“Straight man cancer” in China

By Jing Xuanlin

NANJING, China — “You really have ‘straight man cancer’!” Burgeoning feminist movements in China have encouraged many, especially post-90s women, to identify and criticize sexism in modern Chinese society.  Here, ‘straight man cancer,’ a translation of 直男癌, is another term for male chauvinism, where “cancer” points to the toxicity of their treatment of women.

This internet slang was coined by Chinese feminists to express resistance against men who discriminate against women. Men who have ‘straight man cancer’ live in the past and hold outdated moral values that conform to the gender norms of ancient China, particularly on the topic of women’s ideal morality as defined by Confuscious.

Although the term ‘straight man cancer’ has only been trending in China since 2014, its origin is deeply rooted in Chinese history. In feudal society, the small-scale peasant economy that lasted for more than 2,000 years contributed significantly to the formation of male supremacy. Due to their advantages in physical strength, men occupied more important positions than their female counterparts in agricultural production. Thus, men became the backbone of the family while women became accessories.

Many Chinese families are still influenced by this patriarchal tradition, even though it has been characterized by many as cultural dross. According to some, a woman’s only role in life is to get married and have children, ideally sons, sacrificing her work in the process. This patriarchal tradition is still popular, particularly in rural families, which have a preference for boys over girls. This kind of bias affects their sons’ understanding of social identity and gender status. In this sense, unlike actual cancer, straight man cancer is contagious and might spread from parents to children or from friends to friends.

Straight man cancer doesn’t discriminate either — women and non-heterosexual men can contract it too. Women can become their own enemies. In modern China, there is no lack of female supporters of the popular philosophy that “marrying well is better than studying well.” They include many women with successful careers, like Yang Lan, known as the “Oprah of China,” who affirmed that marriage is an “absolute necessity” for women. Depressingly, female Ph.D.s are ridiculed as “the third gender” and among them, unmarried women with Ph.D.s are further discriminated against as the “least attractive” dating group. The lack of appreciation for women’s intellect is a typical characteristic of “straight man cancer.”

What are Chinese feminists up against? The gendercide starts at birth. Since the early 1980s, the one-child policy and the Chinese tradition of preference for a son have resulted in widespread abortion of female fetuses. There are an estimated 40 million “missing” Chinese girls, and even the Chinese Ministry of Health concedes that China is faced with among the most serious gender imbalance in the world. According to UNDP Gender Inequality Index, in 2018, China ranked 86th out of 189 countries in gender equality; by comparison, Iran was 60th on the list.

Gender discrimination does not fade as girls grow up. For example, some women face unfair disadvantages when it comes to competing with their male peers in college admissions and job recruitment. Sometimes women are not hired or promoted due to sexism, and many are even fired for marrying and having children.

“Straight man cancer” is not only a domestic Chinese problem; it is part of a larger global issue. Likewise, even feminism in China has global connections. For example, the “Me Too” movement — a movement against sexual harassment — first launched in the American entertainment industry before spreading around the world. China’s “Me Too” movement differs from that of other countries in that it started on college campuses.

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Screenshot of a video published by SBS News

Photo credits: SBS News An accusation of sexual harassment made by former student Qianqian Luo against her Ph.D. supervisor Xiaowu Chen, a former professor at Beihang University and recipient of the Yangtze River Scholar award, ignited the first wave of China’s “Me Too” movement. This incident, which occurred 12 years ago, was brought to light through the individual WeChat official account ATSH(Anti-Sexual Harassment) created by Qianqian Luo and went viral on social media. Under the pressure of considerable internet outrage, Chen’s post as executive vice president of the graduate school and his postgraduate tutor qualification were recently rescinded by the university.

However, the internet serves as a double-edged sword for feminism in China. On the one hand, the discussion of feminist ideas has spread like wildfire across social media. In 2017, feminists critiqued cases of female discrimination in the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on social media platforms Weibo, Zhihu and WeChat. Some short sketches satirized unmarried women in their 30s, made digs at a relatively short and fat woman and even implied that infertile women should feel a debt to their husbands. In response, these feminists sent a written protest with about 10,000 signatures to the Bureau of Radio and Television.

Left: Weibo screenshot of official statement from Beihang University, which claims Professor Chen has been suspended and a team has been set up to investigate the accusation of sexual misconduct.

Right: former professor Xiaowu Chen from Baidu baike

On the other hand, Chinese feminism is limited to the cyber world, where news comes and goes rather quickly. A wave of feminism rises, a new internet slang term is coined, but it often subsides as news slips from people’s consciousness. While straight men cancer is perhaps the best example of the internet’s influence on feminism in China, this term, too, may soon be forgotten. Chinese feminism’s place in social media also makes it vulnerable to Chinese government censorship. The New York Times reported on January 23 that the Chinese Internet Censorship Service has slowed down Chinese “Me Too” posts and blocked the use of the term “anti-sexual-harassment” in mainland China. Similarly, the People’s Daily called for the use of law and public opinion to prevent the discourse of straight man cancer from becoming too widespread.

Although this term may soon be forgotten, the debates and sentiments surrounding “straight men cancer” will likely resurface in other forms of internet lingo and will continue to shape Chinese society in profound ways. As Mao Zedong famously declared, “Women hold up half the sky!”