Lee, however, criticizes Moy's desire for positive images of Asian Americans as an example of what he terms Occidentalism—the celebration of Western masculinity as heterosexual mastery—a prejudice that he attributes to Hwang as well: such an argument inflects Song Liling's final incarnation in a Giorgio Armani suit as an obeisance to these norms.10 Lee wants the field of Asian American representation to be elastic and expansive enough to accommodate articulations of gay Asian American desire; however, Moy and other conscientious ethnic critics might characterize this position as reactionary inasmuch as it can play into, rather than contest, the feminizing rhetoric of Orientalism. Because both camps insist on making Song Liling representative of Asian American men, they censure Hwang's cultural politics as pernicious.

Moy and Lee's observations foreground the complexity of representing Asian American identity according to notions of appropriate role models. An identity politics that strives for a eugenics of representation is doomed to fail because every positive image calls to mind the stereotype it seeks to correct; moreover, the very desire to delimit the field of representation bespeaks both arrogance and a poverty of imagination, suggesting its imbrication in discourses of ethnic and racial authenticity. I argue, instead, that M. Butterfly does not confront Orientalist stereotypes so much as indirectly renovate them by exposing the sexual and ethical limitations of Western masculinity as traditionally conceived: that is, Hwang writes as a Westerner with an interest in the East. He does not valorize Western masculinity as a model to be imitated; rather, in dramatizing Rene Gallimard's failed construction of a gay identity through the stereotype of an Asian woman, the mask of a gay Asian opera singer in Communist China, he exposes the prison-house of heterosexism.

Moy inadvertently identifies the most important level of dramatic signification: “As audiences leave the theater, then, racial/sexual identity is not an issue; rather, most are simply incredulous at how for twenty years Gallimard could have confused Song's rectum for a vagina” (“Repositioning” 54). The audience's incredulity justly assumes centrality, for Gallimard's confusion articulates the values of a culture that deems gay sexuality impermissible. Hwang's “deconstructivist Madame Butterfly” thus reads as a palimpsest of repressed homoeroticism, elaborating the construction of a marginalized sexuality that must go unrecognized. Given his acculturation in a national heterosexism, Gallimard's fascination with Butterfly defends against the perception of his homosexuality: mimetic desire, the wish to be the perfect woman, converges with Orientalism, for the fantasy invokes an ideal in Butterfly; a Western woman would not be adequate to this desire as evidenced by Gallimard's interaction with Renee, the Danish student with whom he has an affair. Even as he welcomes Renee's lack of inhibition, likening her to the women in the girlie magazines as “picture perfect,” he muses, “But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too … masculine?” (54). Later, Gallimard confirms that Renee is not his real object of desire, but simply the instrument through which he exercises mastery over Butterfly: “I kept up our affair … because of Butterfly. … It was her tears and her silence that excited me, every time I visited Renee” (56). Feminist autonomy, with its elision of fear, shame, and submissiveness, has desecrated Western womanhood.11

Hwang introduces the notion of misrecognition early on, as Gallimard, in the aftermath of standing trial for treason, observes several Parisians discussing his sexual faux pas:

MAN 1:
He never touched her with his hands?
MAN 2:
Perhaps he did, and simply misidentified the equipment. A compelling case for sex education in the schools.
To protect the National Security—the Church can't argue with that.
MAN 1:
That's impossible! How could he not know?
MAN 2:
Simple ignorance.
MAN 1:
For twenty years?
MAN 2:
Time flies when you're being stupid.
MAN 1:
That's impossible! How could he not know?
Well, I thought the French were ladies' men.
MAN 2:
It seems Monsieur Gallimard was overly anxious to live up to his national reputation.


