Queer Theory, Gay Criticism & Colonialism in “M. Butterfly”


David Henry Hwang received his Antoinette Perry Award in 1988 for M. Butterfly, having become the first Asian American to be rewarded with a Tony. The critics highly appreciated the postmodern text and author’s focus upon race, gender and sexuality in a postcolonial world. The plot of the story is centered on the relationship between Rene Gallimard, who was a French diplomat and Song Liling, who was sent to him in order to gather information about state secrets. In reality Song was a man, but Gallimard was not able to understand this during the whole course of the play. Hwang commented his success in one of the interviews later: “Writing for me tends to be closely bound up in the exploration of my identity as an Asian American,” concluding, “To me to write well is to battle stereotypes. To write well is to create three-dimensional characters that seem human.” (Hwang 2016). Later there appeared a film adaptation of the story. Hwang was well-known for his ability to investigate in great detail the connections between various society groups and consider the identity shifts and their impact upon those connections.

The story of M. Butterfly was taken by Hwang from a real-life scandal with French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot, who had a twenty year long relationship with a Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, who was an international spy in reality. Bouriscot believed he had a romantic relationship with a woman, whereas in reality Shi Pei Pu was a man. This story suggested for Hwang the basis for further exploration of the elements of Western stereotypes  and their defining of Asian men, as lacking power and having too many of feminine features. Thus Hwang connected the details of the Bouriscot story and the Italian opera Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini into one plot. In his play a Chinese spy is to perform the role of a Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, acting as a female opera diva in order to attract attention of Gallimard and use their relationship. Gallimard is easy to fool and he is absolutely convinced that he fell in love with a Chinese woman and develops a long-lasting relationship with her. Then he still takes the decision to return to his wife in France and abandon Song. Several years pass before Liling gets the new task to restart the relationship with Gallimard, who has already divorced his wife. In order to make Liling more convincing he is given an Asian child, as a kind of result of their affair. Gallimard and Liling are reunited and live together for fifteen years as a man and a woman. Then Gallimard is arrested for espionage and accused of providing state secret information to the Chinese government. Gallimard is sent to French prison, where he puts on a traditional Chinese diva wig and stabs himself in the heart. There is an evident association with the Puccini opera, where the Japanese woman kills herself, when she is abandoned by her lover.

The major theme of M. Butterfly goes through the whole play and focuses upon Western stereotypes about Asian people and their serious impact upon national, racial and sexual identity tensions, which could be traced in East-West relations. The critics appreciated the revision of Madama Butterfly from Hwang as well as his ability to reveal the real problems of gender and race, dominating the consciousness of people from the West. Hwang used the postmodern techniques of nonlinear narration, direct communication with the audience and managed to create a unique staging. These techniques helped him to make the investigation of the major themes of the play brighter and more profound. His play became an introduction into the phenomenon of Orientalism and its connection to Western stereotypes, prejudices and attitudes towards Asian people and their culture. It might sound shocking that a man managed to live with another man as a family, without being aware of the fact that he is not living with a woman. Somehow this is an exaggeration and at the same time Hwang used this fact as the best reflection of the perception of Asian males as highly feminized. “Further, Gallimard’s stereotyping of Asian women as passive, subservient, and modest makes it possible for Song to live as his wife without being discovered as a man, despite the couple’s intimate relationship.” (Kondo 1990). Some critics have pointed out that Hwang made an attempt to condemn the East for playing this role, which was so much expected by the West. “The shifting of blame inherent in this interpretation has angered some Asian-American critics and activists, who denounce the suggestion of Eastern complicity as white-pleasing propaganda designed to conceal the real history of East-West relations.” (Lomba 1998). Hwang and most of other critics still insisted that the major aim was to reveal the hidden misconceptions from both sides and motivate for development of mutually respectful relations, which would be beneficial for all. In addition the author paid a lot of attention to more traditional and generalized discussion of the relationships between two genders. This is the reason, why he invented a story of a man, who was able to live with another man and successfully pretend to be a woman. The ending of the story is also meaningful for the key theme, as Gallimard dresses as a woman and kills himself in a feminine manner, at least as it is associated for him with being feminine. Such ending could be interpreted as the idea of the author that gender should not be related purely to biological phenomenon, rather it could be socially impacted and constructed and might depend upon the perceptions of the representatives of any of the two sexes.

