Lesley Downer

Flower & Willow

Butterfly’s Sisters: The Geisha in Western Culture


Whenever I lecture on the geishas, I explain that the word means ‘artiste’ and that geishas undergo a rigorous five-year training in classical Japanese dance and music, akin to that needed to become an opera singer or join the Bolshoi Ballet. But no matter how often I repeat that geishas are independent, empowered women, sooner or later someone will stand up and ask, ‘But are they prostitutes?’ The fantasy that geishas are ‘submissive’ (a favourite word) women trained in the arts of pleasing men is one that Westerners will not readily relinquish. It is a fantasy mightily reinforced by Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, in which just such a woman kills herself for love of a Western man.

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