The Metamorphosis of M. Butterfly: Reflecting Varying Ideas of Positionality & Intersectional Identity from the 1980s to the Present



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When considering literary text and visual media as cultural artifacts rather than productions propagating a singular objective or floating in isolation, we see that they have the power to comment, unveil, and expose. As products of time shaped by the very purveyors of culture and thought, they step into and make a home in the great web of unstable and expanding discourses. This project examines three iterations of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly—the original Broadway production, the film adaptation, and the recent Broadway revival—produced between the years of 1988 and 2017. As three productions with similar foundational backbones, these iterations of M. Butterfly show the ways in which one production can be recreated and reinterpreted over the course of time as concepts of identity are redefined, reevaluated, and better articulated within American society. My study is an attempt to evaluate the ways identity discourse in America informs and is informed by these three productions. I present my argument using the theoretical framework of cultural criticism, which evaluates culture as a changing product of “interactive cultures, … each of which is constituted at any given moment in time by the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, occupation, and similar factors that contribute to the experience of its members.” Each production, I argue, privileges one of three axes—race, sexuality, or gender— over other elements of intersectional identity in response to the discourse of its time. I first and foremost evaluate the 1988 production of M. Butterfly as an intended subversion of the feminized weakness associated with Asian cultures that in turn perpetuates anti-feminist and homophobic ideologies amid the Cold War era. I then evaluate the 1993 film adaptation of M. Butterfly as a lamentation of a cisgender and heteronormative society at the cost of Asianness and womanhood in response to queer critiques of the 1988 play and the shifting visibility and audibility of homosexual communities in America. Finally, I evaluate the 2017 revival of M. Butterfly as a focused portrayal of non-binary Asian identity in a moment where transgender and feminist issues and the fight for acknowledgement and justice are at the fore. By closely investigating the way discourse, whether propagated or subverted, seeps into the fissures of these productions, this thesis proposes that the M. Butterfly canon acts as a timekeeper and snapshot of the historical and present-day sociopolitical contexts between the 1980s and 2010s.



Asian American Literature, Cultural Criticism, English, Performing Arts, Intersectional Identity, Film