Volume IV, Number 1, Spring 2008


"Making the Subject: Performative Genders in Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and David Hwang’s M. Butterfly" by Enikő Bollobás

Enikő Bollobás is Associate Professor and Chair at the Department of American Studies, Eötvös Loránd University of Szeged, Hungary. Email:

0. The Performative

The performative has proved to be one of the most energizing concepts in contemporary theories of culture and literature. Contesting the primacy of the signified over the signifier, the performative has come to be understood as a function of the signifier only, accounting for such textual processes as the performative construction of the subject and the performativity of writing and reading. As such, it has provided a pragmatic form whereby certain constitutive processes can be conceptualized in non-essentialist thinking. To take the example of identities, the performative refutes the essentialist position by showcasing gender, sexuality, or race as produced by language. Independent of whether the identities in question are stable or unstable, unproblematic or problematic, intelligible or unintelligible, dominant or non-dominant, the performative establishes the ways they all come about as effects of discourse. Moreover, inflections of gender, race, or sexual identity will be shown to exist only in the symbolic: as metaphors or catachreses but not as referents.

Developed originally by J. L. Austin within the framework of ordinary language philosophy (How To Do Things With Words), the performative has been picked up by philosophers and theorists in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Radical thinkers used speech act theory in support of their critique of metaphysics; among these, Jacques Derrida (“Signature Event Context”; Limited Inc; Specters of Marx; “Performative Powerlessness”; Negotiations), Roland Barthes (“The Death of the Author”), Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class?, “Speech-Act Theory, Literary Criticism, and Coriolanus”), Shoshana Felman (The Scandal of the Speaking Body; Claims of Literature), and J. Hillis Miller (Versions of Pygmalion; Tropes, Parables, Performatives; Speech Acts in Literature; On Literature; Literature as Conduct). At the same time, feminist critics put the performative in the middle of their constructionist work on subjectivity, especially gender, sexual, and racial identity; among them, Diana Fuss (Essentially Speaking), Judith Butler (Gender Trouble; “For a Careful Reading”; Excitable Speech; The Psychic Life of Power; Undoing Gender), and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (The Epistemology of the Closet; Touching Feeling). A speech act perspective on the subject allows one to see subjectivities as “large” and multitudinous in the Whitmanesque way, as something that is constantly made and remade, the product of language processes, therefore multiform, variable, and permeable. The performative in the poststructuralist framework grants a conceptional tool for understanding the subject as a discursive construct, a function of the signifier that does not lean on a fixed and independent signified. Moreover, speech act theory allows one to trace the process of the production of both marked and the unmarked elements of dichotomies such as woman/man, black/white, homosexual/heterosexual.

1. Subjectivity theories – a brief overview

Subjectivity, the subject, identity – these terms evoke issues that have defined theories of culture and society of the past decades. In critical practice, identity and subject/subjectivity are used as near synonyms, often as interchangeable terms. In my understanding, however, there is a difference, lying in (i) historical context, (ii) part/whole relationship, (iii) degree of consciousness, and (iv) degree of fluidity/fixity. First, identity – referring to some core and stable element of the self – is part of modernist discourse, while subject/subjectivity – referring to variable and permeable entities produced in discourse – is part of poststructuralist, postmodern critical discourse. Second, identity refers more to social markers, or separate segments of one’s self, that can be shown to correspond to various social categories (such as gender, race, class, sexuality) which one as subject or one’s subjectivity as a whole is made up of. Accordingly, identity is often defined by only one specific inflection (this is what Anthony Appiah and Amy Guttman call the “imperialism of identity” [Color Conscious 103]), while subjectivity is used as incorporating multiple identifications or, as Nick Mansfield puts it, as an “abstract or general principle that defies our separation into distinct selves” (3). Third, the difference between the two terms should be searched in the degree of consciousness as well. Subjectivity implies a higher degree of self-awareness, where the subject is constituted as object, the object of study, for himself/herself. This is the sense in which Foucault, too, uses the term, when speaking of the “domain of possible knowledge” resulting from observing the ways “in which the subject experiences himself in a game of truth where he relates to himself” (Aesthetics 461). Fourth, as opposed to fixed (albeit evolving) identity markers, subjectivity is a shifting-moving process, a set of positions inscribed and reinscribed by discourse.

