Consider the characters of the movie and/or the opera as ‘textualized’ subjects of post-structuralism – that is, as subjects whose ‘reality’ is always referential, never absolute.
I keep coming back to the scene when Butterfly is wearing an American style dress during the height of her resistance to the “reality” that Pinkerton is not coming back when Prince Yamadori shows up instead to marry her. Her identity is referencing that of a what she believes is of the typical American housewife, albeit one who is rather fancy and quite wealthy judging by the quality of her dress. She tries her best to “dress” herself in this identity, but it’s an obvious mask everyone sees through, in fact nobody even comments on her change of clothes because they are seeing right past what she is referencing and are seeing only the Butterfly underneath the foreign garb. This is interesting because she looks totally out of place in this dress, too. She seems to be playing dress up the way children would with dolls, though based on her experience as a geisha, putting on a costume to inhabit a role of fantasy (for male customers) is nothing so foreign to her or, for that matter, to any of the Japanese. Technically, she is simulating a reality in an attempt to create for herself a new reality, but as with all simulations, she falls short.
This, in turn, reveals another layer of reference because under her American dress is the girl they call Butterfly, which isn’t even her given name. To Prince Yamadori she is just a prize to be had, a conquest to add to his harem. He sees her as a prostitute to be bought but does not see the Cio-Cio-san underneath. But then with these onion-like layers, we have to wonder then if everything is referential, is there any identity at all? Who is the “real” Cio-Cio-san under the American dress and behind the Butterfly persona? Here then we are presented with an example of différance in that this individual woman can be called “Butterfly”, or “Cio-Cio-san”, or “Housewife” and in each instance she takes on (or attempts to take on) a new reality that is different from her other realities. We are seeing Butterfly in a different reference; she no longer is wearing the traditional Japanese dress, she’s identifying herself with an other in defiance of what she no longer wishes to be associated with: a Japanese woman.
Yet she can’t help but expose a slippage back into her other identity because she is, after all, a Japanese woman living in Japan. She can’t fully inhabit her new binary because she isn’t a white, American, blonde, woman (like Pinkerton’s American wife). However, we do need to be careful here because if she had been raised in America from a small child (like her son will be), and was only ever raised with American culture, and dress, and American speech was all she knew and inhabited, then her mere biological characteristics would not necessarily preclude her from “legitimately” identifying as a typical American housewife, albeit as someone who also possesses Asian physical characteristics.
In fact this leads into part of the next question from the take-away: How reliable is what we think we know about the characters and cultures in the opera? If I had been born and raised in, say, the Amazon and had never been influenced by any culture outside of the deep Brazilian rainforest, I might not make much of any distinction between who is Japanese and who is American and what either of these two foreign cultures might represent or mean. I, as this supposed foreign observer, would not be interpreting the situation through the lens of what I think “Japan” is vs what I think “America” is, or what “honor” is vs what “individualism” is, rather I might see a contradiction in that the male in the relationship is acting one way whereas the female is acting another and that they are not adhering to my own (foreign) concept of what a relationship “should” be about.
To take it even further, if I was aware of what honor is I might think she is using honor as an excuse to not face the “reality” that Pinkerton is not coming back and that she’s just being stubborn and not because she really is honorable, as is the prefered reading of “honor” in this case, doing so because she truly believes absolutely in what she is doing with no doubts at all. All-in-all everything becomes relative, not absolute, but always from the point of view of another observer. To Butterfly or Pinkerton their reality may seem perfectly “absolute”, but from a relative point of view those realities fall apart.
And this idea of how a reality might seem absolute to the individual experiencing it leads us to the next topic:
What other ‘metanarratives’ do you see in the movie and opera? What role do they play?
The metanarrative which most interested me was that of the importance (or not) of telling the truth as we understand it. I was first struck by this during the courtroom scene when Gallimard is asked, by a incredulous judge, how he could not have known Song was a man. According to the court Gallimard must be telling a lie, right? How could anyone be so unobservant? Yet we the audience who have spent nearly 2 hours riding along in this situation did not know either! We too were fooled and if we had been quizzed by a legal tribunal as to whether or not Song was a woman, most of us would have rolled our eye at such a boneheaded question: of course the truth is that Song is a woman!
Yet suppose we were to place the characters in the film into an impressionist painting. Would we then be able to clearly distinguish who was whom, and which gender any of these figures posses? Would we be lying if we said we were certain a figure holding a baby was a woman? Or a figure on a motorcycle was a man? And if we changed our answer would we then be telling the truth?
And so like in an impressionist painting, the characters are creating and inventing their own truth about their identity. Perhaps Song is more willing to be fluid while Gallimard is more resistant to slippage between identities, but is the possibility that either of them are lying even necessarily a “bad” thing? Yes, we favor the “truth” and, like the judge are initially incredulous to any idea outside of Song being a man and Gallimard being a spy, but are these “facts” actually the real truth?
Both characters live very post-modern lives in that they are lonely and isolated and live in worlds that is seething with energy to reinvent themselves (mostly through political revolution), a world neither of them seem to fully comprehend, either. Both characters reject traditional “realism” in an effort to invent their own “truths”, and not necessarily because either of them are lying, but because they are more open to other possibilities, even if it comes at the expense of willfully (or unwittingly) failing to investigate their reality much further under the surface reality they’ve created – in other words, neither seem willing to undress their reality and expose it in its naked condition, until the very end.
Yet even in the end when Song strips naked and Gallimard takes on a persona of Butterfly, are they still any closer to the truth, or are they just inhabiting a new truth as they define truth now?
Ultimately it comes down to how the characters are creating their own reality by creating a real from an unreal. Gallimard, in his role as a diplomat (inept as he is) believes he is telling the truth about how the Chinese and the Americans will behave in the current political crisis in Southeast Asia. He may not be totally confident in his beliefs and is hiding behind a dismissive, almost arrogant attitude, but he has to look good in front of the ambassador and his less than friendly coworkers. Song too believes she is truthful in being a woman because, as she says, “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”. She’s become more woman than woman, she’s become a meta-woman, the ultimate simulation of a woman based on what she thinks a woman is supposed to be. She too has to put on a good show to convince Gallimard and in her own way is also telling the truth about the reality she is inhabiting.
Yet as with any specific reading of a text, these characters readings of their reality and what they believe is truth is unreliable and artificial. From Comrade Chin’s point of view Song is decadent and a disgrace to the cultural revolution. Song should inhabit the established cultural roles and norms as imposed by Chairman Mao and anything deviating from that is a lie, perhaps even treason! Comrade Chin sees Song as a deceitful liar, albeit a useful liar for China’s political gain. The same holds true for Gallimard. He’s a meta-Westerner, an educated, arrogant, in-over-his-head colonialist who thinks all Asians are exotic butterflies and the Chinese take full advantage of this reading of him as if this is an accurate, truthful reading of Gallimard the individual. Gallimard begins the story believing this narrative of himself and very much wishes to inhabit that defined reality, yet he’s not nearly qualified to really be of any political use to the Chinese because he really isn’t a meta-Westerner after all, it’s a lie, and like the impressionist painting, he and the Chinese made a poor reading of who he really was.
Ultimately how then can anyone ever really be telling the truth when our own realities can be so easily thrown into doubt or are at least fluid? Song is more woman than woman, so is she lying when she says she’s a woman? Gallimard loves Butterfly and so is he telling the truth when he says he didn’t know she was (at least physically) a man? Even if we could read the minds of Song and Gallimard we might still be no closer to determining who is telling the truth here because what is the truth?