In the play M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, the action derives from a true story about a French diplomat who had a long-term affair with a Chinese singer, presumably thinking this was a woman when in fact it was a man. The story was also a spy story as the "woman" acquires secrets from her diplomat-lover for her government. The title of the play intentionally evokes images both of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly and what in French would be seen as "Monsieur" Butterfly. The opera embodies a certain Western attitude toward Asian women and toward Asians in general, and Hwang's play uses those ideas as something against which to balance his own drama as he deconstructs certain ideas from the opera and creates a different sense of operatic reality. Within this operatic universe, Gallimard's complacent Western stereotyping of Asians is a strong force, one that helps explain how he is duped, a deceit in which he participates and which leads to his downfall.
The story in M. Butterfly is itself indeed operatic, for the inconsistencies and bizarre behaviors would be more readily accepted in an operatic setting. The essential question raised by the play and by the real case on which it was built is, why did the French diplomat not know his love interest was a woman over a period of many years?
Gallimard is presented as a man who has waited his whole life for a beautiful woman "who would lay down for you" (505). Gallimard seems to elevate Asian women, but in fact he sees them as inferior, which is one reason he is attracted to Song, as he notes when he says:
Did you hear the way she talked about Western women? Much differently than the first night. She does--she does feel inferior to them--and to me (508).
He is also driven by guilt as he pursues and wins this inferior creature, as he sees it: "If there was a God, surely he would punish me now. I had finally gained power over a beautiful woman, only to abuse it cruel...