The poststructuralist theories contest the subject as signified, one pre-existing construction or existing independently of language. Until it got contested in the second part of the 20th century, this autonomous and self-conscious individual – conceptualized during the early modern era and dramatized, for example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the self-reflective modern man thinking his way into action and agency – served as an axiom of Western thought. Indeed, the concept goes back to René Descartes’ cogito, the “I think, therefore I am” maxim of thinking and doubting and struggling to know that is taken as the basis of being. The Cartesian self conceptualized during the Enlightenment was further developed in the 18th century, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s insistence on the autonomy of individual experience, John Locke’s emphasis on rational control, Benjamin Franklin’s trust in the (self-)perfectibility of man, and Immanuel Kant’s concept of rational agency and unity of the self, among others. In the 19th century such equations between rational thinking and “humanity” will serve as the basis for the spectacular exclusions of blacks and women from the “universal” ideal of the human, giving an impetus, in the United States, to the anti-slavery movement and, in Europe and the U.S., to suffragette action. Justifications for these latter will include arguments – coming from Frederick Douglass and Margaret Fuller, for example – assigning the faculties of the self to those formerly excluded. The control of the self is newly problematized in Friedrich Nietzsche, allowing the idea of self-construction enter his philosophical system. Critiquing the Cartesian unified consciousness, Sigmund Freud’s modern psychology assumes a subjectivity which, though split and therefore not in our full control, relies on self-knowledge and grants a certain degree of agency. Jacques Lacan’s approach will take a shift from the ruling Freudian model in acknowledging the separation of the desire for control over selfhood from the illusion of such control, or, in the mirror stage, the child’s recognition of the distinction between self and other, as well as between the visual gestalt of the complete external image and the child’s sense of its own fragmented self. With Lacan’s linguistic turn – insisting that the subject is always the speaking subject, one defined in and by language, and that language is the site where self-identity happens – the idea of the self-existing Cartesian subject suffered a serious blow.

But psychoanalysis was not the only discipline that critiqued the modern idea of subjectivity and agency: linguists, philosophers, semioticians, literary and cultural theorists such as Emile Benveniste, Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Teresa de Lauretis, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler, for example, have shared a similar insistence on how language/ideology/power/knowledge/social technologies/the abject/the Other construct us, by signification/interpellation/ subjection, into subjects that are never free, unified, or an origin. Underlying these various claims, which I will summarize briefly in the next paragraph, is the recognition of the double meaning of the word subject, referring both to the process of becoming a subject of a linguistic occasion (the subject of the sentence, the one assuming the speaking position) and to the process of becoming subordinating, subjected, to some power or force or system. This subjectivation – of being produced and subjugated at the same time – is captured by Foucault’s term assujettissement, which denotes both the process of becoming a linguistic subject and the process of assuming agency through processes of subjugation, “which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate out behaviors,” where subjects are gradually constituted “through a multiplicity of organisms, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc.,” and “subjection in its material instance” is the “constitution of subjects” (Power/Knowledge 97). Subjects are, therefore, produced by power. Applying this claim to the gender component of subjectivity, one could say that only by being subjected to the juridical norms of manhood/womanhood does one have culturally intelligible gender. As Foucault puts it in connection with sexuality,

sexuality owes its very definition to the action of the law: not only will you submit your sexuality to the law, but you will have no sexuality excerpt by subjecting yourself to the law. (History 128)

The brief overview of subjectivity theories dislodging the cogito should start with Benveniste, who emphasized the primacy of language in providing the possibility of subjectivity: it is in the sentence that the ‘I’ constitutes itself as subject: “the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language” (226). For Derrida, one becomes a subject only by being subjected to the signifying practices of language: “the subject (self-identical or even conscious of self-identity, self-conscious) is inscribed in the language, […] he is a ‘function’ of the language. He becomes a speaking subject only by conforming his speech […] to the system of linguistic prescriptions taken as the system of differences, or at least to the general law of différance” (“Différance” 396). For Althusser it is primarily apparatuses such as literature and institutions such as the church, family, and school that reproduce the values of ideology which will “interpellate” or hail the individual – with the power of force similar to that of the police; it is this hailing by which the interpellated person becomes a socially constituted subject (Lenin). For Foucault power is enhanced by knowledge in bringing about a maximum effect on the individual, the individual being “one of [power’s] prime effects” (Power/Knowledge 98) – such is the function of the prison, as well as hospitals, schools, or banks: to individualize, normalize, and hierarchize the subject (Discipline), or to regulate sexual practices by various technologies of sex (History). De Lauretis applied Foucault’s idea of complex political technologies to gender and suggested to include such “social technologies” as cinema, institutionalized discourses, as well as practices of daily life, thus defining gender as both the product and process of its representation and self-representation (Technology). For Kristeva, the subject is formed from a defensive position, during the process of attempting to establish a dividing line between self and Other by constantly pushing away those forces threatening its borders which she calls abject – such as the maternal body or corporeal waste (Powers). As poststructuralist commentaries deconstructed the distinction between preexisting and constructed subjectivities, and insisted that the subject was always already constructed as a function or effect of power and its discourses, Butler applied this deconstructive gesture to the sex/gender (or nature/culture) binary, pointing out that “sex” is not a biological given but “is as culturally constructed as gender;” therefore, it is “always already gender” (Gender Trouble 7) and the body (“nature”) is “always already a cultural sign” (71). Moreover, not only does gender come first, but there is nothing beneath the mask of regulatory behavior effected by society: gender is performative. “That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Gender Trouble 136).

