In the play M. Butterfly, Henry David Hwang challenges his audience’s perceptions of Asian women and Western men. The play follows the twenty-plus year relationship of French diplomat Rene Gallimard and a presumed Chinese woman, Song Liling. Playwright Hwang draws direct parallels to Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly.
Puccini’s opera is exactly what his twentieth-century audience expects. It is a romanticized relationship between a Western man and an Asian woman-following cultural stereotypes of both East and West.
Hwang’s play begins in a similar fashion to Puccini’s piece. Song is Gallimard’s mistress, and is able to use his perceptions of Asian women to convince Gallimard that she is a woman. Gallimard doesn’t question her “modesty,” and is together with her for more than twenty years before finding out that Song is in fact a man.
Through Song, Hwang helps audience members question their own beliefs about Asian women. Towards the end of the play, a male-presenting Song challenges Gallimard about his own beliefs (and the audience members as well): The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated — because a woman can’t think for herself. …You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.” Song points out that no one thinks twice about a beautiful Asian woman falling in love with an ordinary Western man, but could never believe that a “ blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman” (p. 84).
Academic scholars and theater critics have dissected Hwang’s cultural commentary in M. Butterfly, which we touched on in class. But what of other current media representations of Asian women? In modern day, do we find ourselves perpetuating Puccini’s stereotypes, or have we moved past them?