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.
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.)
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?