Analyzing how the themes of racism, sexism, and imperialism are evident in the play M Butterfly, by Henry David Hwang.
M. Butterfly is a play that captures the story of Gallimard, a French diplomat and his affair with Chinese woman, Liling Song. The “woman” later turns out to be man and a spy. The main themes in the play are Eastern duplicity and Western imperialism. The climax of the play happens when Gallimard is seduced by Song. The play places a lot of focus on racism, imperialism and sexism and the prejudicial feelings of the West and East (1:3).
The play by Henry captures the interconnectedness between sexism and imperialism. Drawing from postmodern aesthetics, the usage of dramatic shape, stage, pictures and language in the play and character construction contributes to the main themes in the play. Henry describes the play as an attempt to link racism, imperialism and sexism. In the text, Henry epitomizes the stereotypes of the East by the West to deconstruct them. The submissive, feminized and exoticised images of the East and how they weigh on the construction by the West is clearly captured. This is underlined by the emasculation of the Asia and Asians and how they are placed. That they are placed in a position of inferiority as opposed to the masculine West captures in the inferiority of Asian men that has penetrated into the society “The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated -- because a woman can't think for herself” (2:1). Throughout all the play, the definition of imperialism by Henry intertwines with sexism and racism. Henry uses characters that are designed to express the themes of the play on how imperialism and domination interconnects to racism and sexism.
The M. Butterfly excellently captures the theme of East-West relations. The central characters are identified by their individual articulation of pervasive oriental attributes. Gallimard fantasizes as a Frenchman; Liling Song performs western fantasy of self-sacrificing femininity and oriental submissiveness “It's one of your favorite fantasies, isn't it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (1:4). Through them the play takes the audience through the relations between China, French and Indochina. In the play, Henry shows the following three controversial themes: sexism, racism and imperialism. Racism is depicted in the stereotyping of Song, Chinese woman in the eyes of the Westerners. Sexism is demonstrated by the stereotype that is presented by Song and Madam Butterfly while the imperialism is depicted in the diplomatic relationship between France and China in the Vietnam War (2:3).
David Henry in the play butterfly explores western stereotypes that concern the Asians and the other preconceptions that affect racial, national and the West-East tensions as well as issues of sexuality and gender identity. Henry dismantles dominant western notions of gender and race exposes. In exposing these themes, Henry uses postmodern and theatrical techniques like non-linear narrative, unique staging and directly addressing the audience. This dramatizes the intersection discourse of gender, nation, race and sexuality infusing the play. The work functions as examination of orientalism phenomenon; this encompasses a broad spectrum of western prejudice, attitudes, and stereotypes concerning the Asians, nations and cultures. The willingness of Gallimard to accept song as a woman is the natural extension of the held perceptions of Asian men as feminized creatures. Gallimard stereotypes Asian women as subservient, passive, and modest, hence making it possible for Song to live as his wife without the discovery that he is a man despite their intimate relationship (3:2). The western colonial attitudes of Gallimard about the Asian culture are the heart of their relationship. By doing this, Henry, in the play seeks to cut through the layers of cultural and sexual misperception of both easy and fostering relationship for the common good (1:9).
Henry captures the notion of gender through the featuring of Liling as central character; Liling is a man biologically who succeeds to live as a woman for more than 20 years. At the near end of the play, Gallimard manages to dress himself like a woman and furthermore, commits suicide in a manner that is stereotypically associated with a woman, stabbing his heart using a dagger. This is a complete assertion that gender is not an inborn biological phenomenon, but an identity that is socially constructed and members of either sex can assume.
The overriding theme in the M. butterfly is the western stereotyping of Asia and demonstrates how westerners perceive the Asians as weak, submissive and people to be dominated. To Henry, the East is the same as the West: masculine, big money, big gun and a big industry “The West thinks of itself as masculine -- big guns, big industry, big money -- so the East is feminine -- weak, delicate, poorbut good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom -- the feminine mystique” (2:9). Henry breaks the butterfly myth of Asian submissiveness and western submissiveness. This is demonstrated when Song dresses up as a woman and typically acting as a needy oriental woman and manages to lure Gallimard into trap, this is captured when Song confesses love to Gallimard “I have already given you my shame” (1:13); this brings out the theme of sexual identity and for over 20 years, Gallimard was deeply in love with Song who thought to be submissive and an innocent, oriental woman. According to Song, Western men need weak and oriental ladies hence she portrays herself as needy, frail and modest. Song justifies this by saying “The Oriental woman has always held a certain fascination for you Caucasian men”.
The cross-dressing by Song and the multiple performances serves to de-essentialize gender, race and ethnicity. Song plays the part of Japanese woman despite being a Chinese; this is in line with the image that is upheld by the West and which generalize Asian women. The cross-dressing captures the boundaries used in construction of subjectivities based on race, gender and ethnicity. In the play imperialism is captured when Gallimard returns to the Opera where Song was performing. Song spots Gallimard and inquires whether he was an adventurous imperialist. This indicates how a White man is perceived in China and how Gallimard is considered as an epitome of imperialism (1:8). The term rape mentality is introduced here. According to Song, rape mentality is when the West considers themselves as masculine while the East are captured as weak, poor and feminine. The West believes that the East needs to be dominated. It is in this scene that there is the first connection between sexism, racism and imperialism in the play.
M. Butterfly explores the ingrained western stereotypes of the East; it incorporates the themes of sexism, racism, gender and racism. The play also blurs truth with fantasy and addresses the issue of cultural identity and the various faces that many people wear. Parallel to the construction of gender, racial and cultural stereotypes is the deconstruction of social prejudice; this is a reversal of imperial gaze. Gallimard, who is the western protagonist, is presented as a psychological weakling who constantly moans his fate. Gallimard falls in love with Song, a Chinese secret agent spying in China and passes the secret to China. This portrayed the fall of superior race, gender and economy (1:7).
Hwang, David H. M. Butterfly with an afterword by the playwright. New York: Penguin, 1989.Print.