It’s time to go way beyond chivalry.

There’s a debate raging right now over the role of chivalry in society today. Writer Emily Esfahani Smith published an article in The Atlantic called “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance,” which has generated many different reactions. Yesterday, there was a debate on CBC’s Q between Smith and Peter Glick, a psychology professor. I caught the tail end of the debate and was so intrigued by what I heard that I raced home to listen to the podcast. Since reading Smith’s article, I’ve come to some (sad) conclusions of my own.

Not realistic. She'll never get the vote this way. (photo: northernway.org)
Not realistic. She’ll never get the vote this way. Get a sword of your own, girl. (photo: northernway.org)

I’m a true romantic, a lover of fairy tales and historical lore such as the legends of King Arthur and the legacy of knighthood, so I’m genuinely sorry to admit that I agree with Peter Glick that chivalry no longer has a place in society today. We women who consider ourselves feminists and demand equality with men cannot expect men to open doors for us and pick up the cheque on a first date just because we are female. That is a double standard that’s incompatible with the goal of equality. What I can wish for without compromising feminism, however, is widespread politeness and respectful behaviour toward everyone, regardless of gender. If a man opens a door for me, it should be because he’s positioned more favourably than I am for opening said door, or else I’ve got my hands full with kids and can’t do it. In that case, anyone should open that door for me, male or female, because it’s the decent thing to do, and I’d do the same for someone else.

What bothers me about chivalry is the inherent condescension toward women that hails from a time when women were viewed as the weaker sex in need of male protection. Yes, women are at greater risk in society still today; there’s a reason why we can’t walk alone at night in certain areas because of the risk of sexual assault. That, however, signifies a much greater societal problem that runs deeper than chivalrous behaviour could ever fix. When Smith mentioned the disgusting antics of some Yale frat boys who were recently caught chanting “No means yes; yes means anal” on campus, I disagree with her argument that am emphasis on chivalry could improve this sort of behaviour. I think that castration would do a better job than door-opening lessons, or even the five-year suspension they got. (Ok, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get the point.)

Glick made one fascinating argument agains chivalry. Countries that espouse notions of chivalry, or “benevolent sexism,” as he called it, are usually places that endorse anti-feminism, such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, etc. Countries with the lowest levels of benevolent sexism are Denmark, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, etc. The problem with chivalrous notions toward women are that when the women fail to live up to that innocent, vulnerable, pure, ideal stereotype that men consider worthy of their chivalry, this leads to “hostile sexism.” (Think burkas and hijabs.)

I still don't grasp the concept of how it's acceptable to make half of a country's population walk around with bags over their heads so that the other half doesn't face temptation. (photo: heruni.com)
I still don’t get how it’s acceptable to make half of a country’s population walk around with bags over their heads so that the other half doesn’t face temptation. (photo: heruni.com)

What needs to be emphasized is education. Families need to teach their sons how to treat women decently, as equal humans toward whom any sort of condescending behaviour is unacceptable. Girls need to understand that it’s not a bad thing for a guy to open a door or carry groceries if circumstances make it sensible to do so, but she shouldn’t have an attitude of entitlement or expect this to be the norm, nor should a girl hesitate from doing the same for anyone else in a similar position. It’s about human compassion and generosity and politeness. Feeling like a “lady” is wonderful, but it’s not necessary for a man to take on a patriarchal, condescending attitude for that to come about.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this highly contentious issue. Do you think that chivalry still has a place in today’s society? How does chivalry affect women and men nowadays?

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7 thoughts on “It’s time to go way beyond chivalry.

  1. Thats pretty much how I feel about it, although I took a different approach. Treating someone like a human just seems so much more valid than treating them like a man or a woman since our brains cant help but invoke stereotype, especially when gender is involved. Nice ‘Sword of Truth’ reference by the way.

  2. Great post Katherine. It is not only, though, that the families only have to teach children about equality. It is also society, television, neighbourhood, toys industry, children books, and good law application. In societies such as Egypt that I have been exposed I felt nice being a woman as men take care of you – opening door, bying gifts for you, talk in a very kind way etc. But on the other hand when women want to talk and say their opinions are not equal – not only in their households, work etc but also in the courts. Two women equal one man witness. On the other hand, in the western world people are not kind in many cases – speak very unkind, do not care for each other, stay apathetic. I was for some months in London, UK and I have seen thsi first hand as well. I think that the solution is a balance between the two.
    In many instances, I am wondering why at school we only learn grammar, numbers etc. but not real social skills and phychology. In schools, in most of the cases, we only learn about behaviourism – how to hebave not how to think and balance our social life.

  3. Funny, I never thought of the acts of chivalry, such as opening a door for me, as condescending. They were acts to empower woman. I always thought it was a stepping aside so that I could go in first and get wherever we were headed first. I always thought the rule for a man to wait for the woman to extend a handshake was to give the woman more control over whomever she wishes to engage in conversation. Such chivalrous acts are an attempt, however meager, to balance the great inequalities against woman in society. The answer is not to do away with these courtesies to create an even greater unbalance. We need more of them. They are like an indicator species by which we can guage the health of a society. If we fail to teach our young boys and men the acts of chivalry to women (whom, in youth, they are likely to sneer at), how will they learn them for anyone later on in life? They are a necessary step to becoming a gentleman. These rules serve a very important function in our society. I have raise girls and boys. Believe me, it is much harder to teach social graces to boys. They seem to gravitate to boorish behaviour. The training has to start young. They need very strong, and very clearly defined rules about how to treat the girls. This training is invaluable later on in life, when they will have to treat everyone with respect, chivalry and a good deal of restraint.
    The first quality I looked for in my search for a good husband was courtesy and a touch of chivalrous flair. Was he a gentlemen? If he could be magnanimous with me in the small things, then he would be more likely to be so with the larger issues in my marriage. It was a good measuring stick. My husband is always a gentlemen and totally my equal.

    1. Great comment, Elizabeth! But I couldn’t resist this one, so here goes 😉 :

      Let me first say that I fully advocate that more men need to behave as gentlemen; it would solve a lot of problems. However, the issue I have is not when feminists advocate and demand reform and equal rights. Quite the contrary – I am fully in favour of and in support of the movement. It’s when some of those same women expect men to follow tradition “because it’s romantic, and it’s the nice / gentlemanly thing to do” when, for instance, expecting a man to always pay for dates, or expecting a diamond engagement ring of a specific carat weight. In other words, some women seem to flip-flop between reformation and tradition when deciding which of the two they benefit from most. Unfortunately, quite often in a male-female dynamic, both of the former involve the man giving up more. True feminists know that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. If the sexes are to be treated equally, then there can be no double standards. True equality is not inequality that time-averages to zero, i.e. the unfairness that women suffered for so long does not mean that the pendulum should swing to the other extreme for a predetermined period of time, so the “making up for lost time” argument doesn’t sit well with me. If a woman expects a man to hold a door open for her, then a man is justified in expecting the same from a woman if their positions are reversed. If a woman expects an engagement ring, guess what? The man has every right to expect one in return. I don’t see how “the rule for a man to wait for the woman to extend a handshake to give the woman more control over whomever she wishes to engage in conversation” in any way approximates equality. Moreover, the general expectation that a man is supposed to approach a woman he is interested in would be greatly hindered by this “rule.” It fosters supplication of one gender to another. Both sexes should have equal control over whether or not they want to meet someone. If I want to meet someone, male or female, I’ll come over and introduce myself with a handshake. What anyone else thinks about me, especially prior to meeting him / her, is none of my business (after an introduction it’s a different story, but my point relates to the moments preceding introduction.)

      Chivalry, as it was known a hundred years ago, does not have a place in today’s world. Why? Because many acts that were considered chivalrous a hundred years ago and before would now not only seem weird, they would be downright condescending to a woman. I’ve never met a woman who would be okay with her man to order her meal for her without discussing with her beforehand. That said, I believe that there is a way for a man to be chivalrous in a modern sense, and not come off like a pretentious, old-fashioned misogynist. Taking a napkin and wrapping it around a lady’s glass when ordering a drink so that her fingers don’t get wet from the condensation = classy, modern chivalry. Offering a lady your coat if she’s cold? Ditto. Placing said coat over a puddle for a lady to walk over so she doesn’t get her feet wet? Archaic, and pretty silly. However, even though women are fully able to function correctly without being babied or receiving preferential treatment, many do find very romantic the idea of a man who knows about the finer points of social etiquette, has read
      Emily Post, and will walk on the outside of the curb while strolling down a boulevard. This brings us to my next point on being a gentleman.

