Weighed Down by the Baggage of Chivalry

This weekend, a man insisted on holding a door for me and I felt a small twinge of anger. I’ve had this feeling before. It usually comes when a guy is doing something “nice” for me.

Sure, holding the door is a polite gesture, but I can’t help but ask: Why is he doing that? What’s the motive? What’s the assumption? What’s the fear?

I am very capable of holding a door open for myself. I am always prepared to pay for my meals. I like pulling out my own chair. So why does it keep happening? And, why is the notion of chivalry so revered in our society?

Historically, chivalry is the combination of all the ideal qualifications of a medieval knight—generosity, bravery, civility—in a time when women were considered objects and had no freedoms whatsoever.

But, currently, what is it?

Many people feel that chivalrous men are those who respect women, who treat them with kindness, and do them no harm.

To me, it just feels like we are still in a time when, according to my grandfather, “traditional values were strongly intact.” It feels like a reiteration of the old-fashioned idea that men are innately stronger, more powerful, and more financially secure than women.  It’s as if we’ve taken a step backwards in the immense progress we have made towards gender equality.

How can chivalry be considered respect when it derives from the idea that women are weak and men must be prepared to protect and save them? How can we promote a concept that most people still directly relate to damsels in distress and women’s inferior status?

I’ve expressed these thoughts to friends and, while some tend to have views similar to mine, others look at me in confusion and ask, “So, you would rather men just be rude to you?”

NO, THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M SAYING!

I have never desired to be disrespected by a man….no, let me rephrase that: I have never desired to be disrespected by anyone—regardless of gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, etc. Why is it so pertinent that men act a certain way towards women? Is this implying that there is a specific way that women should act towards men? I don’t like the sound of that. In the past, women were men’s subordinates. If chivalry still exists, does this belief also persist in the modern day?

Men and women are both taught that it is respectful for a man to offer his seat to a woman and that it is rude if he doesn’t open the car door on a date. We may not consciously associate these acts with their origins—that males have historically been the bread-winners, the protectors, the more powerful sex—however, the ties are there, pulling on our society like an anchor. These actions – that claim to show respect for others – actually perpetuate the same hierarchy that has maintained a system of sexism and oppression for many years.  

Chivalry actually arose as an aristocratic warrior code in response to violence in the Middle Ages. It encouraged men to channel their aggression to protect the weak and vulnerable. But, it wasn’t all women that they were defending- it was a certain class and race of females who benefited from the privilege of protection, if they acted appropriately (read: submissively). Women who expressed their opinions or stepped out of line became recipients of violence, not chivalry. Working class and women of color were not sheltered at all. In fact, the notion that the protection of a select few was necessary actually enabled violence, making it courageous and justified.

The legacy of chivalry lives with us today. It’s in the way we think about ourselves, the way we internalize gender roles and the way we choose to act. It continues to shape norms, culture (and even violence) in our society. It challenges us every day as we try to navigate the narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity.

So, my proposition is this: let’s get rid of chivalry. Why on Earth are we still clinging to it?

Yes, a man should be kind to a woman and he should respect her….but shouldn’t he also respect other men, everyone, simply because we are all human beings who deserve the same amount of kindness?  Let’s replace this archaic word with another: courtesy. Everyone, no matter who it is, should treat everyone else with courtesy. With courtesy, there are no underlying meanings as to why one person treats another with respect and generosity. Yes, I realize that this is very idealistic, but if we train ourselves to unlearn the sexism embedded in our actions and we pass the new concept onto future generations, then maybe someday chivalry really will be a concept of medieval times and courtesy will be the overwhelming norm. I’m not saying that this day will be tomorrow, or even in fifty years. But maybe, just maybe, we will someday be rid of chivalry and all its baggage.

Emily Hauck ’14
Blog Editor
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