Let’s talk about chivalry.
I asked for email topic requests in my Instagram stories, and a man asked me to talk about whether or not chivalry is “dead” in today’s new political climate, and if so what we should do instead. (More and more men seem to be reading my work– I see you and appreciate you, men!)
I have many thoughts on this topic of course, none of which have anything to do with this new political climate. The whole concept of chivalry has bothered me since I was child. Even back then, I identified it as an extension of the fucked up gender expectations and gender performances that were forced upon us and never quite fit.
So while I personally wish chivalry died a long time ago, I can certainly acknowledge that many people (male and female alike!) really like it, and don’t want to give it up. I see this being especially true among women who want to be treated “like a lady,” and men who appreciate having a code to ensure they’re treating people well.
That’s why, instead of simply going on a rant about how chivalry sucks, I think we should open up a conversation about how to examine and update this code as needed.
Let’s begin by defining chivalry, since I think people tend to mistake “chivalry” with “general kindness and friendliness,” which creates heated confusion.
You probably know that chivalry began with the Medieval knights, but when we use it nowadays we’re typically referring to the behaviors of a man who upholds the old-fashioned standards of character and conduct associated with being a gallant knight. It particularly refers to how he treats women, and most often with respect to the etiquette of heterosexual dating.
What people consider chivalrous can vary, but some common behaviors include: picking a woman up for a date instead of meeting there, paying on the first date, opening doors and pulling out chairs for a woman, waiting until she is seated to sit, walking on the street side of the sidewalk to keep her from getting splashed, standing up from a table whenever she arrives or leaves, walking her to the door after a date, and asking her father for his blessing before proposing.
Let’s bear in mind here that the etiquette we now think of as chivalry were created back in the olden days when privileged “ladies” could barely do anything (due to their nonexistent social privilege and restrictive clothing) other than sit around and fan themselves.
I mean… of course you had to pull a chair out for a lady, her whalebone corset prevented her from doing it herself. Of course you pay on a first date, women couldn’t have their own bank accounts. Of course you had to ask her father for permission to marry her, she was his property!
But nowadays, many people defend chivalry by telling me that it’s just about simple acts of kindness and respect.
I don’t buy that though. Simple acts of kindness (paying for the person behind you in line, offering to help someone struggling with something, or holding the door for the next person when they’re close) are awesome… but those things have nothing to do with chivalry.
Chivalry as we know it is about the appropriate code of conduct regarding gender roles, specifically regarding how men treat women. If you believe in chivalry but it’s gender-blind, then you don’t believe in chivalry. You believe in kindness. (So do I!)
Don’t get me wrong, I actually think how we view gender roles and gender performance is a super interesting and important modern topic worthy of examination. Which is actually my biggest issue with chivalry– it isn’t an examination. It’s a mindless rulebook, a stand-in for actually considering what we think counts as appropriate, courteous, and kind behavior.
I once dated a guy who was incredibly chivalrous. He was obsessed with treating his mama right, he held doors and paid for meals, and he once got in a fight to defend his sister’s honor. He was also an incredibly sexist asshole who fell back on this code of honor in order to walk around feeling righteous and better than other people. All I wanted was for someone to listen to me, but he was too busy “being a man” and protecting me from dishonor to do that.
Being chivalrous is too often like that- it gets in the way of genuine kindness and connection, instead of facilitating it.
Many people seem to think that we need to update which behaviors are considered chivalrous to “get with the times.” But that still feels like missing the point. Why do we need to create a new rulebook to follow?
Having a rulebook– even an updated one!– still feels lazy and presumptuous to me, like a workaround so men don’t have to learn the important skills of being present, paying attention, and communicating clearly. A man can just do these specific things (whether or not they benefit the woman) and then rest assured that he is a good, upstanding man who did everything he could.
We can do better that that.
If men stopped presuming they know the right way to treat women, they would have to ask and listen to women instead. This is much more vulnerable, complex, and uncomfortable. It would be much more daunting, because it puts men in danger of “messing up” as they move through the messy grey area of trying to be a good person without a rulebook.
This is exactly what I propose men learn to do.
We don’t need updated chivalry, we need more courage, openness, and communication.
Note: If you’re a man who loves to spoil women with old-fashioned manners, or a woman who loves when men treat you “like a lady,” that’s fine! By all means, enjoy the women and men in your life who are open to this. But don’t mistake your personal preference for how “men should be.” Masculinity doesn’t need to be defined by narrow and arbitrary standards of behavior, and holding all men to that standard does everyone a disservice.
Come on over to Instagram or Facebook to join the discussion today, and share your thoughts on this!
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