Cancer has long been used as a metaphor for thorny problems in a society. Cancer cells multiply, push out normal cells, and thus often require counterattacks — like toxic rays — for containment. “[It] was never viewed other than as a scourge; it was, metaphorically, the barbarian within,” wrote Susan Sontag in a piece titled “Disease as Political Metaphor.”
In recent years, Chinese women have coined the term “zhinanai,” or “straight man cancer,” and have been applying it to Chinese chauvinists, sexists, and misogynists. The term singles out the “straight man” as disease-like and therefore disgusting and ugly. It has become a convenient channel for people, mostly women, to vent anger — prompting the creation of the phrase “nuquanai,” or “feminist cancer,” in response. These terms have started a gender war across China and only serve to aggravate the finger-pointing between men and women.
The latest salvo has extended beyond China’s borders all the way to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. A Chinese feminist, Zheng Churan, wrote an open letter to Trump enclosing a list of the symptoms of straight man cancer, such as judging men’s and women’s behavior by double standards and an obsession with virginal women. The letter doesn’t directly call out Trump as such a man, but it condemns his discriminatory rhetoric against women, telling him: “Feminists are watching you.”
The most interesting part of the letter lies in explaining emerging Chinese concepts of “sexism” and “male chauvinism.” Similarly, domestic discussions on gender discrimination are constrained to labeling men instead of offering practical measures to tackle these biases. One such discussion revolves around Mr. Six, the fictional hero in director Guan Hu’s 2015 criminal film drama of the same name. Mr. Six is a former gangster in his 50s who struggles to understand today’s social mores. In the eyes of many Chinese critics, however, he is merely the embodiment of straight man cancer. When a dying Mr. Six is asked whether he will miss his mistress, he hesitates, frowns, and mumbles one word — “woman” — as if women are not worthy of being missed.
Most people only seem to care about calling out the character with a label instead of considering the fullness of Mr. Six’s personality and the significant changes he has experienced in life. “Mr. Six is a victim of late-stage straight man cancer,” cried a headline in the party newspaper Inner Mongolia Daily. “We want less of this ‘straight man’ style,” echoed the China Women’s News. Finally, an amateur critic with the online handle Yasuogu wrote on popular film review website Douban Movie that one of the best parts of the film was that “it portrays the physical and psychological decline of a group of straight men — in other words, [the movie shows] that when the day finally comes when straight man cancers show their symptoms, the cancer cells will spread, and they will meet a tragic end.”
All of these critics seem more concerned with applying the cancer metaphor to different groups of men rather than taking it as evidence of the need for meaningful change. Chinese women must move away from the mudslinging that comes with group labels and instead think deeply about the specific challenges to women’s independence that are ingrained in society. For one, women’s lack of financial independence needs to be addressed in the first stage of the fight for equal rights. Hierarchal Confucianism and a sense of pragmatism are still deeply entrenched in Chinese society, hampering progress in the fight for women’s rights.
A traditional belief in pragmatism also hinders women’s pursuit of independence. Unlike most young Americans, who leave their parents’ homes in search of their own lives once they reach adulthood, young Chinese often choose to stay at home well into their 20s and 30s in order to establish themselves financially. This mindset applies to both men and women but tends to come with greater sacrifices for the latter group. By remaining at home with their parents, many Chinese women devolve a certain amount of decision-making power to their parents — primarily their fathers — who then hold stronger authority over their life choices than would be considered normal in the West. For Chinese women, the pursuit of equality must therefore go beyond cultivating financial security and challenge the social dynamics of the family unit.
If the goal is to progress toward a more equitable society, depicting men as barbaric through the use of the “straight man cancer” label is nothing more than a distraction from the genuine fight. Calling someone out for having straight man cancer is merely aping the conventions of Western feminism, but behind the sloganeering no action is taking place. Until Chinese feminists reposition these issues within the country’s cultural context, there will be no hope of realizing any meaningful change.
For example, many Chinese women expect their partners to be somehow “better” than themselves — a phenomenon that manifests itself in the idea of “marrying up.” These women want someone who is more capable, who makes more money, and who at least contributes more than they do even before marriage. They not only expect men to be the breadwinners but also protectors in the traditional Confucian sense, allowing women to apply themselves to domestic tasks in return for guardianship. This mentality makes it much more difficult for women to demand equal rights on equal footing to men.
Indeed, my research into the question of exactly what Chinese women hope to accomplish with the label “straight man cancer” yielded much less information than queries about its symptoms.
For example, a popular survey on Chinese news website NetEase lists 20 symptoms of straight man cancer that include “asking women to be beautiful although men are ugly,” “considering oneself the boss and one’s wife as a free nanny,” and “thinking that women lose value once they hit 30 years old.” At the bottom of the page, it says, “If people around you have these symptoms, you have to tell them to keep taking their medicine and to stop hurting women.” The post invites people to judge others, but then simply uses a metaphor to belittle supposedly culpable men without providing tangible solutions to the issue.
While it is true that the term “straight man cancer” raises women’s awareness of gender discrimination, it also impairs people’s judgment. Such a malicious label subjects even the more nuanced attitudes of men toward women to blanket accusations bordering on misandry. Meanwhile, the label doesn’t contribute solutions to the essential question of how to achieve gender equality.
(Header image: Two men chat with a woman during an blind date event in Shanghai, May 18, 2013. Xu Xiaolin/Sixth Tone)