japonisme: dolls & butterfly

13 October 2007

dolls & butterfly

For it has well been said that the most wonderful aesthetic products of Japan are not its ivories, nor its bronzes, nor its porcelains, nor its swords, nor any of its marvels in metal or lacquer—but its women.

thus opens an essay by narrelle morris in a fascinating resource on the web, intersections. i'll quote here from several issues, but point out on my own that as women begin to picture themselves, in the early 20th century, they were finally standing up straight.

Since the mid- nineteenth century, there has been an enduring relationship between Western imaginings and the Japanese woman. Dressed in kimono and made up as a geisha, she has often been used in illustrations and cartoons as an archetypical gendered symbol of her country, often to the exclusion of all other symbols.... 1

The 'Exotic Asian Woman' construct is most widely articulated in the figure of 'Madame Butterfly', the Japanese child 'bride of convenience' who loses all for the sake of her American lover. Its use in contemporary media and art forms resurrects ghosts of biological determinism and social/racial hierarchies of the mid and late nineteenth century, when Asians were situated (by European anthropologists) below Caucasians, but above 'Negroes' in categories determined by skull capacity, intellectual ability, skin colour and language quality. 'Negritude' constituted an evolutionary link between apes and humanity. The brains of 'Negroes', women and children were deemed to be roughly of equal size and quality, which may explain why early male travellers often described Asian women as 'dolls', giggling, superficial, and frivolous...

The Madame Butterfly/exotic oriental woman trope is used interchangeably with the concept of a 'China Doll'. Asian women on display have much in common with dolls: they share a displaced humanity, do not think for themselves and are perceived as passive objects of play, who have been selected, purchased and disposed of at will, both in traditional, indigenous practice and by Westerners seeking exotic pleasures at bargain prices. 2

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