Kondo & Frankenberg

A Comparison/Contrast of Analytic Frameworks

Anthro 111: Women in Cross-Cultural Perspective
G. Joseph, Instructor
Copyright © 1996, 2000 B. Collie Collier


In her paper "M. Butterfly: Orientalism, Gender, and a Critique of Essentialist Identity," Dorinne K. Kondo examines counter-hegemonic speech. She accomplishes this through a contrast and comparison of an opera and a play, "Madama Butterfly" and "M. Butterfly." Ruth Frankenberg, in her book White Women, Race Matters: the Social Construction of Whiteness, examines how racism is perpetuated by well-meaning white feminists. She accomplishes this by a series of interviews with white women, followed by a discourse on the probable semantic connections between each informant's speech event and potential racism. This paper will attempt to demonstrate how the analytic frameworks used by both authors succeeded (or not) in accomplishing the authors' stated goals. Furthermore, both frameworks will be examined to determine if they contributed usefully to the construction of knowledge about women, and what effects each chosen methodology had upon the information collected and selected in each study. Also, the methodology used by Kondo will be applied to Frankenberg's work, in order to more closely examine Frankenberg's research, and to clarify whether Frankenberg reached her stated research goal.

Through the symbologies within the opera "Madama Butterfly," Kondo examines today's society, reviewing some of our societal beliefs and culturally imposed roles. Within the opera, realms of power, geography, and gender are clear-cut and decisive; roles are inescapable and possess comfortingly impervious borders. There is no uncertainty in the opera; like a Greek tragedy the ending is already known by the audience before the curtain rises. The role of the Western white man is hard, heartless, and dominant; the oriental woman is, by oppositional necessity, soft and submissive; ultimately she must be an unwilling but self-imposed sacrifice for the sins of her careless lover (Kondo 1990: 9). Through this unchanging paradigm the audience reaches its expected emotional catharsis. The opera is a societal allegory; like a Durkheimian totem object, the opera allows the audience (and through it the society) to justify and worship itself. The structure of the operatic tradition has become iconic; it denotes identity representation. It cannot end in any other fashion, for to do so would be to derail the collective effervescence, dissipating the mutual social energy and sentiment it inspires, and to call into question the hegemonic assurances the opera's totemistic nature implies. Man will always dominate Woman, East will always bow to West, for so it has always been and so our totems tell us it should always be. As in the totem, so in society; as in society, so in the opera.

Kondo then examines the more modern play "M. Butterfly," using many of the same techniques she used to examine the opera. The conclusion is quickly reached that this is counter-hegemonic allegory, an exploration by its author of alternate ways of seeing and being. Like Puccini, Hwang is examining our society. However, we see a very different view when we apply his interpretation of symbols. Man defines Woman, who is 'herself' truly Man; East appears to bow to West, and yet ultimately West cannot master the role of dominator. Within the play, Pinkerton's conception of 'reality' cannot withstand these contradictions. Identity is not as clear cut as he initially believed it to be, and 'gender' is revealed to be more a point of view than an actuality, ultimately almost completely a figment of his imagination. In the end, rather than face the illusory nature of his societally constructed 'truths,' he sacrifices himself to his own sins of mental omission, his own limited perspective on "the topography of identity" (Kondo 1990: 19).

Thus Kondo presents Hwang speaking allegorically about the society in which he lives, trying to make sense of the often confining and restrictive roles oppositionally placed upon smaller or apparently weaker groups by other, more powerful elements of the dominant society. Through his play, Hwang allows us to see our culture from a different perspective, to notice the essentially arbitrary and ultimately meaningless limitations we frequently self-impose. Hwang argues in this fashion for personal agency, rather than outer- or self-limitation. Though "M. Butterfly" is not about women per se, Kondo's methodology reveals Hwang's counter-hegemonic intent: Man and Woman may consist of covertly (and occasionally overtly) imposed gender roles and seemingly inevitable structures of power - but female and male can supersede such restraining and ultimately pointless dynamics, and become more than either was previously. Kondo's close comparison of hegemonic/counter-hegemonic speech offers us a productive discourse upon both the construction and de-construction of the ultimately limited roles of Woman. Through this we find ourselves forced to observe with a critical eye the whole genre of culturally imposed roles; to note their essentialist nature. Our world view is encouraged to expand and our knowledge of Woman is called into question in a beneficial and broadening fashion. Kondo encourages us to perhaps realize "that gender identity is far more complicated than reference to an essential 'inner truth' or external biological equipment might lead us to believe" (Kondo 1990: 20).

