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.