Tim Cook, Bent Man

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Last week, China was gaga over Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg for gamely, if somewhat lamely, speaking Mandarin before an audience of Tsinghua University students:

"Zuckerberg's Mandarin" (10/23/14)

In the days following his sensational performance at Tsinghua, while not universally showered with adulation (and Facebook is still blocked in China), Zuckerberg was generally acclaimed for his gutsy, good-natured effort to speak to Chinese people in their own language.

In stark contrast, poor Tim Cook (Apple CEO) was mocked by the Chinese netizenry for his declaration in Bloomberg Businessweek:  "So let me be clear: I'm proud to be gay…."

"Tim Cook Speaks Up" (10/30/14)

The resultant hullabaloo on the Chinese internet was instantaneous:

"Tim Cook Coming Out Has Turned China Into a Nation of 5th-Graders:  Despite the Apple CEO's good intentions, Chinese netizens can't seem to stop mocking iPhones for being gay. " (10/30/2014)

As Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian put it:

Crude puns and derogatory remarks relating Cook's orientation to Apple products often seemed to drown out praise for his courage and support for his company's wares. One particular joke, repeated so often in the hours immediately following the release of Cook's article that the state-run Guangming Daily reported it as a typical netizen reaction, played on the Chinese term "bent man," slang for gay man. "No wonder the iPhone 6 bends so easily!" wrote user after user. (Tales of the ultra-slim iPhone 6 bending under light pressure have circulated both in the United States and abroad since the iPhone's release in September.)

In order to understand the connection between iPhone 6 and gaydom, we need to focus on the Chinese term wānnán 弯男 ("bent man / male"), which obviously signifies the opposite of zhínán 直男 ("straight man / male").  So far as I know, wānnán 弯男 ("bent man / male") has not been confused or conflated with the widespread Orz posture emoticon, which depicts a kneeling or bowing person, but has a completely different set of connotations.

Incidentally, the basic notion of "bend, curve" is conveyed by the bottom part of the character for wān, whether simplified 弯 or traditional 彎, since it depicts a bow (gōng 弓) (the top part is the phonophore).

It didn't help Tim Cook's case that he was recently in China to discuss with top officials Chinese hacking of iCloud.  Bravery comes in many forms.  It was one thing for Mark Zuckerberg to hold forth to an admiring Chinese audience in his newly acquired Mandarin, but it was another for Tim Cook to confront the Chinese leadership and to declare something very personal about himself to the whole world in the same week.  From that vantage, one may say that Tim Cook stands straight and tall (6'3" / 1.9 m).

[h. t. Ben Zimmer]



18 Comments

  1. Observation said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    I couldn't help pointing out that the character 曲 qu3 (crooked) is pronounced as 'kuk1' in Cantonese, i.e. very similar to the English 'cook'! (The usual term for 'gay' in Cantonese for 弯男 is 攣 lyun1.)

  2. Victor Mair said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    @Observation

    Now that you mention the pronunciation of 曲 qu3 ("crooked") as kuk1 in Cantonese, I'll allow myself a remark that I resisted in the original post, namely, he's lucky that his name isn't "Tim Crook".

  3. Aaron Toivo said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

    Bent is pejorative slang for "gay" in English too – though marked as chiefly British – so I was instantly taken aback to see the title of this post. It initially comes across as though you are insulting Mr. Cook yourself, until one gets into the substance of the post.

  4. Rubrick said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    It's not entirely clear from your post whether there's an actual strong anti-gay backlash taking place, or whether it's all about the "bent iPhones / bent CEO" joke, which I have to admit would be hard to resist.

  5. David Morris said,

    October 31, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    I once had two colleagues surnamed Cook and Crook, who sat at adjacent desks. One day we got talking about surnames, and I said to Ms Cook 'Your great-great … great-grandfather was obviously a cook', and to Ms Crook 'And your great-great … great-grandfather was obviously a (long pause) shepherd'.

