‘Straight Man Cancer’: Sexism with Chinese Characteristics

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‘Straight Man Cancer’: Sexism with Chinese Characteristics

Could an ill-advised social media comment spark a gender revolution in China?

‘Straight Man Cancer’: Sexism with Chinese Characteristics
Credit: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

“A woman only has one ambition. In her heart, she sees love and childrearing as the most important thing in life.” On January 12, 2015, scholar Zhou Guoping thus tweeted on Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging platform. Zhou later responded to the backlash, saying, “I agree with women’s liberation and equality between women and men… However, no matter how talented [women] are or what achievements they reach, if [a woman] refuses to, or doesn’t know how to be a gentle lover, a caring wife, a loving mother, the sense of beauty she gives me will be greatly reduced.” Both tweets were subsequently removed by Zhou.

Chinese commentators quickly diagnosed Zhou, a popular public intellectual at the state think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, with “Straight Man Cancer.” The term “Straight Man Cancer,” coined in mid-2014, refers to chauvinist, judgmental behavior and language that propels sexist double standards or belittles women. Zhou’s controversial tweets exposed him to public scrutiny and attracted state attention. Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily re-posted an editorial, calling for the use of law and public opinion in order to “prevent ‘Straight Man Cancer’” in the private realm from “spreading into the public domain.” State news agency Xinhua also published the transcript of a newspaper interview with Zhou, in which he shamelessly called himself a “feminist.”

Zhou is by no means the sole Chinese straight man afflicted with Straight Man Cancer. In the aftermath of Zhou’s tweets, Chinese netizens have dug up other notable cases of public figures infected by the “epidemic.” Han Han, popular author-blogger and youth icon, is another representative of the cancerous straight male among Chinese millennials. He has stated in an interview that “there is no way that my girlfriend would [be allowed to] work outside of the household.” The renowned Chinese translator of Haruki Murakami, Lin Shaohua, has warned men against housework, which he thinks of as detrimental to masculinity and having the potential to make men effeminate or gender-bent. Tsinghua University sociologist Sun Liping has suggested that decreasing female employment and facilitating earlier female retirement would alleviate the social pressure caused by China’s large population. New Confucian scholar Qi Yihu has also advocated that women work only half-time so that they can rear children. Meanwhile, even these infuriating sexist remarks are eclipsed by intolerable misogynistic violence: While most sexists perpetrate unfair stereotypes, some actively hate on women and harm women’s well-being. For instance, the celebrity English teacher Li Yang, misogynist and perpetrator of domestic violence, is considered a “terminally ill” case of Straight Man Cancer.

However, one does not need to be a heterosexual Chinese male to contract Straight Man Cancer. Chinese feminists suggest using “misogyny” or “sexism” instead, both out of respect for actual cancer patients and to account for the fact that most Chinese are not immune to sexist attitudes. Working along entrenched structural discrimination, sexism gives rise to grave gender injustice in China. Mainland China ranks 91th out of 187 countries on the 2013 UNDP Gender Inequality Index, behind countries from Iran to Ukraine.

As the West debates whether women shouldlean in” or could “have it all,” comments by Zhou and others are indicative of the prevalent sentiment that a Chinese woman’s place belongs in the home. According to a 2011 China Daily survey, 70% of Chinese women agree with the statement “marrying well is better than doing well.” Dishearteningly, proponents of the “marrying well” philosophy include many women with successful careers, like media legend Yang Lan (known as the “Oprah of China”), who affirmed that marriage is an “absolute necessity” for women.

“Marrying well” might be alluring had Chinese heterosexual marriage norms not been so screwed up. Equal partnerships in Chinese marriages are rare. A Chinese woman is supposed to “marry up” – she is expected to find a husband with higher education level and higher income. As one young Chinese woman accurately put it, “A-quality [Chinese] guys will find B-quality women, B-quality guys will find C-quality women, and C-quality men will find D-quality women.” Such heterogamous marriage norm presumes a division of labor: though many Chinese households require two paychecks for sustenance, the husband is still considered the main breadwinner, while the wife bears most childrearing and household responsibilities.

