What Guys Today Don’t Understand About True Chivalry
The door, opened. The arm, proffered. The coat, laid down across the puddle.
Chivalry is rife with romantic gestures like these; symbolic interactions that harken back to a long-ago time when men were men, women were women, and that was all there was to it.
Over the course of the 20th century, as feminism picked up steam and wave after wave of gender-equalizing thought broke across the bow of the great ship Patriarchy, chivalry began to fall out of fashion.
You hear men asking these days — “Can I still open a door for you? Can I still pay for the date, or is that sexist?”
Where many women read a chauvinism into such questions — and they’re not necessarily wrong — it’s also fair that there’s a certain wounded pride there. Meaning, “I was taught to treat you one way, but I’m scared you’ll just get mad at me if I do.”
Chivalry is what men were taught for many generations. It wasn’t always what they practiced, but it was an agreed-upon standard for what the right thing to do was when interacting with women. You take off your hat in the elevator. You pull out the chair for her. Etcetera.
The problem men are faced with today isn’t that chivalry is dead; it’s that it’s neither alive nor dead, but in a grim, Stygian transit between states.
It’s true that many women bristle today at the trappings of traditional chivalry. All the little examples covered in the preceding sentences feel archaic, antique. Try them out on your next first date and you’d be forgiven for instinctively trying to brush the dust off first; the reactions you’d get would be as likely to be laughter as genuine offense. (To say nothing of a very soggy coat.)
But it’s worth examining what the real problem with chivalry is — why it’s considered outmoded and déclassé now, and which aspects of it we might want to retain, going forward.
One of the things that bothers women about chivalry, it’s worth trying to understand, has nothing, literally nothing to do with the actions themselves. It doesn’t even have anything to do with you, or your motivations. It has to do with the actions as signifiers.
When we take offense to things, we can’t know what is in the hearts of the people who are offending us. We can only look to how they come across — what they say, how they act, what they’re wearing, etc. In short, how their inner sentiments appear on a surface level.
If every time you hear a certain word being used it’s being used by people who feel a certain way about you, it’s hard not to associate that word with that feeling. That’s what hateful slurs are — a sentiment packed into a collection of syllables. There’s an imperfect relationship between the two, of course — a toddler can say a horrible thing without knowing what they’ve done; a horrible bigot can communicate their cruelty and hatred without ever tripping a censor.
But you only need to witness a specific thing associated with something that makes you feel negatively so many times before an association is formed. For many women, what’s offensive about chivalry is partly just that it was practiced primarily by men who did not respect women as full people.
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If you go out of your way to practice slightly old-school ways of being, you can’t be surprised if people worry your old-schoolness might extend from one thing to another. Given the prevailing sentiments at the time, the men who were chivalrous toward your great-grandmother probably also didn’t think she should vote, or hold political office, or own property.
There is nothing inherently offensive about getting the door for someone, or paying for someone’s meal, or trying to protect them from the elements. Most people were raised with the understanding that helping someone is something you should do; that it’s polite, and just.
But men being chivalrous toward women is a tradition that came from an era when they were used to treating women like porcelain dolls that needed comfort, guidance and protection from every little thing with one hand, and then denying them opportunities and rights with the other.
That leads us to a second important reason why chivalry has fallen out of favor.
If ever you’ve gotten annoyed when someone didn’t take you seriously, you’ll understand that frustration. It’s not fun being told you can’t do something or you’re not expected to be competent, particularly when you’ve been raised to believe the opposite.
Young women today grew up hearing that they could achieve whatever they wanted to; being treated like they’re fragile, penniless and brittle is annoying at best, exhausting at worst.
It’s true that there are still many women who genuinely appreciate chivalrous gestures; often, they’ll announce as much on their Tinder profiles, in hopes of snagging a fellow appreciator of the chivalric arts.
But if you’re looking for why, culturally, chivalry’s fallen by the wayside, it’s an ideology that hinges on an understanding of women that’s deeply archaic and out of step with how modern women want and expect to be treated.
Unfortunately, absent any real guidance on how to treat women in the wake of the shift away from chivalry, we’ve sort of made the mistake of thinking that women should just be treated the same as men. And sure, that’s true — in many ways. Women should be given the same opportunities as men: to be complex, heroic, venerated, successful, ambitious.
But what’s sad about all of this is that there’s a kind of chivalry it’s worth imagining modern men practicing — one that merges a contemporary understanding of and appreciation for the full personhood of women while also acknowledging that they experience the world differently than men do and men can and should use the privileges of their gender to help bridge the gap.
What does that chivalry look like? It looks like recognizing that, as a group, women are constantly on guard against male aggression. That women, on average, make less money than men for the same work, to say nothing of wages lost due to pregnancy and child-rearing. It looks like recognizing that women are often talked over or ignored by men in group settings, that men find authoritative or commanding women distasteful but don’t mind the same traits in their fellow men. It looks like trying to redress some of the wrongs that society generally and men specifically levy against women.
So if what you liked about chivalry was the way it functioned as a sort of code of conduct for how to treat women, maybe it’s worth considering a sort of neo-chivalry. To that end, here’s a short, incomplete list of gestures for the modern chivalrous man — simple, minor little things that, like opening a door, or taking off a hat, signify your intentions and your respect:
Don’t let yourself seem like a potential threat by accident. Take into consideration that women are often followed, attacked or harassed when alone. If you’re walking behind a woman at night or in a secluded area, give her a wide berth as you pass. Cross the street if necessary. Don’t initiate small-talk in a small confined space with a woman you don’t know who’s alone. If you’re in an elevator or a similar situation with a woman, mind your own business.
Don’t touch a woman you don’t know; don’t even touch women you do know, unless they explicitly invite it or initiate it. You don’t know how comfortable a given woman is around men, and touch that feels harmless, polite or friendly to you could feel sexual, uncomfortable or violent to her.
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If you see a woman being mistreated by a man, do something. This could be something as minor as a male coworker being rude to a female coworker, or as major as physical or sexual assault. Systems of oppression thrive on obedience and inaction as much as they do on violence and fear. Having an uncomfortable man-to-man conversation will hurt you a lot less than being mistreated and not receiving any support or backup will hurt her.
Be vocal about issues that affect women’s rights and safety on social media, like sex work, tipped labor, and abortion rights. Donate to causes that benefit women. Support women in your social networks and community. Reach out to the women you’re close to during difficult periods in their lives and difficult periods during the news cycle. Take allegations of abuse, assault and harassment by men seriously. Even if it’s a guy you know. Especially if it’s a guy you know.
This is a short list, but it’s something to think about. Perhaps most importantly, you should talk to the women you’re close to and ask them what they’d appreciate if men started doing. After all, caring about what would make women’s lives easier is sort of the whole point of chivalry.