#3 Henry David Hwang’s Queer Diaspora in M. Butterfly

Elizabeth Jacoby

Dr. Lothian

English 985

20 June 2013

M. Butterfly and the Queer Diaspora

            The uniforms, or guises, worn by David Henry Hwang’s characters in M. Butterfly not only served as an avenue for performativity but it also helped deepen their understanding of their sexuality.  It always seems that the center of one’s identity, during their time in the Orient, revolved heavily around the constructed identities of both the East and West.  In Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing,she examines the privilege of the empire:

One of the habits of privilege is that it spawns superiority, beckoning

            owners to don a veil of false protection so that they never see themselves,

            the devastation they wreak or their accountability to it. (2)

Monsignor Gallimard suffers from such a veil.  He is under the assumption that he is not only superior to Song because of his self imposed masculinity, but his western mind veils him from reality and allows room to be manipulated.  I would also argue that this helped create a space for him to create and shape his sexual identity.  Simultaneously, it creates a platform of hostility where relationships reinforce the hierarchy of the hegemony that define notions of eastern and western sexuality.  Gallimard performs a false heterosexual relationship for twenty years without coming to accept the fact that his lover, is in fact, a man.  At various points throughout the play, there are moments that have the potential for the unveiling of Gallimard’s queerness.  Instead, these moments are  disrupted and the truth is never spoken.  He is unable to see himself and never fully acknowledges the damage this imposes on Song, both bodily and spiritually.  She even remarks once that he couldn’t objectively see himself because of his “western values” (Hwang 21).

In Act One, Scene Five, Gallimard is recalling the uncovering of his uncle’s nudy magazines.

            Not with lust–no, with power.  Here were women–

            a shelfful–who would do exactly as I wanted. (Hwang 14)

Although drunk with power, Gallimard finds himself soft.  He questions as to why but then quickly moves into playing out the possible fantasy of an interaction with a woman such as the ones depicted in the magazines.  We never find out if he gets an erection.  As mentioned previously, later on in the play, this fantasy plays out with Renee and he is once again drunk with the power he found in early adolescence with the magazine women.  This rupture occurs after Gallimard has already sexually and emotionally involved with Song which is his attempt at reasserting his power and plays into his false sense of self.  Alexander comments on ruptures within a global system:

If neocolonial states managed internal rupture by using heterosexuality

            in defense of nation,…neo-imperial states covered their own internal ruptures by

            managing what they produced as the new world order, deploying it as an

            ideological and material anchor to secure a range of corporate and state

            interests, particularly interests in militarization. (12)

The play consists of a series of queer ruptures which are folded over by the power structure by using heterosexuality as the norm.  Gallimard’s false heterosexual identity serves this purpose while reinforcing the ideology by serving as a state official directly linked to militarization.  This is to say that Gallimard uses Alexander’s concept of ruptures to continuously conceal his sexuality.  Simultaneously, Song manipulates these ruptures to also reinforce the world order of the east by trading Gallimard’s secrets.  After Gallimards emasculation by Renee, he heads over to their flat to demand the spectacle of Song’s naked body.

            Gallimard. I want to see you…naked. (Silence.)

            Song. I thought you understood my modesty.  So you want me to–what–strip?

                        Like a big cowboy girl?  Shiny pasties on my breasts? Shall I fling

                        my kimono over my head and yell “yahoo” in the process?  I thought

                        you respected my shame!

            Gallimard. I believe you gave me your shame many years ago.

            Song. Yes– and it is just like a white devil to use it against me.  I can’t believe

                        it.  I thought myself so repulsed by the Oriental and the cruel white man.

                        Now–I see we are most revolted by the things hidden within us. 

            Gallimard. I just mean– (Hwang 46-47)    

There are two pauses within the last passage that are worth noting.  After Gallimard’s request, Song stays silent for an unknown amount of time.  She is trying to conceive a way of getting out of the situation that now presents itself.  As a result, she plays into the western stereotype of the Orient.  By doing so, she inflicts a violence on Gallimard when she says, “I see we are most revolted by the things hidden within us.”  Song uses this to invade the queer space of Gallimard.  Song knows she can use this as a violence in order to manipulate him further.  If she fails, the performance must end.  The second pause belongs to Gallimard which is undoubtably his attempt at smoothing over the rupture that Song has voiced in relation to his sexuality; to what is hidden deep within him.

Gallimard. (To us) Did I not undress her because I knew, somewhere

                                    deep down, what I would find?  Perhaps.  Happiness

                                    is so rare that our mind can turn somersaults to protect

                                    it. (Hwang 47)

Song senses these revelations and questions within Gallimard and attempts to suspend disbelief further by announcing that she is pregnant.  This is the second violence that she inflicts.  Continually, she feeds his delusion which perpetuates his deniability of his sexuality.

The position of Song’s performed femininity is one of importance as well because of the relationship with the diaspora.  Once Gallimard is sent back to France, he begins to long for the past, the life he had in Beijing.  He even decides to divorce his wife and reveal his affairs.  Helga, a sad figure, tries to talk him out of it.  Gayatri Gopinath writes, in Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, about the queer diaspora:

If conventional diasporic discourse is marked by this backward glance, this

            overwhelming nostalgia for lost origins, for ‘times past,’ a queer diaspora

            mobilizes questions of the past, memory, and nostalgia for radically different

            purposes. (4)

In Gallimard’s case, he realizes his life with Song will never be the same even when she shows up on his door step with the orphan child.  They no longer reside in the East.  The platform for their performativity has been destroyed.  The East is highly feminized and is therefore lacking.  This was the only space that Song and Gallimard’s farcical relationship could play out in the gaze of heterosexuality.   In other words, we can never fully detach our identity from time and space.  Queer or straight, identities were shaped, created, redefined, or altered in some way through each character’s sexual performativity and the guised self.


presentation ideas: http://prezi.com/aqwh0xlp7hjp/power-and-performativity/


One thought on “#3 Henry David Hwang’s Queer Diaspora in M. Butterfly

  1. alexislothian

    I like your connection to your first synthesis with the “uniforms” in the first sentence here!

    If you’re thinking of building this work into a project beyond the synthesis and presentation, I think that working through the context and the form of M. Butterfly will be important. How and why does the particular kind of privileged “veil” that Gallimard exhibits come to be? What are the historical and geographic specificities of “diaspora” and “empire” here? How does the performance of a play affect the way we understand Song’s character?

    Thinking about Gopinath’s work, I also wonder about the gendering of desire in the play; are we seeing an absence of female subjectivity here, or should we understand Song as a transgendered female diasporic presence?


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