David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly is a cinematic adaptation of Henry David Hwang’s 1988 stage production. Beginning in Beijing, China during the 1960s, the film centers around the relationship between René Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer. Gallimard is unaware of the fact that Song is a Chinese spy disguised as a female opera singer who extracts secret information from him throughout their relationship. Gallimard is eventually tried for treason and is forced to learn about the truth behind Song’s identity. Unable to cope with the fact that his lover had been a man all along, Gallimard takes on the role of Butterfly himself. At the end of the film, Song goes back to China while Gallimard commits suicide in prison, illustrating an abrupt reversal of gender roles.
M. Butterfly explores the themes of Orientalism, racial status quo, and traditional gender roles. The inversion of gender roles for both Gallimard and Song challenges the audience’s assumptions of sexual identity and “the self” to the world. The film’s climactic ending functions as an examination of the Orientalist fantasies, which encompasses a broad area of Western prejudices and common stereotypes regarding Eastern culture and race. In addition, transformation is a major motif throughout the film, and it is seen within the historical context of the story and the two lead characters. Yet, these metamorphoses differ from each other because for Song, the transformation was part of his role as an actor. For Rene, it was psychological and emotional, and during the time of this story, China, like many other East Asian countries, was undergoing political and social change.
The story of Madame Butterfly, originally written by John Luther Long and adapted into an opera play by Giacomo Puccini, tells one of the most common interracial romances found in American cinema. A Caucasian man, far from his homeland and its moral influences, falls in love with a young woman from another race/culture. He then leaves his young bride/lover, and, back in the West, marries a white woman. He then returns to discover his nonwhite wife has had a baby, whom he and his white wife adapt. The cast-off lover, abandoned by her husband, sacrifices her happiness and life for the “good” of the child.
The fantasy exists as a confirmation of the West’s notion of itself as innately superior to Asia. The Butterfly depicts Orientals as fragile, powerless people who cannot resist the attractions of the West. Although the Western man destroys her, she must submit to his authority b/c of his race/gender. The Butterfly acts as a scapegoat for the excess of men and and the Western power; although the West may be viewed as abusive and unfair, the Butterfly’s tragic but necessary self-sacrifice legitimizes its authority and continuing domination.
David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1993), although inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, attempts to deconstruct these same Western preconceptions of race, gender, and sexuality. The movie takes place in postcolonial China and centers around a relationship between Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a male Chinese spy disguised as an opera singer. By hiding his true identity throughout their relationship, Song extracts government information from Gallimard.
Throughout the film, it is made known that Song Liling is well aware of Orientalism in Western culture, and uses that knowledge to manipulate Gallimard and hide his identity. She (or really, he) deceptively encourages the Western misperceptions of Oriental woman and plays up to exploit the image of a submissive, mysterious Asian opera singer.Song uses this Western fantasy as an advantage to hide his true identity as a male Chinese spy; each time Gallimard tries to have Song naked, she deflects by appealing to a perceived cultural expectation of submission and shame. Song appears to be the perfect woman of Gallimard’s fantasy, as she conveniently portrays all stereotypes of Oriental woman.
Ironically, the only time Gallimard sees Song’s entire naked body is after his fantasies of Song had been completely shattered. As Gallimard and Song are being transported after the trial, Song attempts to lure Gallimard back by slowly taking off his suits and getting naked in front of him. Song says, “I am your Butterfly… it was always me. Tell me you adored me.” Rene, realizing who Song’s true identity, rejects him by saying, “[you have] shown me your true self, and what I love was the lie, perfect lie, that’s been destroyed.” This in entire time, Gallimard bad deeply been in love, not with Song as a person, but with the Western fantasy stereotype. To Gallimard, Song had only been a combination of Orientalist stereotypes that Rede had fantasized about. Stunned, Song finally replies, “you never really loved me,” and quietly sobs while Rene avoids him.
