Race and gender in: "M. Butterfly" - Committing suicide "cross-dressed" and "cross-raced" to fulfill the fantasy of a perfect woman

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

23 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



1. Introduction

2. Three scenes
2.1. The first meeting
2. 2. The second scene - living the fantasy
2. 3. The death scene – a failing fantasy needs to be saved

3. Conclusion

Primary texts:
Secondary texts:
Internet Links:


1. Introduction

The figure in the middle of the high room seems to be alone, despite all the people around him. He (apparently a male person) kneels on a kind of a stage wearing a kimono and a wig. It must be a prison, because all the people around wear prison clothing. Like spectators in an arena (or in a theatre) the prisoners occupy the balconies above, and the space in front of the stage. He starts to speak:

"I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within her almond eyes, there are still women. Women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth."[1]

This is a part of the last scene in David Cronenberg's film "M. Butterfly". The described figure is former French diplomat René Gallimard (played by Jeremy Irons), who is going to kill himself in the costume of an "Oriental" woman – a Geisha. And the question is: Why is this the only thing to do for him? Why is it the only consequence of a quite straight forward development? And, is it really the only thing to do? The film itself offers just this end (as well as the play), but how can one explain it theoretically? David L. Eng gives with his text Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America a "tool" to look on Gallimard's behavior through out the film, and to explain his actions and reactions, his bearing and some of his thoughts, as well as his conception of the world and his understanding of gender and race.

Eng also sees in Gallimard's suicide the only way "to protect the psychic integrity of his farce."[2] What farce? Eng merges in his text Freud's psychoanalytic tractate about fetishism, and also "the Ego"[3] with the factors race and Orientalism (a concept lent mainly from Edward Said[4] to explain the relation of the East and the West). The result is a concept that explains, why Gallimard enters into the relationship with the opera diva Song (played by John Lone) – a male Chinese spy, who pretends to be a woman – and how they could live together for almost 20 years without Gallimard knowing (or admitting) that Song is a man, i.e. "castrating" him in a way sexually and racially. In the end the secret – that Song is a man – is revealed through the espionage being laid open, and Gallimard's fantasy of a submissive Asian woman by his side is destroyed. His farce cannot be kept up, and Gallimard needs to react on these new conditions. Eng presents an explanation why Gallimard reverses gender as well as race, and becomes that Butterfly fantasy himself, viz. committing suicide to fulfil his ideal of the perfect woman.

In my paper I want to show, how Eng's text can help to analyze three particular passages of David Cronenberg's movie to look behind Gallimard's psyche. I will take those three sequences which appear in chronological order in the film, and apply parts of Eng's theory on them. How does Gallimard manage the situations, and why "it is, after all, only through Gallimard's sustained identifications with and Song's sustained investments in conventional stereotypes and fantasies of the Oriental geisha that Hwang's drama can unfold to its pitiable end."[5] Doing this, I am also briefly going to look on certain cinematic techniques (especially the setting of light in the first scene I have chosen) to find out, how David Cronenberg interprets Hwang's Drama and how he creates Gallimard's psyche, Gallimard's feelings for Song, and how Cronenberg deals with the question of gender and race. And finally, I will raise the question, if Gallimard is homosexual. Does Eng's theory give a proper answer for that or can that question be solved, though Eng does eventually not give any answers.

2. Three scenes

2.1. The first meeting

a) The "Butterfly Fantasy" is born

The first meeting of Song and Gallimard takes place in the Swedish embassy. For Gallimard it is yet another of those boring, obligatory parties, and he is not very much interested. He expects a stereotypic order of events: "What are they planning to inflict on us tonight. Not these Chinese acrobats again, I hope."[6] We get to know Gallimard as a man of stereotypes and like Rocío G. Davis shows "it may be observed that stereotypes of racial minorities in the West are a record of prejudices; they often serve as part of an attempt to justify various attitudes and practices".[7] And Gallimard really is a man of prejudice. He merges individuals, and e.g. makes everyone in Peking "the locals", mistakes the Swedish for the Swiss embassy, and after one tells him, that an opera is going to be performed, he operates with another stereotype: "Is there some diva partying through town..." (Jeremy Irons's emphases)[8] expecting an "overweight lady with too much bad make-up"[9]. Gallimard is presented as a very superficial person. His negative mood changes, when Frau Baden[10] catches his interest for Song by telling him the story of Pucchini's Opera "Madame Butterfly" (1904). Song starts to perform on the stage. The romantic plot brings admiration into Gallimard's eyes. He gets involved with the story. And he falls in love with yet another stereotype: The submissive Oriental women who are willing to sacrifice themselves:

"...for the love of unworthy foreign devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women. Who take whatever punishment we [Westerners] give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally." (Hwang 1988:91)

And that is really the point of the story in the film, at which Gallimard sells himself and his life to this fantasy. The Madame Butterfly fantasy becomes his fetish.

The cinematic representation of Gallimard underlines this turning-point very much. He sits badly calm in the audience, and as his feelings for Song start to arise, the camera moves towards him, and the camera shot becomes a close-up. That is to get the viewer closer to Gallimard's eyes and therefore nearer to his feelings, as eyes are the mirror of the heart. Furthermore, the light changes and alienates him in a way. He seems to become just his eyes, looking fascinated to the stage. The spectator witnesses that something has happened inside of Gallimard. His look to the stage and on Song intensifies dramatically and as he leans forward – to get physically even closer to the stage – a band of light emphasizes and stresses just his eyes leaving the rest of the face in the shadow. He seems to see true love – like the main character Coi-Coi San feels (in the eyes of Gallimard) for the American soldier in the opera. It is notable that all this happens before any question about gender is raised by the movie. But how does Eng explain Gallimard's fancy for that fantasy?

