The events of M. Butterfly occur during a time of turmoil in Southeast Asia, as imperialist European nations that had established colonies throughout Southeast Asia were facing threats to their imperial control by native uprisings. As a French diplomat living in China in the 1960s, Gallimard lives in the shadow of the Indochina War. During this war, Vietnamese military forces under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh successfully fought for independence from the French, who had installed a colonialist government in Vietnam in the late nineteenth century. By the time the Indochina War ended in 1954, the French had maintained colonies in Vietnam, and the neighboring nations of Laos and Cambodia, for almost seventy years. The three nations together were known as French Indochina. The Chinese government assisted the Vietnamese in their struggle for independence, supplying modern weapons from the Soviet Union that helped the Vietnamese resist the French more effectively. China was a Communist nation by this time, and invested in helping the Vietnamese partially because independence would lead to the installation of a Communist government in Vietnam.
Toulon, Gallimard’s superior at the embassy, describes the loss of French Indochina as a national embarrassment for France. As the Vietnam War begins, Toulon asks Gallimard to advise American military officials about the disposition of Asian people toward Western military and government power. Gallimard’s involvement with the war in Vietnam seems to be an effort to redeem this embarrassment and promote Western dominance in this former French colony. Gallimard’s job is to predict how the Chinese will react to an American invasion in Vietnam, and suggest ways for the American military to win public support among the Vietnamese people. Yet the advice Gallimard offers is disastrous and misguided, based on ignorant stereotypes about “Orientals” rather than real understanding of the Chinese or other Asian cultures. His diplomatic analysis is heavily influenced by what the literary theorist Edward Said termed “Orientalism” — the tendency of Western people to depict Asian and Middle Eastern countries as being underdeveloped, backward, exotic, passive, and feminine compared to the supposedly enlightened and powerful Western nations that seek to colonize them. Gallimard believes that Asians are passive and unable to protect themselves, and simply “want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power.” This Orientalist mindset is not unique to Gallimard. In fact, it influences nearly every Western character in M. Butterfly, as shown in Toulon and Marc’s willingness to support Gallimard’s oversimplified characterizations of Asian people and cultures.
These stereotypes originate in some of the most famous Western representations of Asians — most notably, for the purposes of this play, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, in which a beautiful Japanese woman throws her life away for love of an unworthy white sailor. As its title suggests, M. Butterfly tells a story that both references and revises Madame Butterfly and the Orientalist ideas it embodies. M. Butterfly critiques Orientalist stereotypes as pernicious lies used by Westerners to justify the exploitation and oppression of Asian people. By playing with the tropes exemplified in Madame Butterfly — for instance, the stereotype of the submissive Asian woman — M. Butterfly illustrates how these simplistic, demeaning ideas are destructive for both Asians and Westerners. Gallimard, in particular, is rendered weak and manipulable: he believes even the most implausible aspects of Song’s deception because they fit with his image of Asian women as being modest, obedient, and undiscerning in their adoration of their men, especially when those men are white. Gallimard’s personal obsession with Madame Butterfly illustrates how his attachment to these misguided ideas are products of his culture, which tends to fetishize and demean Asian people. He cannot see that Song is a man, or that their affair is politically motivated, because he has been raised to believe that Asian people are so passive as to make this kind of subversion totally unthinkable. Ultimately, rather than face the truth after Song’s deception is revealed, Gallimard chooses to adopt the persona of Butterfly and commit suicide in the same way Puccini’s heroine does. This final act suggests how Orientalist fantasy can become fatally all-consuming —just as it leads Gallimard to offer terrible political analysis to the Americans, it leads him to personal destruction.
Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict ThemeTracker
Orientalism, Imperialism, and Cultural Conflict Quotes in M. Butterfly
It’s true what they say about Oriental girls. They want to be treated bad!
But as she glides past him, beautiful, laughing softly behind her fan, don’t we who are men sigh with hope? We, who are not handsome, not brave, nor powerful, yet somehow believe, like Pinkerton, that we deserve a Butterfly.
It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man … Consider it this way: what would you say if a blonde homecoming queen feel in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now, I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner — ah! — you find it beautiful.
It’s an old story. It’s in our blood. They fear us, Rene. Their women fear us. And their men — their men hate us. And you know something? They are all correct.
In my heart, I know she has … an interest in me. I suspect this is her way. She is outwardly bold and outspoken, yet her heart is shy and afraid. It is the Oriental in her at war with her Western education.
Please. Hard as I try to be modern, to speak like a man, to hold a Western woman’s strong face up to my own … in the end, I fail. A small, frightened heart beats too quickly and gives me away. Monsieur Gallimard, I’m a Chinese girl.
Are you my Butterfly?
The West has sort of an international rape mentality toward the East … Basically, “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.” The West thinks of itself as masculine — big guns, big industry, big money — so the East is feminine — weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom — the feminine mystique. Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated — because a woman can’t think for herself.
There is a vision of the Orient that I have. Of slender women in chong sams and kimonos who die for the love of unworthy foreign devils. Who are born and raised to be the perfect women. Who take whatever punishment we give them, and bounce back, strengthened by love, unconditionally. It is a vision that has become my life.
I have a vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within its 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.