Gallimard's humiliation in the face of this public discussion of his sexuality throws into high relief the difference in the assumptions of Western masculinity and Orientalist fantasy, a difference theatrically enacted through dissonant musical styles as well as in the contrast between the brightly-lit space of the parlor and the penumbral prison with its Orientalist decor symbolizing Gallimard's fantasy life. As Gallimard muses, “It's an enchanted space I occupy. The French—we know how to run a prison” (2). But this enchanted space does not simply confine and closet: it discloses the assimilation of Gallimard's erotic identity to a tragic fairy tale, tragic because ultimately he cannot disenchant himself into material social practice. The theatrical manipulation of lights emphasizes Gallimard's retrospection as scopophilic fantasy, rather than social performance. The interlocutors offer a post-mortem on Gallimard's folly, identifying the coercive structure of French sexual politics at the same time that they highlight the possible reinflection of these stereotypes: in their language game to be a ladies' man assumes heterosexual practices, but the play will begin to open up a different register of meaning: being a ladies' man comes to signify a gay man who articulates his sexuality by identifying with a woman's body.

Hwang dramatizes Gallimard's sexual identity through an accretion of details, from Gallimard's youthful induction into the world of sex to his affair with Song Liling. For instance, Gallimard's memory of discovering his uncle's “girlie magazines”: “The first time I saw them in his 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). But Hwang problematizes the notion of power: Gallimard's “version of Madame Butterfly” (9) reveals that he is aroused by a fantasy of inhabitation rather than possession, an orientation indicated by the semantic ambiguity of the “as” in the phrase “do exactly as I wanted”; however, he cannot give voice to this wish because the magazine's displays are rampantly heterosexual, offering an unsuitable mise en scène for his fantasy life. His “hot skin,” suggestive of erotic investment in masquerade, and his “soft penis” are the disjunctive symptoms of a fantasy constructed to deflect recognition of homosexual desire in the face of its very expression.

Later, Gallimard's memory of his first actual sexual encounter, orchestrated by a schoolfriend Marc, reinforces the sleight of dreamwork:

My arms were pinned to the dirt.
She loved the superior position. A girl ahead of her time.
I looked up, and there was this woman … bouncing up and down on my loins.
Screaming, right?
Screaming … and pounding my butt up and down into the Dirt. … And in the middle of this, the leaves were getting into my mouth, my legs were losing circulation, I thought, ‘God. So this is it?’


Gallimard clearly occupies the feminine position in this parody of a woman's sexual initiation as the passive, sexually disenfranchised partner; however, not only are the partners' respective positions important, but also the material reality of their bodies: copulating with a woman stimulates Gallimard's homosexual fantasy because it so completely disguises it, even from himself. Marc's query, “You didn't have a good time?”, and Gallimard's stuttering, overemphatic reply, “No, that's not what I—I had a great time! … Yeah. Really … I did” (33-34), merely reinforce Gallimard's reluctant participation in a heterosexual economy. The encounter both stimulates and safeguards the homosexual fantasy of assimilating himself to a woman's body through which Gallimard constructs a gay identity for himself, but it also accentuates the humiliation western culture attributes to the woman's posture and body: “pounding my butt up and down into the dirt … the leaves were getting into my mouth, my legs were losing circulation” (33). Gallimard's revelation, “So this is it?” (33), underscores the problem of his womanly investiture: masquerade, based on donning the female body, differs from the material performance of costume and gesture elaborated by Doane and Case, for its fundamentalism returns Gallimard to the contiguity of image and body (with the attendant accrual of shame) that the masquerade was designed to contest. Hence Gallimard's flight into the reaction formation of Western manhood.

Gallimard's virile display depends on exaggerating gender stereotypes; hence he assumes a masterful role in relation to Song as expressed in the metaphor, “I began to wonder: had I, too, caught a butterfly who would writhe on a needle?” (32), and his virtuosity elicits Song's gift of “shame” (35): more than conventional modesty, shame testifies to female masochism. Even more interesting, however, is Gallimard's interpretation of “friendship”: “Better, but I don't like the way she calls me ‘friend.’ When a woman calls a man her ‘friend,’ she's calling him a eunuch or a homosexual” (35). Gallimard's victory in the arena of sexual politics gains him the admiration and envy of his colleagues and immediately advances his career, for, shortly thereafter, the French ambassador promotes him to vice-consul, a position from which he can exert his newfound mastery on French foreign policy in Vietnam.