Kondo obviously prefers the more ambiguous and shifting discursive roles of "M. Butterfly" to the hegemonic "Madama Butterfly." However, at no point does she say "Madama Butterfly" is a 'bad' opera, or try to fit it into a self-designed, labeled category of relative power values. Instead she seems to be aware that both her study subjects are cultural resources, albeit one may be more intellectually limiting than the other. She points out how imposing such restrictive cultural roles inhibits us, forcing a hierarchical, oppositional set of meanings that stifles the true breadth of human response. Such a "topography of closure" imprisons the individual, forcing "mutually exclusive spaces where one term inevitably dominates the other" (Kondo 1990: 29). Kondo's paper ends with a call to surpass such repressive power relations, and it is noteworthy that she herself does not apply hierarchical standards within her paper. She demonstrates how one of her subjects perpetuates stereotypes, while the other explodes them; she uses the play to critique the opera - but she does not fall prey to the insidious urge to apply stereotypes herself.

Ruth Frankenberg's book, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness demonstrates her attempt to explore the dominant white culture's maintenance of racism amongst mainstream culture through generations. She uses interviews with white women to delineate her views on the geographic and implied nature of race and racism, and to lightly explore the associated realms of power and gender. She specifically emphasizes both her self-selection of the women to be interviewed, and her lack of objectivity within the interviews, thereby attempting to convert a research fault into a benefit. She speculates on the discourse of race, gender, power, and possible historical foundations for today's racial 'roles.' Her conclusions follow naturally from both these speculations and her attempts at psychological deconstruction of the responses to her interviews. It is doubtful that her subjects would agree with all of the conclusions she comes to; some of her inferences are quite unflattering to the women interviewed. Nevertheless Frankenberg maintains her work is "respectful" of the words of her informants (Frankenberg 1993: 23). Her concluding hypotheses include her articulation of three different forms of racial discourse by modern white women: "essentialist racism," "color/power evasiveness," and "race cognizance" (Frankenberg 1993: 14).

The syllogistic nature of Frankenberg's argument is such that disagreeing with one of her self-created classifications implies disagreement with all of them. Since it is a lamentable but incontestable fact that "essentialist racism," or "an emphasis on race difference understood in hierarchical terms of essential, biological inequality" exists, by rational conclusion one finds oneself initially agreeing with Frankenberg's other categorizations of white female racism (Frankenberg 1993: 14). Unfortunately, while Frankenberg's arguments are logically elegant, they are not necessarily correct. We are limited, however, by her choice of presented information: naturally that which best proves her points is all that is presented. Unfortunately there is a rather simplistic, essentialist slant to these summaries: white women are racist - they vary only in degree. Furthermore, Frankenberg's final category of "racial discourse" is so broadly and poorly defined that it never acquires signification. It supposedly articulates the following idea: "Where the terms of essentialist racism were set by the white dominant culture, in the third moment they are articulated by people of color" (Frankenberg 1993: 14). And yet, there are no "articulations" by people of color within the book, and thus no way to understand this supposed "third moment." Does Frankenberg infer that people of color are now to define "essentialist racism?" Does she wish to imply that racism somehow made more sacred, simply due to its use by a racial minority? Or is it simply that Frankenberg is in desperate need of a competent editor? Furthermore, such a broad, sweeping definition (or lack thereof) will of necessity imply a huge category. If it is Frankenberg's desire to include all white women in her three stereotypes of "racial discourse," then this last category accomplishes that goal nicely - it is so broad as to include everyone that has even seen a person of color. Therefore, within the limitations Frankenberg has set us (a paucity of self-selected information and a hierarchical framework used to supposedly break down hierarchy) let us apply Kondo's analytic framework to Frankenberg's work.

The first difficulty facing us is to discern whether Frankenberg's interviewed white women represent the hegemonic or counter-hegemonic views. One would conclude initially that because the informants are white, the arguments must be hegemonic. However, Frankenberg interviewed only women. Why? To provide a somewhat counter-hegemonic viewpoint? If this is the case, she does not succeed. Her own speculations on the causes and nature of racism are the connective interstices between self-supportive fragments of quoted interview. Indeed, the interviews themselves seem on occasion to have been forums for her to espouse those beliefs. Nor do her tenets cause one to question or view society in any meaningfully different fashion. For all the elegant and academically erudite verbiage, Frankenberg's conclusions are known almost immediately by the reader: white women are racist, and racial realms of power can be expressed geographically. Therefore it can be assumed that Frankenberg's white women are the hegemonic view of society. She allows us to view society in the same fashion that "Madama Butterfly" does; her work is, in the kindest sense, a cultural resource with which to observe the quotidian. Indeed, for a supposedly post-cultural feminist, Frankenberg seems to spend more time supporting essentialist notions of identity and race than exploding them; there is very little in the way of constructive suggestion in this cultural critique.

