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Keep The Gift, Pay What You Owe

2012 January 25

Chivalry is dead, I’m told. And now you are all conveniently gathered here in the lobby of this stylish hotel / bar of this cruise ship / dining car of this luxury train I am ready to unmask the culprit. Yes, she’s here in the room with us. *Dramatic pause* Feminism killed chivalry!


But you knew that already. It’s the least mysterious murder mystery ever. Even Hastings could have cracked it (well, maybe). Just google “chivalry is dead!” and you’ll find plenty of witnesses to testify to the fact that it was feminism what done it.

It is also, apparently, a tragic case of mistaken identity as countless Daily Fail and Torygraph writers assert that chivalry wasn’t even sexist. It’s just about being nice to women. Isn’t that what you want, slavering harpy hordes? For us to be nice to you?

Knight in plate armour. Image via Morguefile Creative Commons imagesDespite being fatally trampled under the feminist jackboot, chivalry is surprisingly pernicious. I spend quite a lot of time arguing about gender on the internet, as you might imagine. And recently the most inflammatory topic seems to be chivalry. Sparked by a call from Graham Linehan on Twitter for chivalry to be resurrected (see here and here) I’ve gotten into a number or heated discussions disputing the value of chivalry today. Sadly, I believe rumours of the death of chivalry to have been greatly exaggerated.

Some people I spoke to claimed that they were defending chivalry as a general approach, towards all genders. But isn’t that just ‘not being an arse’? Why does it need a special name? Especially one with such deeply gendered associations. However pure the intention, bringing chivalry back from the dead serves no one. It’s a problematic idea in any context because it fetishises an imbalance of power. It’s fairness as charity rather than right, in which a privileged group extend a superficial form of power to another group along highly formalised lines.

As it is most commonly understood, as a code of behaviour for men towards women, chivalry is sexist. As Amanda Marcotte says:

Chivalry is a set of behaviors where men feign servitude and humility towards women, but in practice they tend to actually reinforce men’s greater social status.

In my recent conversations I’ve been confirmed in my suspicion that there are a lot of Nice Guys out there who don’t want to hear this. I think the most common objections I’ve encountered go like this:

“But I believe in equality/I’m a feminist, how dare you tell me I’m sexist just for being nice to women? That doesn’t fit with my carefully constructed self-image *cries*”

Following codes of behaviour towards women forged hundreds of years ago isn’t really an act of gender resistance. Sorry. Try turning your deeply-held commitment to equality to use by being considerate and respectful to everybody. If you already are: great! Why not drop the silly name for it?

“But I’m only being nice. Would you rather I punched you in the face rather than opening the door for you?”

Are you nice in this way to everyone? If so, good for you! If not: lots of women find chivalric or ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour patronising or irritating at best, and creepy and coercive at worst.  Of course I prefer chivalry to brazen misogyny, but those aren’t the only choices, people. And both enshrine an archaic, damaging attitude toward women and reinforce the idea that women should be treated as women rather than as people.

You may have seen the pithy, ironic poems by suffragist Alice Duer Miller that Lili Loofbourow shared on the Hairpin the other day. Her meditation on chivalry is one of my favourites, and neatly captures the problems with the idea:

It’s treating a woman politely
As long as she isn’t a fright:
It’s guarding the girls who act rightly,
If you can be judge of what’s right;
It’s being—not just, but so pleasant;
It’s tipping while wages are low;
It’s making a beautiful present,
And failing to pay what you owe.

Exactly. Women are owed equality. In the context of hundreds of years of struggle to be taken seriously, for agency, autonomy, self-representation, and social, political and economic power, the feeble gift of a seat or a door held open can feel like a joke. Or even an insult. For me it acts as a reminder of the social expectation – even now – to be ladylike. Grateful, graceful, delicate. Powerless.


