M. Butterfly (1993)
Written by David Henry Hwang
Directed by David Cronenberg
In 1986, France was caught up in a scandal involving one of their diplomats in China. Bernard Boursicot has been engaged in an affair with Peking opera singer Shi Pei Pu. Shi was a male singer who performed primarily in female roles, and Boursicot insisted that he believed Shi was a woman the whole time. This seems incredulous as both men admitted to having sex together numerous times. Furthermore, Boursicot claimed that Shi could retract his testicles and shape his genitals to resemble female anatomy. However, the French diplomat engaged in same-sex intercourse while in boarding school as a teenager. Only after graduation did Boursicot choose to be with women, as he claimed he thought homosexuality was a rite of passage among the youths at his school.
David Henry Hwang is a California-born playwright who became deeply interested in incorporating Chinese opera and theater elements into his American-produced & staged plays. After reading about the Boursicot/Chi affair, he was struck by how much it reminded him of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly. In that opera, an American naval officer rents a house in Nagasaki for himself and his fiance, Butterfly. Butterfly is a 15-year-old girl he’s marrying for convenience with plans to abandon her as soon as he can secure an American bride. She even converts to Christianity for her future husband just before their wedding. The naval officer leaves after impregnating his wife, and years pass with Butterfly waiting for his return. Everyone around her tells the girl he’s not coming back and to go ahead and remarry. She refuses. Then one day, the ship shows up with Butterfly’s husband and his new American wife. She has agreed to raise the child, which they will take away from Butterfly. Realizing she has little power, Butterfly gives up her child, stepping behind a screen and killing herself as she has nothing to live for.
The press drew the connection between this real scandal, also involving a fake son that Shi produced to convince Bouriscot. Hwang thought the real-life case presented a reversal of the opera, where the Asian person managed to take advantage of the Westerner. In Hwang’s play, French diplomat René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) is a civil servant working in the French embassy in China. He falls in love with Song Liling (John Lone), an opera singer claiming to not realize the female roles are all played by male actors. Gallimard is married but doesn’t hesitate to carry on an affair with Song. The audience is shown that Song is a spy for the Chinese government, gathering intelligence on operations in Vietnam. Song claims she must leave and returns months later with a baby, saying it is Gallimard’s. They are separated again when the diplomat is forced to return to France, but Song arrives, and they marry. The truth comes out, and Gallimard is put on trial, where he comes face to face with Song’s betrayal.
In our modern context, there is an urge to immediately discuss this film as part of the transgender discourse. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily the correct angle to approach it. Firstly, there’s the harmful “trap” cliche, the gross claim that transwomen are trying to trick cis men into believing they are really women. This excuse has been used many times as a justification for the assault and murder of transwomen. In reality, the men who commit these acts of violence are self-loathing individuals whose inability to accept their own sexual attraction to more than just cis women makes them lash out. Trans people are exceptionally vulnerable and unprotected in Western society, so these brutes often get away with it. I definitely think gender is a theme here, but not in a way that completely gels with how we talk about it right now.
There’s a refrain throughout M. Butterfly about the best person you could find to live up to a man’s ideal of a woman would be another man in the role of a woman. This is explained by the fact that a cis man’s concept of “woman” is typically shaped by objectifying her, seeing her as something to get pleasure from and to serve him. In reality, women, both cis & trans, don’t exist inside such narrow definitions and have autonomy. Thus, so many cis men are dissatisfied and angry about women. Look at the incel movement, which has proponents like Nick Fuentes, who has made claims that having sex with a woman is a “gay” act. These men have desires they cannot psychologically wrestle with, so they slip into complete derangement about gender & sexuality. It’s why they should never be taken seriously and, instead, be put into psychological treatment. Having been born male, Song knows what men desire because she has become so adept at playing a woman’s role as defined by the desires of men. That’s the key here, the difference between actual living, breathing women (cis & trans) and the male concept of “woman.” Gallimard is so thoroughly seduced into a stupor because Song knows precisely what this sexually unfulfilled man wants to experience.
The more significant theme at the play’s heart is the exploration of the relationship between the West and China. China is arguably the most prominent representative of East Asian interests. Now that doesn’t mean other governments in the region come into conflict with China; it is simply that because of China’s vast economic power, it shapes the direction of East Asia most prominently. Before going further, we also need to emphasize that I have no interest in Sinophobic media narratives that exist to try and sway blind public support of Western nations. I do not see China as the bogeyman you hear about in the news. Many valid criticisms could be made about China, but I never see them come up because American news outlets, in particular, are tabloid by nature and thus exaggerate things to a degree of incredulity. For me, China has become one of the most challenging things to have a rational, coherent conversation with an American.
While many reviews of M. Butterfly are focused on the more salacious sexual aspects, I see it as a story about the balance of control between the West and China. In Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the narrative displays how Western imperialism leads to the impotence of East Asian people. Butterfly has no recourse; her child can be taken simply because its father is from the imperial core. She kills herself because she feels the thunderclap of realizing her powerlessness. M. Butterfly ends with suicide by Gallimard when he realizes his desire for Song will forever live in conflict with the pathological disgust for himself that he cannot remove.
M. Butterfly’s thesis, in my opinion, is that we cannot lose ourselves in the romantic idea that two such vastly different worlds can simply come together under the banner of love. The French constantly talk about how they detest the Maoist regime and how to undermine it. Then they are aghast that the Chinese government was using a spy to get information from one of their own. Like almost every Western nation involved in the Cold War, the French engaged in espionage of one form or another. The Chinese were intelligent enough to use the French’s sense of bold, intense romanticism against them. I would like to live in a world where spycraft wasn’t something that happened, but because it is, I cannot say one side is allowed while the other is forbidden. Once the board is set, you cannot hold your opponent to a standard you refuse to abide by. In this way, I don’t see the Chinese as wrong; they are just playing the game.
Gallimard wants to destroy himself for personal reasons, the most prominent of which is shame. The French in this film are also mired in shame, mainly the shame that they were out-gamed by a culture they want to view as “inferior” to themselves. The inferiority narrative is a large piece of how the West tries to position itself against the Chinese. White supremacy is there under the surface, informing every article in the major newspapers or stories on the cable news channels. As I said above, there are plenty of valid critiques to make about China that don’t align with supremacy ideology, but those critiques almost always showcase the intimate economic connection between China and the West, which is an inconvenient truth for the Sinophobes. I am also firmly of the opinion that the United States and its allies will lose badly if they were to push China into armed conflict. Because of the economic entanglements that are a part of our modern world, a war fought between two dominant nations and not through proxies would mean suffering for the people on the ground and not those in power.
M. Butterfly is a story about assuming that the categorizations we passively operate from are inherent truths. What we see and define as a woman is just that, which is not valid. What feels like love truly is love, but not always. We can’t be outwitted by people we label as inferior, fuck around and find out. When our assumptions are proven false, shame & anger is a widespread reaction, but if we can move past those reflexive emotions and seek a greater understanding, we free ourselves from incorrect & outdated assumptions. In that space, we begin to understand our world and the people that inhabit it, and ourselves.