Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581
Essential Passage 1: Act 1, Scene 3
The duet plays on the speakers. Gallimard, as Pinkerton, lip-syncs his lines from the opera.
GALLIMARD: To give a rough translation: “The whole world over, the Yankee travels, casting his anchor wherever he wants. Life’s not worth living unless he can win the hearts of the fairest maidens, then hotfoot it off the premises ASAP.” (He turns toward Marc) In the preceding scene, I played Pinkerton, the womanizing cad, and my friend Marc from school… (Marc bows grandly for our benefit) played Sharpless, the sensitive soul of reason. In life, however, our positions were usually—no, always—reversed.
Rene Gallimard is in prison awaiting trial for treason, stemming from his affair with a Chinese national, whom he did not realize was neither a spy nor a man. As a Frenchman in China, involved with a Chinese “woman,” Gallimard is victimized by his own, as well as others’, view of the stereotypes of the different nationalities. Gallimard has been acting out a scene from the opera Madame Butterfly, which centers on the relationship between an American man and a Chinese woman. Both are portrayed strongly according to their stereotypes, Gallimard relates. The American, “Yankee,” is portrayed as a vagabond and a womanizer. His main goal is conquest, in this case the conquest of as many women as possible, with no attachments. The American is presented as callous, unfeeling, manipulating, and untrustworthy, a typical representation of the view of Americans in many parts of the world. This opens the stage for further stereotypes, based both on nationality and on gender.
Essential Passage 2: Act 1, Scene 6
GALLIMARD: No! I was about to say, it’s the first time I’ve seen the beauty of the story.
GALLIMARD: 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.
SONG: Well, yes, to a Westerner.
GALLIMARD: Excuse me?
SONG: It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.
GALLIMARD: Well, I didn’t quite mean…
SONG: Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese business man? 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.
Rene Gallimard has attended a party at the home of the German ambassador, where he first heard Song perform an aria from the opera Madame Butterfly. He is very moved by the story of the love between an American naval officer and a Japanese woman. In the end, the American man betrays the Japanese woman and she commits suicide. Song, however, is not impressed with the romance of the story, pointing out to Gallimard that is based on pure racist and gender stereotypes. She reverses the genders and demonstrates to Gallimard the difference in one’s attitude, to think that an American woman would fall in love with and kill herself for a Japanese man. However, because the opera speaks of an Asian woman, the impression on Westerners is that this is more appropriate, because of their prejudiced views of the submissiveness of Asian women. This scene foreshadows the conclusion of the play when Gallimard, a European male, kills himself for the love of an Asian woman.
Essential Passage 3: Act 3, Scene 1
SONG: Rule Two: As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East—he’s already confused. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East. Do you know rape mentality?
JUDGE: Give us your definition, please.
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.
JUDGE: What does this have to do with my question?
SONG: 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.
Song is in Paris, on trial for espionage. Likewise, Gallimard is accused of treason in conjunction with Song. The details of their relationship have become well-known and the talk of the town. During the trial, the judge is curious as to how Song kept his gender a secret from the man with whom he was having an affair. Song relates that the deception could not have been possible except for the stereotypes that have built upon between East and West concerning each other. He states that, first of all, a man will always believe what he wants to hear. It was thus easy for Song to convince Gallimard that he, Song as a woman, was modest, even over a twenty year period. Secondly, the stereotypes that a Westerner has concerning the East allows for some confusion to begin with, thus it was easy for Song to confuse Gallimard even further. Song’s description of the stereotypical Westerner, as a male bent on conquest of the East, mirrors the West’s view of the Eastern woman. For this reason, the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman was the key to manipulating Gallimard to obtain information from him.
Analysis of Essential Passages
The plot, as wells as the characters’ perceptions leading to their actions, of M. Butterfly is founded on the acceptance of stereotypes. The idea of the Westerner as opposed to the Easterner, as well as man versus woman, drives the story along leading to its ultimate and tragic conclusion. Not only does Rene Gallimard approach Song with the attitude of her being a “typical” Asian (therefore, submissive) woman, but Song herself infiltrates Gallimard’s life, for purposes of intelligence-gathering, utilizing that stereotype. She bases her actions on her own view of a stereotypical Western male. The eventual reversal of roles leads to an ironic ending to this tale of deception and deliberate misunderstanding.
The surface stereotype exploited through the plot of M. Butterfly is that of the cultural and societal differences between the Western societies and those of the Eastern nations. First is presented the typical Western male: egotistical, power-hungry, domineering, dominating, sex-oriented, and conquest-seeking. Though Rene Gallimard is none of these, it is on this basis that Song treats him, both initially and throughout their long relationship. Gallimard is in fact weak, shy, subjective, and inexperienced. Yet Song assumes, for her own purposes, that as a Western male, he has come to the East to dominate Asian women. In order to achieve her ulterior motive of spying for the Communist Chinese government, Song treats him according to the stereotype. Eventually Gallimard does indeed rise up to fulfill the expectation, which leads to his ultimate downfall.
Song herself counts on the stereotype of the weak, submissive Asian woman in order to trap Gallimard and keep him in deception for over twenty years. Her plea to the court that Gallimard never discovered her true gender leads to the revelation that she pretended to by the stereotypical modest Chinese woman, uncomfortable with her sexuality and thus never appearing nude in front of Gallimard. Nor does she seem to have encouraged much of an “adventurous” relationship with Gallimard, since he never “accidentally” found out her true identity as a man.
In this case, however, the plot goes against the stereotype of the Westerner acting on a racial prejudice. It is in fact Song, an Easterner, who assumes the stereotype. Forcing the false racial identity, he manipulates the Westerner, instead of the Westerner manipulating the Easterner. By this juxtaposition of ironic presentation, the nature of stereotypes is even more clearly presented.
The stereotypes extend beyond race to the issue of gender. Both Song and Gallimard are males, yet both at some point assume a female identity. In Act II Scene 7, Song states "only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” By this he meant that a man, standing on the outside, has enough powers of observation to see, both how a woman acts, but also how a man views a woman. It is by both of these viewpoints that Song is so successfully to fill the female stereotype and thus deceive Gallimard. By assuming “female weakness,” he in fact carries out his plan through “male manipulation.” When he is weak, then he is strong. This in fact is also a facet of the stereotypical female, who uses her weakness to gain control over a man. It is in fact exactly this way that Song controlled Gallimard, who as a weak man also goes against the male stereotype.
Hwang presents the issues surrounding stereotype not as justified or as true, but an account of how such stereotypes can be used as weapons against another. The danger in stereotype lies not in how it diminishes one’s view of oneself, but in how it makes him vulnerable to the manipulation of others.
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