Westernizing the Geisha

07Feb10

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the recent Memoirs of a Geisha book and movie, or any of the other recent representations of Geisha culture by American writers and filmmakers, but if you can think of any, keep them in mind.


I want to talk about a movie called My Geisha (1962), starring Shirley Maclaine and Yves Montand. The two of them play a husband and wife duo in Hollywood. She’s a famous and charismatic actess named Lucy, known for her comedic roles, and he’s a director–well, he’s her director. He’s known for doing her movies, and the both of them are very successful at it.

Problem is, he’s not happy being known as her director. He wants to prove himself as a serious director, and get out from under his wife’s shadow. (There’s never any mention of her being unhappy as his actress, of course, or her feeling trapped in his shadow. The nearest thing is that she feels trapped in comedic roles, because that’s what the public wants from her.) He’s decided that the best way to do this is to direct an epic Hollywood version of Madame Butterfly. Lucy is immediately delighted by the project, until she’s told that she won’t be starring. Actually, she won’t be in it at all. They’re doing the project in Japan, with a Japanese actress, because it’s a serious, artistic film. Lucy is not welcome.

A few initial hijinks ensue, because Lucy and Paul’s usual producer flat out refuses to fund this risky artistic project if their big-name star is not involved in it. So Lucy gets the idea to dress up as a geisha, and to audition for the part as an unknown actress, presuming that Paul would never recognize her in the geisha make-up. It works, of course, and there are more hijinks as she attempts to conceal her identity throughout the movie, even though she’s not a real geisha and doesn’t actually speak Japanese.

In Lucy’s and the movie’s defense, they actually do a pretty earnest job at pulling this off. They treat the geisha profession and culture with respect, the Japanese characters are played by Japanese actors, and there’s relatively little caricaturing of Japanese stereotypes. However, there’s still the major problem of how the movie appropriates Japanese culture as something to be rehashed for Western entertainment, and most especially in how the white woman is shown as a better geisha than, uh, the real geishas. It may take those primitive Japanese women years to study this quaint geisha stuff, but that’s okay, Lucy gets the important stuff learned in a matter of weeks.
(For why this is racist, see this io9 post, talking about how movies like Avatar and District 9 represent a white man who becomes one of the aliens and then becomes their savior, because, y’know, they couldn’t save themselves and needed white people to do everything for them.)
Plus, you’ve got the white male director doing an “accurate” representation of geisha culture (and by “accurate” we of course mean “just choosing the parts that will appeal to a western audience for entertainment value”) based upon an opera written by a white man to fulfill another racist white fantasy (in which the native woman falls madly in love with him and abandons her morals and culture so that she can be with him, but he then leaves her for his real (read=white) wife).

Yay racism. But here’s the part of this movie that I really want to talk about: at the end of the movie, Lucy realizes how to use the lessons she’s learned as a geisha in order to save her marriage. That’s a good thing, right? Not quite.

So those lessons she learns as a geisha? Their importance (for western women especially) is driven home by a scene at the end, where Lucy’s Japanese geisha friend gives her a gift of a hand-painted fan. On the fan is a quote, written in Japanese: “You above all, my husband, even myself.” With that, Lucy realizes that her ambition is going to destroy her marriage, because if she reveals herself publicly and takes credit for her acting, it will undermine her husband’s desire to make a serious film and show that he can make good movies without needing her star power to carry the show. It’s Lucy’s fault that their relationship is on the rocks, because she’s emasculating her husband by being more famous and successful than he is! She needs to learn that women belong in the kitchen a kimono. This is stated in various forms throughout the movie: if only Western women were be more like geishas, who are silent, demure, and basically worship the ground men walk on.

In fact, even though Paul’s actions aren’t in any way justified for being a total jerk to her at the beginning of the movie and telling her that she isn’t a good enough actress and she can’t do serious films, he never apologizes for this in their big making-up scene. She has to apologize, for being selfish and ambitious (and nearly destroying their marriage!), but he doesn’t even do a bullshit “I’m sorry, too, let’s put all this behind us!” for his telling her that she wasn’t good enough. Or for his decision to intentionally sabotage and abandon their marriage because he thinks she’s going to take credit for her acting (therefore overshadowing his directing) at the gala opening. Or for his cruelly making her cry and think that he’s cheating on her when he finds out that she’s been playing the geisha actress but she doesn’t know he knows. Oh, am I ranting? Yeah.

Even though the movie repeatedly shows that they’re both to blame for this muddle of their relationship, at the end of the movie, we are clearly told that it is all her responsibility, and he doesn’t have to apologize for anything, even when he’s clearly acted like a total cad. The message at the end of the movie is quite clearly that he is infallible in their relationship, because he is the husband, and all of their relationship problems stem from her wanting to have a career and be a funny, intelligent, modern woman, when she should really take some lessons on being a geisha, and bring him another beer dammit. I actually find this a little bit puzzling, what they expect her to be, because the whole movie centers around how funny, intelligent and downright adorable Lucy is (she’s the main character, not Paul), and Shirley Maclaine was known for the same traits, but at the same time they’re using that to blame her for the downfall of the institution of marriage?

So what’s with the modern movement to Westernize the geisha? (See the controversy regarding the book Memoirs of a Geisha, for one example.) Is it inherently tied in to feminist issues and the idea that Western women should be more like (the biased Western perception of) geishas? And am I the only one who thinks that the infallibility of the male romantic lead (he’s not required to apologize, but she is) is a theme still prevalent in movies today, perhaps even especially in romantic comedies (like this one)?

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One Response to “Westernizing the Geisha”

  1. 1 Polliann

    I disagree with your take on this movie. Yes, it happens to be between a man and woman, but the point in the end is, I think… you before me. An idea that is completely foreign to almost all people in this day of me me me. I don’t think that Lucy realizes her husband is more important than her, and that she should take full responsibility for their rocky marriage. I think she realizes that should should take any responsibility for the state of their marriage. In the end, her ability to show him real love, teaches him a lesson. Someone always has to go first, to show how it is done. We don’t get to see what her selfless behavior does to his heart, but we can guess. This movie shows what real love means. True love is about thinking about someone the needs of someone else, not your own. Reciprocal love has nothing to do with the roles we play, it has to do with caring for someone else to the point where your individual needs no longer come first. You seem stuck on sexism. Sexism is just selfishness. One person is not better or worse than anyone else. We are all valid, sex, race, or creed. We all deserve to have real love. We all deserve to think about other people’s needs and try to help them have happy lives. In turn we all also deserve to have other people help us to have happy lives.


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