Annotated bibliography

Barry, Peter. Beginning theory. An introduction to literary and cultural theory. Second edition, 2002

The author of the book provides a number of theoretical frameworks, which could be useful for detailed analysis of a literary work. The considerations of Queer Theory contribute to better understanding of the issues of homosexuality in the play.

Hwang, David Henry.  M. Butterfly.  New York.  Dramatics Play Service Inc.  1996.  Print.

The text of the play could be used for citing of the original formulations and ideas of the author.

Hwang David Henry. The Time I Got Stabbed in the Neck, New York Times, 2016

The article is beneficial for better understanding of the personality of the author of M. Butterfly and the sources of his ideas and messages, revealed in his play M. Butterfly.

Kondo, Dorrinek. M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender and a Critique of Essentialist Identity. Culture Critique, 1990

The author considers in detail the connection between gender issues and Orientalism for formation of identity and their meaning for social relations and communication.

Lomba. A. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1998

This source is important for investigating of the historic peculiarities of the postcolonialism period and their impact upon social relations.

Manalasan, Martin. “Searching for Community: Filipino Gay Men from New York City”. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Routeledge Chapman Hall, 2003

The article explores the issues of homosexuality and their meaning for the society. It underlines the difficulties, which could be faced by individuals with non-traditional orientation due to lack of tolerance.

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”. Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality, 1990

The article is related to investigation of the role of males and females in the society and perception of these roles by either of genders.

Wen Songfeng. The Subversion of the Oriental Stereotype in M. Butterfly. English Language and Literature Studies; Vol. 3,  No.  2; 2013

The article is devoted to investigation of the Oriental stereotype, which was described in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Course paper

The unusual relationship between Bernard Bouriscot and opera singer Shi Pei Pu served the basis for the outstanding play by David Henry Hwang. This is the way, how M. Butterfly was planned and developed. “The resulting play is a textbook execution of post-colonial deconstruction that dissects the flaws of imperialism by drawing on Edward Said’s concepts of ‘Orientalism’ and shows that gender characteristics are not innate to their assigned sex, but a matter of socially constructed performances.” (Wen 2013). The author focused mainly upon the way of operating of the concept of Orientalism in the frames of some imperialist system. Western art shows itself as being superior towards Asian art and culture and it is evident in Madama Butterfly. Such approach is the result of limited Western imperialism, which has a number of flaws and gaps. The author demonstrated this in the dialogues between the main characters of the play. When Gallimard speaks to Song and says that she is convincing as a Japanese woman and she answers: “Convincing?  As a Japanese woman?  The Japanese used hundreds of our people for medical experiments during the war, you know.  But I gather such an irony is lost on you” (Hwang 1996). This conversation creates a huge gap between the two immediately. Gallimard wanted to make a compliment, which in reality was understood by Song as an insult. Gallimard wanted to excuse himself by mentioning Madama Butterfly was a nice and beautiful story and Song immediately reacted, stating that this was only possible from the position of a Westerner. One more important conversation is related to the topic, when Song asks Gallimard: “How can you objectively judge your own values” (Hwang 1996)? And then he is not able to provide an answer and continues to relate fiction to his own perception of Oriental culture. He continues asking questions about the situation in the country before the revolution, when he asks about the feelings of Song, when women were not allowed to visit clubs, Song replies that he lacks real knowledge of history of her country, as women were allowed to visit the clubs and moreover they were preferred by the Western men more, than their own women. This dialog is meaningful for presenting of the position of the author about the Western views of the East, which root from wrongfully told histories and peppered by art propaganda, about the overall attitude of the people from the West, like Gallimard, who were not that interested in developing their knowledge and understanding, preferring to live in their own fantasies and perceptions. Gallimard seems to be sincerely apologetic towards Song, when she reveals his biases about the concept of Orientalism, but when he takes the decision to return to his wife, the last notes of sincerity in their relations disappear. He commented at the moment that “all [he] hear[s] every day… is how old [Chinese] culture is.  That the ‘old’ may be synonymous with ‘senile doesn’t occur to them” (Hwang 1996). Then he comes to another conclusion that Chinese people do not like Madama Butterfly only because of their own jealousy. Here he finds the support from his wife Helga, who assumes that these people are too much concentrated upon political issues and should better listen to this play as just beautiful music, without adding any kind of racial theme. “Helga fails to see why the ‘Orientals’ can’t simply appreciate the music of Madama Butterfly.  She fails to realize that for an Asian person, admiring the music of Madama Butterfly is likely akin to an American of African descent whistling songs from the Confederate Army or a Jewish person listening to song written for the Nazi party.” (Wen 2013). Such shift in Gallimard’s attitude could be explained only by the initial lack of sincerity in his attitude to Song. He was not able to understand the serious drawbacks of imperialism and even think of the possibility that colonized people also have their identities and autonomies. Gallimard speaks of a scholar, who is going to produce a six-volume treatise, devoted to the Chinese revolution.  He understands that the scholar is going to live a relatively long period of time in order to be able to produce six volumes, but this is not the case. This is an example, how an individual from the West is ready to write on behalf of Easterners about their history without even living in the East. This is the basis of the concept of Orientalism, as it is investigated by Hwang. This scholar is going to write his books about the revolution in the East, considering it through the prism of his Western views and such approach is one of the sources of the artificially created biases and misinterpretations of the other cultures and ethnic peculiarities.

