“Little Man”

Here’s a little feminist apparency for today. This is one of those things that’s been percolating in my brain for a while, and this morning it just clicked into place.

Many people I know will often refer to a boy-child as “little man.” This drives me absolutely crazy, but I could never figure out why. And it’s something that happens immediately when a boy arrives in the world. I remember people (who shall remain unnamed) referring to my nephew as “little man” before he even came home from the hospital. I thought it was bizarre at the time–he’s nothing like a man, not even a tiny little one–but I couldn’t put my finger on just what was at issue.

Part of it is the placing of an adult term onto an infant, as though the expectations of this poor kid  are already looking toward adulthood when he’s just a few hours old. I also resist the insistence on putting the poor kid into a box based on sex; using the term “little man” seems more direct and purposeful than the obligatory piles of color-coded blankets and onesies. I mean, after all, calling him “little man” is a pretty clear implication of the type of person he is expected to be in terms of gender and sex. (Who says he ever has to be a “man” at all?) But that wasn’t quite all of it …

Now I’ve got it. Stick with me through this (alarmingly simple) thought process.

Have you ever heard anyone refer to an infant girl as “little woman”? Yeah, me neither. And that’s because everyone within earshot would recognize that as creepy. The reason people would think it’s creepy is because it would be understood as sexualizing a little girl. So herein lies the problem: Folks who use the term “little man” (and not “little woman”) are playing into common perceptions of the term “woman” as sexualized and the term “man” as normal. Which is, of course, awfully sexist.

Shoot, that was simple. In fact, “little man” is a construction that is so very simple, so common, and likely so unintentional that it’s  a challenge to make the problems with that term apparent.


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