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Alex Delbar
Professor Vanita Neelakanta
English 220
7 December 2013
The Incognizant Actor: An Exploration of Gender Identity in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly
As our generation enters the dawn of a new age in the world of gender identity, we can
look to David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly for thought –provoking symbolism and insight.
Through the convoluted relationship that Hwang’s primary characters, Rene Gallimard and Song
Liling, share, David Henry Hwang challenges the gender identities that are found embedded
deeply in society. By testing the known definitions of masculinity and femininity, the author
unearths the potential of both the male and female. Moreover, Hwang utilizes the micro
relationship between Rene and Song as a metaphor for the macro relationship between the
imperial Western world and the seemingly submissive Eastern nations, or, the “Orient”. The
dynamic of Gallimard and Song demonstrate the power that the industrialized Western world has
strived to posses over Eastern nations for centuries, and the downfall of Gallimard suggests the
underestimated power of the Orient. Drawing from academics such as Cecilia Hsueh Chen Liu,
Karen Shimakawa and Eileen Chia-Ching Fung, these ideas from M. Butterfly will be explored,
along with their potential for application to the individual’s life style.
The sense of dominance that Gallimard discovers within his affair with Song Liling acts
as an energy source for the French diplomat. During his relationship with Song, Gallimard’s
productivity and ability in the work place increase greatly. This great zeal that Gallimard draws
from his dominance over the female even leads him to a promotion in the French Embassy.
Rene’s superior notices his change, “But the past few months, I don’t know how it happened,
you’ve become this new aggressive confident…thing (Act I, Scene 12).
This feeding of Song’s submission is almost vampiric in nature, and relates directly to the
relationship that France and other imperial nations created between many of the foreign Eastern

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countries that they occupied. By drawing from the resources of the lands that they invaded, these
Western countries nourished and progressed their own homelands. The concept of invasion is
expanded when Gallimard first enters Song’s apartment, “There is an element of danger to your
presence,” Song tells him when he first visits her flat, ‘I’m entertaining you. In my parlor…’
(I,10). Once he believes his presence in Song’s flat is an (at least threatened) invasion into
another’s space, he is all the more attracted to Song…” (Shimakawa).
Through this invasion and domination, Gallimard continues his gender identification of
masculine superiority over feminine submission. Yet, as Hwang unravels his story, the “Oriental”
woman that Song was perceived as is revealed to be a man, thereby throwing off Gallimard’s
understanding of Song’s feminine role. In addition to this, Gallimard dresses himself in a
kimono, a piece of traditional clothing for females, as the play concludes. “The characters do not,
however, merely enact a role reversal: perhaps an even better word than ‘rearrange’ would be
‘derangement,’ for identity is unstable and ultimately undeterminable in M. Butterfly,”
(Shimakawa). With the complexity and confusion of the characters’ gender identity, the author
raises the questions: What defines masculinity and femininity? and Who defines masculinity and
femininity? Moreover: Are masculine and feminine traits genetically inherited or consciously
acquired? As the gender roles of Gallimard and Song, that were thought to be well understood,
come into question, so do the roles between the Western nations and the “Oriental” nations in
which they held positions. These changes are manifested between Gallimard and his superior,
“TOULON. In general, everything you’ve predicted here in the Orient…just hasn’t happened…”
(II, 9).
In order to answer the questions that Hwang presents concerning gender distinction, the
author utilizes the motif of the actor. With references to Madame Butterfly, Chinese operas and
Song’s acting career, the theatre is present through the entire play. By this literary technique,

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Hwang suggests that the only true elements that differentiate the male and the female are
physical organs and general hormone levels. All other separations between the two sexes are
parts written in the script of life. By complying to the roles that we are expected to play, society’s
population becomes a massive cast of actors; living under a life-long illusion of masculinity and
femininity. Song finds great meaning in his role as an actor. Song expresses to Gallimard that he
was his ‘greatest acting challenge,’ and Song defends himself against Comrade Chin’s
interrogations by reminding Chin of his identity as an actor.
The greatest demonstration of gender performance is found in Song Liling’s character.
It should be noted that the success of the author’s reproduction of the opera Madame Butterfly
and the Westerner’s affair with a native of China, who happens to be a theatrical actor, is possible
because of an interpretation of gender as a performance. The idea of performance parallels the
concepts of masking and suppressing true identity. Song’s staging and acting of Gallimard’s ideal
woman divulges Hwang’s social commentary of anti–essentialism. Hwang rejects the notion that
genders, specifically women, exist only to fulfill the expectations that society has unknowingly
assigned.
Song’s performance of both genders serves to reveal the illusion that many gender
identities project. Hwang hopes to free his readers of gender expectations that may deprive them
of their full potential and happiness.
After considering the derangement of gender personality within Song and Gallimard,
Hwang then exhibits the same derangement within Western and Oriental cultures. While Song is
interrogated in the courtroom by the court Judge, the author’s summary of the two world’s
relationship is revealed,
“SONG. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East…The West
thinks of itself as masculine – big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine
– weak, delicate, poor... Her mouth says no but her eyes say yes. The West believes the