For nearly the entire film, the audience and Gallimard see Song as an Oriental woman. This depiction is strengthened by she being obedient, exotic, submissive, and docile. However, the discovery that Song is, in fact, a man towards the end of the film challenges the audience to question rather Song had the true characteristics of an Oriental woman type. The ending shows Song going back to his homeland China, while Rene is imprisoned and takes the role of the Butterfly, as women are the ones stereotypically “fooled” by love. After becoming the butterfly, Rene says, “My name is Rene Gallimard- also known as Madame Butterfly,” and kills himself. His last words make known that the director had intended the entire time to make Song into the male and Gallimard into the female. The ambiguous title of the film, M. Butterfly, embodies Gallimard’s reversed and repressed identity, a story of Monsieur (not Madame) Butterfly.
This climactic ending is a direct inversion of the originally story of Madame Butterfly, which ends with the white man going back to his homeland while the Asian woman committing suicide. This abrupt reversal of racial and gender roles at the cinematic climax also results in an erotic tension and uneasiness for both Gallimard and the audience, for Song had so conveniently portrayed the Western fantasy of an Oriental woman.With a realization that a man had been depicting the role of the female, the audience is forced to address the underlying issue of sexism and Orientalism.
Gender roles provide people with an identity based on determining the “other” and being the opposite. What we actually categorize as being masculine or feminine only exist only in our imaginations as ways to identify ourselves. The inversion of gender roles, in addition to the fate of the Oriental woman (now a man) and the white hero (now a Butterfly), ultimately deconstructs and acknowledges the superficiality and distortions of the Western fantasy and its shallow preconceptions of race, gender, and sexuality. The ending functions as an examination of the phenomenon of “Orientalism,” which invests a broad spectrum of Western attitudes and prejudices regarding Asian culture and race. Both play and the film have profound implications for our assumptions about identity, and asserts that gender is not necessarily an innate biological phenomenon, but a “socially constructed” identity that can be assumed by members of either gender.
M. Butterfly Analysis
One of the most important and reoccurring themes throughout M. Butterfly would have to be Renee Gallimard’s struggle between fantasy and reality. This film takes place in 1964 Beijing and the old western myth of the “oriental woman waiting to submit to the cruel white man” was still very prevalent. Renee, being from the west was familiar with this myth and was intrigued with the thought of having a woman submit to him. When he met Beijing Opera singer, Song Liling, it was a chance for his fantasy to become reality. Song was the perfect oriental woman. She was obedient, submissive and made Gallimard feel like he was in control.
In the last scenes of the film, Gallimard finally learns that his love affair with Song was a complete lie. This fantasy world he had been living in for the last 20 years came crashing down. He and Song were arrested for treason and this was when he finally learned of Song’s true identity. The oriental woman he had fallen in love with was not a woman but a man. Renee was forced to face the reality of his situation when Song finally took off all of his clothes to reveal his self to Renee. During this scene, Renee says to song, “How could you, who understood me so well, make such a mistake? You’ve shown me your true self, and what I loved was the lie, the perfect lie, that’s been destroyed…I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man. Anything else
simply falls short.” This caused Gallimard to realize that he was in love with the fantasy of loving an oriental woman because in reality the woman he thought he loved was a man.
Song was able to deceive Gallimard because he knew of the old western myth and used it to his advantage. Song once said, “Only a man knows how a woman should act,” and he was able to fool Renee because he knew what he wanted from an oriental woman. Song made Renee feel as if he was in control but in reality he was the one that was really in control. Song pretended to be the obedient and submissive oriental woman to steal French military secrets for the communist government.
Rene was not the only one living in a fantasy world throughout the film. Song was also living in a fantasy world, pretending to be someone else. He once told Rene, “The days I spent with you were the only days I ever truly existed.” Song used the oriental woman to escape from his reality. He was also forced to face reality in the last scenes of the film. When he stripped down naked for Gallimard and he did not accept him for being a man, Song’s last attempt of keeping his fantasy alive ended.