There is a reflection of the Western bias in the use of the language, the brightest example of this is the situation, when Gallimard and Song speak about the name for their baby. Song states: “I’m going to call him Peepee.” (Hwang 1996). This is a real shock to Gallimard, as he thinks this could not be serious, because the time will come, when the child would have to go to school and this name is inappropriate according to him. Song answers: “In the West, yes” (Hwang 1996). Such name as “Peepee” would definitely have bad associations in the West, and Gallimard realized that “his” child would suffer from a lot of teasing. There are no such implications in the East, but Gallimard is not able to consider the Eastern context, as he is absolutely focused only upon his own. The names, which seemed acceptable for him, were Stephan, Michael, Adolph. The first two are more or less neutral, but the last one is definitely associated with fascist leader Adolph Hitler. He was a strong supporter of the policy of “racial purity” and this meant subjugation of Asian ethnicities, if he could win the war.

Hwang considered also the construction of gender and gender relations along with the concept of Orientalism. He presented gender as a kind of artificial performance. Any reader of the play would ask himself the same question – is it really possible to live with a person for twenty years and think that this is a woman, when in reality this is a man? It is not easy to answer this question. It is possible to make two assumptions, according to the first one, he knew that Song was a man, but did not want to be honest enough to acknowledge it, the second assumption is that Gallimard did not know and then Song turned out to be a great gender performer. When Chin, Song’s superior asks her the same question, Song answers: “Why, in the Peking Opera, are women’s roles player by men?” (Hwang 1996). This is rather a rhetorical question, however Song answered it: “Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (Hwang 1996). In other words Gallimard was easy to fool, as he has his own conception of how an Asian woman should be and how she should behave. Song commented this later with very important idea of the author about gender and its core: “all in the way we dress, and make up our faces, and bat our eyelashes” (Hwang 1996).  Gender should not be seen as narrow as the social performance, and Song is able to explain, why such performance could be absolutely successful and how she managed to be so convincing: “First, when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted… 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” (Hwang 1996). Men from the West liked the idea that women in the East refused with their voices, but their eyes said “yes”. This was another form of domination, which was developed by the representatives from the West. Men from the West are so much convinced that their perception of men and women in the East is correct that Song is reality does not need to put extra effort in order to convince Gallimard that he is a woman. In reality not only men in the West are able to perfectly appreciate artificial behaviors of their partners. When Helga hears that Gallimard has an affair and wants to divorce her, she says: “I knew you were not everything you pretended to be.  But the pretense… was very good indeed” (Hwang 1996).  Helga turns out to be the fan of performance, thinking it is more attractive, than the reality.

