Wednesday, January 25, 2012

No Chivalry, Thanks!

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
I'd like to dismantle these complaints. I, of course, cannot speak for all of "feminism" as a monolith, because no such truly unified theory exists. However, I can speak to my perspective on these issues.

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.


  1. "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." YES. THIS. Exactly. Thank you!

  2. I can see a woman walking to her car at the supermarket,I can see that she is struggling with her bags and having a hard time.

    I offer my help, she gladly accepts it and thanks me for it.

    If i saw a man in this situation, I (and most most men I would bet) probably wouldn't help him. This is just how most men would act in this situation.

    Now, by helping this woman I am not implying that she couldnt possibly do it without the help of a man, I am just being helpful because I can see that she needs help.
    However, it is true that a deciding factor in helping her is that she is a woman.

    After reading your article, I have a feeling you would call this sexism.

    I call it being polite, friendly, helpful (as a consequence it is impolite to not help the man, but that is how men work and interact with eachother.)

    To avoid being deemed sexist, should I ignore the woman? Because that is what I would have to do unless I want to be accused of treating women unfairly.

    1. Hi KayBee,

      I would absolutely consider that sexist.

      You have intervened *because* she is a woman. Treating someone differently because of their gender is the textbook definition of sexism. As I said above, just because it's "friendly," or in this case polite, doesn't make it any less sexist. (And for what it's worth, the whole cultural norm surrounding men helping women carry things to their car is based on the notion that women are physically weaker. It might not be your thought process, but I'm going to put that out there just so we do acknowledge the cultural context here.)

      Your non-sexist solution (to ignore her) doesn't make sense to me. You've glossed over a big part of this scenario: how men treat other men. Saying that this is just something you and most other men wouldn't do for one another totally feels like a "no homo" case to me. Or is it that your offer to help him would somehow be perceived an affront to his masculinity? Both of those scenarios are just mind boggling to me. If we see someone struggling to carry things, why can't we just offer help, regardless of gender?

      Saying things like "that is how men work and interact with each other" is a justification to mindlessly continue something that seems nonsensical to me. But I'm not a dude so there's that. All of this is just *my* take on the scenario you've described. Of course, no one has to agree with me, but I feel like if you're going to help a woman because she is a woman, let's at least call it what it is.

    2. "Your non-sexist solution (to ignore her) doesn't make sense to me"
      Why not?

    3. "Your non-sexist solution (to ignore her) doesn't make sense to me"
      Why not?

    4. Because he explicitly said he wouldn't help men. Why not just offer a helping hand to someone regardless of gender? This is not rocket science.

  3. -I will always hold the door for a woman
    -Ask if she wants my seat on the bus
    -Pay the bill when it comes to the table
    -Make sure she gets home safely if she is my gf or friend
    -Ask is she needs help carrying her bag up the stairs
    -Basically i will put more effort into making sure a woman is safe and comfortable than i would with a man

    That is how i was raised and what I think is proper. Personally I don't mind if women "have their cake and eat it too" the important thing is i do what I think is right. We have different ideas of what sexism is but my idea is just going to give you a seat or keep you safer and that's not really a horrible thing to have to deal with i think.

  4. Great post, thanks for writing it. I don't entirely agree with Jill's assessment; I don't think chivalry always demands something in return (though I imagine that mentality can be present; just not always). E.g. There are men in relationships who are chivalrous to other women not out of expectation, but out of thinking it is 'proper'. I think a lot of time it can just be due to being brought up with that mentality.

    But the chivalry conversation is a hard one to have; especially as it's a behaviour of Nice Guys who see themselves as doing something entirely altruistic (and they see as mutually exclusive with sexism, as sexism is A Bad Thing). I was wondering if you have any advice on how best to approach the topic with others? I've had these discussions but it's (not surprisingly) met with defensiveness; in the last instance, the friend I was talking with didn't recognise that it's sexist to treat women as if they are in need of special treatment, but did seem to concede a little when I pointed out that men are missing out on the same courtesies. It's just a tricky conversation to have sometimes.