Gallimard's unconscious masquerade rouses a compensatory military adventurism, for buoyed by his conquest of Butterfly, he interprets Dien Bien Phu and the loss of Indochina as a failure of French will, suggesting that “[t]he Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power … Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (45-46), a judgment that aligns the Vietnamese with female masochism and draws invidious comparisons between French and American virility. In truth, though, the artful Song has manipulated the French diplomat from the start, transmitting strategic information teased from the unwitting Gallimard to the Communist government in China. Here, the masquerade seems to fortify gender and ethnocentric stereotypes: Song engages in espionage through a familiar combination of feminine and national guile to facilitate Chinese power, a project in keeping with the West's paranoid construction of Oriental treachery and inscrutability to achieve China's international domination. It must be emphasized, however, that this representation of Song is an element of Gallimard's fantasy.

Gallimard here enacts gender, as Judith Butler puts it, “a corporeal style, an ‘act’ … both intentional and performative, where ‘performative’ itself carries the double-meaning of ‘dramatic’ and ‘non-referential.’”12 Gallimard's mimic identity is realized in the mirror: “alone, in my cell, I have long since faced the truth … Love warped my judgment, blinded my eyes, rearranged the very lines on my face … until I could look in the mirror and see nothing but … a woman” (92). Ultimately, Gallimard identifies himself with the shame of the image, being unable to capitalize on the artifice of masquerade, unlike Song, who associates womanliness with the freedom of imagination, performativity, and non-referentiality. Where Song acts out his homoerotic impulses by repeatedly reinventing himself through drag—a necessary strategy for a gay Asian man subject to the double bind of Orientalism and a homophobic culture—for Gallimard, recognition of the feminine nature of his desires repulses him and prefaces self-annihilation: “The love of a Butterfly can withstand many things—unfaithfulness, loss, even abandonment. But how can it face the one sin that implies all others? The devastating knowledge that, underneath it all, the object of her love was nothing more, nothing less than … a man” (92). Deprived of the fetishistic fantasy that enabled him to express his femininity and sensuality covertly, characteristics degrading to Western men, Gallimard comes face to face with his homosexuality. In assuming the caparison of Butterfly, Gallimard acknowledges the truth, but in literalizing desire through drag, he loses the fantasy: all that remains to him is the queen, the grotesquery of an aging French man in garish makeup.

In this ritual suicide, James Moy simply sees another enactment of an Asian man dying on the Western stage, a trope in which Asian American “racial desire” is disturbingly implicated: “it is clear that in the popular consciousness Asianness has fled from the real into the realm of representational desire. Unfortunately … the representational Asia carries with it a requirement of self-destruction. Indeed … only through its death, or representational self-effacement, does Asia become real for Western audiences” (“The Death of Asia” 356).13 But Moy's reduction of M. Butterfly to an Asian death drive fails to acknowledge its reinscription of the uncanny in the West. Where Moy interprets Gallimard's suicide as an Asian death, I reverse this reading: Gallimard kills himself, as a white man, because he can no longer defend against knowledge of his homosexuality in the homophobic West.

M. Butterfly thus dramatizes the disclosure of queer identity through feminine performance, an emphasis that thinkers such as Leo Bersani have decried, for whom theories of performativity elide queer identities by softpedaling a defining sexual preference: “in rejecting the essentializing identities derived from sexual preference, they mount a resistance to homophobia in which the agent of resistance has been erased: there is no longer any homosexual subject to oppose the homophobic subject” (Homos 56). In his view, theories of queer sexuality that resist specific articulations of desire undermine the possibility of a radical politics based on a specific sexuality. For Bersani, the “dead seriousness of the gay commitment to machismo” leads to the “potential for loving identification with the gay man's enemies” and the paradox of an object-choice whose lineaments are familiarly masculine: “a fantasy-luxury that is at once inevitable and no longer permissible” (“Is the Rectum” 208). In M. Butterfly Gallimard experiences precisely this aporia because he refuses the liberatory possibilities of masquerade: in his hands, masquerade degenerates into camp, a form of parody that derides femininity in asserting the gay man's masculinity. Gallimard's death thus challenges the “reabsorption of gay male identity into the canons of masculinity” (Michasiw 168) and suggests a revaluation of feminist insights in the elaboration of a gay aesthetic.14

