Ripples of mirth greet David Henry Hwang’s canny, hilarious Broadway hit Chinglish. It’s rather more chilling to read news accounts of a strangely parallel narrative of intrigue and corruption running now in China, a murder case in which an important Chinese politician’s wife is being investigated in the poisoning of a shadowy British businessman. Hwang’s play features a naive American businessman who arrives in a province of the new, ruthlessly acquisitive China, looking for a lucrative contract for his family’s sign-making firm. He gets embroiled with a party official’s clinically seductive wife and finds himself arrested on corruption charges that are a pretext for a power struggle.
One of Hwang’s themes is the Chinese “fixer’s” slyly garbled translation of the hapless salesman’s attempts to make a deal. “We’re a small, family firm,” for instance, gets relayed as “His company is small and insignificant.” Hwang has said he first got the idea of mistranslation as a jumping-off point about doing business in China after a visit to a brand-new cultural center in Shanghai, where the handicapped restroom was labeled “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” It seems he’s become fascinated by the changes he’s witnessed in China since writing M. Butterfly 24 years ago. That play, he writes in Newsweek, was conceived at a time when a European man involved with a Chinese woman could still indulge himself with the stereotypical fantasy of the dominant Western male and the fluttering Asian dolly. In Chinglish, two decades later, he shows us that power relationships have shifted, as they have in real-life China. There, British businessman Neil Heywood seems to have been used by the ambitious Madame Gu Kailai, then apparently disposed of without an autopsy—an unsettling whiff of the new world order, as well, perhaps, of sexual ruthlessness.
How ironic, therefore (or perhaps how appropriate), that dominant American women are now secretly fantasizing about reverting to the sexually submissive role of Butterfly-era courtesans. This is one message, at least, of the startling success of the book Fifty Shades of Grey. Katie Roiphe terms E L James’s novel this “watered-down, skinny-vanilla latte version of sadomasochism.” It was a New York Times bestseller even before print copies were in stores. It’s piquant that just as a global women’s movement is taking wing in emerging countries, the former female role models in America are under siege from regressive political and cultural influences, and starting to see free will as a burden. The awkwardly un-PC fact, it seems, is that when the lights are out, ascendant career women are getting bored with respectful partners who share the household chores—these women are dreaming of something a bit more retrograde.
Kate Middleton was bashed for being retrograde once. A year after her marriage to Prince William, the once cruelly dubbed “Waity Katey” hasn’t put a Manolo Blahnik pump wrong and is universally adored. True, she has chosen for herself the lifelong role of second fiddle—in fact, as Victoria Mather explains, she is probably sixth or seventh fiddle right now in Britain’s royal household. But there is panache in her self-effacement, a great style in the way she has tailored herself to fit the needs of the quirky, ill-starred royal family as Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Diamond Jubilee.
The truth is, any discussion of a “woman’s role” has become a cultural third rail. Ask Hilary Rosen, who made the mistake last week of deriding Ann Romney for never having “worked a day in her life.” If feminism has taught us anything, it is that women can choose, if they wish, to be demure (like Kate), bossy (like Madame Gu), or even, yes, to be spanked after lights-out.