Both Chinese women and men suffer from prevalent discriminatory gender stereotypes and perverse marriage norms. The A-quality-men-marrying-B-quality-women logic implies that the “A quality women” – often highly-educated urban professionals – will have a difficult time finding spouses. The Ministry of Education has joined the jolly sexist ride, classifying unmarried Chinese women over the age of 27 as “leftover.” Unmarried women in their late 20s thus face parental pressure and social stigmatization and are characterized as “picky,” “abnormal” and “worthless.” Yet the desperation to secure a husband is only one amongst the many anxieties caused by pervasive sexism, which prevents a generation of young Chinese women from leading fulfilling, flourishing lives. For example, Zhou’s comment illustrate the rampant Chinese “male gaze” and ridiculous beauty standards, which has led to a recent proliferation of plastic surgeries as well as eating disorders among Chinese women.

Women are also inhibited from fully realizing their career potential. In a society with little appreciation for women’s intellect, where female PhDs are ridiculed as “the third gender,” it is unsurprising that young Chinese women, terrorized by the prospect of being “leftover,” fear that successful careers may deter potential spouses. Even if a Chinese woman is courageous enough to ignore the coercive norm of matrimony, preposterous structural discriminations will likely bar her from fair competition with her male peers in college admissions and job recruiting.

Chinese society is so tormented by the pursuit of anxious wealth that millions of singles are deprived of the capability to romantically love. Current marriage norms have reduced many Chinese unions into loveless exchanges of sexuality and wealth, in which the wife serves the sexual and daily needs of her husband while the husband is expected to provide material safeguards like real estate or transportation. Ironically, while heterosexual Chinese men like Zhou do not check their own male privilege in their day-to-day lives, many of them blame Chinese women for being “over-realistic” and not wanting loving marriages. On the one hand, they abhor materialistic demands from potential mates; on the other, they cannot tolerate a wife with equal status. Men like Han Han or Lin Shaohua have brittle masculinity and cannot tolerate the thought of a competent partner. These men do not realize that they also lose under the Chinese patriarchy. Apart from potentially loveless marriages, Chinese men can hardly constructively participate in housework or childrearing, since both would supposedly compromise their masculinity and are hindered by policy inadequacy or structural discrimination. For example, while women in China are allowed 98 days of paid maternity leave, Chinese men receive no paternity leave benefits.

However, among all Chinese men, gender injustice hurts those from lower socio-economic circumstances the most. Since the early 1980s, the coercive One-Child Policy and the Chinese tradition of son preference have together resulted in widespread selective abortion of female fetuses. To date, there has been an estimated 40 million “missing” Chinese females. Even the Chinese Ministry of Health concedes that China is faced with the most serious gender imbalance in the world, with a current gender ratio of about 118 men to every 100 women. Given the marriage norm, less well-off Chinese men will fail to find partners: since they are “apartment-less” or “car-less,” they are not deemed marriage material. (If president Xi Jinping were single today, he might very likely be turned down by Chinese women and join the “bare branches” rank given his meager salary.) The number of these involuntary bachelors, or “bare branches” is expected to reach about 35-50 million by 2050. Sexism has thus led to an absurd reality in Chinese society: there are thousands of “leftover women” on one hand, yet there are millions of “bare branches” on the other.

In addition to hormone economies that monetize estranged masculinity, the millions of Chinese bachelors have security implications. Horrendous cross-border bride-trafficking from Southeast Asia into China is already occurring. The surplus male population may result in organized violence and social unrest. Economist Lena Edlund points out that a 1 percent increase in the sex ratio may produce a 6 percent increase in the rates of violent and property crime. The still-increasing 118:100 gender ratio should and will cause grave unease for Chinese leaders who do not wish to see the Party legitimacy or national stability undermined.

Despite the complex challenges caused by Chinese sexism, the civil society reactions to Zhou Guoping’s comments leave breathing room for cautious hope. In recent years, the Chinese public has been exposed to more vocal and varied feminist discussions and debates. Thanks to their tireless civil and legal advocacy, structural changes are quietly underway. For instance, the first draft of a Chinese domestic violence law, though by no means complete, was released in November 2014. Collective and diverse feminist voices in response to Zhou have culminated in what is perceived as the “true beginning of a [Chinese] gender revolution.” Influential civil society activist and feminist Lv Pin assertively declared that this “gender revolution” will not prove short-lived but will continue to shape Chinese society in profound albeit gradual ways. In a society inflicted by sexism, Chinese feminists need such sober optimism in their ongoing battle against Straight Man Cancer.

Nancy Tang is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. All opinions are her own. The author is indebted to Leta Hong-Fincher for her informative volume, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, as well as Feminist Voices (女权之声), a civil society newsletter advocating for gender justice in China. The author is also aware that the article fails to address heteronormativity due to space limitations.