Thus predicated on the notions of construction and performative process, the subject in poststructuralist-postmodern theories is anchored in language and is viewed as a function of the sentence. Language can be performative without employing performative verbs; indeed, as Butler claims, “it’s most performative when its performativity is least explicit – […] most of all when it isn’t even embodied in actual words” (qtd in Sedgwick, Touching 6). Moreover, performativity is really an effect of language, not its cause. As Roland Barthes famously claims in his “The Death of the Author,”

Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance of writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance of saying I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language “hold together,” suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it. (1467)

Indeed, as poststructuralism calls into question language or the text as a transparent medium “revealing” a reality behind it, the subject or self that pre-exists the text (or can have an existence outside the realm of language) is concomitantly repudiated. Poststructuralist theorists will not insist on a solipsistic existence similar to Forty-four’s in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, for example; the movement away from the referent does not imply a denial of the referent. What is asserted by poststructuralism, however, is that this referent cannot exist as self-presence: all our experience is mediated by the signifying practices of culture, or, in fact, is constructed through discourse. Of course, people do exist even before they speak, even before they construct themselves as subjects in discourse. But their existence as subjects depends on how they speak, how they construct themselves in language; the self as a system of representations evolves out of the text. For example, when in July 1862, Emily Dickinson sends her fourth letter to T. W. Higginson, saying, “I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves” (Letter 268), she is (she constructs herself as) – at least as far as the meaning of her words are concerned – no more than a small wren-like woman, with bold hair and brown eyes. Or, to take another example, she might be all kinds of other things too, but when in 1864 she complains to her sister Lavinia, “I have been sick so long I do not know the sun” (Letter 435), she constitutes herself solely as the subject of the sentence, the figure saying “I,” and illness will emerge as the exclusive marker of her subjectivity. Subjected to the meanings produced by the sentence, or subjected to discourse, the speaker’s subjectivity is purely textual; as a subject, she is “never more than the instance of writing,” as Barthes put it in the passage quoted earlier: the figure produced by the subject of the sentence. The subject of her sentence takes the subject-position defined solely by what is being narrated in the text. Therefore, the conclusion is at hand: subjectivity is narrative, something that can be related in a coherent narrative. “Self-creation,” which Rorty – following Nietzsche – equates with self-knowledge (Contingency 27), can only happen via narration, via narrating oneself in one’s own terms.

2. Performing subjectivity

Subjectivity can be said to performatively come about in two distinct ways: revealing an existing (discursive) reality and creating a new (discursive) ontology; reflecting or quoting prior texts and processes and bringing about new texts and processes. The first is representation, the dramatic or theatrical replaying of some existing social script; the second is the (discursive) ontologization of some newly performed entity.

(i) I use the term performance for instances where expressive citationality is dominant in making subjectivities; these processes appeal to existing conventions, and invoke existing traditions. Such instances of subjectivity performances indeed express some pre-existing identity conventions and reproduce ruling ideologies to which society has subjected the subject. This is the theatrical version of the performative, when an existing script is being acted out on the stage, gets to be replayed, so to say. These performances are expressive, but what they express is not some ontological “essence” seated in the body and then given expression by clothes, behavioral styles, or ways of thinking. Instead, performance is expressive of the conventions, discourses that have produced, say, gender. This is, indeed, as Butler puts it in connection with the imitative structure of gender, “an imitation without an origin” (Gender Trouble 138). What precedes the performance of identity, then, is not some originary essence but the set of norms and traditions that have produced those particular identities and that will be reiterated. Such performances are generated in processes much like Althusserian interpellation: when the subject is produced by being “interpellated” by some powerful ideology; somewhat like responding to the “hey, you” call of the policeman, the person’s identity of being performatively produced as the addressee, the “you,” of the call. All the while the subject holds on to the illusion of freedom, the illusion of “submitting freely” to ideology – quite like John Winthrop insisted, according to Linda K. Kerber, that the colonists follow the model of women in marriage when submitting “freely” to the state (“Can a Woman”).

Of course, theatricality – or the repetition of certain formulae and scripts (such as “I pronounce you man and wife,” “We declare independence”) – is very much part of this expressive-replaying performance. But such a dramatic performance goes beyond the “inbuilt theatricality” (Winspur, 177) of the performative: here, in instances of subjectivity performances, for example, it is not just formulae that are being cited, but whole contexts – of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, among others – can act as normative scripts that regulate behavior. The context of performance is permeated – or, to use Derrida’s term, saturated (“Signature” 174) – by conventions and ideologies. In this sense all such performances are versions of the masquerade, or the interaction of mask, costume, and convention described by Joan Rivière as early as 1929 in connection with gender; in this vein, womanliness is nothing more than its playing out, or masquerade (38). These instances of dramatic performance as the citing and playing out of scripts are all “parasitic,” in the Derridian sense, leaning on existing norms and taking off from earlier performances.

