(~6 minute read)
In his third and most important definition, Edward Said defines Orientalism by stating that "(it) can be discussed and analyzed...as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." (Said). He goes on to prove through the rest of his book, Orientalism, how Western cultures, especially French and English, have been consistently trying to dominate Asian nations culturally through this perspective bias. David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly challenges the Orientalism bias by reversing this cultural conjecture of the Asian woman being subdued and manipulated by the Western man, displacing the genders of both Gallimard and Song to have the Westerner manipulated instead.
After Song performs “Butterfly” at the opera house during their first meeting, Hwang sets the course for revealing this Western bias of Orientalism. Gallimard professes his adoration for Song’s performance and the story of the piece, which Song rejects by stating “it’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (Hwang). Said’s definition of Orientalism fits here because in the song “Butterfly” the submissive party is both Asian and a woman, giving gender to the culture, and Pinkerton is a cruel Westerner, taking the role of the dominant male. Song rejects that message and sentiment, hating the story and attributing it to a fantasy that the Western world developed over the Far East. Gallimard then affirms that the bias exists by speaking directly to the audience saying “so much for protecting her in my big Western arms” (Hwang). The Chinese woman does not want to be protected by the French man and thereby breaks the expectation that he and his culture had of her to position herself in the submissive state. This rejection is of Song as a man of Asian descent, before he plays the part of the submissive woman specifically manipulating Gallimard and the Western perspective.
As the play progresses, Song further establishes this acting role of the submissive, and sometimes abandoned, mistress for Gallimard, but the viewer is let in on the secret that Gallimard is the one being manipulated. He is led to believe that he is the one in control of the relationship, but Song is just using him for years on end to feed the Chinese government classified information. Song plays the Orientalist mindset of Gallimard in Song’s favor, allowing the author to expose the blindness brought on by the bias. In a conversation between Ms. Chin and Song, Song states that “All he wants is for her to submit. Once a woman submits, a man is always ready to become ‘generous’” (Hwang). Song is describing not only the relationship between Gallimard and themself, but also that of the gendered regions. By using genders, the viewer can understand the relationship of the West with the East by looking at the bias through analogy. Song understands this bias through the scope of Orientalism. By playing within the bounds of this Western bias, Song can control Gallimard into loving them and eventually passing classified documents willing to them.
The critical description of Orientalism as it applies to the relationship comes during the trial of Gallimard where Song states “The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself” (Hwang). This comes in the description of why Song was able to convince Gallimard that he was a woman. Song was able to play his Western domination fantasy in a physical representation of the gendered struggle between nations. He continues “he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was…a woman. And being Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (Hwang). The judge Toulon, not being able to understand how that applies, affirms that Toulon’s Western male heritage still sees the Asian man in the Oriental sense as a female to be controlled. Song directly lays out that imperialistic tendencies in perspective towards the Asian nations and shows why they are easily manipulated. By assuming the perfect form of the gender-biased Western perspective, Song took on the role of the fantasy Gallimard was looking for and was able to use this to his advantage, even though he was a man. Earlier on, Song states that “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (Hwang), indicating that because Song is secretly a man he understands completely the Western male perspective and is able to manipulate it to his needs.
The reversal reaches its conclusion in the revelation that Song is indeed a man to Gallimard, though he likely already knew. Song reveals his manipulation in a triumphant stance, bearing himself naked in front of Gallimard, but Gallimard laughs instead of looking at this in horror. Gallimard tells Song “Get out of here! Tonight, I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy!” (Hwang). Since Gallimard is the embodiment of the Oriental perspective, he chooses to live within the bounds of his Orientalist view, refusing to see Song as the man he is and instead believe in the fantastical act. Gallimard shows the intentional cultural blindness of the West to the East in order to maintain the idea that the people of the West, primarily men, are somehow dominant to the people of the East. He struggles to maintain this view even in the face of defeat. Song is metaphorically standing up against the Orientalism by showing the Asian culture as male, defeating the bias held by some European nations so consistently. Gallimard’s refusal to acknowledge this shows how the Western culture is not able to cut its deeply set bias even in the face of its error, opting for the illusion of their dominance.
The suicide of Gallimard in the end is significant because it defines to what end Orientalism has met. With Gallimard defined as the Orientalist, the reversal of gender upon himself and the necessity of his death is defined. The perspective is flawed in practice and led to the manipulation of Gallimard. When describing his spy actions and deception of Gallimard, Song tells Toulon “That’s why you’ll lose in all your dealings with the East” (Hwang). Song and the Eastern cultures can play this racial perspective to their advantage. The East understood far before the West that Oriental bias made the fantasy obvious and the control simplistic. By Song playing his part, they were able to subvert the West who believed to be in dominion over them and come out victorious. Gallimard therefore must commit suicide as Butterfly did in the song and complete the reversal of the one who was dominated. His death is the death of Orientalism, as the world becomes increasingly aware of the foolish and blind manner the Western sphere defined the East. Through Hwang’s play, gender and racial differences are leveled and Orientalism is broken.
1). Hwang, D. H. (1989). M. Butterfly. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
2). Said, E. W. (2004). Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.