If M. Butterfly dramatizes a gay man's construction of his sexual identity through an Orientalist fantasy, Hwang's original screenplay Golden Gate narrates the assimilation of a white FBI agent to the identity of the Chinese American activist he destroys.15 Hwang situates his tale in post-WWII America, analyzing the legacy of McCarthyism from 1952 to 1968 through the metaphor of Asian American masculinity and homosociality. The film contextualizes the FBI's power in the 1950s through the prerogatives of the masterful, heterosexual white G-man Kevin Walker, who enjoys the privileges of a world constructed in his image, a hegemony that the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s will challenge.

The film proper opens by depicting two virtually identical figures trudging single file toward the Golden Gate Bridge, here presented as a symbol both of connection and radical disunion. This sequence forecasts the trajectory of Walker's career and his imaginative assimilation to the body of his former enemy, a process that witnesses his transformation into the Chinaman, a stereotype reinflected from its proverbial degradation into a symbol of political agency. Golden Gate thus consists of two broad movements that reflect the obverse fates of the principals: Chen's destruction and Walker's ascension, followed by Walker's destruction and the restoration of Chen's name, a pattern that exemplifies what Sau-ling Wong has identified as a prominent trope in Asian American literature: “By projecting undesirable ‘Asianness’ outward onto a double—what I term a racial shadow—one renders alien what is, in fact, literally inalienable, thereby disowning and distancing it” (78). Hwang, however, deconstructs the terms of Wong's “racial shadow”: here, Chen is not the alien who emphasizes Walker's centrality, but as the film will show, comes to embody the American ideal; for his part, Walker gradually becomes the Chinaman, a role reinflected as heroic by film's end.

Early on, Walker's white girlfriend frames the question that will define his life: law or justice? The film suggests the gap between law and justice, dramatizing the FBI's perversion of the law in order to prosecute Americans of Chinese descent. Walker's initial allegiance to the law regardless of its justness emphasizes his moral hollowness in contrast to the moral agency of the characters who occupy the margins of society, the middle-class white woman and the Chinese American man. The film will begin to debunk the G-men's self-idealization in Walker and Pirelli's initial encounter with Chen Jung Song, a labor organizer unionizing laundry workers in San Francisco's Chinatown who turns the tables on the G-men, depicting them as greenhorns. When Pirelli asks, “Speakee English?”, Chen responds, “You talk funny boy,” and chastises Walker for his ignorance of Chinese custom, which reverses the conventions of European patronymics by putting the last name first. Chen diminishes the G-men by mimicking their linguistic style and adroitly redirecting Pirelli's aggressive bigotry, pointing out that Pirelli cannot manage to keep spaghetti off his tie, a remark that casts the Italian American as an FOB.

In this battle over manhood, Chen—quick, flip, and arrogant—embodies American style more believably than the FBI men. Here, although he is the recent immigrant, Chen acts as the democratic ideal, who, unlike Hoover's men, is conversant with the Constitution. The manhood of the agents is further impugned by Hoover, who occupies the position of Freud's primal chief, hoarder of all masculinity. The FBI agents do not embody the claims of law or power; instead, they are Hoover's minions, mimick men, members of his seraglio.16 Accordingly, Walker attempts to build a bogus case against Chen as a subversive, and although he eventually comes to realize the injustice of this act and wants to abandon the case, his superiors will not let matters rest, and he finds himself at the mercy of the process that he originally instigated. Unwilling to do the right thing, to act in accord with conscience because it will mean ejection from the FBI, he complies with Hoover's agenda: loyalty to the job, the symbol of his puissance, ensures his hollowness.