Continuing to apply Kondo's methodology, we must now examine the counter-hegemonic examples presented by Frankenberg. Here we run into an insurmountable problem: there are none. Frankenberg's hegemonic 'evidence' is internally supportive due to its self-selected nature. She does not include any interviews with women of color discussing how they perceive race, nor any discourse on their assessment of 'whiteness.' Consequently there is no exploration of the shifting nature of race, as there is in Kondo's exploration of "M. Butterfly." The closest Frankenberg comes to this is in her selection and interrogation of a few women who are in relationships with men of color; she discusses her hypothesis that such women are racially or familially "disowned," going through a symbolic "unwhitening" in the eyes of mainstream society (Frankenberg 1993: 104). Again, the men in these relationships are not interviewed, thus they are not allowed to contribute (whether positively or negatively) to Frankenberg's ultimately rather essentialist stereotypes of the "discourse" on racism amongst white women. Since there is in the end no alternate viewpoint given, there can be no arguments against Frankenberg's categorizations of racial discourse. Of necessity these categorizations, or stereotypes if you will, stand unopposed, regardless of their veracity or lack thereof.

It should be made clear that the hypothesis Frankenberg starts with is not necessarily incorrect. However, her unfortunate choice of methodology allows her to 'discover' exactly what she wishes to discover. Indeed, the entire interview genre does more to reveal her personal frame of racism's causes, than some new and useful information on how women of color are perceived, or to ask any penetrating questions about how we construct our knowledge of women of color. True, she makes up a word - 'whiteness' - to define what was previously undefined, due to its inherent normativeness. True, oppositional meanings do help give delineation to previously unverbalized concepts, and it is difficult to deconstruct that which cannot be defined. However, once this is accomplished, her tautological, implicative conclusions on racism leave the reader with very little more than her personal beliefs. Thus her unfortunate choice of conversational repertoire, applied within the analytic framework of self-selected interview, robs us of any chance to reconstruct our personal views on women or racism. Once one applies a different and more thoughtful framework to her information, her lack of true, critical research is glaringly obvious.

It is lamentable that Frankenberg knows some of the pitfalls to overcome and yet apparently cannot avoid them. She herself points out both the difficulty and the logical fallacy of pigeonholing by race. Yet later she then falls into the trap of stereotyping. Her three categories of racism are unfortunate at best; her choice of labels makes painfully clear her own biases. By the essentialist nature and tautological use of her three "racial discourses" she has herself contributed to "closed, mutually exclusive spaces where one term inevitably dominates the other" (Kondo 1990: 29). Nor does her book culminate with any reparative suggestions on the nature of racism and whiteness - Frankenberg's discourse is merely one of criticism and classification. Had she included counter-hegemonic discourse; had she avoided stereotypes herself; had she any challenging discourse on how to refute and supersede racism; her book would have been immeasurably improved. However, the analytic framework she chose did not point out these omissions, but merely syllogistically 'proved' her theory.

In conclusion, Frankenberg's goals are of the best. She attempts to clarify the construction and continuation of cultural conceptions of race because, as she says herself, "knowledge about a situation is a critical tool in dismantling it" (Frankenberg 1993: 10). However, she does not go far enough in her explorative discourse. By limiting herself to a minimal number of informants, deliberately influencing them even as she asks for their views, and then applying an oppositional form of structural analysis, she unfortunately contributes to the very lack of knowledge she theoretically wishes to oppose. She demonstrates no breakthroughs in either method or theory, and displays an unfortunate tendency towards framing the facts to fit her conclusion. Her conclusions are stereotyped, essentialist, and syllogistic; she is, in essence, doing advocacy research. Applying Kondo's analytical framework to Frankenberg's research reveals both that Frankenberg's hypothesis (for it most certainly is not a theory) is based on self-selected 'facts,' and that Frankenberg's unfortunate choice of methodology has unwittingly contributed towards self-obscuring her research bias. Kondo's methodology demonstrates that Frankenberg's 'research' ultimately partakes of the argumentative discourse of the hegemony that Frankenberg seeks to challenge - and in the process Frankenberg unwittingly reinforces the very stereotypes she seeks to explode.

Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000