‘Mommy’s boy’ debate rages on social media

The term, referring to a man raised by a doting mother, who has an unhealthy dependence on her at later stages in life, has become a buzzword on Chinese social media.



May 5, 2023

HONG KONG – When Chinese standup comic Niao Niao appeared as a contestant on the popular online comedy show Rock & Roast, she drew plenty of laughs for her views on a “mommy’s boy”, amusing the audience with her disarming sincerity on the issue.

“How does a man who constantly talks about his mother all day long come to exist? Is it because his mother tells him it will help him if he mentions her more often in the future?” she said.

It’s also difficult to imagine him (mommy’s boy) respecting women when he grows up.

Gong Qian, social scientist from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and co-author of a study on the subject

Her words triggered waves of laughter from the show’s judges and the live studio audience, and the scene has since been viewed more than 3.23 million times on Tencent video.

Niao Niao, who uses a stage name, later suggested that almost every mommy’s boy has a dominant mother but an “absent father”.

An analysis published in the journal Critical Discourse Studies on Jan 23 offers an academic response to the term “mommy’s boy”.

Referring to a man raised by a doting mother, who has an unhealthy dependence on her at an age when he is expected to be self-reliant, the term has become a buzzword on Chinese social media.

Niao Niao’s act is timely. A new report by two scholars looks at 43 posts on Chinese social media from April to June last year that included the words “baby man”. The scholars also looked at the popularization of this term.

After drawing on more than 50 research studies, they came to this carefully phrased conclusion: There is extensive and complex use of the term “baby man” on Sina Weibo, in addition to “mommy’s boy”, and “baby men” are treated as a new subordinate group by those using the former term.

The scholars, Chen Yifan and Gong Qian, social scientists from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, feel that the term “baby man”, or “nan bao” in Chinese, which refers to men behaving like babies, is extensively used on social media.

Used in a lighthearted manner, “baby man” changes the way in which the two sexes view each other, as it describes men spoiled by employment opportunities, and reproductive priorities in modern Chinese society. The scholars said this light-hearted approach is a deliberate attempt to address gender inequality.

Chen and Gong said self-empowerment among young women is aimed at taking a moderate, rational but firm stance to find their rightful place in an ideal harmonious Chinese society.

They said the term “baby man” is not limited to a specific marital status. Instead, it depicts men in general as self-centered adults demanding constant pampering and attention from society.

Gong, co-author of the report and a senior lecturer in education at Curtin University, said the term is being used in a concerted effort to raise awareness about the inherent advantages men have in society.

“The group that posted the content on social media — predominantly female and deeply attuned to gender issues — has likely experienced gender inequality firsthand during education or in their personal lives. Their self-awareness and independence are very strong, and they want to discuss certain topics by using this type of language,” she said.

Female roles

Chen, first author of the report and a doctoral candidate in cross-cultural communication at Curtin University, said that in a Chinese family, women are expected to play three roles.

“The first is being a man’s sex object. The second is to have children and pass on the family line, while the third is to act as caregiver for the family. These three roles limit women’s social function solely to the family,” Chen said.

She added that despite the fact that women have greater educational opportunities than previously, they still take on greater responsibility for childbirth and rearing children.

Chen also said that mothers-in-law are increasingly playing bigger roles in small families. They often become overly involved in such families and take care of the children. They also take on the role and responsibility of the father, who is often absent, she said.

Instead of viewing the man’s mother as an overbearing and domineering figure, it would be better to appreciate her as taking on additional responsibility to compensate for the missing fatherly presence in a family, Chen added.

The scholars feel that complex Chinese family relationships are linked to how much power one particular member of a family has.

They point out that male dominance is still prevalent in relationships between couples in China, and that seniors tend to enjoy more privileges and higher social status regardless of the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law or between parents and children.

Gong said: “In an environment where males are prioritized, it is commonplace to observe the emergence of the ‘mommy’s boy’. He is not only looked on highly by his mother, but also serves as a pivotal figure in the household, as he is the one to continue the family line. As such, the ‘mommy’s boy’ represents a considerable asset to the entire family, resulting in him being given favors.

“This will lead to him becoming more self-centered and developing a special kind of narcissistic personality, in which he is defiant, lacks empathy, and feels that everything he has gained is rightfully deserved. It’s also difficult to imagine him respecting women when he grows up.”


A step forward

On June 10, a video posted on social media showing four women being assaulted by seven men inside and outside a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei province, shocked the nation.

Gong and Chen said the relentless beatings and level of violence the women experienced as they made it clear they did not want the men’s attention was hard to accept, and also intensified the debate over the term “baby man” on social media.

