I studied music history throughout high school and had to analyze key arias from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in detail, but the storyline never seemed to move me – perhaps because I was a fifteen-year-old pianist more interested in the intricacy of Bach’s fugues than the cross-cultural tragic love story. It all seemed so unrelatable and far removed from a teenager’s life, but reading M. Butterfly – although it is a play considerably different from the opera – brought to light some of the underlying issues that my teenage self overlooked. The most intriguing of these issues is that of the Other and what makes it at once attractive and repulsive. In this post, I will attempt to tie together seemingly unrelated subjects from colonialism to Orientalism to queerness to the subculture of hipsterdom.
What is with our fascination with the Other? Things that are new to us can be exciting and refreshing because they offer us a different perspective, but because they are new it is also likely that we don’t completely understand them – and we all know that we fear what we don’t understand. Perhaps this is a good place to begin examining why colonialism and Orientalism give rise to two sides of the same coin: a simultaneous desire to silence and denigrate the Other while idealizing and being fascinated by it. The novelty of the different culture is attractive because it is exotic and interesting, but the alien aspect of it evokes a need to silence the culture and make it one of “us”. The line between Us and Them is constantly being drawn and re-drawn as we discover and incorporate different cultures into one of our own. Sometimes, this act is harmless, i.e. Debussy incorporating the sounds of the Gamelan orchestra into his piano works. Other times, cultural appropriation can be seen as harming the original intent of the culture from which the ideas, symbols, etc. are borrowed. The latest trend of integrating tribal patterns into fashion, clothing and accessories are an example of such.
The exploration of the lines between Us and Them are what makes M. Butterfly a queer text, for me anyhow, more so than the homoeroticism or possible transsexuality. After all, the term “queer” is used to refer to a community of people who feel somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender, sexuality or even politics. According to PFLAG, “It is a fluid label as opposed to a solid label, one that only requires us to acknowledge that we’re different without specifying how or in what context”. Thus, parallels can be drawn between the colonial conqueror’s view of the Other and society’s view of the queer community; there is simultaneously a fascination and a desire to denigrate which stems from fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.
If we take a step back, we can see that this two-sided coin is everywhere in cultures and subcultures. Take the recent cultural backlash against hipsters for example. There is a certain smugness associated with hipsters who enjoy things ironically or act in ways they are not expected to act, i.e. to quote the PBS video, “You are not a 19th century oil baron. Why the handlebar moustache?”. On the other hand, there lies the possibility that someone genuinely enjoys what they aren’t expected to enjoy. What then? “Hipster” becomes a negative term with which to call someone’s authenticity into question and, by extension, claim authenticity for oneself. Here again we see the theme of drawing the line separating Us from Them and the simultaneous fascination with and defamation of a culture that, though interesting and seemingly novel, is not well understood. As one blogger comments, “Suffice it to say, no one self-identifies as a hipster; the term is always applied to an Other, to separate the authentic Us from the inauthentic, “ironic” Them”. Perhaps these lines of separation are unavoidable, seeing as the cultures and subcultures that exist are so numerous and so vastly different from each other and yet human creations can’t help but be an amalgamation of these cultures that surround us. How does queer culture fit into all this? There is a joke that with hipsters on the rise, queer people have gained a sort of camouflage, but both are regarded by society as the Other. The interplay between identifying as Us or Them is a fascinating subject that applies to many facets of human identity from religion to ethnicity to sexuality and there remains a lot to be explored.