Saturday, March 26, 2011

"chivalry": because it really does need scare quotes

I think feminism gets asked this question a lot: where does chivalry fit into your idea of equal rights? This is my two cents; not so much from a feminist angle, although it's my personal take on it and I am undeniably feminist.

If you read the chivalry article on Wikipedia, you'll see that the origins of chivalry are 'usually associated with ideals of knightly virtues, honor and courtly love', of which duties to ladies are only one aspect of it. Chivalry started out more as a means of identity for men, and despite the shifting focus to courtesy towards women that defines chivalry today, I think it still reflects its origins. Because, let's not kid ourselves -- anyone who has to put a label on good manners towards specific members of the human race is more concerned about how what he's doing defines him than anything else.

Call me judgmental, but if you think holding doors open (only for women, because how else can the chivalrous you be distinguished from the merely good-mannered who hold doors open for men and women alike?) means you're 'chivalrous', if you think that means something...I think less of you.

Yes, I have a thing against people who brag about chivalry or upholding it. To my mind, it has the same effect as the annual breast cancer awareness meme that goes around social networks (tell us where you like your handphone!) -- it makes people feel good about themselves by thinking they're doing something to 'support' a cause, when in fact they've not made any meaningful contribution. It's harmful in that it lulls people into imagining they've done their bit for charity and they need not do any more. That's what chivalry, or at least people who think they're being 'chivalrous' for these little bits of courtesy, does. They think they're pro-women, and they think doing it elevates them somehow, even if just a little bit, and it shows in their 'Well I hold doors open for girls! So I'm nice to girls' or something. Few of them think beyond holding doors open.

Let's not even go into the classist origins of chivalry (you didn't think chivalry was reserved for anyone but ladies, did you?), because 'chivalry' in our modern enlightened times today is just as discriminating. Remember these two videos? Heartwarming in one beat, disgusting the next.

My point, to you 'chivalrous' men out there, is this: do you really care about women? Then stand up for the drunk girl at the party who is clearly in no position to consent to your friend's advances, regardless of what she's wearing, how she's responding to those advances, what her reputation is, whether your friend will ever talk to you again. Make a stand against physical and emotional abuse, especially if it's a display in front of you, if only just to show that no, people are not okay with this, you are not okay with this. Even if you think she's a prostitute. Even if you're not physically intimidating enough and all you can do is call the cops or make a public scene. I can't promise you your help will always amount to something. I can't promise you that the women you help will always be grateful. But if you care, that shouldn't matter.

Most importantly, perhaps you should start by examining your own possible prejudices and double standards where women are concerned. Because that's what really stops men from being a help: thinking she might've deserved it, thinking she could've prevented it if she really wanted to, justifying, justifying, ad nauseam.

There is no doubt that there are men out there who stand up for women, but see, these men don't usually define what they do as chivalry. For good reason, because it's so far removed from the original applications of it. Plus, I often hear guys talk about chivalry in response to oh noes feminism! or expressing disgruntlement at the lack of 'proper appreciation' (i.e. accepting his gestures). Talk about a sense of entitlement. Even then they keep harping on the ridiculously minor acts of holding doors open, offering a coat, etc. Is it any wonder that I have such a poor opinion of chivalry and those who espouse it?

And maybe some of you would like to be honest -- that you've never thought about chivalry in terms of helping women, just being preferentially good-mannered to them. To that, I really have nothing much to say, except that why you would imagine it is something to be proud of is quite beyond me, since I cannot see it taking much strength of integrity and values to be polite to only half the human race.

tl;dr Chivalry is obsolete. Universally good manners is king. If you really love women, help them where it counts.

Further readings for the interested:-
On Chivalry : A feminist analysis of chivalry.
Stuff What Boys Can Do : Encouraging anecdotes of men helping women. Kind of like a givesmehope of men and feminism.


  1. oh God. The videos are appalling. I would have gone up front and smacked the guy. I felt so angry just watching it. I felt so violent.

    And those 2 old bitches, are ... just so disgusting...

    And yes, agreed