Chivalry is dying, but that’s not a bad thing

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

If you could put one thing from the world into ‘Room 101’, banishing it forever from the planet, what would you choose and why? There’s plenty I’d be tempted to go for, I am a person who gets angry about a lot of things: plastic cups, pear cider (it’s NOT FUCKING CIDER), or men on Twitter explaining my own bra to me. And that’s before you even get started on the important bits like war, poverty, and every political ad that’s ever been shown on Facebook. But there’s one particular concept that seems ready to disappear: chivalry. Chivalry is on the way out, and I won’t be sorry to see it go.

I only mention Room 101 because in the most recent episode of the BBC show, Chris Kamara wanted to banish something fairly controversial: men who don’t stand up for women on the tube. And it got me thinking about our notion of ‘chivalry.’

Chris seems like a nice dude. He gets genuinely annoyed by situations in which people who don’t need to sit down end up sitting down, while those who might need a seat have to stand. And I am down with this. It’s polite to offer your seat to someone who may need it more than you: if they’re heavily pregnant, or using a walking stick, or just struggling with the rattling jolts of the Bakerloo line. Chris is a nice bloke. But that’s exactly the problem with ‘chivalry’ – it tricks nice blokes into thinking that sexism is a character strength.

What exactly is ‘chivalry’?

Ask your average person on the street, and they will probably tell you that ‘chivalry’ is about treating women with respect, via the medium of performing small gestures of politeness: opening doors, offering your seat, or walking on the outside of the pavement so that we don’t get our pretty dresses splashed in the wake of a passing omnibus. If you pushed harder, your average person might link chivalry to days of yore when knights would ride around the country saving maidens from terrifying fates, waving big swords around, and then writing tortured poetry in the language of courtly love.

In fact, that idea of chivalry is one that we’ve built over time, and it has very little to do with knights giving respect to women.  As Dr Eleanor Janeger, of the blog ‘Going medieval’ explains:

“Basically then chivalry and the chivalric code has fuck all to do with women at all. It’s a bunch of rules about how to conduct yourself if you are a rich dude, with a horse, a lot of weapons, and time on your hands. Saying that you treat women well because of chivalry makes about as much sense as saying you treat them well because of the highway code. It’s just not a thing.”

Read the whole blog post, because it’s ace, and if you want to fall right down the ‘weird shit people used to believe about romance in medieval times’ you should also check out this post on courtly love. The long and the short of it is that our ideas around ‘courtly love’ are based on some fairly terrifying ideas about possession, ownership and deserving-a-shag-just-because-you-relentlessly-pursued-a-woman.

What’s wrong with chivalry?

So our modern understanding of chivalry is not only wrong, it also frames women as meek and fragile, while men are their valiant protectors. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, it turns out that not only are women NOT universally meek and fragile, men might not all be knights in shining armour either. I could bang on in this vein for ages: gender is not the simple binary that we thought it was; women don’t need to be patronised by strangers; often what looks like ‘chivalry’ is actually a come-on in disguise so unsurprisingly quite a few women are suspicious of it for this reason… etc.

But I won’t go too far down that rabbit hole: from a feminist perspective you’ll either already agree with me or be unlikely to be persuaded by anything I can say from this perspective. So let’s switch tack: let’s have a look at why chivalry sucks for men.

Men: abandon your ideas about chivalry

Chivalry makes nice dudes act like dickheads. It tells men that in order to be ‘nice’ to women, you must treat us like we are delicate flowers capable of being crushed at any minute. That’s fundamentally not a nice thing to believe, and it’s why I suspect that ‘opening doors’ and other little politenesses nevertheless cause a bit of cognitive dissonance for the men who do them. I have lost count of the number of times ‘chivalry’ (in this limited, non-medieval sense where it means ‘being polite to women’) has been raised as a potential counterpoint to feminist thinking.

“I thought I was meant to open doors for you, why do you now want to be equal? You can open your own door!”

This argument trips so easily off the tongue because… well, because it’s basically right: women don’t need extra help opening doors purely because of our gender. Because at the heart of this weird concept of chivalry there’s a fairly unequal idea: the idea that women are incapable of performing the same tasks that men are.

