Tea Leaf Nation

What’s With All the Chinese Misogyny?

Women there have a diagnosis: "straight guy cancer."

Final Competition 2006 Miss Tourism Queen in Beijing
BEIJING - MARCH 16: Chinese women perform at the final competition in Beijing region of 2006 Miss Tourism Queen International Pageant on March 16, 2006 in Beijing, China. Some 30 contestants take part in the final competition. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

The contrast, while unintentional, could not have been more obvious. The image on U.S.-based search engine Google’s front page greeting search engine users on March 8, International Women’s Day, was a collage honoring women astronauts, scientists, athletes, judges, and musicians. Meanwhile, on Baidu, China’s top search engine, the front page featured a princess doll wearing a dainty, pale pink dress while twirling in a music box. The image may have been intended to celebrate the popular holiday, but to many young Chinese women, the Baidu illustration depicting them as a delicate plaything was just the latest symptom of a peculiar disease plaguing Chinese society: zhi nan ai, meaning “straight guy cancer.”

It’s a new Internet term for men who exhibit the misogynist attitudes that seem all too prevalent in modern China. The term appears to have originated around the same time on two social networks: Douban, a book and film review site popular with Chinese hipsters, and Weibo, a large microblogging platform. As of March 10, a search for the term generated more than 1.9 million Weibo results. According to a post on the women’s section of Sohu, a large Internet portal, symptoms of the so-called cancer include conceitedness, chauvinism, homophobia, poor fashion sense, and wife-beating, according to a long post in Douban that explains the term. The post explains that those afflicted with the condition tend to work in IT or construction industries and make statements like “women are for procreation” or “you are only a girl; why read so much?”

Commenting on Baidu’s and Google’s choices of International Women’s Day doodles, one female user on Weibo wrote, “One shows independent women, while the other shows a fragile toy. Straight guy cancer is scary.” (Baidu’s director of international communications, Kaiser Kuo, told the New York Times that a woman conceived the controversial design, which he said “was by no means intended to objectify women.”)

In one widely shared and discussed March 8 Weibo post, the account linked to Edinburgh-based illustrator Leilei Huang complained she had “worked with a top Internet company” to create a graphic for International Women’s Day that depicted Chinese women in a variety of professions, much like Google’s sketch. Huang wrote that those conducting a preliminary review were mostly women, who responded positively; but someone upstairs killed the sketch before it saw the light of day. Responding to Huang’s post, several users lamented about men with “straight guy cancer” who objectify women and foist misogynist rhetoric on the rest of China’s Internet.

While many Chinese Internet users seem adept at diagnosing “straight guy cancer,” few have offered a plan for treatment. One woman wrote on Weibo that her former boyfriend had made statements like “giving birth is a woman’s obligation” and “a man with sexual experience is a stud, but a woman is a slut.” The woman said she eventually blocked the man from all her social media accounts and mobile-phone contacts, remarking, “I’m so glad that I didn’t become his wife.”

A better solution would be addressing the unkept promises that International Women’s Day represents. The day’s roots lie in 20th-century women’s labor movements around the world, and the annual occasion, which Chinese call “three-eight,” has been assiduously celebrated there ever since the Communist takeover in 1949. But despite late Communist Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous declaration that women “hold up half the sky,” China is far less friendly to career-oriented women than its leading ideology professes it to be.

China’s exam-based education system continues to place women into universities and graduate schools in high numbers — as of 2013, 51.7 percent of China’s undergraduates and 49 percent of its graduate students were women, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. But the odds change when women try to enter the labor force, where they comprise only about 35 percent of the urban workforce. A January 2015 study released by prestigious Renmin University in Beijing showed that, on average, men received 42 percent more interview opportunities than women when they used the same résumé, because most employers surveyed in the study believed that women would be more likely to tend to family responsibilities and less likely to take up arduous tasks like business travel.

Many employers also balk at China’s 98-day paid maternity leave requirement, which can be extended to six months or a year depending on individual circumstances. More than 90 percent of female graduates have encountered gender discrimination in the job search process, concluded a 2013 study by the All-China Women’s Federation, a government-affiliated organization.

As employment opportunities become scarcer for Chinese women, many find themselves caught in a bind. In a 2014 survey by one chapter of the All-China Women’s Federation based in the southern megacity of Guangzhou, more than 70 percent said they wanted to “realize their dreams” or “find a good job.” In the same survey, most still ranked “having a good career” as the best way to improve one’s socioeconomic standing, above “making useful connections” and “obtaining a degree from a good university.” Yet more than 32 percent of female college students also said they believed attending university was for the purpose of “finding a good husband.”

That also means avoiding a bad husband. Rhetoric like “straight man cancer” certainly does not represent passive acceptance of the status quo, but it does show that some women believe the burden of curing gender inequality lies with them. Popular female writer Yexue Maomao warned women, “Please carefully evaluate your boyfriend for straight guy cancer when you are dating, and break up with him immediately if diagnosed.” Eventually, she concluded, such men “will be eliminated from the gene pool by natural selection.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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