  6. Wentao said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 2:01 am

    I don't think "No wonder iPhone 6 bends so easily" is a homophobic joke. Like Rubrick said, it's more about satirizing the product, and "bent" is not a derogatory term either. Making puns like this may look jarring in the US, but in China, political correctness has not yet become such a big deal.

  7. Jacob Li said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 3:04 am

    As a Chinese living in America, I'd say Tea Leaf Nation is a bunch of sensationalist writers whose image of China is pretty biased, largely pandering to the 'Murican imagination of China being a backward hellhole.

    I first learned that 弯 can mean gay when I was in a college English class, where I was told "bent" is a word for homosexual in English. And it was pretty neutral, just like 直 for straight people. The real derogatives for gays in China are "gay" (the English word), "基佬" (assimilated from Cantonese transliteration of the English word), "屁精" (old Beijing dialect), etc.

    Culturally China has a lot of discrimination against homosexuals, but probably just as much as, or even probably less than US before 2008 (i think CA prop 8, Tyler Clementi suicide and 2012 presedental campaign are the key events that turned US public opinion). After all, East Asians mostly aren't raised in Abrahamic religions that encourage persecutions of gays and the notion of gayness being a sin.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    From Richard Cook:

    My Chinese name is Qū Lǐchá 曲理查.

    My choice of 曲 to write the surname relates to Cantonese pronunciation as much as anything else.

    Cantonese 曲 is more or less homophonous with "cook".

    The meanings are of course 'curved/crooked/bent' etc.

    Another inspiration for the surname choice is the bent shape of the Seal character, it is a woven-basket-like letter "C". For examples, see here:

    http://www.wenlin.com/img/qu1.png

  9. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    I've always taken British "bent" to mean "crooked" or "corrupt."

  10. Marek said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    I admit to laughing when I first came across a British person commenting that "this would explain the bent iPhones". To be fair, I don't know how offensive the word is in British English, but it feels like a yet-another-wordplay-joke about the recent 'bending' iPhones, rather than a derogative statement about Tim Cook's sexuality.

  11. Chas Belov said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 2:32 am

    @Observation: I had been told the neutral Cantonese term for gay was 同性攣, although that was 20 years ago. Perhaps it has been shortened since them.

  12. Observation said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 10:06 am

    @Chas Belov: It still is, although the characters should be 同性戀 and the final character – meaning 'romantic love' in this sense – is pronounced lyun2, not lyun1. I don't think 攣 has anything to do with the 戀 character; it was more likely derived from 直 'straight' for heterosexuals.

    Incidentally, in Hong Kong Cantonese, 同志 has gained a lot of popularity. 基 and 斷背 are as popular as ever.

  13. AB said,

    November 2, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    Ralph is right that in the UK "bent" can mean corrupt, as in "bent cop" or "bent judge", but it is also a derogatory term for gay, along with the noun "bender". It is perhaps not as strong as some other such terms, but as far as I am aware it hasn't been reclaimed in the way, say, "queer" or "poof" have, so remains pretty unambiguously homophobic.
    There is a 70s play called "Bent" about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. Ian McKellan gave a celebrated performance in the lead role.

  14. Marek said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 6:12 am

    @AB: Thanks for clarifying. I was always under the impression that "poof" was a much more offensive term. Then again, my knowledge of British obscenities comes primarily from "The Thick of It" (the show responsible for coining 'omnishambles'), and as such may not be entirely reliable…

  15. Rodger C said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl6vu8F3k_8

  16. julie lee said,

    November 3, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

    曲 "bent" is a perfectly good Chinese surname. I had a college classmate with that surname. The character also means "tune, melody", just as the English surname "Crook" can mean "shepherd's crook".

  17. RP said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 4:49 am

    @Marek,
    "Bent" is derogatory but not obscene. Most pejoratives aren't obscene.

  18. felonies4less said,

    November 7, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

    I just finished eating some spicy chinese food. Guess what my fortune cookie read… You guessed it, " An apple a day keeps the bed bugs away."
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