David Henry Hwang´s play "M. Butterfly" - A Fantasy of the Western Male

Term Paper, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Orientalism
2.1. Meaning of the term
2.2 History of Orientalism
2.3 Orientalism and Gender

3 The Oriental Woman - A Fantasy of the Western Male in David H. Hwang's M. Butterfly
3.1 David Henry Hwang - An Asian American Playwright
3.2 M.Butterfly - A Short Summary of the Play
3.3 Analysis ofHwang's M.Butterfly

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Modem-day drama is often considered to be an effective means of expressing criticism. Numerous contemporary playwrights experiment freely with dramatic conventions, and most works overtly demonstrate to be a piece of performance, so that the audience is alerted not to view reality but a play. Thus, the boundaries between authenticity (the 'natural') and role playing (the 'artificial') are blurred “in order to address the construction of social and political identity.” (Saddik 2007: 13).

David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly (1988) can be regarded as one representative of that type of contemporary dramatic pieces. It demonstrates the construction of identity around the politics of gender, sexuality, power and race. In the course of the drama, the (biological male) character Song Liling constructs a female, Oriental fantasy for the French diplomat Rene Gallimard. By performing her1 'race' and gender according to Gallimard's ideas about the Oriental, Song is able to disguise her male sex. For almost two decades, the French diplomat is not aware of the fact that his partner is not a woman but a man. (cf. Hwang 1988: 94ff).

The drama M. Butterfly - the first Asian American play to be produced on Broadway - has been introduced in the course of last summer semester's seminar Gender, Sexuality, 'Race ' and Class in Contemporary American Drama. It aroused my interest not only due to its witty and provocative style, but also because of the drama's fascinating and powerful but rather bizarre story about the relationship of a Western man and a perceived Chinese woman. I could not understand how Gallimard neither was nor, in the course of all their years together, became aware ofhis partner's true sex.

Therefore, the term paper will have a closer look at Song's and Rene's affair, in order to figure out how the Chinese opera star is able to create a masquerade she can preserve for so many years. In this sense, the paper will deal with the following questions: How can Song deceive Gallimard for almost twenty years? How can she hide her true sex and hence begin an affair with the diplomat? What role do both protagonists' racial backgrounds play with regard to this? What fascinates Gallimard about Song in the first place? And in this sense: What effect does Song's Oriental identity have on Gallimard's perception?

The term paper will begin by defining the term "Orientalism" with regard to its general meaning, its origins and its development, in order to provide a factual basis for the reader and to gain a better comprehension of Orientalist issues in M. Butterfly. Moreover, it will focus on "Orientalism" and its relation to the concept of "gender". Above this, the paper will have a closer look at Asian American drama - a specific genre of contemporary American drama. This will directly lead to a short portrayal of David Henry Hwang, one of the most important spokesmen of Asian-American drama and the playwright of M. Butterfly. This will be followed by a brief abstract of the drama M. Butterfly, whereby important background information will also be given, so as to better understand the play's history of origins. After this, the drama M. Butterfly will be analysed almost exclusively chronologically with regard to the above-mentioned questions.

2 Orientalism

In the following, the paper will focus on the term "Orientalism", in order to provide a factual basis for the understanding and interpretation of Gallimard's and Song's relationship within the drama M. Butterfly. Therefore, I will mainly concentrate on Edward Said's2 influential and controversial book Orientalism (1991). For many scholars, Said's ideas on Orientalism are considered to be a landmark particularly in postcolonial studies. In his book, he attacks “the Eurocentric attitudes found in Western scholarship, art, education, and policymaking as well as the West's perspective of the Orient as the 'Other' [...].” (Jordan 2010: 486).

2.1 Meaning of the term

In his book Orientalism (1991), Said criticizes the Western conceptions of the Orient3. According to him, the term "Orientalism" describes a Western tradition of scholars, writers and political officials to view the Middle East and Asia with prejudice and racism. Therefore, the Orient is regarded as submissive, weak and backward, and it stands in contrast to the more advanced, “powerful and masculine” (Yarrow/Chamberlain 2007: 93) West, namely Europe and North America. According to Said, it can be said that “[t]he relationship between Occident [the Western world] and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, [and] of varying degrees of a complex hegemony [...].” (Said 1991: 5). The Orient represents the West's counterpart; It is created by and in relation to the West. It represents what is inferior and foreign - the so-called "Other" (cf. ibid.: 5). Since the notion of the Orient is constructed by the Orientalist in order to “understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different [...] world [...]” (Ibid.: 12), the East solely exists for the Western scholar who created it. The person presented by such thinking is the Oriental - a prototype or single image of a seemingly monolith culture (cf. Hwang 1988: 95).