(ii) My ontological or radical performative is quite different. Here new discursive entities come about against or in the absence of existing conventions. Therefore, the subjectivities performed will be multiple, unfixed, unstable, and mobile, and mutable – much like the “new mestiza consciousness” described by Gloria Anzaldúa (99-113) – allowing for a new possibility of agency. If performance was described as expressive, one that reproduces the ruling ideology, the performative, indeed, challenges the ruling ideology. When subjectivities are being performatively constructed, for example, figurations of new subjectivity will come about, typically involving the transgressions and extensions of categories. For example, the formerly disempowered will assume agency by resisting normativity and undermining the individualizing-normalizing-hierarchizing effect of power. In such cases, the subject does not come about via being interpellated by ideology, but instead by resisting this interpellation and resisting the normative codes of thought and behavior – by enacting a rupture from convention. Indeed, the difference lies, as Butler points out, in being acted upon as opposed being, in the case of the ontological performative, enacted by: “[p]ower not only acts on a subject but, in a transitive sense, enacts the subject into being” (Psychic 13). This new discursive ontology corresponds to Derrida’s new kind of performative: “the originary performativity that does not conform to preexisting conventions, unlike all the performatives analyzed by the theoreticians of speech acts, but whose force of rupture produces the institution or the constitution, the law itself, which is to say also the meaning that appears to, that ought to, or that appears to have to guarantee it in return” (Specters 36-37). For example, The Declaration of Independence is such an originary performative in that the signatories broke existing laws and instead created the law by which they acted and created themselves and those on whose behalf they acted (the American people). Such a radical performative has a radically inaugural quality because, as Hillis Miller explains, here “each performative utterance to some degree creates its own conditions and laws. It transforms the context into which it enters” (Speech Acts 96).

As all performatives, this category also relies on repetition, quotation, or citation, only this is a special case of repetition, quotation, or citation: this is quoting with a difference, discarding the previously coded script, ignoring the pre-established formulae, and replacing the earlier context with a new one. Subjectivity, especially agency, happens when the person is capable of quoting with a difference, when the speaker is allowed self-construction without or in spite of existing conventions. This is the moment in which,” as Butler puts it, “a subject – a person, a collective – asserts a right or entitlement to a livable life when no such prior authorization exists, when no clearly enabling convention is in place” (Butler, Undoing 224). This is the possibility of agency acceptable for postmodern theories as well, captured by Butler’s phrase quoted earlier, “the assumption of a purpose unintended by power” (Psychic Life 15). This radical performative grows out of a context that is “never absolutely determinable” (Derrida, “Signature” 174); this context is indeterminable because it is, to use another Derridian word, “non-saturated,” or not entirely saturated (“Signature” 174); in fact, it is born as a response to the performance engendered by a fully saturated context.

3. Gender performativity in the text

In the following, I discuss two texts of gender performativity: Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe as an instance of the ontological performative, where gender is shown to be changing as well as relative, and David Hwang’s M. Butterfly as an instance of gender performance, where scripts of womanhood as well as Orientalism are replayed – albeit with a difference.

3.1. Gender relativity as new ontology

Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1943) presents a complex case of gender performativity: here gender appears as fluid and mutable, multiple and transgressive, and in each case it is sexually negotiated, thereby dependent on the particular relationship and situation in which in it is performed. Gender is only evoked here, as a relative term, as only one construction interlocking with and dependent upon projections of sexuality and power. This piece of short fiction serves as a laboratory for the hierarchical structure of heterosexuality where, as Catharine McKinnon observes, “[g]ender emerges as the congealed form of the sexualization of inequality between men and women” (Feminism Unmodified 7). Formed, in each case, intersectionally out of a space of ambivalence which opens up differently in the three nexus relationships, gender has only vague suggestions of femininity and masculinity. Assigning feminine traits to the desired object and masculine traits to the desiring subject is really just an easy translation of the object-subject dynamics and of the perception of relationships between unequal partners. With the three main players taking different gender and sexual positions in each of the three combinations, both gender and sexuality emerge as relative terms, critiquing gender and sexual essentialisms.

The story centers on Miss Amelia Evans, a peculiar woman in her thirties, who – by her mere presence and then later by running a café in the small Southern town – brings life to the dreary place. She is a “manly” woman, brought up by her father as a boy, inheriting his wealth too. She is a hard worker, skilled in farming, carpentering, and other jobs fit for men; she operates a still in the swamp and serves liquor from her own house to men (the only people she associates with) in the evenings. Defying all physiological and social norms of womanhood, she is built like a man, “somewhat queer of face” (206), with a height “not natural for a woman,” and is dressed in overalls and gum boots.