Eng clarifies Gallimard's preference at first with the "Yellow fever"-model, in which Caucasian heterosexual men have a fetish for exotic Oriental women, because they are (in their eyes) more obedient, and domesticated.[11] The model exists in the shadow of the colonial order, where white men are said to be superior to the peoples they colonize, and this is "working to buttress white male heterosexuality, through the possession and exploitation of the native brown woman."[12] The same point makes Song, when confronting Gallimard the first time with race and gender questions by reversing the Puccini story quite ironically, asking him how he would like the story, if it had been a blond Cheerleader who had been seduced by a short Japanese business men. "You would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot"[13]. And she is right, because this would not be a story fitting into the stereotyping of Gallimard (or any other Westerner). "But because it's an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner, you find it beautiful"[14]. Eng combines Gallimard's sexual and racial prejudice with Freud's Fetishism and shows how Gallimard manages to establish his position – of a superior, heterosexual, white man – in relation to the position he assigns to Song. Gallimard is really "inventing a character for Song"[15]. And David L. Eng is convinced that:

"M. Butterfly underscores the fact that sexuality and race, often seen as disparate or independently articulated domains, are mutually constitutive and constituted. Gallimard's management of sexual difference through his exploitation of the fetish is a management of racial difference as well."[16]

That means that Gallimard, by forcing his Butterfly fantasy on Song, not only sexualizes the singer, but also racializes Song. And for Eng this is "a reiterated racializing practice"[17] which confirms Gallimard's position sexually and racially in relation to Song. Note, that sexual differences in Freud's theories often stand for racial differences, and that for Freud, race is a question of sexual development – the more developed (i.e. the more morally developed) a society is, the more it is racially superior to other societies.[18]

But it is not only Gallimard's fantasy of the submissive woman which is criticized by Song, it is also Gallimard's stereotyping and merging of "the Asians". Gallimard says that Song's presentation has been convincing, though he has never seen any other before, and though Song is Chinese, but Madame Butterfly Japanese. Davis brings this quite to the point:

"Gallimard adheres blindly to the stereotyped images of women and of the Orient, where he assumes a direct relationship between outward appearance and internal truth. The synthesis he establishes between the ideal he nurtures of the Asian woman and Butterfly blinds him to the obvious differences between a 1960s Chinese opera singer and a fictional Japanese tragic heroine, on rhetorical or physical levels. Gallimard’s fantasy merges the Orient into one indistinguishable mass, eliminating the differences among Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese."[19]

So again Gallimard's superficiality comes up, and the viewer learns through Song's critique that this is Gallimard's problem. He puts each and everything into neat little (or sometimes larger) boxes, and uses them as patterns to judge about people, situations, etc. Doing this, he somehow loses important details and is right from the beginning of the film-plot a wonderful victim for misinterpretation of situations or for intrigue, since for his prejudices he is quiet easily to predict. And Song makes this to an advantage for further "actions", i.e. to force the love-relationship and the spying into the direction as intended, to take advantages from Gallimard's position in the embassy. In Gallimard's stereotyping lies Song's silent power.

So far the only hint the spectator has got from the film that something is "wrong" with Song, is the conversation Gallimard happens to hear right before he meets Song for the first time. Some guests at the party gossip about Song that: "...she simply has no boys...!" But in this scene the director David Cronenberg does not fully unveil Songs secret. And the conversation of the party guests is quite ambiguous, because it could also mean, that Song is very modest and shy and therefore has no relationships with men. Cronenberg tries to keep Song very obscure. In the conversation with Gallimard Song is the active part and Gallimard is driven into a corner. Nevertheless, Song does not divulge any personal details, but ties her net around Gallimard.


[1] quotation from the film M. Butterfly.

[2] Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2001. p. 138.

[3] See Sigmund Freud, Fetishism, in "The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud", ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955. And Freud, The Ego and the Id, in Freud, "Standard Edition".

[4] See Said, Edward W.. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. 1978.

[5] Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2001. p. 4.

[6] Quoted from the movie.

[7] Davis, Rocio G.. "Just a man" Subverting stereotypes in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. In "HCM – A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism". Vol. 6, No. 2 Spring 2000. p. 61.

[8] Quoted from the movie.

[9] Quoted from the movie.

[10] In the drama Frau Baden does not appear. But in the movie she works partly as a figure like Reneé (she is the one Gallimard has an affaire with and she is as permissive as Reneé), but Reneé does not appear in the movie.

[11] Cf. Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2001. p.158/159.

[12] Ibd. p. 159.

[13] Quoted from the film.

[14] Quoted from the film.

[15] Kehde, Suzanne. Engendering the Imperial Subject: The (De)construction of (Western) Masculinity in David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly" and Graham Greene's "The Quiet American". In "Fictions of Masculinity – Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities. New York: New York University Press. 1994. p. 244.

[16] Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2001. p. 5.

[17] Ibd.

[18] cf. ibd. p. 6-9.

[19] Davis, Rocio G.. "Just a man" Subverting stereotypes in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly. In "HCM – A Journal of Asian American Cultural Criticism". Vol. 6, No. 2 Spring 2000. p. 68.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Race and gender in: "M. Butterfly" - Committing suicide "cross-dressed" and "cross-raced" to fulfill the fantasy of a perfect woman
University of Cologne  (English Seminar)
Sex/Gender Representation in Modern American Culture
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
640 KB
M. Butterfly, Cronenberg, Sex, Gender, Race, cross-dressing, film
Quote paper
Kerstin Wien (Author), 2002, Race and gender in: "M. Butterfly" - Committing suicide "cross-dressed" and "cross-raced" to fulfill the fantasy of a perfect woman, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/12530


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