Category Archives: M. Butterfly (opera): Postcolonial: Colonial Expansion vs. Native Orthodoxy

M. Butterfly (opera): Postcolonial: Colonial Expansion vs. Native Orthodoxy

One of the more interesting aspects of the opera is that while America is acting as a colonial power (metropole), such as Pinkerton’s attitudes towards Japanese (colony) traditions (the concept of marriage), as well as the aggressive stance of the US Naval gunship presence in Japanese waters, the Japanese themselves (other than Butterfly) revert to a more traditional / orthodox “Japanese-ness” towards the American presence. So much time is spent in Japan with no real colonial power as a representative, other than Sharpless (who seems quite sympathetic to the Japanese anyway), that we could read the opera as offering us a glimpse into the mind and culture of a society that is attempting to refuse colonization. From Butterfly’s Uncle who disowns her, to Prince Yamadori who attempts to set up a traditional marriage, the Japanese are mostly unified in their mistrust of the Americans and in their own desire to remain Japanese.

Of course the Japanese in the opera are not wholly on board with antagonism against the Americans. Goro, for example, while he plays the traditional role of a matchmaker, has been influenced by the American idea of capitalism and greed (the imperialist influence). In fact we could look at Goro and Sharpless as two subtly distinct discourses about colonial influence on Japan. Both men take part in the devaluing of Japanese culture, however Sharpless is hesitant and seems to struggle with the morality of Pinkerton’s actions, whereas Goro has no such qualms and sees only a business opportunity.  Sharpless at least sees Butterfly as a human being; Goro sees a dishonored object to be sold to the colonial power. Ironically, Goro is acting as a pure capitalist that does not value the individual over profit. And perhaps the reason why Sharpless is hesitant is because he can see both sides of the issue within his western discourse because he is a westerner whereas Goro either does not have access to this discourse, or at least chooses not to take part in it.

When we dig deeper, we should next ask ourselves what does it mean to be Japanese (as opposed to a colonial power)? Is there an essence of “Japanese-ness” like there is a supposed feminine essence? This question seems to be at the heart of the Japanese attitudes towards the colonial power, as well as the American’s attitudes towards the Japanese. For example, Butterfly’s uncle represents the traditional mindset of family honor and duty and Butterfly’s willingness to be appropriated by an American is unacceptable to the uncle. This essence is bound up in duty and honor and family, and can be seen in contrast to the essence of the westerners who value profit, and leisure. And this identification with a Japanese essence is what motivates the more orthodox members of the society to rebel against the colonial imperialist influence and this idea of an essence creates a discourse of what it means to be Japanese. Ultimately, the characters are creating their own discourses based on what they feel is the essence of their culture, but as we see everyone seems to have a unique take on what this means.

In contrast to the Japanese in the opera who hold on to an orthodox, anti-western discourse towards the west, is Butterfly. She allows her Japanese essence to be colonized by an American discourse. She, like Goro, sees an opportunity in Pinkerton to better her life. However, unlike Goro who is using the situation for purely financial gain, she is doing so because the Japanese discourse she has grown up in has let her down. Duty to her family has only landed her in a geisha house with little prospect for honor in her culture and so she sees Pinkerton as an escape. She is buying into the colonizer’s discourse: that of becoming a typical American housewife who is free from the oppressive orthodox traditions of Japan. She appropriates American culture in her manner of dress and the locks on the doors, and she sees the west as being exotic (other) much like Pinkerton sees her as exotic. However, the truly sad part of all this is that Pinkerton is misappropriating Japanese culture by using Butterfly and not taking her seriously. He just wants to have fun (he devalues her and her culture), whereas for her the choice to give up one discourse for another is nearly a matter of life and death for her and the child.  

In the end Butterfly cannot escape her own culture no matter how many American dresses she wears or locks she attaches to the doors because no matter how many individual choices she makes that run counter to her Japanese culture, her life is not self-determined, she is at the mercy of the power structure of her own culture as well as the fetishization of a western male who does not value her or her people’s past and culture. Once she finally accepts the truth of her situation she, like many of the people around her, reverts to orthodoxy and commits seppuku, which ironically is also the only truly self-determined action she can take.

Stepping back from the opera, I think this idea of how cultural appropriation and colonization leads to the people in a community to revert to an orthodoxy is a driving force in current world politics. The massive divide between Western and Muslim beliefs seem to only entrench each side further and further into orthodoxy whenever one side attempts to interfere with the other’s culture. For example when the west overthrows the leader of a middle eastern nation, like Saddam Hussein, the moral justification may be for human rights reasons, but the people who actually live there, even knowing they live under a tyrannical leader, do not accept western influence and in the void left by a lack of leadership they revert to the orthodoxy of their culture. The same is true in the west when someone of Muslim faith carries out a terrorist attack and in the aftermath the voices who are the loudest are those who are the most conservative.

The irony is that the more a culture attempts to colonize another, the more likely the result will be a strengthening of the colonized orthodoxy. The more the colonizer devalues the colonized culture and people, the more the colonized will hold onto and value their own culture. Even in the case of imperialism where it seems a culture benefits by more economic opportunity (like Butterfly and Goro in the opera), there comes a point when people begin to question these materialist values and may begin look to a more traditional discourse that gives their lives more meaning, even if it comes at the expense of the comfort and leisure capitalist colonialism provides.