In David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, stereotypes of race and gender are confounded, challenged, and confirmed. The most prominent of these is the stereotype of Oriental women that allows Gallimard to be fooled by Song for over twenty years. However, without another stereotype of Gallimard’s, this deception could not have been successful: that stereotype is his view of Oriental men. In line with the theory of Orientalism, both of these stereotypes are derived not from real evidence or observation, but from an “Othering” of the East as the opposite of the rational, masculine, and powerful West. By contrast, it is Song’s understanding of Western men, which stem from actual experience and observation, that allows him to deceive Gallimard.
The most shocking deception of the play is that Song is able to convince Gallimard that he is a woman for over twenty years while they are engaged in a sexual affair. Song accomplishes this by taking advantage of Gallimard’s stereotype of Oriental women as submissive and shy, especially when compared to Western women. For example, in reference to the opera Madame Butterfly, he says “in real life, women who put their total worth at less than sixty-six cents are quite hard to find” (13) and is able to accept the fact that Song never completely undresses for him because he thinks that Chinese girls are traditionally modest. These traits are portrayed as somehow innate, insomuch as Gallimard says about Song’s courtship with him that “it is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education” (25). It is unclear, though, where this view of Oriental women originates from, since it does not seem to come from experience. Most of the foreigners in China such as Gallimard’s boss Toulon act as though they have not interacted much at all with the Chinese and it seems that they are more influenced by Western stereotypes exemplified by Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly than by their actual observations of Chinese character.
While Gallimard’s stereotype of Oriental women as compared to Western women is what allows Song’s physical disguise to succeed, Gallimard’s stereotype of Oriental men as compared to Western men is equally important to Song’s success. The theory of Orientalism suggests that the West views the East as fundamentally feminine. In the opera Madame Butterfly, Pinkerton says of Butterfly, “when I leave, she’ll know what it’s like to have loved a real man” (11). The notion that there are no “real men” in the East is what allows men like Pinkerton and Gallimard, who at home are awkward around women and not particularly attractive, to believe that they are wanted by the most beautiful and “perfect” of Oriental women. This difference between “real” masculinity in the West and femininity in the East inspires the belief of Gallimard’s that “Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (37), where he further portrays this submission as a welcome, recalling colonialist rhetoric. This belief allows him to be both deceived in love, because Song is able to convince him to pass along state secrets by saying “I want to know what you know. To be impressed by my man,” (36) and in his career, when he wrongly predicts that “if the Americans demonstrate the will to win, the Vietnamese will welcome them into a mutually beneficial union” because “they want the good things we can give them” (37).
It is ultimately ironic that a man of the supposedly rational West is fooled because he relies more on his idealization of the East than on his actual observations of it. The irony is made complete because it is in fact Song’s deep understanding of the nature of Western men that allows him to fool Gallimard, and his is an understanding based in his own observations and in those of his mother, who was a prostitute before the Revolution. When Gallimard asks her to strip, Song is able to evade him by agreeing to it and waiting for Gallimard to retract his request because she realizes that “all he wants is for her to submit. Once a woman submits, a man is always ready to become ‘generous’” (48). During the hearing, Song says that he “borrowed” his mom’s “knowledge” of Western men to trick Gallimard by realizing that “men always believe what they want to hear” and “the West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated” (61-62). The second of these meant that Song knew that for Gallimard, because Song was “an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (62).
Ultimately, it is perhaps fitting that it is not an Oriental woman who has destroyed Gallimard, but an Oriental man, whose sexuality and rationality are denied by the West’s view of the East as feminine, irrational, and submissive.