Besides, chivalry can quickly become desperately tedious, as Kate Beaton understands:

from - copyright Kate Beaton

12 Responses leave one →
  1. kirsty permalink
    January 25, 2012

    Did you see (i think it’s in that Alphabet post you link to) that one theory is that courtly love (which is presumably one origin of ‘chivalry’, given that the latter is a word that looks suspiciously similar to ‘chevallier – knight’) was actually ‘invented’ by Eleanor of Aquitaine as a way to keep control of the male-dominated court she was only nominally in charge of while her husband was away? An intriguing possibility, no – a woman creating a sort of system of simultaneous power and subjugation all as a clever ruse for self-protection without looking, you know, too powerful? Another woman who really played on that was Elizabeth I, with all her fawning poets and painters… it would be interesting to think about how that power-play might work in those terms, too.

    (and i do wonder if chevallier is related in any way to ‘cavalier’, which in Italian (or at least in Mozart’s Don Giovanni) means both ‘nobleman’ / ‘gentleman’ and ‘rake’ / ‘libertine’ (cf ‘cavalier poetry’ or Sexy cavaliers vs Righteous Roundheads) – something maybe etymologically troubling about the very word ‘chivalry’! Or maybe not, because i am literally just ad-libbing and have not consulted a dictionary or anything.)

    *hodge language-vomits all over a lovely post* …sorry.

    brilliant post, as ever :)

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 25, 2012

      Totally hitting “like” symbolically on this comment.

      The link may very possibly have been me editorially going “ALPHABET LINK!” as I think I decided your illustration of the lady on that post dovetailed very well with the comic by Kate Beaton! Plus I want new readers to see those posts :)

      • Sarah J permalink*
        January 25, 2012

        I love your ‘language-vomit’! ;-) Thank you for kind words and interesting thoughts – I think chivalry and courtly love were DEFINITELY a better deal for women back in the day, and it’d be a shrewd move to make use of it.

        And thanks for putting the link in Miranda! If I’d remembered I would have added it meself.

  2. Daniel permalink
    January 25, 2012

    Great piece – this is what I’d like to think I’d have thought about the subject if I’d taken the time to do the thinking.

    There are so many gendered behaviours that are ingrained in our culture that are treated as harmless but ‘fetishise an imbalance of power’ as you (eloquently) put it. The refrain of ‘ladies first’ is uttered as a default conversation-filler for no real reason, keeping the idea of gracious faux-deference to delicate women ingrained in everyday conversation.

    It amazes me how many people of both sexes think it’s right and proper for a man always to pay for dinner while the woman passively sits there like one of the courses. People defend this as ‘just politeness’ rather than a horrible way of skewing status within a relationship and maintaining a sense of ownership and indebtedness.

    But scorning others is easy and the article is making me examine my own behaviour. I do tend to offer women help more than I offer it to men. I offer to carry bags, to open jars, to catch a spider… when I might not make the same offer to a man. Analysing it, I suppose I just have an incentive to show off more often; I’m more keen to impress. It’s not that I view women as less capable as men, it’s just that I’m usually more invested in seeking their approval. But it’s not just that. It’s also that I would feel awkward making those offers to man, as if doing so might offend him or implicitly undermine his masculinity. I’m aware of how ridiculous this reasoning sounds, but these societal pressures run through so many of our experiences and I can’t pretend I’m immune to them.

    All I can do is try to act based on considered ideas rather than instinctive impluses as much as possible. And as maxims go, ‘don’t be an arse’ seems as good as any.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      January 25, 2012

      It doesn’t sound ridiculous at all. We lives our lives in a sticky web of socialised stereotypes and power relations. Political consciousness and self-awareness can help us break free, but it’s a continual struggle which can be exhausting and even frightening.

      I’m not really selling this very well, am I? But the REALLY GOOD BIT is that in fighting to free yourself you help to free others.

  3. hellison permalink
    January 25, 2012

    I love that poem, it really sums up that chivalry isn’t about Being Nice, it’s about Being Nice As Long As You Behave Properly & Gratefully to Me In Return (and stay in your place pretty lady). Sod that!

    Also, I did actually have a guy cry at me recently because apparently explaining to him why rape jokes aren’t funny and suggesting he try talking to women like they are just people means *I* am horrible for ‘making him feel like a bad person’. And I didn’t give him medal for Not Being A Rapist, because apparently you’re supposed to get a prize for that! Feminists are just MEAN.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      January 25, 2012

      This is EXACTLY the sort of response I mean. Aghh!

