The direct translation of “nühanzi” is “manly woman,” which began as an insult to Chinese women who subverted their gender role. But in recent years, the nühanzi have been proving there’s nothing wrong with being a masculine woman — that in fact, “masculinity” and “femininity” are both made up anyway, so women (and men) should be free to embody both.
Nühanzi may be a Chinese movement, but more and more, we’ve been noticing it all over the world. I saw it in Wonder Woman’s simultaneous compassion and strength. And this week, more than ever, I saw it in Pink’s VMAs speech.
Pink’s six-year-old daughter Willow Sage Hart inspired her to reflect on gender norms when she told her, “I’m the ugliest girl I know.” When Pink asked Willow what she meant by that, it became clear that she essentially meant she was “masculine.”
“I look like a boy,” she said.
Pink’s been told the same thing, she confided in her daughter. “When people make fun of me, that’s what they use,” she said. “They say I look like a boy or I’m too masculine or I have too many opinions, my body is too strong.”
As she pointed out by bringing in her strong opinions, this isn’t just about looks. The criticism she faces is really about the fact that she’s bucking gender norms, whether she’s doing that with her appearance or her behavior. It’s the same criticism the nühanzi have been facing for centuries. And by staying herself in the face of it all, Pink is engaging in the same kind of rebellion as the nühanzi. She drove this point home in her response to Willow.
“And I said to her, ‘Do you see me growing my hair?’” she recounted. “She said, ‘No, mama.’ I said, ‘Do you see me changing my body?’ ‘No, mama.’ ‘Do you see me changing the way I present myself to the world?’ ‘No, mama.’ ‘Do you see me selling out arenas all over the world?’ ‘Yes, Mama.’ ‘OK! So, baby girl. We don’t change. We take the gravel and the shell and we make a pearl. And we help other people to change so they can see more kinds of beauty.’”
Pink has long been channeling the nühanzi by showing that she can be simultaneously “masculine” and “feminine” with no contradiction. She’s shared photos of herself breastfeeding and breast-pumping on the job, proving that her motherhood — and her womanhood — don’t stop her from getting down to business. Her songs criticize gender stereotypes and the expectation that women submit to men. And she makes sure women know they can act “like men” and still be desirable.
“The sexiest women around the world are thinkers and doers and writers,” she once said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “People like Oprah and Angelina, people who are trying to talk about things. And Madonna, who’s always trying to push boundaries, test people’s convictions and ideas of what sex is and what a woman’s role is.”
Through statements like these, Pink is placing herself within a tradition of women embracing their masculine sides — the tradition the nühanzi have made it their mission to carry on.