Chen is successfully framed, sent to San Quentin for ten years on questionable charges of engaging in trade with a Communist country, when his only crime has been to organize a local campaign to support indigent relatives in China. Upon his release from prison, Chen finds he has no place in the community, for he is shunned as a troublemaker by the Chinese. In one of the more powerful scenes, he vents his rage and shame by overturning a can of garbage on his head. This moment inaugurates the new meaning of the term Chinaman, referring at once to a despised ethnicity as well as to the status of the complete outsider, the alienated subject without a country. In the climactic encounter between Chen and Walker, who is assigned to keep Chen under surveillance, they confront each other on the Golden Gate bridge where Chen anathematizes Walker: “Fuck you G-man. The only reason you follow me is because I'm a Chinaman. Fuck your crippled mother. Fuck your eyes out. I curse you be a Chinaman. No longer human. Stranger to your kin.” Refusing Walker's belated offer of help, Chen asserts, “I make my own changes now. Chinaman.” Cut off from the Chinese American community, Chen jumps to his death off the bridge, fulfilling his own ominous prophecy.

The film transforms the meaning of Chinaman, a change that takes place through the course of Walker's surveillance of Chen and influences his disposition toward Chen, the Bureau, and the circumstances of his personal life. Indeed, Walker's very appearance and self-presentation reflect this change. Where Freud writes that “[t]he ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface” (16), Hwang complicates this observation suggestively. From the beginning, Golden Gate places tremendous emphasis on appearance as integral to the creation of the ego-ideal. One of the early scenes depicts a youthful, lordly Kevin Walker walking purposefully toward the FBI building. As the narrator observes, “He thought he was a killer in the looks department. That's all it takes to convince most people,” a perception seconded by the receptionist, who, upon being asked by Walker how she knew he was FBI, suggests that it was the “attitude.” In 1952, such men, like Walker and his partner, Ron Pirelli, “the life of everyone's party,” occupy center stage in a world they create, where “lights blazed high” and every G-man is entitled to a “dame on each arm.” The epitome of Western masculinity, Walker's beauty proves foundational to his sense of mastery, and this illusion contrasts forcefully with Chen's self-defilement as waste.

Initially, Walker's gaze literalizes the patriarchal authority of the FBI, which has effectively objectified Chen, stripping him of agency. The realm of gaze and image is complicated by the advent of the word when Walker attends Chen's funeral. Overwhelmed with guilt, he befriends Chen's daughter Marilyn, and masquerading as her father's San Quentin lawyer, begins to construct a history of Chen's life, offering this narrative as a gift to the daughter, alienated from the legacy as well as from the man who incarcerated in prison has maintained only a shadowy presence in her life. In this new situation, able to “form a picture of a man at last,” Walker comes to admire Chen: he falls in love with the story he tells of Chen that becomes the ego-ideal to which he conforms his own life, a figuration of heroic beauty that supplants his original narcissistic manhood. Here, to imagine the man means to become the man, an imperative that puts Walker in conflict with the FBI and the racist structure of American society. The film challenges the West's constructions of manhood by rehabilitating the image of Chen, who, as the Asian American man, comes to embody the best of Western manhood: agency committed to justice. But the film also shows that society does not see him as such: it sees only an FOB, a supernumerary worker in a cheap laundromat, a potential Communist agitator. Chen's situation is clear, but it is occluded by racism; Walker's, by contrast, is incoherent.

Like Marilyn, Walker wants to serve Chen's cause, but he can do so only by breaking the professional code of the FBI and leaking Chen's files to her: “I'm not even waiting for the people. I'm already gone. … Here are the cheat notes for the poli-sci exam.” He seizes his chance to make restitution even though it means giving up his professional privilege and ultimately his place in society. When Pirelli, his former partner, learns of his betrayal of the FBI's case files, he cries, “Do I even know you anymore? Yuri, Ho Chi Minh, or just plain moron?” Walker can attribute the loss of the files to professional incompetence or to a betrayal of J. Edgar Hoover's America. Either way, he loses professional status and, no longer recognized by his colleagues, he finds he has no place in society: like Chen, he becomes a Chinaman, but unlike Chen, the condition is not thrust upon him; instead, he embraces it. “My name is Chen Jung Song,” he says, a change signalled by the background strains of the Chinese flute.

