Introduction – The famous M. Butterfly is one of the many artistic works that was translated from theatre to film towards becoming one of the heavily criticized and heavily referenced works when it comes to the understanding of some of the important issues in the society, including gender, sexuality, impersonation, stereotypes and political roles presented through symbolic representation.
M. Butterfly was, as a play, suggestive of its undertones in sexuality and gender, as the character that inspired the theatre version of Song Liling was suggestive of his/her sexuality and gender. But how does the stage classic M. Butterfly speak about sexuality and gender and the interwoven issues that can be found during the dissection of these important, sensitive and often times unresolved issues?
Social interpretation: Sexuality, gender and how issues speak using the play M. Butterfly – Critics were generally split when it comes to the interpretation of the social implications of M. Butterfly, particularly on how it reflects and interprets gender and sexuality and the issues and problems surrounding these topics. Others argue that it was an attack and an insult of the western writers on eastern concept of femininity purely because of the fact that the manner by which the story was handled reflects the bias and assumptions of western, chauvinistic writers towards the personality of eastern women (or at least, at the symbolism of the eastern woman), which they tried to stereotype into a single, subservient and meek being on one side, and deceiving, deceitful, two-faced and constantly motivated by personal agenda on the other side.
Sexual and gender orientation and political interpretation of the attribution of sexual and gender roles – The sexual representation of the east and the west represent the manner by which western writers saw the political roles of the countries via there geographical location, cultural practice and ethnical origin. Some critics believe that the use of the difference in gender and the difference in role and social personality and significance of the two characters in M. Butterfly suggest the social importance, significance and role by which westerners are putting eastern countries.
By creating a dominating white western man and a meek and subservient oriental woman, the writer maybe accused of creating the feeling that the western countries are more superior than eastern countries, which the western countries look at as significant only when it comes to looking for subservient brides or even whores and lovers that they would use to past their time while working overseas.
Others would argue that on the contrary, the stage play M. Butterfly is a symbol of the empowerment of women and of gays and lesbians, owing largely to the fact that the play’s tone leads towards the subtle dominance and control of the woman-role over the man via the use of her charm and her submissiveness, that the woman has the power to control man even without the use of brute and physical force. It was empowerment in the sense that it allowed for what was previously a character delegated to the supporting role of the dominant and struggling male image as the lead role who was responsible for the manner by which the story and the characters moved and evolved over the course of the timeline of this particular work of fiction.
M. Butterfly: The perfect alibi or the perfect opportunity? – What the story conveniently hid is the fact that Song Liling had the perfect alibi for his disguise as a woman, since the stage during that time is an arena that is not accessible to women performers. But the tone of gay romance cannot be denied during the later parts of the play, particularly during the admission of Song that he had sex with another man and his trip to France to reconnect with Gallimard and resume their affair that lasted for two decades.
Without the responsibility to the country to act as a spy, Song has been freed of the need to disguise as a woman, but when he pursued the use of the character to continue his relationship with Gallimard, audience and critics cannot help but ask themselves if Song indeed was a gay lover from the start, or if Song’s penchant for cross dressing and the use of another gender was a result of either a psychological problem (like the urge to cross dress or role play and the psychological implication of such case) or physiological problem (if ever the lead character Song was alluding to hermaphrodism or even transvestism).
Is this an issue of the presence of gay relationships dating back to that time, or was Song either a transvestite or even a hermaphrodite? Is it representative of the problem of transvestism? As Kondo (1997) provides an analysis of the interpretation of M. Butterfly by many different critiques, her selection of opinions included the interpretation of Marjorie Garber, a critic of the M. Butterfly who believed that in the effort to understand the sexual and gender implications of the play, the avenue of implied or subtle transvestism should also be included in the formula (Kondo, 1997, pg 50).
. “…Garber highlights the issue of transvestism and argues that the play instigates category crisis through the figure of transvestite/spy. Her interpretation emphasizes the border crossings of gender, nation and sexuality (Kondo, 1997, pg 50).”
The act of quelling of the morally upright – This is not entirely impossible at all. As a matter of fact, Song’s predicament during that time was no different with the struggles gay lovers experienced during the time when gay and lesbian acceptance and appreciation has not yet reached the dominance and support that it enjoys today. It is possible that the issue of gender and sexuality in M. Butterfly can be seen by the understanding of the predicament of those whose sexuality and gender problems originate from cases of hermaphrodism or even of transvestism (or even alluding to the idea of being transgender). M. Butterfly was a form of chronicling how this particular group of people struggled, and how their own love life and love stories were as complex and as difficult as the lives of the same people who suffer the same problem.
During the time that the play was made, even during the time that the real love affair between Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei-Pu happened, the issue of transvestism and hermaphrodism may have been something that are both deeply concealed in the belly of the morally and physically upright society that it used this instance to let the world know that there are real transvestites and that these people also suffer the emotional, psychological and societal trauma brought about by their predicament.
