Beyond Bound Feet–Why the Madama Butterfly Story

Yang-May Ooi, writer/ performer of Bound Feet Blues and playwright of the new play Butterfly in Blue Jeans, writes about why she wants to re-tell the Madama Butterfly story from the perspective of a modern East Asian woman.

In my solo theatre show, Bound Feet Blues, I explored how footbinding kept Chinese women “bound” to submissive roles as mothers and wives through physical breaking of their bodies and also the psychological breaking of their spirit. One of the show’s key themes is how women can live “unbound” and empowered as fully-realised human beings beyond the restrictions of gender imposed by cultural traditions.

Through East Asian tradition – as well as Western culture – women have historically been cast in a passive, docile role. In our cultural stories in books, drama and opera, the heroine is often the one who waits to be rescued. It is the man who is the hero – active, strong and powerful. As a young girl reading books and watching movies, I found it difficult to identify with the heroines who had little to do in the story but be helpless. It was more interesting to identify with the hero who got to do stuff!

Poster for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly from Manitoba Opera,with thanks

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is all about a woman who waits. She is a young girl who has given up everything for the man she loves – but he turns out to be a cad. He can love her and leave her and travel the world. He makes choices for his own life. On the other hand, she waits. She waits for him to return, she waits for her life with him to start. In the end, when she realises she cannot have him, she kills herself.

I love Puccini’s music in this opera. I can’t help but me moved by Butterfly’s plight. Who among us has not loved hopelessly and felt that devastation of loss when you realise that the person you love does not love you in the same way?

But it also infuriates me that she is so passive and so in need of being rescued by a man. As a modern woman, I want to shake her and tell her he’s not worth it, you deserve so much more. As an East Asian woman, I am disturbed by this image of a docile East Asian woman pining for a Western man – with all its loaded subtext of Orientalism, colonialism and uneven power dynamic.

So I want to explore in Butterfly in Blue Jeans what might happen if the power balance could be shifted. What if Butterfly were modern East Asian woman? How might her story have a more empowering arc and ending? Would we lose sympathy with her if she were more active or would we be cheering her on?

As part of the creative team, we have on board two other East Asian women, actor Julie Cheung-Inhin and producer Clarissa Widya, along with dramaturg Simon Ly and director Jessica Higgs. We have a vision for Butterfly in Blue Jeans that is about challenging the portrayal of not just East Asian women but women everywhere as somehow needing a man at the centre of their world. Our aim is create a drama that is at once intriguing, interesting and moving while exploring this universal question.

We are at the early stages of planning this production and seeking funding to realise our vision. As the project evolves, we will be blogging about our ideas and inspirations as well as our process and sharing with you all the different aspects of the production. We hope you will come along with us for the ride!

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