Most of my friends know my stance on chivalry: it needs to rest in a watery grave. Some of them think that I go overboard with my outspoken hatred of a tradition that is supposedly about “good manners.” They think that if I try to dismantle the system that I’ll deprive them of the privilege of having their SO’s do anything from open car doors for them to give them flowers. But, what they don’t get is that I could care less what arrangements they make with the people in their lives. I care about what people try to do to me without my consent. I care about what the unspoken “rules” of chivalry mean for me and other women. And that is why I hate chivalry in its current incarnation, not because I’m against people opening doors for each other or whatever other considerate gestures they wish to extend.
Over in the feminist LJ, police_my_lips has sparked a discussion on the matter. I’d like to pull some choice quotes from commenters and elaborate on my own experiences and opinions.
I. Chivalry: Then and Now
I’ll defer a bit to Miss Manners: Chivalric etiquette was an improvement on the previous system of “Ladies never.” Nevertheless, symbolically declaring women too superior to run the everyday world had an amazingly similar effect to declaring them too inferior. And by the way, chivalry originally applied only to upper-class ladies, and while a version of it was extended to the middle class in the nineteenth century, it never inspired anyone to defer to the lower classes.
With that in mind, I think it’s important to note that “chivalry” was not only sexist, but also classist. It never existed in the way some people today like to claim it did, and ought to be declared thoroughly dead, hopefully replaced by the idea that all people ought to treat each other with respect.
The only place chivalry seems to come up these days is by people making the argument that feminism is BAD because it requires people to be mean to men who hold doors open to women. Clearly, this is the most pressing and foremost issue for moden feminism.[Comment by night101owl]
While chivalry certainly lingers on in part as another way to discredit us feminists as over-the-top, and that kind of bad PR is definitely worth addressing, I’ve found that it lingers on in spirit as well as name in other areas. I think these areas also need to be looked at in order for us to dismantle a tradition rooted in sexism and classism and replace it with a tradition that is focused on being considerate to all people. Remember, folks, good manners is helping people in need regardless of their gender, class, race, orientation, or what have you.
II. The difference between chivalry and good manners
Right. People sympathetic to chivalry often point out how certain behaviors, like holding open doors, can sometimes be the polite (or nice, or helpful, or friendly) thing to do. What we’re saying is that politeness is fine, but treating women based on a code that means treat us as fragile glass creatures is not. We put in the politeness bit to preempt people who would try to explain how chivalry and politeness are the same, or coterminous.[Comment by trinityva, emphasis mine]
Good manners is about respect. It’s not respectful to treat a woman in a way that limits her personal freedom without her consent. It’s about doing things to help out those of your kind, regardless of their gender expression, chromosomal set, or sexual organs. It’s about helping because you want to help, not because society/your parents/your family/your friends have told you to.
Chivalry, in its original form and the bastardized version that’s touted today, may include common courtesies but the gendered slant takes it out of the arena of strict good manners. It’s good manners with conditions: I’ll open this door for you if you’re a woman, because I’m supposed to be nice to women. I’ll buy dinner for you because you’re a woman. I’ll do this and that because you’re a woman and my parents told me that women need/want to be treated this way. Not, you know, because we should be kind to those around us.
III. It’s about helping women, right? Wrong.
“Chivalry’s not dead? Let’s slay it.”
I often hear people say, “Ha ha, chivalry’s not dead. Awww.” Grrr.
If men really want to assist women, how about joining the fight for equal wages and political power? How about working for the maintenance of reproductive rights? How about boycotting the sexist, Anglo-centric, anti-fat, media?
(Nota bene: I know that many men already do these things. I’m just developing an argument, y’all.)
Through chivalry, opening the doors to cars and buildings for women and pulling out their chairs signifies that men want to help women. So, if by chivalry men demonstrate that they want to aid women, fine; do something that actually helps. (Nota bene: I know that men do things to help women, c.f. Men Against Rape, Dads for Daughters. Just developing the argument.)