Having suppressed a fictional Communist plot in the 1950s, he now martyrs himself to Berkeley's Asian American rights movement. Walker can emulate Chen, but never restore him to his proper place: this is the trauma that stimulates the formation of a social conscience in him. Inevitably, Walker comes to understand that he can only restore Chen by taking his place, that is, by leaking the files that clear Chen and implicate himself in shameful practice, the one act that gives moral dimension to his life. Like Chen before him, he repairs to the Golden Gate bridge, the scene of Chen's suicidal recognition that there was no place for him in this society; the bridge functions as a site of alienation, breaking faith with the immigrants' dream of the Gold Mountain. Walker, too, commits suicide here, keeping faith with his ideal, but having performed his sacrifice, he restores the Golden Gate to its traditional symbolism as a bridge between East and West. Indeed, through Chen, the immigrant man, Walker comes to understand the meaning of justice and the enlightenment principles of his own country.

Both Golden Gate and M. Butterfly dramatize the terminus of Western masculinity: the French diplomat is shackled by the West's representation of its political power through heterosexual norms, which exclude him, thus his recourse to the fantasmal body of an Oriental woman. But when Rene Gallimard's fantasy assumes material form, when this unconscious body becomes conscious, it becomes parodic, a situation that he finds untenable and ultimately destroys him. On the other hand, Kevin Walker's admiration of Chen is fully conscious, and the idealized body of the Chinaman becomes the norm to which he tries to conform his own life. Walker achieves manhood and moral agency by conforming to his ego-ideal, the Asian American activist, a condition that leads to a racial harlequinade; ultimately, he is perceived as a professional failure, a buffoon. His ego-ideal remains the projection to which he can aspire but never appropriate as his own.


  1. See Lavilla, “Connerly.” Ling-chi Wang, the Chair of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, has suggested merging ethnic studies with American studies. See Walsh.

  2. Two recent anthologies address this issue in different ways: Roediger's Black on White focuses on black writers' interpretation of whiteness; Frankenberg's Displacing Whiteness encompasses a multiethnic range of writers. Two journals have recently published special white issues, The Minnesota Review and Transition. All the contributors to the White issue of Transition are black, except for Walter Benn Michaels, whose piece argues that anti-essentialism is merely another essentialism, and seems to have been included as an example of white scholarly condescension. For an incisive critique of Michaels's views as elaborated in an earlier study, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, see Lott's “The New Cosmopolitanism,” 121-27. Bhabha suggests that this “blizzard of ‘whiteness’ studies cannot be understood without being situated in the precarious balance between old left and cultural left, between the national and the cosmopolitan, selfishness and sadism” (“The White Stuff” 24).

  3. Hwang's very success has garnered his work significant criticism from scholars of Asian American literature, much of it specifically focused on the representation of Asian America in M. Butterfly, ranging from suggestions alleging Hwang's politically reactionary misappropriation of Chinese mythology to Orientalism, misogyny, and homophobia. These views are represented by Chin; Moy, “David Henry Hwang's”; Cody; and Quentin Lee.

  4. Set in Hawaii, Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging dramatizes a Filipino Japanese man's rape of his nieces and sodomy of a Japanese American youth. At the 1998 annual Association for Asian American Studies Conference in Oahu, the Filipino American Studies Caucus initiated a successful resolution to rescind the Association's literary award to the Japanese American author. In the aftermath of the decision, many board members resigned, citing fears over personal liability. Interestingly, virtually all the discussants in Hawaii ignored the fact that the character is part Japanese. See Lavilla, “Book” and Yamanaka's response in Tanner (17).

  5. See Doane's response to commentaries on “Film and the Masquerade.”

  6. See Fanon, especially chapters 1, 4, and 6. Since Fanon, who argued that mimicry is the inevitable outcome of ideological assimilation, leading racial others to the alienating impasse of simply emulating or failing to measure up to the colonizer's values, debates about colonial mimicry have focused on its uses for cultural autonomy. See Irigaray, 338-44; and Bhabha, “Of Mimicry.” For a discussion of M. Butterfly in the context of postcolonial theories of mimicry, see Josephine Lee, 105-20.