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East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself…”
(III, 1).
This belief that moved amongst Western diplomats and governments proved to be very
wrong – the female role that they believed the East was playing was just that: a role. Although
Gallimard, a representation of Western mentality, foresaw China’s and Indonesia’s opening to
Western trade, the two countries rejected the attempt. In addition, Gallimard predicted the
Vietnamese would welcome the Americans; a bloody and enduring war was the true result of the
American’s decision to occupy. “And many of [Song’s] words repeat the exact phrases that
Gallimard has said about the Vietnamese. But the repetition sounds ironic because of its being
uttered by an emasculated subject…” (Chen Liu).
Just as Song was perceived as feminine, the East was also perceived as feminine, and
thus the West interpreted the East to be weak and easy to dominate. Yet, Song revealed
possession of both physical and social masculine traits (as the West interprets them) when he
ultimately gained power over Gallimard. The East also revealed an unexpected masculinity when
many of the Oriental nations successfully revoked and appalled the Western attempt of dominion
and occupancy.
David Hwang engages his character Gallimard in four sexual affairs. Of all the sexual
encounters, Gallimard only feels an emotional connection with Song: who happens to be the
most submissive and who displays traits that are in perfect accordance with what Gallimard
perceives as feminine. After his sexual encounter with a girl named Renee, Gallimard cannot
form any connection with her because of her emasculated way of speech. Renee converses with
Gallimard as though they were in a locker room or drinking at a bar together. Although this
comfort of speech between the two should be a cause for bonding, Gallimard has a negative
conception of the experience, “And it was exciting to be with someone who wasn’t afraid to be
seen completely naked. But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to

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seem almost too... masculine?” (II,6). In relation to imperialism in the Orient, one wonders if
there would exist an “international rape mentality” with the Eastern world if the Western world
assumed any masculinity existed in the Orient.
It is through great detail that David Henry Hwang depicts his ideals for a new era in M.
Butterfly. In a world where gender identity exists only as we desire it to be, the pain of
domination and power struggles will decrease greatly, or so believes Hwang. By constructing an
intricate interrelation between Rene Gallimard and Song Liling, Hwang provokes his readers to
delve deep into their comprehension of what it means to be a male or female. By this
provocation, Hwang hopes to unlock the potential that individuals are often restrained from
reaching. As individuals suppress certain personal attributes due to assigned feminine or
masculine labels, they suppress their full happiness.
Whether it is on a massive international level or an intimate romantic affair, the gender
identity that is thrust upon the inhabitants of society brings oppression that Hwang challenges.
With a call to action, in three acts, Hwang hopes and fights for a greater future.

Works Cited

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Shimakawa, Karen. ""Who's to Say?" Or, Making Space for Gender and Ethnicity in "M.
Buttlerfly"" Theatre Journal 4.3 (1993): 349-62. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Web. <http:/www.jstor.org/stable/3208359>.
Chia-Ching Fung, Eileen. "Deconstructing the "Butterfly": Teaching David Henry Hwang's M.
Butterfly in Cultural and Socio-political Contexts." Onlinejournals. N.p., n.d. Web.
<http://onlinejournals.sjsu.edu/index.php/AALDP/article/view/12>.
Hsueh Chen Liu, Cecilia. Writing Back to the Empire: From M. Butterfly to Madame Butterfly.
Diss. Fu Jen University, Taiwan, 2002. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web.
<http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/iacd_2005F/modern_drama/M_Butterfly.pdf>.
Hwang, David H. M. Butterfly. New York: Dramatisits Play Service, 1986. Print

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