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 when Marc says, referring to Song and Gallimard, “She cannot love you, it is taboo, but something deep inside her heart…she cannot help herself… she must surrender to you. It is her destiny” (Hwang 25). The Occident is supposed to have total dominance over the Orient, yet, as the scene progresses, Gallimard continues to treat Song with the utmost respect, refusing to look through a window without her approval. Song is in total control of the relationship; Gallimard won’t do anything without first making sure Song feels comfortable doing it.
If Song says not to do something, there is no refusal. A primary example of this is found in Act One, Scene 11 of M. Butterfly. After being invited up to Song’s flat, Gallimard begins to seduce Song, yet Song stops him saying, “Please—go now. The next time you see me I shall be myself again” (Hwang 31). In order to maintain control over the relationship Song refuses to allow Gallimard any sense of entitlement over her body. The minute she tells Gallimard to ‘stop’; he complies and falls back immediately, thus further revealing his meek nature.
Said explains that, “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony…” (Said 72). It is clear, though, that Gallimard portrays neither the power nor dominance in this relationship. By establishing herself as the ‘man’ in the relationship, Song never allows for her true identity to be compromised while simultaneously ensuring that Gallimard remains interested enough to keep giving her the information that she needs.
The deception carried out by Song demonstrates her uncanny ability to develop a false sense of trust in her relationships, only to abandon them in the end, leaving them with nothing. To get what she wants, Song plays the part of the ignorant Oriental woman asking things such as, “Tell me—what’s happening in Vietnam? ” (Hwang 43) and following them up with flattery (in order to avoid any suspicions), “I want to know what you know. To be impressed by my man” (43). Gallimard relies too heavily on the stereotypes of Oriental women, believing that all of them are faithful and truly want the love of an Occidental man.
This gives Song the capacity to make Gallimard reveal classified information regarding the Occident’s plans for further controlling the Orient through simply deceit. It is said that, “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be ‘Oriental’ in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be what is, submitted to being—made Oriental” (Said 72). Based on this statement, I would argue that because Song was able to make Gallimard oriental, at least in essence if not in physicality, Gallimard is the Orient.
Although Gallimard is technically Occidental, Song manipulates in Gallimard in such a way that he acts in a stereotypical Oriental manner. Gallimard ends up losing his job in China and is forced to return to Paris, at which time he believes that his relationship with Song is over. Song still needs him to help get her the vital information that is required of her job. In order to continue using him as a source, Song explains how, “But finally, at my urging, Rene got a job as a courier, handling sensitive documents.
He’d photograph them for me, and I’d pass them on to the Chinese embassy” (Hwang 81). The most important part of this selection is not how she used him, but rather when she says, “…at my urging” proving that she was the reason he got a job. She made him do it; she acts as the Occident by making him do something; he represents the Orient by putting all of his trust in her, by allowing her to so easily convince him to get a job. He further condemns himself by proving that he will do something that he knows is wrong—taking the photos of classified documents—just to appease her.
Although Gallimard frequently allows himself to be controlled by Song, there are several instances in which he acts more as he should; fulfilling the ideals of Western hegemony. After returning to Paris, Song surprises Gallimard at his front door. She requests that Gallimard let her change. Gallimard expresses his discomfort on the matter, saying that she has to listen to what he tells her to do. Still refusing to listen to Gallimard, he exclaims, “I welcomed you into my home! I didn’t have to, you know!
I could’ve left you penniless on the streets of Paris! But I took you in” (Hwang 78). By finally taking a stand against Song’s manipulative nature, one could argue that Gallimard finally proves himself as an Occidental male. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If we continue to read, we find that Song disregards Gallimard’s wishes and proceeds to change. The minute that Gallimard is met with any form of resistance, he backs down. He simply cannot tell her ‘no. ’ His fear of losing her again outweighs his willingness to have control.
Even when it looks as though Gallimard is finally making progress in fulfilling his destined role as controlling male, he once again returns to his obedient self; allowing Song to control him. David Henry Hwang’s play, M. Butterfly, reverses the ideals of Orientalism by having the Occident, Gallimard, act as the Orient, and having the Orient, Song, play the role of the Occident. Through his submissive nature, Gallimard portrays qualities commonly attributed to an Oriental woman; whereas Song’s manipulative and controlling disposition, make her more characteristic of the Occident.
Much like Suzan Lori-Parks’ play Venus, M. Butterfly touches on society’s ignorance towards other people’s cultures as well as the dangers that can result from believing stereotypes. They say that love is blind; I don’t know that this saying was ever more applicable. Gallimard chose to simply believe the pre-conceived notions set forth by the idea of Orientalism—that all Oriental women just wanted the love of an Occidental man—choosing to ignore the obvious signs, such as refusing to ever appear fully nude, that the woman he was in love with was hiding a major secret.
Although it is easy to criticize Gallimard for his ignorance towards the “woman” he loved, it is hard to say that you would never have done the same thing. In our times, when a person thinks that they have found true love, true happiness, they will put up with anything to keep that feeling of being wanted there just a little longer, even manipulation, deception, or scandal. Word Cited Hwang, David. M. Butterfly. Ney York City: Penguin Group, 1988. Said, Edward. The Edward Said Reader. New York City: Vintage Books, 2000.