In the section “Authors Notes,” in M. Butterfly, David Hwang writes, “I am of the opinion that Song should unquestionably be played by an Asian actor, and preferably a man.” (88).
Hwang’s assertion above is relevant to two of the discussions we had in class on Monday: Does the identity of the author matter? and Does Song have to played by an Asian man?
On the question “Does the identity of the author matter?” I believe the answer a is temporally-restrained “yes.” In an ideal world, literature, and art in general, should provide a censor-free space where anyone can write about anything. However, we do not live in idyllic world–people of color, sexual minorities, and many other groups of people are systematically marginalized in society. In a truly “color-blind” world, where people “don’t see race,” then surely the race of an author “wouldn’t matter.” But the fact of contemporary society is that race does matter, and a color-blind model fails to recognize the current racial disparities. Sexual and racial minorities hold very few positions of power, and it makes little sense to have some of the few positions of power available to them, such as in literate, taken by the majority. Thus, I agree whole-heartedly with Hwang that Song must be played by an Asian actor, not for essentialist reasons but for political reasons. It is important to feature prominent Asian-American actors in the theatre, because by doing so this gives the community a presence, a voice, and role-models. However, earlier I said that the answer was “temporally-restrained.” What I mean by this is that the identity of the author (or actor, etc.) matters now but should (hopefully) not matter forever. When (if) we reach a point in society where groups of people aren’t socially, legally, and culturally marginalized because of a facet of their identity then the identity of an artist would no longer matter.
One example I can think of is the recent controversy surrounding Kathryn Stockett’s The Help:
Stockett, a middle-class white woman, appropriates the voice of working-class women of color in the 1960s and subsequently profited from this misappropriation through book and movie sales. In a world where women of color were not marginalized, this wouldn’t be particularly problematic. However, the identity of Stockett should be a conversation when she’s profiting from the misappropriation of a voice that has not had a fair chance to be heard.
On the second question “Does Song have to be played by a man?” I also agree with Hwang and believe Song should be played by a man.
By using a male actor, Hwang avoids exploiting Oriental stereotypes against women. Hwang’s message of Western exploitation of the East would be undermined if he himself exploited Asian women. For example, if Song were a biological woman, the stereotypes she perpetuated and the racism and misogyny she deals with would become diluted. In other words, in order for the audience to understand Hwang’s message, they would have to watch a Western man subjugate an Asian woman for nearly a whole play, which is exploitative. This exploitation is similar to “rape-revenge” films like “I Spit On Your Grave” in which they are purportedly about female affirmation and a critique of violence against women but in order for the female protagonist to get revenge the audience must watch a problematic rape scene which is often filmed to titillate the male viewer. Thus, a story meant to allegedly be about female empowerment turns into an unfortunate exploitation of women. Thus, Hwang avoids this exploitation by using a male actor to further illustrate his point that “the diplomat must have fallen in love , not with a person, but with a fantasy stereotype” (85). If Song were played by a woman, the “fantasy” would become a reality.