The film M. Butterfly allows the audience to actively participate in the role of the Freudian topography as a representative of the superego. An audience plays a major role in the film, not only as a character on screen but the filmmakers are counting on the audience’s reaction when confronted with a revelation counter to what we accept in normative society. In an effort to explore the audience’s preconceived biases, the filmmakers attempt to revolutionize the audience’s thinking to go beyond the current “normal” to suggest the possibility of a new, progressive “normal”. In this essay I will explore the different types of audience as presented in the film and will explore how the role of the audience as a superego shapes the characters as well as how these characters shape the audience in return.
The first example of an audience playing the role of superego, which Freud corresponds to the conscience (Barry, 97), is at the beginning of the film when Gallimard attends the embassy performance of Madame Butterfly (M Butterfly 00:05:10). In this scene Gallimard admits to having never seen the opera and is thus ignorant of its content. He is self-conscious of this fact and this exposes his alienation from the rest of the audience who is familiar with the opera. Gallimard is positioned as an outsider within his own culture, however he is not totally alien to the morals and norms of his Western European culture as we learn in the following conversation with Song when she argues against his reading of the opera. He says, “You made me see the beauty of the story. Of her death. It’s pure sacrifice… It’s very beautiful,” (M Butterfly 00:07:57) which she counters as his reading as being “… one of your favorite fantasies isn’t it? The submissive oriental woman and the cruel white man?” (M Butterfly 00:08:36). Gallimard’s reading of the opera is assumed to be in line with that of the audience of the film, but Song is showing us that perhaps the audience’s reading is in error, perhaps we as an audience, a superego who are judging the characters, are not infallible and thus are capable of reevualating the normative pressure we impose on the characters (society).
The next example of the importance of the role of the audience is when Gallimard attends the traditional Chinese theater (M Butterfly 00:14:37). Here Gallimard is completely a foreigner since he cannot understand what the actors are saying as well as his being the only Westerner in the audience. Yet when he goes backstage he is given the opportunity to see how manufactured, how unreal, even chaotic this performance is, (M Butterfly 00:16:18). In a sense this is similar to the process of psychoanalysis when the patient – Gallimard plays a dual role as both the patient and as a proxy for the audience in this scene – begins to strip away the layers of repression (in this case the artifice of culture, here represented as the theater troupe) in an effort to expose what lies underneath. We have learned Gallimard’s reading of the opera (and thus the Chinese as a whole) is from a typical Western European point of view, and so this is his (and the audience’s) opportunity to see past these preconceived biases, to uncover these repressed and troubling biases about how we view a foreign culture and deal with them in the open.
Through the course of the film from this point forward we the audience become highly active in our role as the superego. We watch as Gallimard’s and Song’s relationship grows into what we, at first, assume will be a traditional relationship between a man and a woman, albeit across vastly different cultures. All this, however, takes place not in front of the audience of society, but tucked away in secret with only we the film audience watching events unfold. In a way we have been separated from the cultural norms of society as we undertake more in depth and private psychoanalysis of our “patients”.
While we are surprised to learn Song is biologically a man because our biases as a normative superego may initially reject this relationship possibility, yet having spent the duration of the film learning about these characters we’ve been given an opportunity to rethink our position as a normative influence on these characters. We are then presented with a choice: we could decide to continue to insist on a culturally normative relationship between a man and woman, or we have an opportunity to rethink our analysis, to have our minds changed, to engage in a revolution of norms and accept this new possibility.
And so we as a film audience who have undergone the psychoanalysis of the film where we have uncovered this repressed secret, join back up with the audience of society and we are confronted with how we will decide to judge these characters as represented in the courtroom scene, (M Butterfly 01:18:00). Here society as an audience literally judges Gallimard, especially when that audience learns he did not know the biological sex of Song, (M Butterfly 01:21:50), and thus that audience (society) finds him guilty. Gallimard deviates from the norm of French society and the rule of law insists he is to be punished for spying, in effect, on the alternative lifestyle. Yet we as an audience in the theater have been revolutionized, we were given the opportunity to know more than just the base facts in the case because we have grown with these two people and understand how this misunderstanding (either willful or from ignorance) could have ever taken place. We have seen backstage, just as Gallimard had earlier, and thus we are in conflict with French society. We now have conflicting superegos and we, too are to be judged.
This leads to the final example with an audience consisting of actual prisoners (themselves outcasts like Gallimard) who watch and judge Gallimard as he transforms on stage, (M Butterfly 01:29:27). They, like us, are captive to this transformation and not only have no power to stop the metamorphosis, but seem to accept it, a far cry from Gallimard’s previous audience of a jury in the French courtroom who cast him out. In this case one audience (French society as a superego) has been replaced with another audience (prisoners as an opposing, revolutionary superego), and while we might initially identify with the former, over the course of the film in which we are a captive audience, we wind up empathizing with Gallimard’s plight and therefore we as the superego are transformed into something wholly new.. No longer are we the normative societal force that frowns on Gallimard’s behavior, we are a different normative force who accept this transformation.
When we began the film we assumed a traditional interpretation of the characters: Gallimard is a man, Song is a woman. However, we are held captive to this traditionally accepted reading. Society (as a superego) forces us to conform to a certain standard of what constitutes a “proper” romantic relationship.
Yet why must this be so, is there no possibility of revolution in society, as there is in both China and France during the film? Can’t the superego, strict as it is as a normalizing influence be a reshaped? However, once it is reshaped, does it not just become the replacement normalizing force? Has the power now only shifted from one power structure to another? In the film the Chinese have undergone a cultural revolution where everyone is supposed to be equal, yet we see how even in this new system the new norms are enforced with strict punishments that are meted out when an individual runs afoul of them.
Who then is left to say our new, revolutionized judgment is any more authentic or legitimate than our previous biases? Are we as society’s audience also prisoners of society who judges based only on available, and often limited information? Ultimately, could this uncertainty as to the legitimacy of the authority of the superego lead to such a breakdown of an individual that they are no longer able to function in society, to which Gallimard reacts by literally killing himself, an extreme example of psychosis where the relationship with an external reality (the superego) “breaks down altogether,” (Gollapudi)?
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press. 2002.
Gollapudi, Aparna. Principles of Literary Criticism. https://writing.colostate.edu/files/classes/11609/File_858E65CB-B94C-34D8-2112AC98F38F64D5.pdf. Accessed 30 October 2017.
M Butterfly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Warner Bros. 1993. Film.