Orientalism in M. Butterfly

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  • Topic: Western world, Orientalism, Orient
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  • Published : November 12, 2012
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Reverse Orientalism
Manipulation. Deception. Scandal. Through these three words, David Henry Hwang is able to convey the basic principles of Orientalism in his play, M. Butterfly. Orientalism was created by Western culture—primarily European countries—in order to separate Eastern and Western cultures: the Orient (China and other Asian countries) and the Occident (France, England and other Western European countries). According to Edward Said’s, The Edward Said Reader, “…the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West” (71). This implies that the Occident created the idea of the Orient as a fascinating culture, which gives the Occident the belief that they are entitled to have control over the Orient. The West thus created a stereotype of how “Occidental” males and “Oriental” women are to act; Occidental men are to be dominant and confident, whereas Oriental women are submissive and desperate for a western man. It is thought that, “Song: The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can’t think for herself” (Hwang 83). Gallimard is from France—he is the Occident—and Song is a male spy, disguised as a woman, from China—she is the Orient. Or so it may seem at first. Through M. Butterfly, Hwang depicts a reversal of roles in the ideals of Orientalism where, Gallimard exemplifies characteristics of the Orient and Song portrays qualities of the Occident.

Although Gallimard may be from a country that is in the Occident, his passive temperament makes him more a representative of the Orient. In accordance with the philosophy of Orientalism, the typical male would act controlling, domineering, and even cruel when it came to his relationships with women of the Orient, yet Gallimard is not able to exhibit any of those traits. He is far more submissive when it comes to women, stating after one of his first encounters with Song that, “Women do not flirt with me. And I normally can’t talk to them. But tonight, I held up my end of the conversation” (Hwang 22). A normal Occidental male would come off as extremely confident when talking to women, but because we know that in a normal situation Gallimard is unconfident; it can be said that Song is fooling him into thinking that he is intelligent and that he is in control. Song is using her manipulative, Occidental qualities to lure Gallimard in.

Song is extremely bold and outspoken; refusing to let herself fall into the stereotypes that the Occident has set forth regarding the submissiveness of Oriental women. One of the first times that Gallimard encounters Song is immediately after Song finishes a scene from the play, Madame Butterfly. Gallimard explains how beautiful he finds the play, to which Song replies, “It’s one of your fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (Hwang 17). The fact that Song is not throwing herself at Gallimard as soon as he pays her compliments, provides evidence that she is not going to let herself be controlled by anyone; what she says is law. She is establishing herself, as the one who will have control in the relationship—the Occident—yet she is doing it in such a subtle manner that Gallimard—who is being established as the Orient—is ignorant all the while. Unlike the typical Occidental male, Gallimard is allowing himself to be fooled, buying in to all of Song’s lies.

In the play, we encounter Marc, a childhood friend of Gallimard; Marc is a representation of everything that Gallimard wishes that he was, a true representation of the Occident. He is strong, confident, and slightly arrogant, believing that he and all Occidental men are entitled to the love and endless devotion of Oriental women. He firmly believes that, “Song:…you [the Occident] expect Oriental woman to be submissive to your men. That’s why you say they make the best wives” (Hwang 83). This point is made clear...
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