Category Archives: M. Butterfly: Feminism: Is Gender Identity Natural / Innate or Socially Constructed?

M. Butterfly: Feminism: Is Gender Identity Natural / Innate or Socially Constructed?

Is gender identity natural/innate or socially constructed? Are specific bodies linked to specific behaviors/appearances/identities male= masculine, female= feminine?


Considering how contentious both sides of this debate is I believe the answer is “a little bit of both”. For example, in the film Song is constructing a feminine identity designed to please a Western male, while Gallimard (the Western male) possesses many innate feminine characteristics. Both sides of the debate are presented here amid a backdrop of social revolution to show how fluid and complicated the distinction is while hinting at a “radical” possibility of a world in which there is no distinction to be made (the communist state where everyone is “equal”). The film is using the characters as binaries to help us understand gender by differentiating between them and then mixes them together until the distinction is so blurred that we can no longer tell where one end and the other begins.

When we look at the essentialist argument we are presented with biological differences: a woman’s body is (usually) reproductive, whereas a man’s body is (usually) more muscular. Just inhabiting a certain physical body can influence how we interact with the world, such as someone who is blind will interact with the world differently than a sighted person. The essentialists believe that “[w]omen are more caring,” (Rivkin, 530) but also can be defined as that which is “not male”, a nonidentity expressed through ecriture feminine that is fluid and non-rational. The problem here is that, as with my example of someone who is blind, it seems to be creating a hierarchy where there might perhaps be a preferred state of being (sighted is preferred over blind), or with the ecriture feminine that women will fall into the stereotype of being mysterious as opposed to logical.

From the constructivist side of the argument it seems the essentialists are “taking an effect to be a cause” (Rivkin, 530) where biology is used as a sort of excuse to subordinate women. The argument is taken even further to say that in a capitalist society women are assigned from birth, based on their sex, to behave in a way that benefits the state by staying at home and performing as “domestic laborers,” (Rivkin, 530). In other words gender is a social construct and therefore can be deconstructed or thrown out altogether. However, this is also problematic in that it has the possibility of leading to there being no distinction at all between men  and women and that our biology plays no role in our gender.

The film presents this problem of competing ideologies by showing us that gender exists on a spectrum, that gender is a representation of a reality, a reality we construct but that it is also based on the hyper-real in which there is no absolute ideal model or form to base it on. Both Song and Gallimard construct their reality out of what they think defines their gender.  Song looks at fashion magazines, Gallimard looks to Puccini, but in both cases they are drawing on constructed identities and not anything concrete and specific, it is all imitation where there is no original.

All this then leads to the performative nature of gender, “the way in which gender is constructed through specific corporeal acts,” (Butler, 2). The most extreme examples of this is within the media where we are influenced and stereotyped into performing a specific gender script. The models in Song’s magazines are grotesquely feminine with their gaudy makeup, and the characters in Puccini’s opera are embarrassingly stereotypical. Yet both Song and Gallimard have been heavily influenced by these images and initially act out according to what they believe is the script they should be following. It is no wonder then that they both wind up being punished by society for breaking away from these “putatively regulated cultural fictions,” (Butler, 4). Society believes Song and Gallimard are gender “imposters” who have been exposed and must be punished for going against the roles they have been assigned.

Yet what and who is this society that is imposing these roles on the actors? Again, the film seems to be commenting on this society by giving us characters who are both male. Typically males have held the dominant role in society (hegemony) yet here both males are struggling with what it means to even be male. Gallimard does not fit the role of the typical male in that he is ridiculed by his colleagues, is ineffectual in his attempt to assert his political views, and winds up falling in love with a biological man. Song, too is a critique of the male hegemonic system in that Song as a biological man seems to know more what it is to be a woman than a biological woman does. Song controls the relationship, demands a child be given to her/him, and puts Gallimard in a subservient role in the relationship. In short Song acts very masculine while putting on the staged trappings of the feminine. And again we have a blurring of the lines of what it means to be masculine in that during the time we believed Song to be biologically a woman we accepted her seemingly masculine actions as being “normal” because she was a foreigner who acts different than we do. But when Song is exposed as a biological male, Gallimard turns against Song even though the only thing that has really changed is the biology – Song’s actions had always been quite masculine but once the male essence had been added to the male biology then Gallimard rejects Song even though he had been attracted to a very masculine identity in every other way other than in the biological sense.

This is an interesting critique of the patriarchy in that it shows how fluid and malleable this institution really is. And in the end there does seem to be – from Gallimard – an understanding that the patriarchy has been in control the whole time and has dominated his view of what a relationship can be. The entire time he has been manipulated by a biological male who has control over him and so by setting up Gallimard as a more feminine male we can really see how this affects biological women because we see how the power dynamic oppresses and penalizes women in this system through the lens of taking away the power from our example of a biological male (Gallimard). In other words by exposing a male as feminine and then oppressing this male, we can see how men use power to emasculate other men as well as oppress women by attempting to make them inferior. This also exposes the troubling subordination of homosexuals in society.

Through all this it is no wonder that society seems to be comfortable in creating very rigid and specific roles to play because at least by having a script we aren’t left to have to figure out how to navigate gender with no guide whatsoever. Connell says that, “[t]here is likely to be a ‘fit’ between hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity,” (Connell, 61)  because having these defined stage directions in our script is, “more familiar and manageable,” (Connell, 61). In other words we do not have to worry about being placed on trial or sent to a quarry to break rocks as long as we stick to the roles given to us.