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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJam9EsYJzU

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.

Basic CMYK

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.

Poster - Madame Butterfly (1932)_02

Check out our YouTube adaptation of DHH’s play Yellow Face, which touches on the original Miss Saigon protest:

14 Comments

  1. It’s the fact that it’s an Asian FEMALE that gives the Madama Butterfly concept its longevity and endurance. While the “Orient” is no longer exotic or considered inferior, “Oriental” women on the other hand are still fetishized and infantilized today. The reason white love for Madama Butterfly persists yet it doesn’t for Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan is the fact that it revolves around the inferiority and helplessness of an Asian FEMALE. It’s both racism and sexism (intersectionality) that make this concept so enduring.

  2. These are the same kind of people who say to me, “I thought Ming the Merciless was just an alien. You’re reading too much into it.”

  3. I’ve no idea what the fascination is with Madame Butterfly but am actually far more fond of the Charlie Chan films which I watched growing up. Keye Luke was my first actor crush!

  4. the real loser here is the white womyn, having to raise their bastard husband’s bastard.

    white womyn should be chasing the black man. feminist liberation, yo! lol

  5. If the Rat is producing, then it’s going to be a hip, modernized, high-octane thrill ride. This looks like a job for Lucy Liu! Who will be doubled in the reveal as (insert current Asian male heart throb to cross-over into American mainstream). SMDH. And let’s not forget Chris Evans with a bad French accent.

  6. It’s partly true story and this sort of continues. I challenge someone to watch address unknown (Korean film). It’s challenging to watch. If you can handle that…wow…It’ll break whatever rose colored glasses your wearing. If that doesn’t do the trick.. Go read ” Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love” by Xinran.

  7. Wow…Yellow Face pulls a lot of different emotions. Two thumbs up!

  8. I’m already at Part 2. This is brilliantly written and hilarious. I love the different emotional pull this play has and how it is dynamically sequenced like a carefully thought out musical composition. I’m pleasantly surprised.

  9. Good grief – How dumb can you get? IT’S THE MUSIC EVERYBODY LOVES. Puccini’s music is so magical many Europeans cannot listen to MB without tears running down their cheeks. I repeat: it’s the heart-stopping MUSIC that makes it such a great work. Regarding the story:
    YES, it SUCKS on many levels. BUT:
    100 years ago westerners were struggling to understand something about China and Japan. The Italian composer Giacomo Puccini took the story from other western writers without knowing enough about Asian culture, traditions, attitudes, sensitivities.
    Anyone in the West TODAY who knows anything about East Asia REALISES that the story is AWFUL and doesn’t work for modern audiences. It was OK, I suppose in the days when the East was a big fascinating mystery.

    Secondly – don’t be so sarcastic about young love. Through the generations, many western men have had their lives changed by meeting and falling in love with a beautiful, Chinese, Japanese or South East Asian girl. When I first arrived in East Asia from England I was greatly impressed by the beauty and grace of Chinese girls.To fall in love away from home is something really dramatic in a young person’s life. That should be obvious to everyone, right?

  10. Good Grief – how fucking stupid can you get? You’re patronizing tone and your attempt at diminishing serious racist themes is EXACTLY why Asians hate white males.

    Carrington, please do yourself a favor and try not to be ignorant. What is literally unbelievable to me is that you agree the story is racist, and yet your admission has given little or no added perspective to your neo-colonial paradigm that is so utterly entrenched in your thinking that you fail to carry any consciousness of why an admittedly racist story can offend people of said race.

  11. First of all, the timeless appeal of Madam Butterfly is not the story, but the music. Pure and simple, it’s the glorious genius of Puccini fit into a story that you should recognize as a very anti-American Imperialism vehicle. What do you mean you don’t get it?

  12. I think we are all led to feel outraged at the actions of Pickering and sympathy for Cio Cio San. It’s pretty clear that she has been used then discarded. Having Cio Cio San as the central figure instead of Pickering allows us to see and feel with her. I don’t think Puccini, the opera as a whole or the narrative are inherently racist. The way it is presented is in fact quite anti-Imperialist. So no need hate on Madama Butterfly.

  13. Why do I like The Magic Flute? That opera has a guy dressed like a bird and a weird pseudo-Egyptian priest. It has a number of not-too-flattering comments about women.

    If you like opera, you put up with, or learn to enjoy, archaic or outmoded story lines. You sympathize with what people created in their own time, rather than judging them by the politically correct mentality of your own day or your own ego.