Dear White People:
Since I’m not one to beat around the bush, let me get straight to the question at hand—what’s up with your love for the Madama Butterfly story?
In recent weeks, we’ve been experiencing what sounds like the beginnings of a Butterfly renaissance. There was the announcement that Brett Ratner (of Rush Hour fame) will be producing a modern version of the story entitled Magnitude 9 set against the backdrop of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan. The upcoming 25th Anniversary London revival of the musical Miss Saigon (based on the Madama Butterfly story) is breaking box office records and a revival currently running at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul is drawing the ire of Asian American activists.
For those reading this who may not be aware of the Madama Butterfly narrative, here’s a quick rundown: the most famous iteration of the story is Puccini’s 1904 opera of the same name which is about an American naval officer in Japan who marries a Japanese woman and gets her pregnant before bailing for America; leaving the woman (his “Butterfly”) pining for his return. When he does return, it’s with his new American wife. The heart-broken Butterfly agrees to give up her son for the American couple to raise and commits hara-kiri with a knife.
Over the years, this story, or the different variations of it, has appeared with regularity in film, TV and theater–from the opera itself which is still performed around the world to versions of the plot that were adapted into different setting like the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea where the action is moved to China and the popular musical Miss Saigon where the new setting is the Vietnam War. But in almost every version, the basic premise remains the same—white guy takes up with Asian girl, he ditches her with child and she commits suicide.
Now, after my fellow Offender DHH brilliantly deconstructed the racism and sexism inherent in Madama Butterfly in his 1988 Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, you’d think it would be hard to take the Madama Butterfly story seriously anymore and yet—it’s like the Energizer Bunny, the damn thing keeps going and going.
Before some of you jump down my throat, I know it’s not only white folks who love this whole Madama Butterfly conceit, but let’s be honest, the main reason it remains so popular is because it is white folks who really love this thing. The reason why Miss Saigon is breaking box office records in London or that the play is being revived in Minnesota despite the Asian American community’s protests is because it’s white people who are paying to eat up this shit.
So again, I’m not trying to be facetious here, I’m genuinely trying to understand why you all seem to have such a boner for this story.
I can understand why white folks went gaga over this narrative in 1904. Back then, the “Orient” was more exotic and mysterious. For many Americans, a place like Japan or China was little more than a third world country. The idea of the tragic Asian woman and her child who needed to be saved by Western civilization was one that was more palpable.
Even then, the white naval officer protagonist was a dick who basically abandoned the pregnant wife who loved and worshiped him. But except for the male yellow fever contingent, he wasn’t the one audiences were mainly identifying with. It was the poor Asian butterfly—white audiences could feel sorry for her and through the “saving” of her child, feel that hope will spring from her sacrifice. You could both be a cultural tourist and sympathize with the suffering native, but still purge yourself of any guilt because at least the (half) Asian baby will have a real future.
But now, it’s a different story. Asian countries like China or Japan are no longer mysterious or third world. In fact, we’re talking about some of the most modern and richest nations on Earth. To think that they still need to be saved by the West is ludicrous. If anything, a modern re-telling of this story would make more sense if it was an Asian guy going to America and knocking up and leaving some white chick.
Perhaps then, the white love for this story simply springs from a form of racism that still exists today. But if that were the case, I think other iconic stereotypical character narratives that were just as popular at the time—Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, for example—would also have the same sort of longevity that Madama Butterfly has, but that hasn’t been the case. I can’t think of anything that’s similar to Madama Butterfly that has continued to endure in the same way. I’ve no doubt racism plays into its popularity, but it would also be too simple to chalk it up solely to that. There’s more. There’s something inherent in the story that seems to touch something in your white psyche.
I don’t buy the argument that it comes down to just the Western audiences’ love for a good tragedy and that this story is beloved in the same way that Romeo and Juliet is beloved and has nothing to do with the racial aspect of it. If that were true, I’m not sure we’d be constantly seeing new iterations of the tale with the same core set-up: tragic Asian woman and masculine white male.
Perhaps as DHH suggests in M. Butterfly, it does have to do with your need to see the East as more feminine or perhaps something about this story hits at your collective white guilt and it’s a cathartic way to deal with that?
Whatever the reason for that Madama Butterfly love, I have to say—I just don’t get it. Even if you removed the race angle, you’re left with such an old-fashioned, overtly melodramatic plot that’s pretty laughable from a modern perspective. But there’s a lot about white folks I just don’t get so I guess I’ll end by saying to each his or her own.
But damn, if one of you can explain this to me, it’d be much appreciated. Thank you in advance.
Check out our YouTube adaptation of DHH’s play Yellow Face, which touches on the original Miss Saigon protest: