What is the line between gender dysphoria and a fixation on the opposite sex that manifests in an attempt to remake oneself in the image of that sex? Is there a line? Is it the same thing? Are the two states simply two forms of transgender? Perhaps unintentionally, David Cronenberg's 1993 film M. Butterfly
poses these questions. With a screenplay by David Henry Hwang, who wrote the stage play upon which the film was based, which in turn was based on real life events, the film seems intent mainly on discussing the nature of idealised femininity and how much it's actually related to womanhood and how much it's related to heterosexual male perspective. It's the weakest Cronenberg movie I've seen, but there are plenty of interesting things about it.
A French diplomat named Rene Gallimard, played by Jeremy Irons, is seduced in early 1960s Beijing by an opera singer named Song Liling, played by John Lone. In the real life events, as in the movie, the diplomat was never aware the opera singer he fell in love with was not biologically female until it was revealed to him by the French court decades later, when it was also revealed that the singer had been a spy, using the diplomat to gain sensitive information. The deception was so total that the diplomat believed he'd had vaginal intercourse with the singer who had then given birth to his child. Cronenberg shows the two having sex doggy style to show how Gallimard may have mistaken an anus for a vagina.
John Lone has a distinctively masculine physique and it requires some suspension of disbelief to assume Gallimard wouldn't immediately realise Liling was biologically male. The real life singer, Shi Pei Pu, was less sexually distinctive physically, but on the other hand, the real diplomat, Bernard Boursicot, apparently had exclusively had sex with men before he met Shi Pei Pu, and came to accept himself as homosexual after his relationship with Shi Pei Pu, though interestingly with another man.
In Cronenberg's movie, Gallimard is married to a woman at the beginning and there's no evidence he was ever interested in men. Instead, he seems to be a man obsessed with femininity.
He first meets Liling after he's performed a portion of Puccini's Madame Butterfly
--I'm calling Liling "he" because the character seems to identify himself as male, insofar as he seems to consider what he's doing with Gallimard to be a deception. And yet, there is ambiguity on the subject. The strongest argument that Liling ultimately considers himself male is in one of the most important lines of the film, when Liling opines that the reason female characters are traditionally played by men in Beijing Opera is that only men know how women are supposed to act.
This is borne out at the end of the movie, when Gallimard feels no affection for Liling when Liling stands naked before him, stating that what he loved was the perfect woman, a woman he acknowledges was created by a man.
When the two first meet, ironically enough, Liling warns Gallimard against a male created fantasy woman concept by criticising Puccini's opera and the western stereotype of Asian women it exhibits, the reserved and graceful, completely devoted woman willing to sacrifice everything for her white man. And then Liling proceeds to embody this fantasy for Gallimard, who falls for it hook line and sinker. Gallimard is made to be a bit of a buffoon in the movie, which goes so far as to show him encouraging the American military action in Vietnam on the premise that China will outwardly condemn the behaviour while secretly swooning at the display of power--much like the character Liling presents to him.
The movie also undermines itself in its presentation of a woman meant to exemplify how women don't
know how a woman "should" behave. In what Gallimard cutely calls his first "extra-extramarital affair", he gets a hotel room with a German diplomat named Baden. When he steps out of the bathroom, he sees Baden has undressed, is sitting matter-of-factly on the bed, and she says, with barely more evident excitement than a lunch lady, "Come and get it."
This is, pardon the pun, a little broad. There are some subtler things the movie might have done--I think most women not only take care in but have a genuine desire to present themselves attractively. The movie may have gone for things that many women consider to be sexually appealing to the opposite sex but which heterosexual men are generally left cold by--Cher, for example.
There are other holes in the argument, though. For example, if a person attracted to women inevitably knows how best to present women, then all lesbians would be lipstick lesbians. But, then, one could argue that a butch lesbian is the true epitome of femininity and we'd go down the futile rabbit hole of subjectivity.
One could say it is all futile and subjective, yet there is a certain compelling logic to it, that the sex not attracted to itself would not be quite as inspired in dressing itself. Which leads us back to the question of whether Liling presents a better woman because Liling is transgender or because Liling is cisgender. One finds oneself contemplating this question more than the question the movie actually seeks to pose.
Maybe the best indication that the movie doesn't succeed at what it intends to do is that Gallimard has to literally state it at the end. For a movie that more effectively explores the subject, I'd like to recommend a little Alfred Hitchcock movie called Vertigo
. Which isn't so much about the appeal of women created by men but the appeal of women created by men and/or
women, the value of a kind of dream, really, the more interesting version of the same question.