Sunday, September 19, 2010

Heterosexuality in the Face of Whiteness: Divided Belief in M. Butterfly by David L. Eng

In his essay Eng offers the common belief that too often important narratives are left out of both feminist and queer theory when people of color are not considered. The importance, he says lies in the ways in which they are removed from the equation in hopes of creating a social norm from which they are said to deviate. Eng explores the ways in which people of color- in this case Asian American males- are subject to what he believes to be the social construction of whiteness and heterosexuality. He also argues that in M. Butterfly, a 1988 Broadway play based on Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly, main character Rene Gallimard dangerously straddles the invisible lines between whiteness and heterosexuality and non-whiteness and homosexuality. In addition, the conflict between identities is augmented by Gallimard's love for Asian opera singer Song Liling, a man masquerading as a woman.

Gallimard uses the social acceptability of what playwright David Henry Hwang refers to as "Yellow Fever" in the heterosexual community and "Rice Queens" in the homosexual community. These phenomena describe the trend of white males who look to Asians, male or female, as the feminine, submissive object of their sexual desires. According to Eng, Gallimard uses this as the guise to distract from his homosexual desires that would rid him of his white privilege. It is here that the idea is presented that race and sexuality work together to define white status. Eng borrows from Kaja Silverman's writing The Threshold of the Visible World to support his claim. In her text she writes that Black male sexuality (in this case through direct reference to his penis) poses a threat to relation between the White male and the White female. She argues that this proves detrimental to the racial hierarchy that previously defined Black males as being "less" where now White males are comparatively "less" in the eyes of their female counterpart thus connecting sexuality and racial classification once more.

Essentially, Eng works to prove three basic points. The first, is the connection between socially constructed "whiteness" and heterosexuality. He argues that all of the privilege that comes with identifying as a white male is equally dependent on the adoption of heterosexual tendencies, be them honest or otherwise. By the same token, Eng states that whiteness itself becomes a mask to hide other differences. For example, Gallimard's whiteness in relation to Sing's Asian identity distracts outsiders from the possibility of homosexual relations between the two. In essence, the acceptance lies solely in the familiarity of the White fantasy that holds the Asian counterpart as submissive and ideal. The final and most important point Eng tries to make is that all of these various labels and classifications are too fluid to be reliable. While it is clear that the line between hetero and homosexuality is blurred, the construct of what is and is not "white" is also impossible to define.

1 comment:

  1. Good work! Would you provide some links to the play? And can you break down "the social construction of whiteness and heterosexuality." What does that mean?

    And do you think Eng's final point is really the impossibility of race and sexuality? Isn't he saying that they matter in terms of how each category is constructed? Do you think what you've identified as his final point contradicts what he's said before?