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The media, according to Bazalgette (2000), is the channel through which meanings are substantially represented and transmitted. These meanings are physically represented and transmitted in the form of media texts which are then consumed by audiences, who are all members of society. The consumption of media texts has always intrigued academicians as the way audiences understand media texts can potentially affect social culture and shape the way they perceive reality (McKee, 2002). Textual analysis is employed in trying to understand how audiences are generating meanings from media texts. This involves examining the ways a text is 'framed' so as to direct audiences to adopt a certain reading of the text (Schirato & Yell, 2000), one such way is through discourse and discursive practices found in the text. The concept of discourse and how it is applied in the work of textual analysis and cultural criticism will be discussed in this essay in relation to the David Cronenberg film "M. Butterfly". A film adaptation of the play of the same name by David Henry Hwang, "M. Butterfly" is based on the true story of the romance between a French diplomat and a Chinese spy - René Gallimard and Song Liling - with references to the famous Puccini opera, "Madama Butterfly".
Foucault (as cited by Mill, 2004) describes discourse as "practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak" (p. 15). It is the process in which material objects or cultural practices are given meanings. The function of discourse is to "define, describe and delimit" the meanings that media consumers are able to derive or generate from the text (Kress, as cited by Schirato & Yell, 2000, p. 58). When presented with a text, the active audience negotiates with the many meanings found in it. Discourse is able to direct them to a certain reading of the text by laying down a parameter for interpretation. Objects and practices are explained in an "intelligible" way by "excluding other forms of reasoning as unintelligible" (Barker, 2008, p. 90). For example, discourse is able to mould the female gender in a particular way by imposing certain meanings onto it - submissive and slender - and then denouncing other meanings as 'unacceptable' - rough and unkempt. Media studies scholars are able to gage the range of possible meanings audience generate from the text through applying discourse in textual analysis. Since the way audience make sense of reality is closely related to the way they make sense of texts, examining the effects of discourse allows for the performance of cultural criticism as well. According to Foucault, the effects can be observed through studying the elements of truth, power and knowledge. He rejects the conventional notion of truth as something subliminal, abstract and eternal. 'Truth' is instead regarded as something that is produced: a product of conflict between different discourses (Mill, 2004). A belief or value becomes the 'truth' - the right and natural thing - when a certain discourse emerges as the dominant one as a result of clashes between it and other opposing discourses. Similarly, knowledge is seen as the product of power struggles (Mill, 2004). What is taught and learned from educational institutions and books are 'sanctioned' as 'truths', the beliefs of the dominant and more 'powerful' discourses. It is observed that the underlying element in discourse is power. Foucault sees power as a productive rather than a repressive element (Mill, 2004). As discussed above, power produces 'truth' and 'knowledge'. This is done through the dispersion of power through social relations (Mill, 2004). For example, power exists in the social relation between a lecturer and a student. In the classroom, the power resides in the former thus whatever the lecturer says is 'true' and constitutes 'knowledge'.
To illustrate how the concepts of discourse may be applied in textual analysis and cultural criticism, this essay will provide an analysis on the discursive practices found in Cronenberg's "M. Butterfly". The idea of gender will be analysed through three prominent discourses found in the film: Orientalism, colonialism and feminism.
Orientalism, one of the primary themes, acts as a discursive practice in the film. Said (1985) explains Orientalism as a school of thought which involves three aspects: as history, academic discipline, and ideological suppositions, which were dominated by the West for four thousand years. For the longest time, sources of 'authorised' knowledge of the Orient - Middle East and Asia - has been from the West. Orientalism is seen as a discourse as it is something the West 'manages' by "making statements", "authorising views", "describing" and "teaching" about it (Said, as cited by Dirlik, 1996, p. 98). The West objectifies the Orient by observing it through Western eyes, consequently 'sanctioning' facts about the Orient based mostly on what they think of it instead of what it actually is. It is a projection of the dreams and fantasies of the Occident. In "M. Butterfly", the idea of gender through the discourse of Orientalism is articulated by Gallimard. Upon extoling Song for her astounding performance of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly", he was retorted by the latter for being an Orientalist. To Gallimard, "Madama Butterfly" is a beautiful story because it fulfils the Western Man's fantasy by featuring the submissive and loyal Oriental woman. Kondo (1990) suggests that it was Song's exhibition of her Oriental hyperfemininity that attracts Gallimard to her. In the discourse of Orientalism, the female gender of the Orient is perceived to be gentle, submissive and soft-spoken. Gallimard's wife expressed her Orientalist idea of the female gender as someone coy, demonstrated by her coquettishly hiding her face behind a magazine, used as a fan (Levin, 2004). Song exhibited traits of Oriental woman. She became the coy but passively passionate woman in love as she pined for Gallimard in her letters when the latter ceased to visit her. She then submitted herself helplessly to him when he made sexual advances. Gallimard referred to Song as his 'slave' which connotes submissiveness, inferiority and obedience. Through the discourse of Orientalism, we can deduce that the female gender is 'supposed' to be passive, submissive and soft spoken; whereas the male gender is 'supposed' to be assertive, powerful and domineering.
