I got to see a performance of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House in London this week and it really struck me how true to life and still relevant this story is today.
After rifling through the programme, I was surprised to find how little the theatre itself recognised how relevant this story is today. There was talk about cultural stereotypes and indictment of colonial exploitation. But that’s totally missing the point. Madama Butterfly is at its heart a #MeToo story, it’s a story of male exploitation of vulnerable women as we see it happening to this day all over the world. You don’t need to be a 15-year-old Japanese geisha, you can just as well be a 14-year-old underprivileged girl fed to Jeffrey Epstein and taken advantage of by Prince Andrew. You can be a 16-year-old gymnast groomed and fingered by your team’s doctor, or you can be one of the millions of emotionally vulnerable women all over the world exploited by narcissistic men.
The man who used you doesn’t need to be an American sailor virtually purchasing you. The Pinkertons of today frequently come in different flavours. They are the manipulative narcissistic men who love-bomb you, deliberately play with your head and mess with your feelings to persuade you that you are the love of their life. Their motivations vary from plain immaturity, to sexual gratification to an ego boost, to the sheer enjoyment of the fact that they can control someone’s feeling and make someone in love with them. (For more on the narcissistic relationship cycle, check my earlier writing).
Just like poor little Butterfly, women who fall prey to narcissists today have to deal with cognitive dissonance and face the harsh reality of the fact that they had been exploited when the ‘love of their life’ turns into a cruel, indifferent and plain vile jerk.
It is a terribly trauma that in the past did ruin women’s lives (in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the character of Fantine is a victim of a similarly exploitative narcissistic man). Madama Butterfly and Fantine died. What a convenient outcome for their abusers! The victim is gone. There is no one to hold them accountable, no one to expose them for what they are. And the audience feels touched and saddened.
But here is the thing – what happens if Madama Butterfly and Fantine don’t die? What happens if they survive their heartbreak? If the only thing that dies is their innocence, naivety and ability to trust? What if they face and own all their grief, their anger, disgust and hatred towards the one that used them? What if they own it all and choose to speak about it publicly? What if they try to hold their abuser accountable?
I will tell you what happens. They will be called scorned and bitter. They will be invalidated and dismissed and disbelief, their trauma minimized. They will be called delusional and crazy (think about the Amber Heard scenario), while their Pinkertons, deploying their carefully crafted Mr Nice Guy personas to charm the pants off the world, will claim the victim position and will continue enjoying respect in society.
It’s not an easy position to be a Madama Butterfly. It’s not an easy position to be a vulnerable woman exploited, used and discarded by a man. And the situation has not changed in hundreds of years, frequently enabled by some Christian-based manipulations about forgiveness and rising above, which only leads to more and more vulnerable women being abused.
There, however, has been some progress made and the Madama Butterflies of today do have more chances to get control of the narrative. (I wonder whether it’s a coincidence, that Virginia Giuffre, the most high-profile Epstein victim uses a butterfly as her avatar on social media).
I imagine a sequel to that story, in which Madama Butterfly gets a degree in psychology, becomes an esteemed expert and spends her whole life exposing all the Pinkertons of this world and empowering their victims to own their voices, stand up against the cultural backlash and shame their abusers until they become socially inacceptable, shunned and perhaps start committing suicides, because it’s them and not the Butterflies of this world who should be ending their lives in such tragic ways.
I do hope to see this change pass.