Those of us who openly identify as feminist must be prepared to encounter misconceptions and stereotypes. The "f-word" has been unfortunately dragged through the mud in an attempt to break the strength our message has. In this spirit, I'd like to take a moment to focus on a specific realm of anti-feminism: chivalry. The two biggest criticisms I see thrown at feminists regarding chivalry fall into two camps:
- The "cake and eat it too" complaint: This anti-feminist argument says that women want to be independent and strong when it's convenient for them, but they don't want to lose the option for men to buy them dinner, open doors, and all around make them feel special. We want all the rights afforded to men, but that we also want to be treated better than men. Feminists want special, not equal, treatment, or in other words, they want their cake and to eat it too.
- The "feminists hate manners!" complaint: Other anti-feminists have chosen to smack-talk feminism by claiming that any stance which truly speaks out against chivlary is actually an affront to good manners. (At this point I was going to link to a "men's rights" group--which was actually an anti-woman group--and quote them. However, they way they offhandedly referred to women bitches made me realize, I have no interest in contributing anything to their page views, even if it would substantiate my claims.)
The core of my disdain for chivalry is that it's rooted in a gendered premise. Its very notion is that women need special assistance and wooing, which I flat out disagree with. Given this, I can say fully that I do not want or expect chivalry. In that way, the "cake and eat it too" complaint is nonsense to me. I do not want any person to look at me and treat me differently based off of my gender, even if that treatment is favorable. The same goes for stereotypes of all sorts--just because something is "nice" (ie Asians are so smart!) doesn't make it any less racist. So with chivalry, just because it's "friendly," doesn't make it any less sexist.
The second complaint (feminists hate manners!) is equally nonsensical to me. There is a big difference between behaving in a generally polite and respectful manner to your fellow human being and chivalry, which is rooted in that gendered premise. I'd like to use the opening-a-door-for-someone example to illustrate the differences as I see them.
Scenario 1, opening a door for someone to be polite: Two people, a man and a woman, approach a door. The person who gets to the door first opens it for both of them. They both enter. Versus, scenario 2, opening a door for someone as chivalry: Two people, a man and a woman, approach a door. Despite the woman being closer to the door, the man reaches out in front of her to open it for her. She enters, he follows. And scenario 3, again opening a door for someone as chivalry: Two people, a man and a woman, approach a door. The woman is closer to the door so she opens it for both of them. The man will not enter, but instead grabs the door and says "No. After you," waiting for the woman to enter.
In these cases, I'm saying that scenario 1 is fine. Scenario one is polite and displays manners and supports a kind, respectful society. Scenario one has no gender charge. However, scenarios 2 and 3 are sexist (and sometimes annoying.) I have scenario 3 happen to me regularly and it is just weird. I mean, I try to do something polite for another person and we end up having to go through some production of him eventually taking control of the door. I think that's one thing that really gets me about chivalry; it's manifested in a way which reinforces male control of the situation. He's driving the actions and the woman is passive--receiving his gestures and being coddled or protected.
I know that talking about door holding at length seems nitpicky and meaningless, but these small examples are tied to bigger issues. As Jill said at Feministe several years ago in a very detailed account of chivalry,
There’s a difference between being chivalrous and being nice or polite. Opening a door for someone because you got to the door first is both nice and polite; making a huge production of opening a door for a woman in the hopes that she’ll see what a chivalrous dude you are and fuck you (and then getting all pissy when she doesn’t respond how you want her to) is not polite or nice. And that’s the thing with chivalry: It always demands something in return. If you’re being nice to me because you like me and you’re the kind of person who is nice to people you like, then that’s great. If you’re being nice to me because you’re hoping to get something out of it, or if you think you’re entitled to sex or a relationship with me because you were nice and “chivalrous,” you can go fuck yourself. See how that works?She's brought up a great point. Often chivalry is founded on a quid pro quo/entitlement mentality, which carries expectations that were not welcomed by the woman involved. That's a huge problem which further illustrates both the gendered nature and differentiates it from pure politeness (which doesn't demand something in return.)
One last thing I would like to make clear is that asking for the end of chivalry is not the same thing as ending romance. In my view, healthy romantic relationships are reciprocal and equal in nature. Both parties should make loving gestures for the other, and that's great! Most of us want to be treated romantically by a significant other, but why should the favorable treatment only flow in in one direction? There is great happiness that can be achieved by giving. A traditionally chivalrous situation would result in a female partner who would be robbed of the joy of making gestures for her male partner. (It would also rest on the premise that the woman is lesser and deserving of protection, which puts things at an unequal balance from the start.) I advocate for relationships which don't rest on predetermined roles and allow each person to express their feelings naturally and individualistically. Besides--there are clearly many relationships which do not contain one man and one woman, and they are equally valid and romantic.
All in all, I simply feel that chivalry and feminism are inherently incompatible. I would never expect to be treated both equally and special. That's an oxymoron. In fact, I'm not entirely sure that there are women who actually are advocating for both. Yes, some women want chivalry, but I would suspect they do not typically identify as feminists. To me, it seems a to be a straw man situation, as is the claim that feminists are really attacking manners. Nevertheless, it is important for us to understand the arguments used against our viewpoints, no matter how trivial.
But seriously friends, if I impart nothing else, let it be this: just hold a door for someone when you can. And when it makes sense to have the door held for you, walk through it.