Another discursive practice found in the film is colonialism. Colonialism is the acquisition of a foreign territory and exercising political, economic and social control over the territory and its people. Bhabha (1984) explains colonialism as the exercising of authority by the West under the farcical intent to civilise untamed territories, which results in the marginalising of locals. When carrying out the White Man's civilising mission, the locals along with their norms and practices are inevitably classified as 'Others' or 'deviants'. The underlying aspect of colonialism is "the concept of fixity in the ideological construction of otherness" (Bhabha, as cited by Suner, 1998, p. 51). Certain values and ideas are imposed on the natives - the 'Others' - to ensure the supremacy of the colonists who are the Self and the norm. Therefore, it is observed that there is a sense of inequality in terms of race: the White colonial masters and the Native servants. Suner proposes that gender can be seen in two ways through the discourse of colonialism: the feminisation of the colonised; and the colonisation of the feminine. In the film, the French are the colonisers and the Chinese are the colonised. It is worth to note that Gallimard plays the 'man' in the relationship whereas Song is the 'female', symbolising the masculine West and the feminine East. Drawing from his romantic experience with Song, Gallimard came up with the assumption that "the Oriental will always submit to the greater force" (Cronenberg, 1993, "M. Butterfly"). The native is seen as submissive, thus 'emasculated' in the eyes of the colonial masters, hence the feminisation of the colonised. The colonisation of the feminine can be seen through Gallimard and Song's relationship. Levin (2004) observes their relationship to be a game of sexual power. Song submits herself to Gallimard's semi-aggressive sexual advances when he visits her at her home. This suggests the intrusion of the West into the East which then proceeds to dominate or colonise the land by exerting control over it. Gallimard affirms his power as coloniser by assuming the masculine role, done through dominating Song who is the Other and colonised (Suner, 1998). Gallimard sees Song as a "young Chinese school girl waiting for her lessons", which can be interpreted as the French carrying out the civilising - teaching - mission on the Chinese. Under the discourse of colonialism, gender is defined by the power play between East and West - female and male - as the dominated and the dominator. This discourse is later refuted at the end of the film when Song was revealed to be a spy and a man (Kondo, 1990). The colonised regains his masculinity when Song strips and reveals his manhood to Gallimard as the latter cowers in a corner. At the same time, it is then that Gallimard realised that Song was 'colonising' or dominating him all these while by the latter's femininity, using it to obtain diplomatic secrets.
Feminism is also identified as one of the discursive practices in "M. Butterfly". The basis of feminism is that a man is but a woman's "fellow" and that his "sceptre" - power - does not govern her (Wollstonecraft, 1792, p. 12). Feminism not only champions the belief of gender equality, but the empowerment of females as well. Women should empower themselves through education that "cultivate[s] their minds" (p. 12). According to Beasley (2005), feminism is the rejection of the masculine bias in Western norm that renders women at an inferior and marginalised circumstance in society. It is a discourse that refuses the notion that females are always inferior to men in terms of their capabilities and that the rights of females can be disregarded. In other words, feminism dismisses the ideas of 'femininity' constructed by the patriarchal system. A famous quote of the film is uttered by Song, "It's because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act." (Cronenberg, 1993, "M. Butterfly"). This statement is then reiterated by Gallimard in prison, referring to his romantic liaison with Song, saying that he has "known and been loved by the perfect woman". The perfect woman is a man. This is because ideas of femininity are constructed by the patriarchs - the men. In the Beijing opera tradition, female roles are played by male actors who are known as hua dan. Femininity is a performance, both on-stage and off-stage, in the film (Grist, 2003). Song performs an act on stage as Madame Butterfly and a Chinese female character; off stage she acts as the stereotypical Oriental woman. Although being a member of the Revolution, she does not dress and behave like Comrade Chin. In fact, Comrade Chin despises her for buying into patriarchal ideas of femininity by reading American starlet magazines because these ideas are perceived to be feudal. Gender is something performed "in interactions with others" (West & Zimmerman, as cited by Saal, 1998, p. 635). It is not something born-with, like sex. Gender is a socially constructed that consequently gives someone his or her identity. Song may have been born in the male sex, but his 'performance' gives him a female gender. Gender is also something that can be easily imitated, unlike sex. During the last moments of his life, Gallimard of the male gender and sex, is able to transform into Madame Butterfly who is of the female gender and sex (de Lauretis, as cited by Guarracino, 2007). It is deduced that the discourse of feminism presents gender as a socially constructed identity that is but an act of performance.
In conclusion, discourse is able to regulate meanings and ways of viewing practices or objects (Barker, 2008). This is demonstrated in the above discursive analysis of the idea of gender in Cronenberg's "M. Butterfly". The meanings and ways of talking about gender through the discourse of colonialism are dissimilar from the meanings when viewed through the lenses of feminism discourse. Both the discourse of colonialism and feminism sees gender as something unfixed. However, colonialism 'frames' gender according to who dominates; feminism 'frames' gender as a performance, how one acts in interaction with others. Discourse is useful in textual analysis and cultural criticism due to the fact that it is never fixed but constantly changing according to key shifts in history (Foucault, as cited by Mills, 2004). Different discourses are dominant during different time periods in history. Ways of viewing social practices and objects change along with that. Thus, discourses can be used in such a way to critique cultural and social changes.