  7. The story first broke in The New York Times, 11 May 1986. For a good summary, including interviews with the principals, see Wadler.

  8. Belasco's one-act play, which enjoyed a five-year run in New York City, was itself an adaptation of Long's short story that appeared in Century Magazine in 1898. Eaton's popular A Japanese Nightingale (1901), was adapted for the stage and performed in New York to compete with the Belasco play. An Anglo-Chinese Eurasian, Eaton wrote under the fictional Japanese pseudonym Onoto Watanna to capitalize on the prevailing cult of japonisme. For a useful overview of the inception and transformations of the Butterfly story from Pierre Loti to Hwang, see Lye 269-70.

  9. Hwang's own characterization, “Afterword,” M. Butterfly, 95. All references to the play will be to this edition, incorporated hereafter parenthetically in the text. See Skloot, Kondo, and Kehde.

  10. Quentin Lee and Eng are among the first to interpret M. Butterfly specifically as a narrative of homosexuality: Lee situates his reading in what he uncharitably calls an “outing” of Hwang (52); Eng attempts to establish a dialogue between Asian America and queer theory (131-52). Moy's characterization of characters from M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die as “disfigured” (55) assumes a certain homophobic tinge, insofar as Song Liling and Vincent Chang, the Japanese man masquerading as a Chinese actor in Yankee Dawg, are gay.

  11. A comparison with Barthes's S/Z, which decodes Balzac's novel, Sarrasine, is especially instructive here. The immediate difference between Gallimard falling in love with a transvestite and Sarrasine's attraction to the castrato La Zambinella is obviated by the realization that in both cases anatomy hardly matters: Gallimard and Sarrasine love what they fantasize. Barthes's denaturalizing of the readerly—we do not read, we re-read—can be invoked to emphasize the always already imbrication of Gallimard's fantasy formation in cultural codes, here expressed as a form of Orientalism. For an insightful comparison of the two works, see Garber.

  12. Butler, 272-73. Gallimard here also exemplifies Garber's characterization of the transvestite as a figure who “functions simultaneously as a mark of gender undecidability and as an indication of category crisis” (“Phantoms,” 238). See also Sedgwick.

  13. Clement suggests that Cio-Cio San becomes Japanese by virtue of her theatrical death (58).

  14. Michasiw suggests D. A. Miller and Michael Moon's reabsorption in orthodox masculinity, witnessed in their recuperation of military metaphors in their critique of Susan Sontag, who, in their view, depoliticizes gay sexuality (164-68).

  15. The film generally received poor reviews. See Maslin and Kaufman. These reviews unanimously suggest that British director John Madden could not execute Hwang's ambitious script, a judgment with which I cannot concur. Maslin mounts perhaps the most interesting criticism, when she observes that Hwang's script is better-suited to the stage than the screen, tacitly suggesting that he work in the genre with which he is most familiar. But it seems to me that even a rudimentary understanding of Chinese culture would reveal the high level of craft in both the script and the direction.

  16. Hwang's screenplay gestures toward the persistent rumors of Hoover's homosexuality in the 1950s.

I wish to thank Barbara Judson for her incisive contributions to this essay.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. Preface by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bersani Leo. Homos. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

———. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October 43 (1987): 197-222.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” October 28 (Spring 1984): 125-33.

———. “The White Stuff.” Artforum (1998): 21-24.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 270-82.

Case, Sue-Ellen. “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 294-306.

Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake.” The Big AIIIEEEEE! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Ed. Jeffery Paul Chan et al. New York: Meridian, 1991. 1-93.

Clement Catherine. Opera, Or the Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Cody, Gabrielle. “David Hwang's M. Butterfly: Perpetuating the Misogynist Myth.” Theater 20.2 (1989): 24-27.

Doane, Mary Ann. Femmes Fatales. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Eng, David. “In the Shadow of a Diva: Committing Homosexuality in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. Ed. Russell Leong. New York: Routledge, 1996. 131-52.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Frankenberg, Ruth, ed. Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

———. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. Ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1960.

