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Challenging stereotypes and reading ‘M. Butterfly’

April 7, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

We come to Bowdoin to learn: about physics or Latin American studies; about what we want to be when we grow up; about the kinds of people we want to be friends with and the kinds of people we want to be. We learn from our professors, from administrators and staff, from our friends and—especially, I would say—from our first-year roommates.

Victoria [Pitaktong ’17] and I shared what has to be one of the smallest bedrooms in the first-year bricks. Our beds were close enough to easily touch hands across the chasm. Only one of us could really get dressed at a time—it was impossible to open both the sets of drawers under our beds simultaneously.

Things I learned from Victoria include: the basics of political science, the Thai custom of giving nicknames and how to navigate the precariousness of living with a new friend in a very, very small space. She put up with my perpetually regenerating mess, my constant searching for lost belongings and more than one night of tears—and for that I am always grateful. We have both changed remarkably since our first year, but she remains one of the people on this campus for whom I hold a deep and complete respect.

When I asked Victoria for a book recommendation, she thought it over and then chose M. Butterfly, a play by David Henry Hwang. M. Butterfly draws from two sources: firstly, the true story of a French diplomat who fell in love with a Chinese opera singer who was actually a male spy masquerading as a woman and secondly the short story and opera which share a similar title, Madame Butterfly.

Madame Butterfly is about a white sailor named Pinkerton who lands in Japan and marries an adoring Japanese woman—his ‘Butterfly’­—who he then abandons her for a Western wife. The narrative is rife with racist stereotypes of Japanese women and constructs a version of the so-called “Orient” as completely subjugated and inferior to the West.

M. Butterfly redraws these stereotypes, pointing out the racism involved in Western perceptions of Asia, especially Asian women. Hwang mocks the classical material in ways both subtle and blaring through the relationship between his narrator, Gallimard (modeled after the French diplomat), and his love interest, the mysterious Chinese opera singer Song.

At times oblique and even humorous in his critiques, Hwang makes his perspective clear through the words of Song: “You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men. That’s why you say they make the best wives.” What is perhaps most cutting about the play is that none of the white men even come close to denying such claims—it is clear that Gallimard expects exactly this submissiveness, that his adoration with Song comes from his understanding of her as the “perfect woman.”

The play is even more complex than its witty and dexterous challenging of racist stereotypes. Gallimard is a fascinating character: bizarre, obsessive and blind to many realities. The play uses music from the classical score of Madame Butterfly which underscores the clever parallels between the two texts. Gallimard calls Song “Butterfly” even as it becomes increasingly obvious that the plot is preparing to twist (and twist it does).

M. Butterfly is brilliant—it won the Tony for Best Play in its first year on Broadway, and just reading it, I was taken by how shrewd, thought-provoking and unpredictable the script is. In reading M. Butterfly (and Madame Butterfly for context), researching the history of Hwang’s source materials and processing Hwang’s take-down of historic racisms, I also remembered: I still stand to learn a lot from my first-year roommate.

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