Also, by holding that women are more fragile and delicate than men and also that women are more virtuous and trusting (hello, gender roles), chivalry cripples women: it puts them on a pedestal and renders them in need of protection from the cruel wiles of the worldly outside. Lastly, by saying that women are “more (fill in the blank)” than men are, chivalry doesn’t help equality between the sexes that we feminists work for.[Comment by alaiyo, emphasis mine]
First off, I find it really sad that alaiyo has to qualify her arguments with “of course this doesn’t apply to all men” statements. That should be obvious; there are men (feminist, pro-feminist, and non-feminist) who concern themselves with actually helping women. Not surprisingly, in my experience they are also ones don’t consider themselves to be chivalrous.
Does that mean that my non-chivalrous friends are uncooth men who would slam a door in the face of a woman whose hands were full of groceries? Well, no. But they wouldn’t slam a door in the face of a man whose hands were full of groceries, either, something that chivalry allows by omission. How many “chivalrous” men think about other men when they hold open doors? Or rush to pull out another man’s chair? Not many, in my experience. And, at least in the chair-pulling instance, the act would probably be considered highly offensive to the recipient of such “chivalry”. But we women aren’t allowed to be offended by those same acts. We’re not allowed to speak up against them, or to ask for such acts not to extend to us. It’s just good manners after all.
And that, to me, is one of the ways that chivalry is exposed for what it really is: a way to control women by forcing “courtesy” on us. The veneer of good manners is just a smokescreen to make it hard for women to break away from the controlling aspects. Women get “special” treatment, whether we like it or not.
I once had a friend who wanted to be “chivalrous” towards me, so he would run ahead of me to open doors. In itself, it wouldn’t be so bad, except that even after I told him I didn’t like or appreciate that kind of behaviour, he would still do it and if I beat him to a door he wouldn’t walk through it.
That, while an extreme example, is not the only instance of that kind of thing. Almost always when I bring up with my chivalrous male friends that I don’t want a door opened for me, or I don’t want my chair pulled out, or whatever, they try to shame me by telling me that I’m oversensitive, that I should be glad for their help, etc. Sorry if I, you know, think my opinions should be the deciding factor in what people do to me. My apologies, fellows. I’ll just go back to being the fragile desert flower who needs protection from big, strong men who couldn’t give a shit about my happiness.
IV. Don’t ruin my romance!
I like my b/f giving me flowers as much as I like doing it for him. I hold open the doors for people to be courteous and I appreciate the same in return. Politeness, niceness, heck even being “romantic” is wonderful so long as you’re not set a certain “role” to play based on your gender! That’s my view =)[Comment by rosalynmoon]
One of the most infuriating arguments I get from my female friends (who also try to shame me when I bring up my displeasure with chivalry) is that I’m trying to ruin the romance from them. Because they want their SOs to open doors for them, or to give them flowers, or whatever, I have to have the same treatment or suddenly I’m on a crusade to control what they do in their personal lives.
As rosalynmoon’s comment demonstates, feminists aren’t out to ruin romance for people. If you like getting flowers, great. If you want your SO to open doors for you, great. These are things that you discuss when you get together with your SO, so that you can be treated the way you want to be treated. You see how I am not part of this process?
For me, romance isn’t flowers. It isn’t opening of doors, or pulling out of chairs. I like to pay my share of the meal, or treat my SO to a movie on occasion. I like to be involved in major decisions, outside of perhaps a couple surprise parties or whatever. I like being a partner in my relationships, both intimate and friendly. I’m not a delicate flower, and to treat me as such is the deepest insult to my personhood. It is a dismissal of who I am and what I stand for. It is not courteous, it is rude.
V. Final Thoughts
Being nice is good.
Being friendly is good.
Being helpful is good.
Being polite is good.
Bullshit codes about how to treat people based on gender? Not so good.
“Needing” bullshit codes about how to treat people based on gender to remind you to be nice, friendly, helpful, and polite to women? Fucked the hell up.[Comment by trinityva]
If chivalry really is good manners, then why do a good portion of the men that I hold doors open for refuse to go through? Why am I not allowed to define what kinds of “courtesy” I want to receive from my friends? Why are people treated differently based on their gender expression? Why is an act from a man to a woman considered appropriate, but that very same act from a man to another man not?
Every culture, every nation, and every individual have different ideas on how they want to be treated. If you want to give me a courtesy, then give me the courtesy of respecting me on my terms for a change.