Orientalism is a theory by Edward Said which was published in 1978. In general, it explores the constructed knowledge of the Orient—the East, by the Occident, or the West. According to Said, as cited by John McLeod in his book Beginning Postcolonialism, “Western nations like France and Britain spent an immense amount of time producing knowledge about the locations they dominated.” (2000: p.21), which is exactly what Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” portrays. Furthermore, one of the shapes of Orientalism is ‘Orientalism is Western fantasy’: a constructed image of the East that is perceived as reality by the West (McLeod, 2000: p.41). The image of the East, therefore, must be stereotyped. The West creates this assumption that the East is a total opposition of the West. However, the opposition is unequal (McLeod, 2000: p.45). The stereotypes of the Orient, according to Said, includes the femininity of the Orient. That is, the Orient is ‘deemed passive, submissive, exotic, luxurious,. . .’ while the Occident is ‘masculine’: ‘active, dominant, heroic. . .’ (McLeod, 2000: p.45). Another stereotype is that 'the Orient is degenerate’, and thus ‘needed to be civilized and made to conform to the perceived higher moral standards upheld in the West’ (McLeod, 2000: p.46). It is very clear, then, that the West sees the East as primitive and, perhaps, uneducated. The West feels superior toward the East. It seems as if the Orient is being degraded. However, instead of being disadvantaged, the stereotype benefits the Orient.
Orientalism as Western paradigm according to Gallimard’s view is stereotyping the feminine ideal and Western masculinity.
“Its heroine, Cio-Cio-San, also known as the Butterfly, is a feminine ideal, beautiful and brave. And its hero, the man for whom she gives up everything, is not very good-looking, not too bright, and pretty much a wimp: Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy.” (Scene 3, Act One)
The description of the two protagonists of Madama Butterfly more or less shows Gallimard’s bias of the so-called image of the East. His choice of words, which are complimentary, shows that he likes the idea of the feminine Eastern woman who is devoted to the macho, masculine Western man. Furthermore, even though Pinkerton is ‘pretty much a wimp’, he is from the Navy—which is identical with machism, masculinity, and sometimes heroic.
This bias is so internalized in his mind that when he meets Song Liling, he saw her as ‘the Perfect Woman’ with her delicacy while acting out Cio-Cio-San, and immediately positioned himself as Pinkerton. “That in China, I once loved, and was loved by, very simply, the Perfect Woman.” (Scene 11, Act One), with the definition of ‘the Perfect Woman’ is the woman who “had the grace, the delicacy. . .” (Scene 6, Act One). This suited two of the Oriental stereotypes according to Edward Said: Orientalism makes assumption about gender and, the one previously mentioned, Orientalism is feminine (McLoed, 2000: p.44-46). Gallimard thinks he’s getting the Butterfly. In fact, he becomes so immersed in his own fantasy that he begins to develop the feeling of superiority toward the image of the feminine ideal, the Eastern woman, Song Liling.
Gallimard’s stereotype is supported by Song’s statements which show the ‘modesty of Oriental women’. “Please. . .it all frightens me. I’m a modest Chinese girl.” (Scene 13, Act One) is one of the statements which underlines that she, as a perfect Oriental women, is modest and weak; easily frightened. It ensures Gallimard that his stereotype is true. He starts believing that he is indeed superior and powerful. He becomes more confident. He is confident enough even to say “The Orientals simply want to be associated with whoever shows the most strength and power” and “Orientals will always submit to a greater force” (Scene 3, Act Two) when he is asked for his opinion of the America-Vietnam war.
The behavior of Western women around him does not lessen his already internalized stereotype. Women like Helga, Renee, and even Isabelle only show the ‘masculine’ sides of Western women, which is a hundred percent different from his image of Western women. “But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too. . .masculine?” (Scene 6, Act Two) is what Gallimard think about Renee. Gallimard’s preference of ‘the feminine ideal’ Song Liling is shown in the following line: “Unlike a Western woman, she didn’t confront me, threaten, even pout.” (Scene 6, Act Two). The line is stereotyping Western women and, at the same time, Eastern women. His choice of words such as ‘confront’ and ‘threaten’ shows how he dislikes Western women’s characteristics.
On the other had, Orientalism as Western paradigm according to Song Liling’s view is the fantasy created by Western people: “You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.” (Scene 1, Act Three). This made Gallimard fail to see, and maybe to admit, that Song was indeed not a woman.
With those different views of Orientalism, the Orient was able to use it to counter the Occident. Song Liling created the image of ‘the Perfect Woman’ just as Gallimard would love it. As a result, Gallimard was totally fallen for him, for his fantasy of the feminine ideal.
Song keeps ensuring Gallimard that she fits the idea of ‘the Perfect Woman’, ‘the feminine ideal’.
“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.” (Scene 10, Act One)
is only one example how Song constructs his image of the perfect Oriental woman. He chooses words that emphasize his being ‘less’, ‘delicate’, ‘modest’, ‘shy’. . .everything that Gallimard supposes Oriental women would be.
At the beginning, what Song says about Madama Butterfly is “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.” (Scene 6, Act One). The saying shows that he, in fact, is against Orientalism. He shows this by reversing the position of the of the ‘Butterfly’. Instead of a Japanese girl, he takes a blonde homecoming queen as the one who suicides. However, as the play goes on, Song’s statements change into more supportive of Orientalism:
“In the ‘New Society’ we are all kept ignorant equally. That’s one of the exciting things about loving a Western man. I know you are not threatened by a woman’s education.” (Scene 2, Act Two)
All of that turns Gallimard to the position of being ‘the Butterfly’ and no longer ‘Pinkerton’. However, he felt so contented with this fake superiority and did not even question it. The fooling of Gallimard is explained in the trial:
“Judge : But why would that make it possible for you to fool Monsieur Gallimard?
Please, get to the point.
Song : One, because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more that
anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an
Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”
(Scene 1, Act Three)
The benefit of Song’s pretension is the leak of information of American war with the Vietnamese. All just because, according to Gallimard, “there is nothing more rare than to find a woman who passionately listens.” (Scene 5, Act Two), which pleases him very much.Overall, the stereotype of the East indeed feminised the image of the East, but it is not a sign of weakness. Even though the Orient is stereotyped as ‘less’ than the Occident, it is an advantage for them because they can use it for their benefit. By performing exactly the way the Occident expect them to be, the Orient is claiming their superiority over the Occident.