Throughout life, society has predetermined stereotypes that are based on ideal norms that influence each person from the minute they are born. During the mid 1900’s, gender was not questioned and racism was heightened in America, which lead for much of literature to go with typical norms. When Toni Morrison wrote “Recitatif” and David Henry Hwang came out with the play “M. Butterfly”, they both pulled ideas from out of the box to create literature which had yet to be written about.
For instance, a scene in “M. Butterfly” compares to two scenes in “Recitatif”, both displaying common stereotypes while dissecting the nature of how they counteract everyday norms of race and gender roles. Two scenes in “Recitatif” show how Morrison never reveals Twyla and Roberta’s skin colors, but lets the reader interpret different scenarios to form stereotypes on the girl’s skin colors; “M. Butterfly” plays into conventional gender roles by deconstructing them with an undercover spy who impersonates a woman for years.
In “Recitatif,” the reader is expected to make assumptions of descriptions and actions made by the girls, which are expected to be debunked later; however, Morrison never admits or confesses to which girl fits with which skin color. “M. Butterfly” leads us to believe Song is a fragile, Oriental mistress who belongs to Rene Gallimard, but when he admits to being a man, he confesses how he is it possible. The portions of the three texts differ vastly from one another, but become linked through the way each story approaches and subverts the norms of society at the time.
Recitatif” takes place over a twenty-year span, from the 1950’s, to the 1970’s when America was “separate but equal”. African Americans and civil rights supporters in the U. S. were in the process of changing a racist country, so Twyla and Roberta grew up with cultural assumptions about each race. The first scene consists of the Twyla and Roberta’s mothers meeting. However, Roberta’s mother ignores the welcoming gesture from Twyla’s mother and disrespectfully turns her back to Twyla’s family. Like a switch of a light, Twyla’s mother realizes why she was ignored lashes out, and starts to swear.
The narrator, Twyla implies that Roberta’s mother’s action was conventional-as if they had gotten that reaction before, proving Roberta’s mother’s disgust could have been a result of her racism. The cultural assumption that Morrison predicts the reader will assess is that Roberta’s family is white and her mother is revolted by the fact that her child has befriended a child of the opposite race. However, because the author never reveals who is white and who is black, one can look at it from both sides.
Although not a stereotypical assumption, blacks could be just as racist against whites and could want separation of the two races. Assuming Roberta’s mother was African American, she could have acted that way because she was horrified upon seeing her daughter befriend someone who belonged to a race that had previously outlawed the black community. Morrison challenges typical literature at this time- an average white American, middle class family by writing “Recitatif”. She points out how the girls are different in many ways, but also are majorly the same.
Both Twyla and Roberta are neglected by their parents by being put in the orphanage, but the young girls were also bullied by a higher power-the older girls. And although the author never identifies which girl belongs to which race, it is not up to the reader to figure this out. The central idea to take away from the scene is how each girl is perceived in it and why certain attributes are considered race-based. Not only is Morrison subverting the typical literature norms, but she changes the reader’s perspective to divert from stereotypical race assumptions.
Eventually, the girls meet once again, this time when they are matured and married. During the 1980’s much of the racial tensions were relieved because the white community assimilated African Americans into their lives and communities. This is apparent when Twyla and Roberta meet unexpectedly again and act like “sisters separated for much too long” (Morrison 253). Twyla sees Roberta, and after learning she is well off, says “Easy I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they rule the world” (252).
This argues an immediate cause for Roberta to be white, since the black community was emerging from a racist society where they were previously faced with oppression; while whites had been at the apex of the social and economic hierarchy since America was originally colonized. Morrison urges one to think out of the box by never revealing the woman’s skin colors, leaving it up to the reader to take evidence from the story to argue each side. Twyla could also have made this statement about Roberta’s wealth, considering she married to a rich man and now seemed to be living a simple and effortless life.
However, in the same conversation, Twyla asks Roberta if she ever learned to read. During the 1950’s the literacy rate for the white community was high, and while the rate for African Americans was rising, it was still far behind whites. This fact could be a reasonable thought to explain why Roberta never learned to read as a child, because she was never given the opportunity that white citizens had been given. The reader could also think in a different light to realize Roberta failed to know how to read as a child simply because she was a child.
Because she was placed in an orphanage at a young age, it could have been by chance that Twyla had learned how to read at the age of eight, before Roberta. Unlike how the short story “Recitatif” depicts apart racial norms, “M. Butterfly” deconstructs stereotypical assumptions about different genders. The play “M. Butterfly”, written more modernly in 1988, is a representation of the unspoken truths of stereotypes which fall between men and women. In Act III, Scene I, the reader learns Song’s ultimate plan and her twenty year “performance” of acting as a woman to deceive Gallimard.
While in court, Song denounces exactly how she was able to act like the feeble woman that western man, Rene Gallimard, wanted her to be. The idea Song proposes to the court was how Gallimard’s nationality defines what he wants to see in a woman. One point Song makes is that Gallimard believes women are gentle and submissive, made to have children and stay home. Not only does Gallimard conclude it is her gender which makes Song weak, but also her coming from the East, as an Oriental. It is portrayed frequently how weak the East is, so even if Song wanted to, he “could never completely be a man” because he was an Oriental (Hwang 83).
Stereotypically, the West is associated with masculinity and violence, where the East is said to be more feminine and delicate. In the court scene, Song states that the West has a “rape mentality” towards the East. She defines this as “Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes” (83). It is as if the defenseless women of the East need to be dominated by a stereotypical big, strong, Western man. All along, Gallimard wanted dominance over Song and expected her to follow the gender roles of a housewife and mother. In the end, the reader learns it is Song who has the upper hand on Gallimard and has dominated him for decades.
However, David Henry Hwang also subverts norms by choosing an undercover, transvestite protagonist. According to Performance and Perception, “transsexuals, transvestites and cross-dressers “make visible what culture has made invisible, that is: the accomplishment of gender” (Saal 635). In the case of the quote, culture has made gender into two categories: male and female. However, when gender is allowed more preference, like Song being a transvestite, the play develops a new light which was rarely written about in literature at the time. “M.
Butterfly” makes for such an abnormal and interesting play which subverts basic norms because of the plot twist in the court scene when the reader learns Song is a man. Both texts defy stereotypical norms in their own ways. Morrison writes passionately about the roles that race played in “Recitatif” which takes place during the mid 1900’s. The short story forces the reader to think outside of the stereotypical side of race assumptions, and how they can be deconstructed. “M. Butterfly” depicts the gender stereotype of how women should be submissive to men, and how it is portrayed in the world.
Song knew how Oriental women were perceived by a Western man like Gallimard, so he disguised himself into a stereotypical woman- carrying out Gallimard’s “fantasy”. Not only is Song submissive because she pretends to be a woman, but also because she is from the East, which is stereotypically weaker and more fragile than the West. In the case of “M. Butterfly” it is not only roles of gender which are challenged, but also origins. Although each text subversifies norms and stereotypes, the literature differs by the manner it challenges social norms.