Another prevalent theme throughout M. Butterfly would be Gender roles and Gender Confusion. Starting with the title of the film, M. Butterfly is a very ambiguous title. The audience is unsure of whether the M stands for Mr. or Mrs.. Song first appears in the film as a woman performing in the Beijing Opera. In china, a man performing as women was normal but could be seen as strange and unusual to the west. Renee, being from the west seemed to be unaware of this fact. He looked at and thought of Song as a woman. This was because Song also acted like the typical oriental woman. She was shy, obedient and submissive. Towards the end of film, Song’s true identity is revealed to Gallimard. To the audience, this was a big shock because he was portrayed as a woman throughout the entire film. His identity wasn’t revealed to either Gallimard or the audience until the end.
All throughout the film, Renee was portrayed as the typical western man but was shown as a woman in the last scene of the film. Gender roles were questioned throughout the entire film. How could Song be the perfect oriental woman for Renee then turns out to be a man? How could Renee be portrayed as the western male throughout the film bus is shown as a woman in the end of the film? The director chose to confuse the audience even more when Gallimard turns out to be Madame Butterfly. He was the one betrayed by the one he chose to love and not being able to bear it, kills himself. The audience, like I, would have expected Song to become Madame Butterfly, but instead, his character is more similar to the navy man in the original Madama Butterfly. When he was leaving in the plane to go back to china was similar to Pinkerton leaving Butterfly to go back to America. The director cleverly questions the stereotypical gender roles and leaves the audience in astonishment with the mind twisting ending.
Different Metamorphoses in M. Butterfly
by Mikki McCall
The butterfly’s many symbols relate to the deeper meanings of M. Butterfly. The butterfly is a metaphor for freedom and beauty, but it can also imply being confined. Most importantly for this film, the butterfly is a symbol of metamorphosis. Transformation is a major motif throughout the film, and it is seen within the historical context of the story and the two lead characters, Renee Gallimard and Song Liling.
The historical context of the film could not have been more fitting for the unforeseen transformation of both lead characters. The film took place in the middle of the Second Indochina War which was from 1954 to 1973. At this point, France has already been forced out of Vietnam (1954), and Communist parties in China, North Vietnam, North Korea and the Soviet Union have confirmed use of violence (1960). That’s why the French ambassador has a meeting with Rene to implicitly tell him that the French may be doing some underhand operations to aid American troops or to spy on the Communists’ activities. However, as the story progresses, the Red Guard becomes increasingly present and stronger. There is a scene when Rene takes a bike ride down a dark path and he strolls into a Red Guard parade. During this scene, the Red Guard individuals carry signs of Mao Zedong and wear communist uniforms. They also gather as many traditional Chinese clothing and artifacts into a massive pile and burn them.
This scene itself is a representation of the past being discarded like an old shell for the sake of the new China to emerge. Also, in the beginning, the Chinese opera depicted traditional stories and myths and the actors and actresses wore the corresponding traditional costumes. Yet after Rene’s encounter with the Communist Parade, the Chinese opera had Red Guard students in their Communist uniform depicting a modern or contemporary story. Therefore, in the beginning of the movie, it seemed that the Western individuals, diplomats and government personnel had some status in China, but by the end of the film, it was apparent that China had reclaimed its own identity.
However, Song’s transformation was physical and was due to his role as an actor. Madame Butterfly, the Chinese opera characters and most importantly, Song Liling, the stereotypical Oriental woman, are all roles that he had to play. Song the oriental woman was his most important role since it served the communist party and ensured his survival in a dangerous, changing world. Song was first introduced as portraying Madame Butterfly. Rene found her after the opera to express his admiration for her performance. Yet, from Renee’s comments, Song observed that Renee already has preconceived notions of how the ideal Oriental woman are supposed to act and that every Asian woman (regardless of her nationality) fell under the same category of being submissive. Song initially and briefly mocks the Western myth of the submissive Oriental girl and the cruel White man, but since Renee was so blindly eager to fulfill this dream of being the cruel White man, Song saw the opportunity to use him to her and the Communists’ advantage. From that point, Song strategically portrayed the role of the traditional, submissive Oriental woman. Song’s acts of modesty (e.g., not allowing Renee to reciprocate the sexual acts, and being clothed during these acts), shyness (e.g., the perceived initial hesitation of being involved with Renee and her questioning Renee for choosing her as his Chinese slave), loyal obedience (e.g., addresses herself as his Chinese slave and adhering to the Western view of Chinese tradition (e.g., her entire purpose in life was to please him; the modest sexual acts) drew Renee deeper into the relationship.