She was a dark, tall woman, with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair was cult short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome woman is, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed. (198)

Not only does she not have a woman’s looks in terms of her body and way of dressing, but even when she puts on a dress, as she does on Sundays, “that hung on her in a most peculiar fashion” (214). In other words, hers is not a “docile body,” in the Foucauldian sense, a “subjected and practiced” body produced by discipline (Discipline 138) and converted by techniques of gender stylization. In her case, Virginia Woolf’s contention about dresses wearing us seems to be refuted. (Unlike another “manly woman,” March in D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, a comparable story of shifting gender and sexual identities, who at one point starts wearing a green silk dress, and shocks her lover Henry by her newly proclaimed femininity.) Amelia has habits that are “manly” too, like tightening her first every now and then, especially after meals, to feel her muscles; or sitting with both elbows on the table and knees spread wide apart. Her manliness shows especially in the lack of interest in men: she “cared nothing for the love men” (198). A lonesome person, she lives alone for all her life, except for the time of her “queer marriage” at the age of nineteen to the dandy of the town, Marvin Macy; but this too only lasted for ten days and, as we learn later, does not get consummated. Her life changes drastically, however, with the arrival of Lymon Willis, her second cousin: Cousin Lymon, a hunchback only half Miss Amelia’s height, is taken in by her, to be treated with fostering devotion by the woman. Already the first night their attachment seems complete: walking up the staircase, the odd couple throw “one great, twisted shadow” on the wall behind them (204).

This is the first relationship that gets heterosexualized in the story. More and more, the woman takes the place of the wooing (male) lover: in her eyes “fastened lonesomely on the hunchback,” there is a mixture of “pain, perplexity, and uncertain joy” in her expression, while her hands are often sweating (213). Their respective masculinization and feminization affect even their manners of speech: while Amelia likes to talk about interminable, abstract subjects like “the stars, the reason why Negroes are black, the best treatment for cancer,” Lyman is a “great chatterer,” who likes to “interrupt her suddenly to pick up, magpie fashion,” some concrete, unimportant detail (224). Soon enough, he becomes an accomplished performer of (Southern) womanhood. Not only is he feminized in the position of the kept woman, but gets spoilt “to a point beyond reason” (214) by being presented with a piano, a car, and all kinds of other treats. In order to satisfy his “passionate delight in spectacles” (215), she takes him to picture-shows, fairs, and cockfights – wherever his whim demands. To top it all, he comes to perfect a staple instance of Southern womanhood, the art of descending the staircase; each night he “came down the stairs with the air of one who has a grand opinion of himself” (214). Having feminized himself into a spectacle, an object of the gaze, he will perform the role of the Southern belle, who graciously grants his (her?) presence to the townspeople.

Yet the heterosexualization of their relationship does not come about through simple gender reversal. Indeed, Amelia will be the lover and Cousin Lyman will be the beloved; one the subject doing the pursuing, the other the object being pursued. Lyman’s feminization and Amelia’s masculinization seem to go counter to their respective empowerment and disempowerment: it is Lyman the beloved who controls this relationship. Of course, given the fact that gender reversal is necessary in both cases for this “heterosexual” game, heterosexuality is portrayed as an attachment of two “inverts.” This operation, as Clare Whatling has demonstrated, is not devoid of its homosexual associations (“Reading” 246-247); here homosexuality is evoked by the suggestion of a butch-femme performance, itself a heterosexual conceptualization of gay relationships, on the part of Amelia and Lyman, respectively.

The truth is that gender is wholly irrelevant in the attachments evolving throughout McCullers’ story. “Let it be added here,” the narrator contends in the middle of a somewhat abstract discussion of love, “that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring – this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth” (216). Indeed, while Amelia is positioned as the male lover in her relationship with Lyman, in her other relationship, the one with Marvin Macy, she takes the woman’s object position: here she is the one desired and pursued by the man, who sees her as “[t]hat solitary, gangling, queer-eyed girl” (217) from whom he wants nothing but love. Here it is Macy who showers her with presents, “the whole of his worldly goods” (221) finally, but there is no way of winning her love (although she accepts his property). Refusing the object position, Miss Amelia throws him out. Macy returns years later to the house finding the hunchback cousin there too, with whom they really hit it off. Now Cousin Lyman becomes the wooing male lover, showering Macy with all kinds of favors. But Lyman’s subjectivity comes primarily from his exercise of language: he talks himself into being, first into being noticed and loved, later into being the lover himself. Threatened by getting marginalized by both Lyman and Macy, Amelia will stand up to the exploitative Macy (who has now moved in with them) and decides to have a boxing fight with Macy – man to man – so that she could finally take him on equal terms and beat him at a manly game. A practiced fighter, boxing with her punching bag every morning in her yard, Amelia is sure to win the fight. Lyman however, who feels now he must support Macy from the impassioned lover’s position, intervenes by jumping on Amelia’s back and clutching her neck. Having victory over the woman, the two men disappear forever, leaving behind an utterly lonely, desolate, half-crazy Amelia.

