In M. Butterfly, Hwang challenges stereotypes aimed at cultural, sexual, and national identities. The interracial story of a French diplomat and a Japanese man who impersonates a woman in order to obtain government secrets brings into light the effects of fetishizing and exoticizing a particular racial and ethnic group.
The use of these stereotypes is central to the play because they become both what allows Gallimard to exert his white, heterosexual, and male power and what eventually comes to be his downfall. Gallimard’s concept of gender, race, and how sexuality catalyze an unequal power balance between him and Song. Moreover, like David in Giovanni’s Room, Gallimard can only define his masculine power and identity in opposition to the femininity he sees inherent in Song. The regular emasculation he feels in white-dominated society is erased with Song, an emblem of submissive, effeminate Asian culture. He confides to Song that women serve as, “A vessel to contain my humiliation.” This “masculinity” allows him control over the women in his life and although Gallimard was already a man before he met Song, he feels “for the first time that rush of power–the absolute power of a man” (P. 28) as a result of believing he has forced Song into complete submission, sexually and otherwise.
It is Gallimard’s ignorant assumption about the East along with his belief in conventional masculine standards (which he does not meet, thereby making him insecure) that allows him to be so easily seduced by Song’s manipulation through her performance of traditional Japanese femininity. M. Butterfly criticizes the manner in which the West gazes at the East by positioning the same stereotypes used by Eurocentric standards to denigrate Asia as the sources of Gallimard’s eventual downfall. The ultimate stereotype, that an Asian woman is too subservient and devoted to her male counterpart, is proven false, since Song ends up divulging Gallimard’s secrets and betraying him.
The play also troubles the normative and usual notions of desire, particularly interracial and inter-cultural desire. Written in the late 1980s, at a time when society was becoming more tolerant of interracial relations and normalizing them in a variety of ways, Hwang problematizes the idea that interracial desire is equalized to racial progressivity and cultural competency. Instead, he forces readers to historicize interracial desires and to critique how these desires and erotics might be rooted in racism, racial stereotyping, and fetishizing the racial “other.” For Gallimard, his desire and infatuation with Song stems from eroticizing the Asian woman as subservient, submissive, and dedicated to male pleasure and well-being. And Song knowingly and consciously fits this mold. And in basing his play on Puccini’s opera, Hwang critiques popular culture’s representation of the Oriental “other” and its legacy on modern-day notions of desire and sexual attraction. Rather than positioning Song as the Oriental woman who inevitably dies, like in Puccini’s opera, Hwang instead ends the play by having Gallimard engage in seppuku, or suicide. By doing so, he creates an alternative narrative to interracial desires and erotics.