Keep The Gift, Pay What You Owe
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?
Despite 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: