The American Butterfly

Reflections of the Other and Self in Film Adaptations of “Madame Butterfly”

  • Megan Hermida Lu Boston University
Keywords: Film, Madame Butterfly, Orientalism


Madame Butterfly” is integral to U.S. folklore. The initial short story, written by an American novelist, has been adapted numerous times across a variety of media, including literature, theatre, and film. The tragic narrative of an Asian woman (originally, but not always, Japanese) who dies over the unrequited love of an American officer continues to provoke. It exemplifies the orientalist attitudes of early 20th century, and its enduring presence in U.S. popular culture signifies the persistence of such attitudes.

This project engages several early Hollywood adaptations of the Butterfly tradition: Madame Butterfly (1915), Toll of the Sea (1922), and Madame Butterfly (1932).  Through a cross analysis of the orientalist discourse in these films, contextualized by historical U.S.-Asia Pacific relations, I examine how the Butterfly narrative evolves, and how it helped define American identity. The intention of this project is not simply to examine U.S. projection of the “Orient,” but how this projection reflects the American self.

To accomplish this task, I put forth several arguments. First, I examine the ways in which these three films reflect and construct an American perception of the “Orient.” Second, I complicate the popular press’ discourse of “authenticity” surrounding these films, specifically with regard to their evolving technology. Ultimately, I posit that a sympathetic narrative coupled with a belief in its authenticity, justified imperialist tendencies, reinforced the “benevolent” in benevolent assimilation, and reinscribed American moral dominion and authority. The United States constructed its cultural identity on the back of its imagined enemy Orient.