Not only femininity is socially constructed, the same refers to masculinity as well. When Gallimard is known to have a mistress, he seems to get a real “promotion” among male members of the society. “I was learning the benefits of being a man.  We form our own clubs, sit behind thick doors, smoke—and celebrate the fact that we’re still boys” (Hwang 1996).  This example is a good proof of the sexual objectification of women with the aim of supporting masculine identity. At the beginning of his affair Gallimard seemed to feel guilty for his behavior and choice, but then he found a perfect justification for this: “God… understands.  Of course!  God who created Eve to serve Adam, who blesses Solomon with his harem but ties Jezebel to a burning bed—that God is a man” (Hwang 1996). In this passage Gallimard is shown to reveal the support of patriarchal hegemony in addition to his imperialistic views. Gallimard finds a kind of satisfaction in oppressing Song, it becomes even more evident, when he has another affair and ignores Song for some time, and he acknowledges that he liked Song’s silence and tears. These were the signs of her submission to him, even under the condition that he was not faithful.

Generally Queer theory is related to breaking of social norms and it is focused upon the gap between the reality and the ideal representation of society. In most cases, but it is not obligatory, Queer theory is related to breaking the norms in the sphere of sexuality. It considers the idea that human gender should not be considered a factor, defining someone’s personality or his need to act in certain way, because just terms “male” and “female” are too generalized for such diverse and sophisticated human beings. Attitude of humanity towards homosexual relations was constantly changing, reaching sometimes polarized points of view. It was considered a crime, a sin, something unacceptable, and then it was tolerated or even ignored. Queer theory is the perfect way to research the aspects of history and perception of various forms of sexuality in the societies. Taking into consideration that Queer theory is a more recent form of literary theory, it could be successfully applied for considering the meaning of homosexuality in society and in the play M. Butterfly. Queer and homosexual should not be understood as synonyms, “Many argue that “anti-normal” is a more fitting synonym for queer. Judith Butler has urged gender scholars to be “critically queer,” in other words, to take upon themselves a systematic disobedience towards traditional identities. The term “queer” is associated with a theoretical and activist attitude that fits the dissonant informal usage of queer as a verb “to ruin,” “to destroy.” (Barry 2002). The play expands on the theme of homosexual relations, related it to the issues of ethnicity and sexuality in general. “Hwang questions clichéd Western attitudes toward such matters and towards what  has been called the “Orient.” Like notions regarding femininity and masculinity, the Orient is a concept of Western perceptions that offers people an opportunity to exempt themselves from their own contradictions.” (Barry 2002). The name of the play bears a portion of ambiguity, as initially Hwang intended to call it Monsieur Butterfly, but then used only the letter M., so that it is possible to use any of the options. It seems to be not quite correct to limit the considerations of genders by Hwang to investigation of the theme of homosexuality, as it has much wider meaning. At the end of the play the central characters exchange their positions, Song becomes a man, whereas Gallimard “becomes” a woman and dies as a woman is expected to die. Hwang considered the concepts of submission and domination, which was one of the peculiarities of the post-colonial society.

Overall, M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang is artistic reflection of the historical and cultural processes, taking place in Europe and Asia during post-colonial period; profound consideration of the impact of imperialistic ideas along with the general desire of the Westerners to dominate make up the central themes of the play.

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016.

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

freeessays.club (2016) The terms offer and acceptance [Online].
Available at:

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: October 27, 2021]
Haven't found the right essay?
Get an expert to write you the one you need!

Professional writers and researchers


Sources and citation are provided


3 hour delivery