Garber, Marjorie. “The Occidental Tourist: M. Butterfly and the Scandal of Transvestism.” Nationalisms and Sexualities. Ed. Andrew Parker et al. New York: Routledge, 1992. 121-46; rpt. “Phantoms of the Opera: Actor, Diplomat, Transvestite, Spy.” Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992. 234-66.

“Golden Gate.” Rev. of Golden Gate, by David Henry Hwang. Rolling Stone 10 February 1994: 53.

Hwang, David Henry. Golden Gate. Screenplay by David Henry Hwang. Dir. John Madden. Prod. Michael Brandman, Music by Elliott Goldenthal, Perf. Matt Dillon, Joan Chen, Bruno Kirby, Tzi Ma, and Stan Egi. American Playhouse, released by Samuel Goldwyn. 1994.

———. M. Butterfly. New York: Plume, 1989.

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kaufman, Joanne. “Golden Gate.” Rev. of Golden Gate, by David Henry Hwang. People Weekly 7 February 1994: 23-24.

Kehde, Suzanne. “Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)Construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Graham Greene's The Quiet American.Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities. Ed. Peter Murphy. New York: New York UP, 1994. 241-54.

Kondo, Dorinne K. “M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity.” Cultural Critique 16 (Fall 1990): 5-29.

Lavilla, Stacy. “Book Award Fracas Leaves Group Hanging.” AsianWeek 16-22 July 1998, natl. ed.: 11.

———. “Connerly to Scrutinize Ethnic Studies.” AsianWeek 25 June-2 July 1998, natl. ed.: 8.

Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.

Lee, Quentin. “Between the Oriental and the Transvestite.” Found Object (Fall 1993): 45-59.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

———. “The New Cosmopolitanism.” Transition Issue 72 (Winter 1996): 108-35.

Lye, Colleen. “M. Butterfly and the Rhetoric of Antiessentialism: Minority Discourse in an International Frame.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 260-89.

Maslin, Janet. “Chinatown Takes a Role As a Setting For Intrigue.” Rev. of Golden Gate, by David Henry Hwang. The New York Times 28 January 1994: C10.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “Autobiography of an Ex-White Man: Why Race Is Not a Social Construction.” Transition: An International Review 7.1 (73) (1998): 122-43.

———. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Michasiw, Kim. “Camp, Masculinity, Masquerade.” differences 6.2-3 (1994): 146-73.

The Minnesota Review, The White Issue ns 47 (1996).

Moy, James S. “David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly and Philip Kan Gotanda's Yankee Dawg You Die: Repositioning Chinese American Marginality on the American Stage.” Theatre Journal 42.1 (1990): 48-56.

———. “The Death of Asia on the American Field of Representation.” Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992. 349-58.

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin et al. New York: Routledge, 1986. 35-44.

Roediger, David, ed. Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White. New York: Schocken, 1998.

———. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991.

———. Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History. New York: Verso, 1994.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Socratic Raptures, Socratic Ruptures: Notes Toward Queer Performativity.” English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism. Ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz. New York: Routledge, 1993. 122-36.

Skloot, Robert. “Breaking the Butterfly: The Politics of David Henry Hwang.” Modern Drama 33.1 (1990): 59-66.

Tanner, Mika. “The Real-Life Sequel to ‘Blu's Hanging.’” AsianWeek 6-12 Aug. 1998, natl. ed.: 17.

Transition: An International Review, The White Issue 73 (Spring 1998).

Wadler, Joyce. “For the First Time, The Real-Life Models for Broadway's M. Butterfly Tell of Their Very Strange Romance.” People Weekly 8 Aug. 1988: 88-98.

Walsh, Joan. “Cal's Academic Question.” AsianWeek 17-23 Sept. 1998, natl. ed.: 5.

Wantanna, Onoto. A Japanese Nightingale. Illus. Genjiro Yeto. New York: Harper, 1901.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. Blu's Hanging. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.


Essays and Criticism