That doesn’t mean the men who do it are terrible people, but it does mean that our world would be better off if we let the concept quietly ride off on its warhorse into the sunset.

Chivalry does not equal niceness

There are millions of men who have grown up with the message that ‘chivalry’ is essentially the same as ‘basic human politeness’, so understandably when women like me tell them not to give us their seats on the tube, they’re puzzled and worried. Torn between wanting to be nice and not wanting to offend, they dither and panic like… well, like me when I want to stand up for an older guy but I’m worried he’ll be put out if he realises I thought he looked frail.

If you’ve been taught that something is polite, dropping the habit can be tricky. And it can be hurtful, if you think you’re doing something nice, to be told that actually what you’re doing is a bit patronising. That’s why I don’t reply to men offering me their seat with a scream of rage and a dressing-down: I usually just say ‘no thanks, I’m fine.’ There will be some women who reply by accepting the offer of a seat, and some of them will probably be hacked off that I’m even writing this post. Especially if they’re wearing heels and they’ve been standing up all day.

But by my reckoning, people in heels who’ve been standing up all day can still be offered seats on the tube, it’s just that now you can offer them your seat because they look knackered, rather than because they look feminine. It means that dudes who wear heels/have been on their feet all day/look knackered will get exactly the same treatment.

Offering seats to those who need them: good.

Assuming women will always fall into that category: not good.

You don’t need to stop opening doors, or saying a friendly ‘hello’, or RSVPing politely to dinner party invitations: you just need to drop the idea that these are things you should do on the basis of gender. Who doesn’t want to receive basic courtesy from people they meet? You can hold doors for men too, if they’re walking towards them. You can stand up for older guys on the tube. You can do all the nice things that you’d previously have done under the guise of ‘chivalry’, except that this time you’re doing them because you’re nice, not because you’re sexist.

The ‘S’ word is a bit controversial here purely because of the apparent ‘niceness’ of chivalry: those who practise this modern version of chivalry always do so because they think it’s a nice thing to do. They expect it to be gratefully received. And so when the response is ‘that’s sexist’ they feel hurt and defensive, because in their minds they were doing a good thing.

But you can be nice anyway. To everyone. Regardless of gender. If chivalry is dead, it doesn’t mean all the knights in shining armour are dead too, it just means they’ve been given a different brief: be nice to people because they need it, not because they’re women.

6 Comments

  • Aurora Glory says:

    So interesting to read about how the term chivalry originated. I rarely come across men who are chivalrous to be honest, so it must be dying out. I’ve been the heavily pregnant girl stood on the bus whilst people just shoved past me. I think because of that, when it does occur with strangers it makes me uncomfortable.
    I completely agree with you, if someone looks like they need your seat, offer it to them. But I don’t need it just because I’m a woman.
    Aurora x

  • Hazelthecrow says:

    exactly my feelings on the subject. I’ve been practising equal-opportunities chivalry for a while now, using actions to gently remind the older-of-fashion that I dont need pretty-flowering, but that being generally polite to everyone is great and yes please to that. Chronic invisible illness would very much like the seat for looking knackered! My favourite move is to cheerfully accept a chap opening the door for me, so that I’m then a pace ahead and able to equally cheerfully open the next one for him. The arched eyebrow along with a jolly ‘no, after You’ gets a sheepish recognition every time.

  • Phillip says:

    I live in the US. I don’t speak your English very well and I hope you do better with my ‘dialect’. It has been my observation that over a period of decades the door opening ritual is changing. There is the gender issue, but more and more I see that opening the door is a form of politeness. One person reaching the door at a millisecond before the other will maybe hold the door for the other. This is often between men and I don’t know about how it is with women. I suspect that it is the same. Some subconscious cue determines who holds the door and who says “thanks” and walks through. Perhaps the problem has finally coming down to the ‘door’? It could even be the opening of a dialogue that could help us all in these tenuous times. One can always hope.

    Since gender equality is very important to achieve, I open the door for everyone upon receiving that subconscious cue.

