Shades of Gray: How M. Butterfly redefines Gender Identity

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A Literary Paper discussing how Gender roles are ever changing in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly.
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  Johnson 1 Teighlor Johnson Shades of Gray: How M. Butterfly redefines Gender Identity In David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly,   Song Liling and Rene Gallimard’s extramarital affair is something that shows an obvious opposition of gender and culture,  pitting not only male against female, but the ideals of the traditional China against “modern” and “cultured” ideas of the West. Using the affair, along with its power   dynamics, Hwang seeks to challenge the traditional notions of gender. Though society usually views people as either male or female, both Song and Gallimard’s characters suggest that gender separation is not easily set in black or black or white. . The very title of the play indicates a discrepancy with respect to Song’s gender. M. Butterfly, though it refers to the title of an opera, could be interpreted either as “Monsieur,” as the “M.” traditionally refers to, or “Madame,” the title associated with the o  pera Madam Butterfly, which is what this play is loosely based on. In this play, Hwang suggests that gender identity is indicative of a greater power struggle that constitutes our sense of place and self, and not the formal male-or-female category to which we are so accustomed. One of the greatest examples of this is the way how throughout the play; Song constantly undergoes a series of gender transformations. This leaves the reader unable to conclude whether or not Hwang himself really believes Song to be a man or a woman. Song personality contains contradictory information with regards to gender. During Gallimard’s affair with the apparently female Song, he acknowledges certain masculine  Johnson 2 tendencies of hers; describing Song as “outwardly bold and outspoken”  (Hwang ) but with a heart that is shy and afraid. The boldness of Song’s character seems to be indicative of an inner masculinity, but Gallimard chooses to ignore this in favor of the modesty and shyness he identifies in her. These are the qualities that attract him to her and validate his sense of self in the process. Song knows exactly what to say to Gallimard to appeal to his desire to dominate a feminine partner, saying that “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.” ( Hwang ) This plays to Gallimard’s ideals of a perfect  woman. Yet d espite Song’s apparent femininity, Gallimard still seems aware of a deep gender conflict within his lover. These simultaneous displays of both masculine and feminine qualities demonstrate Hwang’s opposition to the notion of set gender, showing that rather than being something that is  prescribed at birth, gender is portrayed as a spectral characteristic. Another example is Gallimard’s sense of masculinity. Only through Song’s sense of femininity, is Gallimard to have a masculine sense of self. Because of this, Gallimard values his relationship with her for its ability to validate his own desire to feel manly stating that : “ I felt for the first time that rush of power  -the absolute power of a man”(Hwang). He even praises her for this quality, saying that , “I wanted to take her in my arms  –   so delicate even I could protect her, take her home, pamper her until she smiled.” (Hwang) Here, Gallimard’s masculinity appears fragile. Song is so delicate that even he is made to feel like a man in protecting her. This suggests that Gallimard is insecure about his manliness, and that his attraction to Song is mainly  based on Song’s ability to validate his masculinity, as opposed to his relationships with his wife Helga and  Johnson 3 his lover Renee, who both make him feel inferior . Song is not so loveable because of who she is, but because she engenders a sense of security in Gallimard. He is generally insecure about his gender, and exclaims that Song makes him feel like a man. Gallimard’s search for masculinity ends with Song, as he feels for the first time what it is like to dominate another. He compares himself to Pinkerton from Pucchi’s Madame Butterfly, with Song being his “butterfly”, and he having full power over her. Because of this, he frantically protects this power, even though it is clear from early on that it may be illusionary. Long before Song reveals his biological gender, Gallimard wonders to himself, “Did I not undress her because I knew somewhere deep down, what I would find?” (Hwang). In his later years in his jail cell, Gallimard questions whether or not he always knew that Song was not the delicate butterfly she appeared to be. Yet he is willing to ignore this potential illusion from the beginning, because of its ability to satisfy his masculinity. He concludes that “Perhaps, happiness is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect it. ” (Hwang) This shows that it is more important to Gallimard that he be validated, than that that validation is truthful. Because i f the illusion of Song’s femininity is broken, so is Gallimard’s manliness.  The idea of having power over another is not just unique to gender. The implications of power and gender identity can also be tied to race and culture. The power dynamic of gender is implicated in the opposition of Western and Eastern cultures, with oriental culture always in the submissive position. Song herself describes this dynamic:  Johnson 4 “ 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.”(Hwang)   Not only is Western culture viewed more dominant than Eastern culture, but Western culture is also deemed more powerful because Eastern culture is relatively weaker. This show the idea of gender roles, with the power of one being derived from the power of the other. Because of this, the relative weakness of oriental culture prevents Song from ever  being a true man, regardless of his desires. Song says, “I am Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.” (Hwang) The weakness of the Oriental identity in the world prevents Song from ever attaining the absolute power he wishes for. Yet, there continues to be an emphasis on gender as a performance, as Hwang insists that Song retains his oriental femininity even as a man. In this way, power is at the center of  both gender and cultural conflicts. To Gallimard, Song’s revealing as a biological man is a death sentence. His masculinity, which was precariously built on Song’s lie, is shattered as he looks at the remains of his illusionary butterfly. Because he is so dependent on Song ’s image  as a docile, oriental woman for his identity as a male, Song’s transformation is lethal. Gallimard admits that he always knew his happiness to be ephemeral. He says, “I knew all the time somewhere that my happiness was temporary, my love a deception. But my mind kept the knowledge at bay. To make the wait bearable.” (Hwang) Gallimard’s contentment is based on an external quality over which he himself has no control, though he has always suspected that Song is not as she appears. He is able to prevent his suspicion from overpowering his
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