      I love Alice Duer Milelr’s poems, she seems to get to the heart of things very neatly, and some of them are really funny too.

  4. January 25, 2012

    Absolutely sodding brilliant. I hate how difficult chivalry sometimes is to deconstruct when – yeah – those perpetuating it just think they’re being nice ‘and anyway what’s wrong with holding a door open?’ (why is it ALWAYS about the sodding doors – let’s focus on other aspects – like the guy I dated when I was in a well-paid job and he was broke, but he preferred to not go down the pub than let me buy him drinks).

    Chivalry gets in the way of humans just treating each other well – and often it gets in the way of people treating each other WARMLY, too. When it’s all formalised it’s often counter-intuitive to people just getting along.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      January 25, 2012

      Thank you! And yes, definitely. I usually want people to think about gender MORE but I think the best default approach is to treat everyone thoughtfully and respectfully until given a reason to do otherwise. Not that I always succeed, of course…

  5. Zelie permalink
    January 25, 2012

    You know what I hate about the bloody doors? They hold a door for me which means I am the one who has to go first and be the person who negotiates any social situation. I am the one who has to walk into a restaurant and deal with the waiter. I am the one who has to walk out first at work and deal with the customers. I am the one who is shoved to the front of the queue when I want to linger. I am the one who has to go and deal with things even when I’d prefer to hang back and observe because men are always opening bloody doors and insisting I walk through first. Leave me alone and let me go through doors in my own good time.

  6. January 25, 2012

    Ah, Dear Diary.
    A concise reflection of my innumerable thoughts on this subject over a number of years. Greatly written piece, it was a joy to read.
    My two cents on the matter is that it’s one thing for ‘certain’ men to claim a chivalrous gene within their DNA and plea they are merely ‘being kind and charming.’ My experience has noted that these acts of kindness towards women when it comes to the opening of the door and the politely pulling a chair out at a table for a ‘pert lady bottom’ to be seated before his own valiant arse, is often confined to the work place and the ‘I haven’t slept with her yet’ dates. (You can conclude I come from bitter beginnings.) Now, this same man can be seen mowing down women in a bid to get off the train first or to the front of a disorganised queue. This, of course, refers to a certain breed of man that I’ve generally had the misfortune of dating in my misguided youth, but feel grateful in the present to be wary of so as to avoid further error.
    There’s also the valiant male who puffs his chest out and claims himself an abject supporter of feminism and ‘good on you’ for being a strong, confident woman. Then when at dinner you start to divide the bill he drops into the conversation that though pay day is near, he is embarrassingly a bit short of cash until then but he’ll owe you. I’m sure I spent a decent €500 or so feeding one feminist supporter in a very short lived relationship.

    Chivalry for the day to day is, indeed, dead. May it rest in eternal peace. If it’s being seen or defended, it is, as you say, a man claiming he’s trying to be nice with your own valiant hope that he’s like this to everyone. Society, however, will continue for some time to try and display it. Take yourself to Har.rods for a spot of shopping. On every door that enters the building is a Green Man, (green of suit, not skin.) to hold the door open for you. But always a man. Of course, he is there to open the door to all, but the statistics of those he acknowledges with the opening of the door to those he ignores to let themselves into the building, I’m confident would bring interesting results.
    Essentially, the outside world is a minefield of the nice men trying to be nice without being condescending, women trying not to fly into a rage when being bought a soft pretzel by a male as a gesture to merely end their hunger because they had change and she only had a £20 and the prospect of everyone recogising when a woman is genuinely being patronised under the disguise of chivalry.
    I think I’ll just stay in today.

  7. January 27, 2012

    I used to know a guy (I suspect some readers may know who) who refuses to swear in front of women and even stands up when one enters a room. This makes him come off like a FUCKING CREEP. He also hasn’t had a girlfriend in like 5 years so that kind of speaks for itself.

    I guess some guys may have been taught to open doors for women or whatever and haven’t given too much thought as to why?
    What if some things where women come first serve as a good balance for the places where men come first? Like grammar rules and letterheads (because someone has to, for the sake of neatness and consistency and I don’t mind of it’s the boys).

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