‘The Man’ is an oft-used expression that, as I have always understood it, referred to the powers-that-be. Those in authority. The ones keeping you down. The ones to ‘stick it to.’
At least that is how I FIRST understood it back in the 1960s when musk of youthful rebellion against authority permeated the air. Against ‘the MAN.’ Vietnam was roiling the whole country and I was of a generation that had to factor that into all calculations for the present or the future. People my age fell right in where the war was fading away. Of course, we did not know that. There was no end plainly in sight. There was still a military draft that ended in January 1973. It ended mere weeks before I turned 18. There was (and still is) the requirement to register with the selective service, even without a draft. I still had to register for the draft and dutifully carried my draft card for many years even after the war was over. ‘The Man’ was running the world. The government top to bottom. The police. All authority was seen as ‘the Man.’ It had nothing to do with gender.
There are other connotations. Some irreverently refer to God as ‘the Man upstairs.’ I always thought that was overly familiar and diminished his position in the scheme of all things at least in perception. This had nothing to do with gender though I could understand how some might have considered it an issue. The Equal Rights Amendment had been passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification in 1972. It would require 2/3 of the states to ratify it in order to become part of the constitution. That number of ratifying states was only met in 2020 when Virginia voted to accept it. The deadline was 1979. Later extended to 1982. There is a current movement to remove the time limit entirely. This could be part of why some women might object to referring to the Almighty as ‘the Man Upstairs.’
Another connotation of ‘the MAN’ is of someone who gets things done. Who steps up.
“It can be a superlative compliment (“you da man!”) indicating that the subject is currently standing out amongst their peers even though they have no special designation or rank”
I have never considered this a gender-specific title. It is more a syllable specific title as far as I’m concerned. It flows better than a two-syllable designation (i.e. ‘woman’ or ‘person’). This is the connotation I am writing about here. When someone does something conclusively, accomplishes something difficult or considered impossible or unlikely by others, if it is done on my behalf, or if I am among the group who benefits, I will congratulate that person by telling them that they are ‘the MAN.’ Gender is not a factor. You can ask my wife. I tell her this all the time as she frequently accomplishes things I am not able to do, or that required significant effort, talent, and/or persistence. As it happens, she is not male. And I am. In these cases, though, to me she is clearly, undeniably, ‘the MAN.’
I have deep veins. I have been told that by the people who have to draw my blood every year. I have, in a single day at two separate locations been stabbed 8 times, unsuccessfully, by technicians coming up dry. I have, on some rare occasions, had a technician hit the spot on the first try. They are, and I hastened to tell them, ‘the MAN.’ I have had males and females draw blood. In every single case where it was a one-and-done ordeal, ‘the MAN’ was a woman. My assessment was not sarcastic, it was celebratory. Complimentary. They ‘stood out amongst their peers’ in that task in that instance. It had nothing to do with gender.
I have had women take exception to my saying this. I had a manager (a peer coworker who had been promoted) correct me, saying ‘WOMAN’ as though striking out MAN in my statement. She missed the point. The world is moving away from male/female differentiation in many contexts.
Consider movie stars. Female stars used to be called actresses. Now, they are more commonly called actors. The same can be said of female comedians, who used to be called comediennes. There are many cases where gender used to be explicitly identified with different words even though the function was the same in either case. While ‘man’ clearly refers to males generally, applauding someone as ‘the MAN’ does has nothing to do with gender.
“The subject is currently standing out amongst their peers…”
Even that may be too specific. To me, it means the ‘subject is currently standing out’. Period. If you answered my phone call and resolved my problem, you are ‘the MAN.’ If you fought through the obstacles scattered in software between me and any obstacle one or more others tried and failed to remove, you are ‘the MAN.’ Regardless of your gender.
Having said all I said above, there is one thing I always add whenever I tell someone, male or female, that they are ‘the MAN.’
“Enjoy it. It never lasts very long.”
Andy Warhol was famous for saying everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. Catfish Hunter, a major league baseball player for the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees, was among many who said, in the same vein, that ‘the sun don’t shine on the same dogs ass every day.’ Anyone can be ‘the MAN’ one day and forgotten or abused the next. Most of us get one or more times to shine. When that time comes… when someone tells you that you are ‘the MAN’, regardless of your gender, it is a compliment. You have done something remarkable. Stood out. Someone remarked about it. Take the win. Enjoy the moment. Just know that it never lasts very long.