    1. I'm not really sure how to approach the topic w/ others. It's certainly a conversation I've had that has ended super unproductively. Most often, I encounter other women who get upset that I'm anti chivalry.

      Sometimes, I just wish I could link someone to my blog posts in a "real life" conversation and say: "This is all I have to say about the situation. Any questions?" But not only is that impossible, but I would also look like a jerk. :-/

  5. Feminism and chivalry are incompatible and anti-each other. The basic rule of thumb for men is to treat feminists no different than they treat men. If you wouldn't do it for a man, don't do it for a feminist. If you wouldn't open the door for a man, don't open it for a feminist. That is what a true feminist would expect.

    1. Thanks for mansplaining! I wouldn't have got that without your awesome explanation, except for the fact that it was IN THE ARTICLE.

  6. As far as the door holding example goes, I really feel like this is a modern day infracture problem and less of a chivalry vs sexism. Honestly, who makes their people with only one door these days? Not only is it ineffective for keeping A/C in, it also creates this whole nightmare when someone is trying to go on a date with a feminist. I mean, what if the guy is just taller, and walks faster? He'll always be the first one to the door, and might be considered a dick for opening the door? My solution: Two doors. Guy who walks fast, or what have you, opens first door. Lady enters, boom, she's already setup to open the second door. Everybody wins, everybody's happy. No battle lines are drawn.

    But in all seriousness. I feel like it's a bit biast to approach chivalry with an already negative view simply because it is apparently (I'll defer to your research) rooted in gender premise. For example, I usually always pay for the first date's dinner, and activities as long as it is feasible for me to do so. This isn't because I don't think the date can't afford it, or to show how rich I am. It's simply a positive gesture, a putting your best foot forward situation. A somewhat less extend, a way to say that I very much enjoyed and valued our time spend together. As a second rule of relationships, I think its proper that once you are dating that you either split the bill or get seperate checks, unless one feels like being extra nice that day.

    But here's my main point, instead of trying to defend or rationalize modern-day chivalry against its olden-day counterpart, or modern-day feminism. I don't think it'd be uncalled for if the female did like-minded stuff. If she liked her date and wanted to pay for the whole meal, or drive (as long as it isn't a truck. jk jk) for their dates. A good example of this. My friend invited me to meet his new girlfriend for lunch. She was very succesful, in fact, no doubt made more than both of us combined. When the bill came, she offered to pay for all the meals. Now, easily I and my friend could have afforded the meals, and I asked if she was sure. She said yes. So I was fine with it.

    Now I understand my points might be on a slightly different subject since I believe chivalry as more of an intimate approach, and feminism as more of a lifestyle approach, so the two aren't incomplete unless you make chivalry a lifestyle approach as well.

  7. One of the reasons I love the SCA is that it kinda reclaims the concept of chivalry. EVERYONE is expected to behave chivalrously towards EVERYONE, and the result is a group of truly lovely people who treat you well not because you're a woman, but because you're a person.

  8. I have to admit, as an adult man, I find this confusing. I can say, I understand the notion of not wanting to be treated "...differently based off of my gender, even if that treatment is favorable." I get it. But let me examine your 3rd scenario: I do not understand why you would assume this is a "chivalrous," and not a "polite" act. I can say, for myself to be the man in scenario 3, I would be doing this out of humility. The social implication, is I am putting this other person's importance in front of my own. There is no quid pro quo in this thinking. Furthermore, it is consistently the case, I would hold the door open also for a man, an elderly person (man or woman), a child, etc. Now, by what I have read in your article, I believe you might agree, I am not being "chivalrous" or "sexist," in my consistency. What I think the problem becomes, is the fact you are bothered by it, because you assume my action is based in sexism. I do not think is a very fair approach to the social behavior of all men. Perhaps there should be less assumptions about a man's motivation in these situations by feminists...


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