To sum up, in his book, Said differentiates between three meanings of the term Orientalism that are, according to him, interdependent: First and foremost, Orientalism refers to any person “who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient” (Said 1991: 2). This notion of the term, hence, is an academic one, which refers to the above-mentioned Orientalist and “what he or she does is Orientalism” (Ibid.: 2). The second designation for Orientalism is a rather imaginative one: It means a style of thoughts (not facts) based upon the accepted differentiation between Orient and Occident as the basis for theories, novels, and descriptions on society and political accounts concerning the Orient. The third meaning is more historically defined and denotes Orientalism “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (Ibid.: 3).

2.2 History of Orientalism

“The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” (Ibid.: 1).

As Said's quotation already indicates, the European countries Britain and France can be seen as pioneer nations in the Orient, and as inventors of "Oriental studies". One reason for the West's interest in the East - at least in political terms - is that the Orient represents the place of Europe's richest and oldest colonies. Right from the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th century, the imperialist powers claimed to have the intellectual authority over the East. Around this period, the term Orientalism came to have dismissive connotations that were formed by the Westerner's prejudiced attitudes towards the East and its people. “[T]he Orient was always in the position both of outsider and of incorporated weak partner for the West.“ (Ibid.: 208). An attitude of this kind was first articulated by 19th century artists and scholars - for instance students - who can be considered the first "Orientalists" (cf. ibid.).

From the beginning of the 19th century, the imperial powers France and Britain dominated the Orient. However, since World War II, North America has taken over the East. Although America approaches the Orient similarly to its former powers France and Britain, according to Said (Ibid.: 1), “Americans will not feel quite the same about the Orient, which for them is much more likely to be associated very differently with the far East (China and Japan, mainly)”.

In the postmodern world, there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypical, prejudiced and highly politicized attitudes of the West towards the Orient, although the exact term "Orientalism" is not used any more. In the 21st century, Orientalism increased, caused by the rise of neo-colonialism - the new form of Western colonialism. In contrast to Orientalism during the 18th and 19th century, however, academic publications of Orientalists have become less important in terms of the number of people who are reached. Instead, mass media, such as television and the internet, can be considered to have a more widespread ]impact on the Western world's view of the Orient. Moreover, today's form of Orientalism almost exclusively focuses on the Islamic world, and institutions, such as the media for instance, generally aim at presenting it as a hostile world, similar to what they once used to do during the time of imperialism (cf., e.g., Turner 1994).

2.3 Orientalism and Gender “Asiais gendered” (Kondo 1997: 47).

Referring to the above-mentioned quote uttered by Kondo, one can say that in Orientalism, the submissive and inferior "Other" was labelled in terms of gender. Not only Oriental people of female sex but also men are often depicted as feminine. Hence, the Orientalist commonly characterized the Oriental as feminine of gender. Following Judith Butler, this shows, among other things, that gender is not an innate biological phenomenon but a construct, which is politically controlled (cf. Butler; as cited in Deji 2011: 31). Throughout history, inferiority and weakness are linked to women, whereas power equals masculinity. In this sense, in Orientalism, the powerful West - the “exclusively male province" (Said 1991: 207) - defined Oriental people as female, according to their inferior position in relation to the superior imperialist. Thus, “Orientalism is a homogeneous discourse enunciated by a colonial subject that is unified, intentional and irredeemably male” (Lewis 1996: 17). It is about the objects of knowledge (the Orientals) that, according to David Henry Hwang (1988: 99), “necessarily take on 'feminine' characteristics in a colonialist world” because “they are submissive and obedient”.

All in all, it can be said that the idea of a feminine gendered East has a long tradition, which also influences modern-day attitudes about the Orient.


1 In the following, in order to avoid confusion, the term paper will solely use female pronouns when referring to Song Liling.

2 Jerusalem-born Edward Said (*1935- 2003) was an influential and controversial Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic who passionately supported Palestinian statehood and who, amongst other things, argued for the creation of a Palestinian state and equal rights for Palestinians in Israel. Said published twenty-three books among which Orientalism is the best-known (cf., e.g., Jordan 2010: 486; Snodgrass 2005: 264ff.).

3 The "Orient" refers to any country east of Europe, including Asian countries as well as the Middle East.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


David Henry Hwang´s play "M. Butterfly" - A Fantasy of the Western Male
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Gender, Sexuality, ´Race` and Class in Contemporary American Drama
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ISBN (Book)
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david, henry, hwang´s, butterfly, fantasy, western, male
Quote paper
Babette Treptow (Author), 2011, David Henry Hwang´s play "M. Butterfly" - A Fantasy of the Western Male, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187523


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