      A man who is not a gentleman is not, by my reckoning, a man at all. He is still emotionally and mentally a boy. I agree with you that we need to teach the boys of our generation how to be gentlemen – by my definition, the men, the true men, already are. The onus for this, however, is squarely on the guys. Strong, mature, masculine, emotionally healthy men have a responsibility to teach the younger males of our society how to have integrity, to stand up for what they believe in, to not abuse positions of power, to always be honest, ethical and authentic when dealing with both men and women, and to treat women with respect. The thing about the word “gentleman” that most people misunderstand is that it’s not at all about being a man who seeks a woman’s (or anyone’s) approval, who pretends as if he has no sexual desires, who tries to “convince” or “logic” a woman into feeling attraction for him, who believes that if he does all the “right”, we’ll call them “chivalrous” things, that a woman will fall in love with him because he’s a “good, decent, non-threatening guy.” No, a gentleman treats everyone as an equal, and makes no excuses for nor tries to hide his desires or who he is. He is authentic, both tactful and blunt as the need arises, and uses chivalry as a way to enhance a woman’s experience with him – in my opinion, the chivalry is the icing on the cake. If all a man has are chivalrous acts learned by wrote, a woman will quickly see through this. In her book, “Bad Boys”, author Carole Lieberman writes:

      “What is a bad boy?
      He is a rebel without a cause, a cool dude in a motorcycle jacket, a real life Huckleberry Finn, who wants to take you on a wild river ride of adventure. He is wounded, moody, misunderstood, a dreamer, a seducer, a daredevil; he is a man of mystery, and a fascinating paradox.
      He is both a lost little boy, and a man with a dark side. He breaks your heart with his wicked ways, but whether he is a wanton wolf, or a dangerous desperado, he makes you long to rescue him from his pain. He is hurtful, cruel, or simply careless and self-absorbed, but you can’t resist jumping on his motorcycle, and roaring off into the steamy night with him. And once you have given him your heart forever, he is gone with the wind.
      He is someone who sets off throbbing sexual and aggressive passions inside you, and because he is aloof and elusive, you get caught up in the challenge and the excitement of the chase. Though he is not always someone you would really want, even if you did capture him. A bad boy may tell you he is generally right, he is a frog you hope to turn into a fairy tale prince, with the magic of your kiss.”

      Am I saying that men should all be “bad boys” and do away with social courtesy? No, but there is something in the quote that should be highlighted. Rather, it’s what’s not in the quote that is striking: nowhere does it mention the bad boy’s “impeccable social graces”, or “wicked skills with chivalry.” My point? A gentleman embraces both his dark and his light sides, and uses both for constructive purposes – he does not try to repress those parts of his nature that religious / cultural influence, social conditioning, or Oprah say that he should be ashamed of. On top of this, he adds a sprinkle of chivalry, and that, in my opinion, is where magic happens.

      To close, regarding your statement, “The answer is not to do away with these courtesies to create an even greater unbalance. We need more of them.” I completely agree with you. Men and women both need to be more courteous, which is Katherine’s original message in her post. Only in that way will we put ourselves on the road to true equality.

  4. I am in the ‘keep the chivalry’ camp, but I don’t think feminism means losing chivalrous behaviour. Here, I’ve had male drivers stop in their cars to let me and my children cross even very quiet roads. It doesn’t feel condescending – it feels like a very gracious act. My husband is my protector and our kids protector – he puts us on the inside of pavements, does the driving if we’re together etc, but he’s not being sexist. He is the man of the family and I am the woman.

    Women are as respected here as they are in the West, albeit in a different way to the UK. I am a feminist, in that I believe in equal rights for women, but we are different to men and when I see how much the porn industry has infiltrated the mainstream media, I can’t help feeling us women are somehow being played for fools by misogyny disguised as empowerment.

    Also following ‘hijab’ is for many of my friends here an expression of their faith, is is their own personal choice, and it has nothing at all to do with ‘hostile sexism’. Men and women here are expected to keep their shoulders, midriff and down to their knees covered. Even the expats who complain about it when they first arrive, tend to appreciate it after a few months. It feels like good manners and not opressive in any way.

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