The turning point of Song’s performance was when she was able to convince Renee that she was pregnant and to bring his false child to him several months later. When Song appeared in Paris in 1968, she used the child as an excuse to convince Renee to give French diplomatic documents to the Chinese Communist party in order to save the child. It was not until Renee and Song were caught and trialed, when Song had to reveal his true nature as a Communist spy. By the end of the film, Song had made one more transformation: from the stereotypical Oriental woman to the cruel, dominant man.
In addition, Renee’s transformation was from a timid man to the cruel, dominant man to the broken, tragic Madame Butterfly. This entire process was psychological. Renee and his wife, Helga had tried to procreate for a while, but they were unsuccessful. Renee internalized this failure into meaning that he was less of a man, thus in the beginning of the film, he seemed less confident and easy to intimidate. After many interactions with Song, he became increasingly enchanted and inspired by her exoticism submissiveness and modesty. His confidence and sense of masculinity definitely increased when he was able to cheat not only on his wife, but on his Chinese mistress with another woman, when Song told him that she was pregnant and when he was able to provide documents in order to save his child. These things were all the evidence that he needed to show himself that he was a true, strong, dominant man. Yet, everything fell apart when Renee and Song were caught and put to trial. During this time, Renee learned that Song was really a man and a communist spy which must have been devastating enough, but for Song to admit his portrayal, false relationship and true intentions in front of everyone in the courtroom must have made Renee’s humiliation even worse. Even in the jail car, Song taunted him for still wanting him even though he was in a suit. However, Renee cannot believe in Song or his character because everything that he thought he had worked for and had gained was farce.
Thus in the end, from Renee’s perspective, he was still less of a man, or even worse, a woman. Hence, he identified as Madame Butterfly because the “perfect” woman that he loved has taken everything from him and has left him. As an Oriental woman who loved someone who did not deserve his love, Renee must sacrifice his life to end the scandal and the ramifications of his cultural conventions of the Orient.
Deconstruction of Discourse in M. Butterfly
By Jonathon Hsu
In the film, M. Butterfly directed by David Cronenburg explores the issues of gender roles, Cold War Orientalism, and sexuality through a deconstrutive lens. The character of Song Liling is instrumental in establishing and reaffirming the discursive framework in which the East portrays the West. The cultural hegemony of the West over the East is illustrated through the usage of levels in the film where it seems that Song is frequently shown in a position of servitude and Rene is in the position of power. In the following scene, where Gallimard and Liling are having a picnic next to the Great Wall of China which is interesting because it was originally meant to keep “foreigners” out of China. This setting is symbolic because it shows the stance of China toward the West and vice versa. It is interesting to note how Rene is sitting on a higher slope however his body language suggests signs of his insecurity. Rene who represents the West and Cold War Orientalism is seen as uncomfortable even in a position of power. Rene’s feet are slightly crossed which shows that how he is feeling awkward and insecure even though the rest of his body language expresses the opposite. Song is leaning toward Rene as well as opening up her body to him which shows interest in Rene as well as her deference to him. However, Song seems to be hiding her hands which could suggest her duplicity and deceit. The bottle of French wine in the picnic basket also emphasizes how out of place Rene is at the Great Wall of China. In a sense it shows how using Cold War Orientalism and soft power, cultural hegemony, and non coercive measures to influence and dominate the East; the values the West imposes are frequently out of place and go completely against the culture in China. The perceived gender roles by the West are also illustrated by the scene where Song is not only sitting in a very submissive manner but also serves Rene food at the beginning of the scene with the platter on both of her hands. This plays into the Orientalist discourse on Asian women as well as femininity since Song is shown as a “paragon of female virtue” (Marchetti) being much more devoted and faithful to Rene than he is to her. Song is willing to share Rene with his wife and the Danish student named Renee. Song asks Rene why he chose a “poor Chinese with a chest like boy” over his pick of “Western women”, Rene replies with “not like a boy”, but rather “a young innocent school girl waiting for her lessons.” This shows the ideology for men to dominate or teach women how to be a “woman” and reaffirms the West’s hegemony over the East. The passive and servile nature of Song epitomizes the “perfect woman” who is intent on pleasing her man. Even the act of asking Rene permission to ask a question establishes the power relations within their relationship. The quote about the “young, innocent school girl” also illustrates the reversal of the “rape fantasy” where Rene wants to rape the virgin Song who has “never been with a man before.” The Cold War Orientalist perspective is depicted in this scene with the usage of symbols and levels to show the power of the West however the insecurities of Rene and his pedophilic tendencies mar the image of the West being a “white knight”.
Traditional gender roles are later reversed in the film with the revealing of Song Liling as a Chinese man. This scene explores the boundaries and fluidity of sexuality as well as gender roles. In the following scene, Rene and Song are shown to be sitting in the prisoner transport truck preceding the trial and the shift in power with both Song and Rene sitting on the same level facing each other squarely. This shows the dramatic change from one where Rene dominated Song to where both are equal after finding out that both used each other for their own gain. Rene however refuses to believe that Song is his “Butterfly”. Gallimard refuses to look at Song or acknowledge the truth after the discovery of Song as a Chinese man. In this scene, the power relations change to a point where Song plays the dominant role and Rene plays the passive role. Song thinks that Rene still “adores” him even in a “suit and a tie” and tells Rene to “come here” calling him his “little one”. Rene is repulsed by the term “little one” and Song reacts by saying “my mistake, I am your little one”. The term little one implies that Song feels comfortable playing the dominant role now that he showed his true self. Song has ruined Rene’s life as well as his fantasy about loving an Oriental woman. All this withheld knowledge empowers Song. However, Rene does not take the reversal of power well since he feels emasculated by Song who is an Oriental man. The discursive influences and ideology on East and West, gender, and sexuality which Rene had so dearly held onto were shattered and turned upside down.
Once Song strips himself and reveals his true self; Gallimard become disillusioned with reality and tells Song that he has made a mistake by exposing and destroying the “perfect lie” that he was in love with. Gallimard then says: “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man. Anything else simply falls short.” Rene is in love with his own mind and his own fantasy of a woman that was played up and emphasized by Song. However, Gallimard refuses to see the truth because truth would mean “defeat” and the West could never come to terms with being defeated by the East. The West is supposed to be better and superior which gives them the right to dominate the East. However, in M. Butterfly Song and the East win out in the end. Gallimard is attempting to reconcile and reaffirm his ideas of superiority over the East but ultimately he fails to do so and dies as a result of choosing fantasy over reality. It seems that Gallimard’s view of gender roles are limited to the rigid discourse on masculinity and femininity in place in his society and Song’s portrayal of the extremes of femininity and the exotic nature of an Oriental woman allowed Gallimard to fantasize about his own masculinity and his control of the relationship with the “perfect woman”. Song’s gender shifting shows the androgyny of gender roles and shatters the boundaries sexuality with Rene’s realization of his homosexual relationship. The insecurities of Gallimard suggest of his lack of masculinity and highlight his latent homosexuality. In many ways, it seemed that Rene knew all along that Song was a man but played along with the lie because it was perfect and something he had always wanted. The final scene is important in the deconstruction of gender roles, sexuality, and the Cold War Orientalist perspective because Rene finally is able to see the difference between reality and fantasy; he chooses fantasy over reality. Gallimard realizes the lie in the male fantasy of a relationship of a Caucasian man with an Oriental woman. Gallimard also sees how he was using Song as a crutch to feel more masculine, in control, and empowered. Finally, Gallimard saw the duality of loving the “perfect woman” or Butterfly who he was all along. Gallimard was the Butterfly who was loved and then betrayed by Song, the worthless foreign man. M. Butterfly is a complete deconstruction of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and also of the discourse of Orientalism, gender, and sexuality centering heavily on the balance between dominance and submission.