McCullers seems to wholly ignore the assumptions underlying our culture that there are two genders, two sexes, and two sexualities, and that these are all fixed and unchanging. All the three main characters are depicted as if they were not living in a world where sexual and gender roles were dramatically polarized. Gender relativity allows new entities to come about against or in the absence of existing conventions: all three subjectivities are unfixed and mutable; they all challenge the ruling ideology, producing new figurations and involving transgressions and category extensions. Subjectivity is indeed a shifting-moving process, where gender positions vary in terms of what is being inscribed by discourse; they change roles and positions over and over, as if identities were wholly fluid, protean, and relative. They could go any way in the individual combinations.

3.2. Replaying old scripts – with a difference

The transgressions between dichotomies are further problematized in David Henry Hwang’s drama M. Butterfly, where discourses of gender, sexuality, race, and colonialism intersect, while imitation and reversal are foregrounded as dominant thematics. In his afterword to the play, Hwang labels M. Butterfly “deconstructivist” play (2869). Indeed, in this drama of sex, politics, camaraderie, and spying, several binaries are being subverted, among them, man/woman, East/West, reality/fiction, innocence/experience, gay/straight, truth/deception, and copy/original.

This thematic of imitation is exploited in a two-fold manner: on the one hand, the French diplomat, René Gallimard plays out a performance of cultural imitation as he reenacts (or thinks he reenacts) the plot of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (becoming both Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San, actually), while on the other, an agent of the Chinese intelligence service puts on a masquerade of Oriental womanhood as s/he gives the performance of Gallimard’s ideal of the “Perfect Woman.”

The plot unfolds as the reworking of the popular Western opera (in fact, in several scenes we have a crisscrossing between performances of the Puccini opera and Song’s “real-life” performance). Here, however, the love plot between the American naval officer and the Japanese Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly, gets subverted into a Frenchman falling in love (and having a long relationship) with the beautiful Chinese diva, Song Liling, who turns out to be not only a spy but also a man. If Madame Butterfly was, as Mari Yoshihara puts it, “a white female performance of white male Orientalist fantasy” (976), then M. Butterfly is its contemporary reworking, its parodic and subversive Asian re-performance of passing and Orientalism. So the play can be seen as the reverse staging of the narrative of “an exotic and imperialistic view of the East,” as Hwang himself puts it (2869) – in other words, Orientalism.

Orientalism, defined by Edward Said as an interest in the East which turns into “an all-consuming passion” (132), is present indeed as the hypotext. Here the East is not only shown as a “career” (which it certainly is for Gallimard), but is itself Orientalized in the sense that here too “[t]he relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (133). This relationship of power gets further gendered, exemplifying, as Yoshihara puts it, the “gendered dynamics of East-West relations founded upon unequal power relations” (975). Gallimard takes great pleasure in this gendered power relation, getting dizzy from recognizing himself as another Pinkerton, who “caught a butterfly who would writhe on a needle” (2839) and from experiencing for the first time in his life “absolute power” over a woman: “I felt for the first time that rush of power – the absolute power of a man” (2840). “The West thinks of itself as masculine,” Song explains in court; “big guns, big industry, big money – so the East is feminine – weak, delicate, poor … but good at art, and full of inscrutable wisdom – the feminine mystique” (2864).

A merging of the passing plot and the Orientalist narrative, the drama foregrounds the performative-imitative nature of Orientalist/feminine submission as a construction of the West’s fantasy. As Gallimard’s friend Marc says about Song, “she must surrender to you. It is her destiny” (2836). Or as Song himself explains at the end, “[t]he West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself” (2864). Moreover, the “original” opera’s wide popularity presupposes the Western point of view, as Gallimard learns from Song’s explanation and, the hard way, from his own experience. “It’s a very beautiful story,” Gallimard admits; “Well, yes, to a Westerner,” Song adds to the Frenchman’s great surprise (2832). Gallimard also learns that there is no innocent enjoyment of Orientalist narratives: it is not possible to hear, as Helga would want to, Puccini just “as a piece of beautiful music” (2833), for this form of “innocence” only gives green light to hegemony and domination under the guise of a love-story considered supremely beautiful within the Orientalist frame. Having fallen from the position of the “innocent imperialist” to the position of the helpless but “experienced” colonial victim, now gendering himself female, Gallimard will have experienced both perspectives, transgressing in the final scene all gender and cultural boundaries. Thus, in this second marriage of the narrative of Orientalism and the passing plot, he becomes Madame Butterfly and, committing hara-kiri, adopts the Oriental version of dénouement.

There is, however, an additional element here. Orientalism functions as an Althusserian ideology which will interpellate Gallimard: in this process the French diplomat becomes a socially constituted subject. Orientalism is presented as a performative construction in both the opera and the drama: in fact, both Butterflies are cultural constructions, catering to the Orientalist fantasies of the men. But as much as Gallimard is constituted by power and ideology, he remains blind to his own Orientalism in the sense that he fails to see how his desire is moved by a particular cultural myth. Of course, Gallimard’s subjugation itself two-fold: not only is he produced (interpellated) by Orientalism, but is also is being used by what Althusser might consider another ideological state apparatus, Chinese intelligence. Moreover, performative Orientalism is at work in Gallimard’s two self-constructions too: both when he constructs himself as the powerful Western man and when he steps into the garb and role of the suicidal Cio-Cio-San.