“On Sina Weibo, ‘baby man’ no longer refers to males in general. It has evolved from being used in a very specific context to a form of accusation, blame and mockery toward the entire gender system that is not fair to women,” Gong said.

Chen said: “These gender discussions are a step forward. Women can take a fresh look at the situation they are in, be aware of criticism and reflect on existing gender inequality issues in society, such as patriarchy and sexism, which in turn helps them assess their own value to society.

“In addition, such discussion enables women in general to maintain clear judgment and cognitive awareness in areas such as marriage, love and family power battles.”

If men empathize with and pay attention to the plight of women in these discussions, they will better understand the risks and disadvantages that women face in their reproductive and romantic relationships, which is also a step toward gender equality, Chen added.

Cultural values

Florrie Fei-Yin Ng, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s educational psychology department, said there is no academic research yet on the topics of “baby man” or “mommy’s boy”.

“In clinical psychology, a mommy’s boy is viewed as an unhealthy dependence between two people, which betrays their humanity,” Ng said. “When a mother and her son are apart, they are unable to function independently, as they have become too close and the boundaries of their relationship have not been properly defined.”

Ng added that this kind of dependence could also be present in other relationships such as that between husband and wife, or in other romantic situations.

“But such dependence renders a bond unhealthy. It is important for a person to have the ability to think and act independently, which is a characteristic that leads to action. A person should be able to decide whether they want to do something or not, and they should have the ability to continue their life in a healthy manner, even when they are alone.”

In 2013, Ng carried out research in two middle schools on China’s east coast with two fellow experts to study whether Chinese mothers have more control over their children than those living in a small urban area in the Midwest of the United States.

The study found that in the US, children are encouraged to express their thoughts and opinions openly, even if this means disagreeing with others.

Ng said: “The culture in China emphasizes diligence and hard work, with a strong expectation for children to study every day when they come home from school. Children’s emotions are easily suppressed, as their academic achievements are prioritized over personal wellbeing. While children achieve good grades, a sense of unease or dissatisfaction still exists, which comes at a cost.

“I believe that even if you excel in one field, you still have a persistent feeling of inadequacy, which is ingrained in Chinese children from childhood, perhaps through the words of our parents, who tend to focus on what we can improve, rather than our accomplishments.

“As a result, we constantly look for ways in which we can improve, rather than acknowledging our strengths.”

Ng said this may not be the case in the US, where children are more confident about their abilities. She added that this lack of self-confidence among Chinese children often leads to them depending on others, which might be one of the reasons there are now more “mommy’s boys”.

In 2017, a survey by China Youth Daily found that 61 percent of 2,002 respondents said there was a “mommy’s boy” who is close to them, while 66.5 percent of the interviewees said that such boys develop this trait due to excessive parental dotage.

Root cause

Ng agreed that a “mommy’s boy” develops such a personality largely due to role of the parents at home.

“Often, a mother may not have anyone else in her world. She may have an unsatisfactory marriage or have no friends. She may not have a job, or if she has one, she could be unhappy with it. She may also have a bad relationship with her mother-in-law,” she said.

“The mother’s entire world revolves around her son, who is everything to her. She holds him tightly to protect him, and arranges everything for him. She basically wants to control him, telling him what he can and cannot do. The son, who doesn’t rebel, gradually becomes a mommy’s boy accustomed to laziness and simply following his mother’s instructions.

“He may feel a close relationship with his mother, or merely want to avoid angering her.”

Ng said it is also difficult for the son to break away from the environment in which he grew up. This type of relationship becomes especially problematic when the son is married or dating.

“He still brings his mother into his life, which is frowned upon, whereas a daughter doing the same wouldn’t be considered a problem because of cultural differences in gender expectations,” Ng added. “If a daughter grows up obediently following her mother’s guidance, there is a good chance she will also listen to her husband after marriage, which may be a good thing.”

On the other hand, Ng said it is rare to hear a man say, “I used to listen to my mom, and now I listen to my wife.”

“This is because a mother is less likely to relax her grip to let her son heed his wife’s opinion. However, it is more commonplace for mothers to allow their daughters to listen to their husbands,” she said.

Ng added that ideally both parents should have an influence on their children. But the father’s influence lessens in a family where there is a mommy’s boy. This is unhealthy, particularly when the boy needs a role model. Without a father to guide him, a mommy’s boy may develop in an unhealthy way, with the mother dominating his life.

“If a man is brought up in such a way from childhood, his marriage is likely to be affected, as he has never escaped his mother’s clutches,” she said.

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