If this was the case, then the predicament of the character in M. Butterfly is an illustration of what happens to a repressed individual victimized by the world that tried to eliminate and remove traces of the human specimen which does not follow the accepted form and deviates from accepted morality and morally correct actions, rendering them imperfect and, like the seemingly gay relationship of Song and Gallimard, an abomination that purists seek to quell.
Male cleansing – But more than the creation of interpretations of how this incident reflects social events, more than the issue of generalized or representative sexuality and gender orientation, the more important point of analysis when it comes to gender and sexuality is the understanding of Song’s predicament per se.
More than what the predicament means or says, it is just as important to know what are the factors that led to the predicament of Song that led to the coerced or willing alteration in his sexuality and the distortion of his gender. It is important to put into consideration why he Song became a spy – was it an act of volunteerism, or was he forced by the government? And why did the government resort to such twisted and overly dangerous act if it wants the spying effort successful as possible? Did they know that Song, prior to his spying via acting as an opera singer, was gay/transvestite/hermaphrodite, and that this spying mission was more a form of insulting and degrading him?
Song was subjected to punishments that were not accorded a spy who managed to get useful information, and observers and analysts may see that there might be something more to Song’s predicament than meets the eye. This may even be a case of male chauvinistic puritanism, the act of torturing and humiliating those who are discovered as closet queens and cross dressers. If this is so, then the sexuality and gender issues involved here removes the woman and the woman figure in the equation, limiting the presence of conflict amongst straight men, and those who are not just man enough, figuratively.
The symbol and the voice of repression – The play, regardless of how the viewer perceives it (gay relationship, transvestism, role playing or a mix of any or all of the following), still sends a message to the audience about how the status quo, the moralists and the purists ultimately won. The suicide of Gallimard symbolizes the hand of moral righteousness that deals with abominations and unaccepted relationships in the society with brutal harshness and finality, while the passive demeanor of Song during the suicide of Gallimard symbolizes the state of helplessness and ‘silent victim’ status of Song and what the character represents.
Conclusion – The voices of M. Butterfly is a chorus speaking about truths and perceptions and realities represented by fictitious characters that addresses problems which binds the human society for a long period of time. Like the symbolism of the butterfly, the play, more than proof of whatever struggle or problem that traces its roots in gender and sexuality, is a symbolism of the need for everyone to grow up, grow out of the cocoon and spread wings for its innate and true beauty to be exposed. Such is the predicament of the characters as well as those who can relate to the messages of the play, which is found hidden in the different layers that needs to be peeled away one by one to allow for the understanding of why things came to be
For Liu (2002), the play M. Butterfly should be assessed with consideration to three different politics that acted with interplay throughout the M. Butterfly experience, from watching it to criticizing it. The three politics are cultural politics, gender politics and theatrical politics, an idea Liu borrowed from another author named Robert Skloot. But Liu had ideas and explanation on dissecting the mystery and decoding the meanings of M. Butterfly in different plateaus.
“Hwang forces the audience of his play into complicity with the discovery, dismantling and re-establishment of theatrical illusion, while at the same time confronting them with challenges to traditional cultural and gender assumption (Liu, 2002, pg 137).”
The author of this masterpiece was successful in many different ways. First, he was successful in providing the much needed voice for the struggling moral concerns that previous traditionalism and conservatism consistently silenced, but it did not provide sufficient answers to questions that surfaced as a result of such awakening. He was also successful in establishing the role of gender identification and the significance of the separate and independent roles of man and woman in the society, and at the same time manages to show the audience how such rigid social mindset and framework can be bent by sheer will and imagination.
Audience experienced different reactions towards realizations and the implications of what they see and feel, from the stage towards real life. They were amazed as they are shocked, wondering as they felt relieved, and substituted more questions in place of what was just previously answered questions. In the end, the thoughts of gender and sexual orientation of the viewers are as much as parallel to that of Song’s as it is similar to that of Gallimard.
This is how M. Butterfly played tricks on the human understanding when it is challenged with new ideas that go against previously held beliefs earned through the absorption of socially held and shared beliefs.
As McDonough (2006) explained, “M. Butterfly ultimately raises more questions about gender positioning and fantasy than it answers. The leaves of masquerade become an endless recurso that leaves us wondering if anyone – Song, Gallimard, Hwang, the audience, or critics – can distinguish where fantasy ends and reality begins in the complex matrix of racial, gender and sexual stereotypes implicit within the relationship between the two main characters. Shrouded n fantasies of race, of gender, and of sexuality, the characters’ interactions raise the question not merely of who is playing what role, but who is aware of the roles that are being played (McDonough, 2006, p.165).”
Kondo, Dorinne K. (September 1997). About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. Taylor & Francis, Inc.
Kondo, Dorrine K. (March 2007). M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender and a Critique of
Essentialist Identity. Cultural Critique, No. 16, pp. 5-29.
Liu, Miles Xian (May 2002). Asian American Playwrights: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated.
McDonough, Carla J. (July 2006). Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama. McFarland & Company, Incorporated.