  • Hislordship says:

    I started to add a comment, which then turned into such a length it became a post onmy site!

    Author Jim Butcher is quoted to say, “For me chivalry isn’t dead; it’s an involuntary reflex.” To some level I personally agree, as this is how my mind works. What isn’t clear is how he defines chivalry. For me it is about being aware of your surroundings, reacting accordingly and appropriately. For example, I would always stand and offer my seat to an elderly person, male or female, more out of respect than anything else. I open doors for men and women equally especially if I am in a group, or entering a shopping centre, where I might hold a door half open after I have passed through it.

    Quite recently I ran for a train with a female colleague in Dubai. In my rush I failed to notice I had entered a ‘pink’ carriage – no men allowed! My error was soon realised and before my colleague could drag me over the line (yes, a line) in to the mixed sex area, (no sex being offered) I turned and apologised to the ladies in the immediate area. In another situation I saw a very healthy young lady standing on London Underground train with one arm above her head holding a safety handle. (Ever since I was a kid I thought they looked phallic!) Anyway, I gave my seat to the young lady as I could see one or two business types getting into her personal space; she accepted, and she knew why I had offered. When I went to leave the train, she touched my arm and said thank you. It makes your day better when you can do something for a stranger or a stranger does something for you.

    I am in a D/s relationship and I insist that I open my wife’s car door for her. People see this and comment, and more often it is positive. Am I being chivalrous or just paying special attention that is not run-of-the-mill for most people? I admit it come close to throwing down my coat over a puddle, although I’m not THAT keen!

    Being observant and kind by offering seats or holding doors does not make you more of a potential rapist, or disrespectful to women. It makes you half civilised and a contributor, not a leech on society.

    Women are just percentage of the gender pool I do things for as a human being to say, ‘I see you and I recognise you!”

  • James DeGale says:

    Why is it that you’re only comfortable with role play during sex? You’re seemingly happy for a man to treat you like a piece of meat purely there for his pleasure during sex, but not for him to hold the door open or offer you his seat on the train. As if everything outside the bedroom is the ‘real world’ where actions must be taken to their extreme logical conclusion (man offers me his seat, therefore he must think that I am weak and inferior) but everything that occurs in the bedroom (quote: “I am only there for one simple thing: to provide a warm, wet hole for him to fuck”) seemingly has no consequences for how male-female relationships are framed. If you think that a man who is socially conditioned to be chivalrous subconsciously harbours sexist views, why do you not also feel that allowing a man to use you purely as a something to “dump his spunk inside” (another quote from your blog) doesn’t also result in conditioning him to see women as inferior?

    • Girl on the net says:

      “Why is it that you’re only comfortable with role play during sex?”
      Because that kind of role play is often hot during sex – with people I have specifically chosen to be with, and who understand and respect my desires.

      “You’re seemingly happy for a man to treat you like a piece of meat purely there for his pleasure during sex, but not for him to hold the door open or offer you his seat on the train.”
      The former is consensual sex with someone I know, doing activities I like, the latter is a stranger making assumptions about me and on the basis of those assumptions doing things that I don’t like. I genuinely can see no connection between these two things.

      “why do you not also feel that allowing a man to use you purely as a something to “dump his spunk inside” (another quote from your blog) doesn’t also result in conditioning him to see women as inferior?”
      I don’t ‘allow’ a man to use me, I ask my partner for the kind of sex I like, and we have the kind of sex we like together. It would only result in ‘conditioning him to see women as inferior’ if he – like you – did not understand that I have thoughts and desires and feelings, or if he didn’t listen to those thoughts and desires and feelings.

      I think the reason this is so tricky for you to get is you seem to be incapable of understanding that I have an internal life. I don’t ‘allow’ this shit, I desire it. And the men with whom I do it understand that I am a whole human person, capable of consenting to some things in certain contexts, and withdrawing my consent from other things that make me uncomfortable. Saying that I should be happy to be treated like shit by all men because I occasionally enjoy role-playing submission with *specific* men is deeply creepy and fucked up.

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