Straight man cancer

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In "Last new term of the year in China" (12/16/16), we encountered a very recent neologism in Chinese: hánzhàoliàng 含赵量 ("Zhaoness") (220,000 ghits).  The expression we examine in this post — zhínán ái 直男癌 ("straight man cancer") has been around a bit longer, for at least a couple of years, and circulates even more widely, with 1,830,000 ghits.

The following passage from an article in Chinese about this new term explains what it means:

Zài Zhōngguó,“zhí nán ái” shì yīgè xīnzàocí. Tā dàibiǎole zhème yīqún rén: Tamen yòng gè zhǒng lǐyóu hé xíngdòng, biǎnyì nǚxìng jiàzhí, shānghài fùnǚ quánlì, zǔ'ài xìngbié píngděng yùndòng. …[C]hóushì shǎoshù zú yì, hūyù bǎoshǒu jiàzhíguān de huíguī. Zǒngde lái shuō,“zhí nán ái” hé Yīngyǔ zhōng de “nánxìng shāwén zhǔyì zhě” bǐjiào xiāngsì.


In China, "straight man cancer" is a neologism. It refers to a group that uses a variety of reasons and actions to belittle women's value, harm women's rights, and hinder the movement for gender equality. …They are hostile to ethnic minorities, calling for the return of conservative values. In general, "straight male cancer" and "male chauvinism" in English are comparatively similar.

Aside from the direct and simplistic explanation of what "zhí nán ái 直男癌" ("straight man cancer") means, this passage is interesting for its use of the plural pronoun "tamen ta们" ("they"). Lest one think its appearance here is a fluke, the use of tamen ta们 ("they; them") is surprisingly widespread, yielding nearly half a million ghits.

We actually looked at tamen ta们 ("they; them") three years ago:

"The degendering of the third person pronoun in Mandarin" (12/12/13)

In light of a spate of posts on biscriptalism and bilingualism, it is worth pointing out that here we have two scripts in the single disyllabic word "tamen ta们" ("they; them").

[Thanks to Geok Hoon (Janet) Williams, Fangyi Cheng, and Jinyi Cai]


  1. Johan P said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 8:15 am

    Question: Since the topic of the discussion is vaguely feminist, would that influence the use of gender-neutral "ta"?

    There's been a push towards gender neutral modifications to written and spoken language in many countries, often initiated by feminist or trans rights activist groups (increased use of singular "they", "hen" in Swedish, Latinx, etc.), and I was wondering if that was filering through in China as well.

  2. RP said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 9:57 am

    Does "straight" here mean "heterosexual"? If so, does "straight man cancer" also suggest homophobia? If not, what does "straight" mean in this case?

  3. Ellen K. said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 10:46 am

    It could be that "straight" simply means that gay men aren't included in the group denoted by the term. So while I can't rule out an aspect of homophobia, it's possible the term reflect the opposite.

  4. RP said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

    I didn't mean that the term "straight man cancer" itself was itself homophobic. Rather that it might intended to define a phenomenon as, in addition to being sexist, also being homophobic or at least heteronormative. Otherwise, why mention "straight" and not just "man"?

  5. Reynardine said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    Actually, I did this in my master's thesis almost fifty years back, and quite educated people were using "they" as an agenderal singular in colloquial speech, then and earlier. "He" does not seem adequate as a pronoun for a situation applicable to everybody. Furthermore, there are whole language families (such as those loosely grouped as Ural-Altaic) which never distinguish a third person pronoun by sex, regardless of the amount of sexism in any given society.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    Like I said, because gay men aren't included in the group. Because there's a different between "men" and "men who are interested in women".

  7. RP said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:24 pm

    Sorry for being obtuse, it's just that the term was presented as meaning men who hindered women's rights or had male chauvinist views. As far as I can see, gay men would also be capable of that. The term, then, seems to encapsulate an assumption that only straight men propagate male chauvinism. Since I thought that was absurd, that's why I wondered whether the term was meant to indicate that the group of men being referred to held homophobic views and not misogynistic ones.

  8. RP said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

    Or rather, not solely misogynistic ones.

  9. unekdoud said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    Before you read too much into the "straight" interpretation I'd just like to note that zhícháng ái 直肠癌 is an estabished Mandarin term which translates to (colo)rectal cancer.

  10. Guy said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 12:54 pm


    The term is described as also suggesting hostility to ethnic minorities, so I'm guessing it covers a wide variety of bigotries, with special emphasis on misogyny. Of course, there is also the widespread belief that straight men are more prone to misogyny than gay men, though it would be ridiculous to say that there are no gay male misogynists. I suppose it's true that some forms of misogyny are probably legitimately more associated with straight men. I don't know the statistics but it's extremely plausible that straight men are more likely to sexually harass women than gay men, and even if that isn't true much sexual harassment of women by gay men can probably be fairly attributed to hegemonic straight male culture.

  11. Mara K said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    Is it a cancer of men who believe themselves to be morally straight/upright?

  12. Ken said,

    December 19, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

    The term "men's rights activist" or MRA is probably the direct English equivalent of this. There is the same fake concern with the complication of pronouns and bathrooms. Interestingly, the Chinese characters convey more with the same amount of syllables than the English acronym.

  13. Simon P said,

    December 20, 2016 @ 6:00 am

    As I recall, the gendered characters for the third person pronoun were introduced into Mandarin because of gender equality issues. If you didn't have a separate female pronoun, it was argued, one would assume maleness. In Literary Sinitic, there is no difference. And there's also no difference in Cantonese, where 佢 keoi5 is used for 'he', 'she' and 'it'.

  14. Adrian said,

    December 22, 2016 @ 7:39 am

    The Google hit counts are inflated by partial and near matches – it's worth paging through the results to get a better idea of the currency of such words and phrases.

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