Song seems to be similarly constructed by ideology, simultaneously by “true womanhood” and Orientalism. S/he appeals to existing gender conventions, staging and acting out well-known scripts in this performance – applying a complex technology of gender, to use de Lauretis’ term, in constituting his body as female –, as if s/he was interpellated by the norms of gender. His is indeed a double masquerade, with mask, costume, and convention interacting in constituting him not only as a woman but also as an Oriental woman desired by the Western man. As the imperialist’s vision of the Oriental Butterfly, Song responds to the man’s desire, sexual as well as political, letting him take the illusory role of a latter-day Pygmalion. “I am a man who loved a woman created by a man” (2867), he admits at the end.

In Gallimard construction of the perfect woman as the Oriental woman, he makes her sole desire to please the Western man. The hypotext, however, is turned parodic, when it is revealed that it is the intelligence service of communist China who manipulates the French diplomat through Song and especially through the Westerner’s blind belief in Orientalism. In the hypertext, power resides in the Orient ultimately, and the Westerner gets beaten at his own game by becoming the victim of his own cultural myth of domination.

The drama seems to carry the critique of essentialism further than other narratives of gender passing. Here it is not a man who simply prepares the surface of his body or takes women’s clothing simply in order to look like a woman. In Song’s case, deceit affects the functioning of gender. His performed gender is being put to “use,” so to say, in bed for years; gender is not just theatrics, but gets “tested” at the point where, according to the sex/gender distinction, it is not gender but sex (biology, “nature,” “essence”) which should be at work – biology, which gender masquerade is not supposed to have affected. In this aspect, the play seems to enact the Butlerian tenet concerning the always already gendered nature of sex: the site of sexuality will shift from biology to gender and discourse, as Song performs a total, all-inclusive sex/gender passing. However, her seduction is carried out as much by the body as by language. Much like Don Juan, whose “erotic success,” Shoshana Felman claims, “is accomplished by linguistic means alone” (Scandal 14), Song, too, seduces by producing a language of pleasure and desire, and prolongs, to use Felman’s words again, “within desiring speech, the pleasure-taking performance of the very production of that speech” (15).

Furthermore, in the project of deception, the political motivation reinforces the erotic economy here: while tapping Gallimard’s desire to be another Pinkerton, s/he seemingly creates a high-class marketable good of him/herself as a woman, while all the time s/he is the consumer going after the goods Gallimard can sell. This ambivalence of subject-object relations (where in terms of his erotic pursuit, Gallimard is the desiring consumer, while in his political pursuit, the Chinese agent takes the dominative position) leads to the gender reversal of the final scene, where Gallimard dies as just another abandoned Madame Butterfly. Through the two gender performances – the agent’s as the diva Song and Gallimard’s as a Madame Butterfly – power comes to be redistributed. To apply another phrase of Butler’s, they “make over the terms of domination, a making over which is itself a kind of agency” (Bodies 137). Of course, the passer himself is not a free agent but the actual secret agent of the Chinese government, fully obeying his superiors.

The copy/original dichotomy concerns the way in which the primacy of the “original” – whether of gender categories or earlier narratives – is being questioned. While passing is indeed a process informed by imitation, its end-product can by no means be taken as a copy. For passing, as pointed out earlier, does not imitate the “original” (“essence”) but reenacts the processes whereby that earlier “original” was constructed too. What Song performs is not some female essence but the performance of womanhood itself. She performs heterosexual performativity, thereby supplies a supporting argument to Butler’s claim that “all gender is like drag, or is drag”; that “’imitation’ is at the heart of the heterosexual project and its gender binarisms, that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations” (Bodies 125).

I think one way Hwang deconstructs the original/copy dichotomy is by having Chinese intelligence use a male rather than a female agent. For if Song’s gender had been just a copy and if an “original” had been more “authentic” or useful, then they should have (and most probably would have) employed a woman, a “true woman,” to seduce the Frenchman and act as his desired Butterfly. Sex is again made irrelevant in gender performance: the “original” genital markers really do not matter – all that counts is that the performance be credible. Of course, “true womanhood” as an “original” gender identity is parodied here: it is the man who knows best how a real woman thinks, feels, looks, or how his needs should be catered to. “[O]nly a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (2854). Indeed, with this knowledge, s/he will out-woman all women.

