The big question in Gender Theory: Is gender identity natural/innate or socially constructed?
Are specific bodies linked to specific behaviors/appearances/identities: male = masculine,
female = feminine? The debate is between ‘essentialist’ and ‘constructionist’ notions of gender,
as Rivkin calls it.
As Barry says, what feminist critics do is “raise the question of whether men and women are
‘essentially’ different because of biology, or are socially constructed as different.”
Cixous and Kristeva to different extents seem to suggest there is something that is fixedly
‘feminine’ and is to a great extent located in female bodily processes, while theorists such as
Butler or Halberstam seem to argue that there is no innate, fixed identity as ‘masculine’ or
‘feminine’ but they are merely performative and often unstable.
One way of looking at the three versions of the Butterfly story is to explore, using these different
theories, if gender identity is fixed and/or fluid in each version. Think not only of the
transformation of Butterfly/Song but also of other subsidiary characters such as Renee, Suzuki,
Comrade Chin, Gallimard’s wife etc. And remember, how a particular author, director, composer
delineates gender identity is an indication of his own political stance towards gender.
While thinking about essentialist notions of femininity, consider the centrality of female
physicality in the different versions of Butterfly. Pregnancy, maternity, blood, female orgasm –
these are all represented in these texts. Are they linked with an essentialist notion of femininity?
And remember – the author/director/composer are all male. Barry suggests that feminist critics
“raise the question of whether men and women are ‘essentially’ different because of biology, or
are socially constructed as different.”
According to Barry, Julia Kristeva “sees the semiotic as the language of poetry as opposed to
prose, and examines its operation in the work of specific poets”. The semiotic would also
include elements of art and music. Often, she suggests, the music in poetry – melody,
alliteration, pattern of sounds/notes – offer a pleasure in excess of what the mere meaning of
the words requires. Words are the realm of the Symbolic Order, the Lacanian Law of the Father; the non-verbal elements in poetry which subvert and disturb the rational realm of
linguistic meaning by being more than needed for rational communication are linked with the
semiotic (the feminine, maternal, lost experience of pure ‘whole’ pleasure).
In this context how does music in the opera Madame Butterfly function?
While Madame Butterfly could be said to exhibit elements of the semiotic particularly
because of the captivating music, in many ways it actually demonstrates the patriarchal
silencing of the semiotic based on the ultimate destruction of Butterfly. Barry states,
“Clearly, since language is by definition an inventive and improvisatory practice, if cut off
from Kristeva’s realm of the semiotic it would instantly perish.” Butterfly’s attempts to
integrate the semiotic into the patriarchal realm – to break through to Pinkerton and
challenge his power – are all ignored, devalued, and ultimately silenced when she takes
her own life which ultimately reinforces the symbolic order.
If it is possible to consider the different versions of Butterfly from an ‘essentialist’ gender
viewpoint, the film and the play M. Butterfly also unsettle the notion that gender is fixed or
essential. In Act 1, Scene 11, Gallimard is visiting Song in her home for the first time. Song
seems very nervous then says,
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. I’ve never…never invited a
man up to my flat before. The forwardness of my actions make my skin burn.
Song is behaving as a woman and has thoroughly convinced Gallimard of her gender
through her dress, her mannerisms, and her language – “A small frightened heart beats
too quickly and gives me away.” Particularly in the film, when the audience discovers
that Song is actually biologically a man, there is an immediate disruption – a
transgression of fixed meaning – which revels the constructed nature of gender
These scenes from M. Butterfly also illustrate Judith Butler’s Theory of Performativity. Butler
states, “To be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an
historical idea of ‘woman’, to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in
obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated