Historically, Asian women have been stereotyped in the United States and the western world in general into two categories, the “China Doll” (submissive, hypersexualized, ultra-feminine) and the “Dragon Lady” – (dominating, manipulative, also hypersexualized.)
In my Asian-American queer literature class, we talked about the invisibility of queer Asians because of the west’s feminization of Asia. According to these stereotypes, all Asian men are feminine and desexualized, whereas all Asian women are ultra-feminine and hypersexualized. This leaves no room for gender-bending or lesbian Asian women; it also leaves gender-bending and queer Asian men invisible, since for them, being more feminine of center is considered the norm.
In M Butterfly, Hwang’s character Song takes advantage of these stereotypes to deceive Gamillard into believing he is the ultimate orientalized, submissive china doll. Even though in 20 years he never sees his lover naked and has intimate relations with her multiple times, Gamillard doesn’t consider the possibility that his Butterfly is lying to him because that possibility, in his worldview, simply isn’t there. As Song explains to the judge, “The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated, because a woman can’t think for herself” (62). Underneath this explanation is a deeper and even more disturbing one: that, for the West, the East only exists in its own mind, its own projected stereotypes. A man knows what women want, because in a patriarchal society, what a woman ought to want is dictated by men. The woman does not exist outside of the man’s conception of her – therefore how could she possibly be different from his conception of her? This goes double for the Orientalized woman, against whom patriarchy and colonialism have twisted together in a haze of stereotypes invented for the sole purpose of rationalizing her subjugation.
This is the heart of Gamillard’s denial. He simply cannot see outside of himself and his own wants and needs; he cannot see the “other” as a person as vital and complicated as himself. He sees only what he wants to see and what he has been taught to see, which are essentially the same. It must be strange, to be so raised on one’s own superiority to the rest of the world that one can barely comprehend the humanity of others. After such an education, it must be particularly devastating to have these lifelong delusions popped.
Perhaps I’m being hard on Gamillard. After all, he more than gets what he deserves when, in a turn of poetic justice, he turns himself into his own Madame Butterfly. “It’s a…a pure sacrifice,” he tells Song at their first meeting. “He’s unworthy, but what can she do? She loves him…so much. It’s a very beautiful story” (18). Like the original Butterfly, Gamillard is manipulated cruelly by a man with ulterior motives who preys on his ignorance and on his dream of perfect love. Also like Butterfly, he eventually kills himself for that love, a love that was always a delusion. It’s in Gamillard’s acknowledgment of himself as Butterfly that confirms the absurdity of the orientalized China Doll. It puts the spotlight on the European man who so desperately needed that stereotype to be real that he became it himself.