Similar to how drag is described by Butler as disputing “heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality” (Bodies 125), so too, when Song claims that only men know what a true woman is, he disputes the woman’s claim on “feminine” naturalness and originality, while contributes to the parodistic reidealization of woman. The model of true femininity is, then, a man here, along lines similar to those taken by the Polish performance artist Ktarzyna Kozyra, who was assisted by the Berlin based drag queen Gloria Viagra in best assuming the role of the truly feminine (see front flap, Wróblewska). By allowing a man to know best what a real woman is, Hwang highlights the contingency of gender and lays claim to what Butler calls the “transferability of the attribute” (Undoing 213): indeed, femininity, even in its “truest” form, is incidental and transferable to any other player of the mime.

But how come, Gallimard is so easily deceived? And, indeed, deceived in bed? This is the question posed in the French court as well:

JUDGE: Did Monsieur Gallimard know you were a man?
SONG: Well, he never saw me completely naked.
JUDGE: But surely, he must’ve . . . how can I put this?
SONG: Put it however you like. I’m not shy. He must’ve felt around? (2863)

One answer to this question is given by Song himself (dressed in a suit already): “[m]en always believe what they want to hear. So a girl can tell the most obnoxious lies and the guys will believe them every time” (2863). But Gallimard’s vision is further tainted by his blind belief in Orientalism: he too only sees what he wants to see; moreover his stereotypes are constructed by the myth of Orientalism. So he sees the West’s (sexual) mastery over the East; this is what ultimately blinds him. Gallimard wants to believe the performer who performs the stereotype so dear to his own heart. In addition to these Western clichés of the Orient, the drama exploits other national stereotypes, too: the Frenchman as sexual, as a “ladies’ man” (2825); the French woman as accepting her husband’s extramarital affairs, or Scandinavian women as being uninhibited about sexual matters. Gallimard will have to come to the recognition that neither is the West masculine, nor the East feminine; moreover, not only is it impossible to tell one Butterfly from another, copy from original, useful from fake information, but also man from woman, heterosexual from homosexual.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize the following points.

First, performative subjectivities present convincing counter-arguments to the essentialist position. Nowhere do the texts of gender performativity refer to any kind of female essence or principle, even where gender is constructed in a performance of passing. Gender is shown as a construct, social and linguistic, and is constituted by a body whose biological markers are quite irrelevant.

Second, given the constructions of passing in both texts (Chinese man to Chinese woman, Frenchman to Japanese woman; woman to male lover, man to female beloved), gender’s catachrestic character gets highlighted: it is shown to be a metaphor lacking its referent in “reality.” The “original” biological sex of the gender performer is made totally inconsequential: the “authenticity” of the performance has nothing to do with whether the performer is “originally” a man or a woman. In fact, there are no “original” or “true” genders to be “copied” when performed. It is not something “out there” which is cited, evoked, or imitated when gender is being performed; rather, those processes are iterated whereby gender is constructed again and again in discourse.

Third, the two texts show fundamental differences in terms of agency and the degree to which they each reproduce existing scripts. The performance text of Hwang reproduces some well-known scripts of gender normativity. And because of this reproduction, gender gets fixed into a single and culturally intelligible configuration: we all understand the theatrics of “Oriental womanhood,” even if the performer is a man. But the question of agency emerges with a special twist here. Who acts as agent in this construction? Is it the Western man, whose sexual desire and desire for power construct the Oriental woman? Or is it the Oriental “woman” “herself,” who will put on the performance so desired by the Westerner? Neither, of course. Although Song is an actual agent of the Chinese, true agency lies with those who control him. The staging of womanhood is really directed, so to speak, by them; behind all performance, agency is with the Chinese intelligence, who really act as theater directors in the sense that they both create and manipulate the Westerner’s desire and at the same time move the primary performer Song so that she fully cater to his needs.

In the performative text (McCullers) neither the issue of agency, nor of the adherence to existing scripts seems any less complicated. Agency gets to be reproduced each time, as gender follows different norms in each interaction, leaving different a measure of control and initiative to the performer. As genders are performed against existing conventions, the subject positions that go with agency change. Moreover, as no one single script is being reiterated, genders will become multiple, unpredictable and, most of all, unintelligible. Indeed, the gender of Miss Amelia as the wooing male lover, of Cousin Lyman as the Southern belle, or of Marvin Macy as the beloved of Cousin Lyman – these are constructions illegible from the perspective of sex/gender and male/female binaries. Such genders will be unfixed, changing, and relative because the norms themselves will be created for each instance (instead of being ideologically given). Neither character will appear as having a once and single subjectivity; rather, subjectivity markers will be shown as relative, depending on particular interactions and relationships.

To apply Tolstoy’s apt distinction between happy and unhappy families to gender performances and performativities, one could say that all “happy performances” of gender – those “felicitous” performances which replay the existing scripts, fixing gender constructions in the realm of the intelligible – are all alike. The “unhappy” versions of gender construction, on the other hand – where “new” genders are performed beyond the fixed binaries, and where performativity challenges the normative rules of gender in an “infelicitous” way – are each different: they differ in their infelicities.

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