Friday, September 25, 2009

If Chivalry Is Dead, You CanNOT Pin That on Me

This one has been percolating around in the back of my mind for a while, ever since a friend IMed me as follows:

well, men and feminists alike agree that the reason men act this way is because women let them. they are so busy trying to be like men (independent), that they, the ladies, actually killed the chivalry. i think it might be true

The more I think about it, the more I feel like I have to go with my gut reaction.

Bull shit.

First off, let me get a rant off my chest about the men who would rather open a door or a jar than their hearts. For whom reaching something of the top shelf validates their existence more than reaching out to another person. Who would rather lift heavy luggage than help help shoulder an emotional burden. Who would rather buy dinner and drinks for a girl than share anything meaningful or personal with her. And who, if they want to get laid, would much rather it be with someone they don't know or care for or respect, because God forbid they have to recognize her humanity, her personhood, as commensurate (or superior!) to their own. That would make it so much harder to squelch down the guilt of using her than ignoring her. Those of you men who do not fit this description (I'm truly fortunate to know quite a few) BLESS YOU. Of course, it's no wonder most of you aren't single. :-P End rant.

Another quick point. I'm not sure many people would recognize my qualifications to lady-hood beyond having two X chromosomes. I don't care for clothing that is conventionally reserved for women alone (i.e. dresses and skirts). I've always been fascinated with, and only rarely frightened by, reptiles, insects, and all manner of creepy crawlies. I drive fast and assertively. On the other hand, I like to bake, I can mend clothing on a simple scale, and I sing and draw and write/talk about my feelings. The most "typically feminine" things about me are probably my tenderness for all things small and weak, my love of beauty in nature, and my hypersensitive emotions. I do maintain that in spite of everything I am a lady in the truest sense in that I have a regard for the feelings of others and am led by this to act graciously, generously, courteously, and kindly on most occasions.

Back to what my friend says about chivalry, or the lack thereof. Let's do a close reading.

men act this way because women let them...

I'm of the opinion that a man who is discourteous will be discourteous regardless of what any woman "lets" him do. It's not about allowing bad behavior, or rewarding politeness and punishing rudeness. It's about a fundamental consideration for others, and if a person has that, they will treat others with respect and deference. If they don't, I'm not quite sure how I, as a woman, have "let" things get that way. I think this assumes something fundamentally false about chivalry: that chivalry is a courtship behavior on the part of a man to obtain a reward from a woman, and that she can control this behavior on a Pavlovian level by granting that reward when he does it right, or withholding when he does it wrong. If that's all chivalry is, than it is certainly among the undead, still stumbling along causing what mischief it can now that it's lost its soul. Chivalry in its heyday (from the French chevalier, or knight on horseback) tenuously encompassed three duties:
  1. Duty to country and countrymen
  2. Duty to God
  3. Duty to women
Principle among "women" was the knight's own lady, but women meant all women, the young and lovely and highborn AND the old, poor peasant. So I protest the notion that chivalry is about who pays for dinner and who opens the door. True chivalry is being respectful of and considerate to all men, women, and children. I concede that back when safety depended on how much physical strength you possessed or could co-opt, and highborn ladies were ideally seriously lacking in physical strength, it made sense that chivalry would be more of a one-way street. It's true that things are different now. If women aren't pale, tremulous, collapsing little morning flowers wearing flimsy footwear, then men may not feel that courtesy obliges them to cast their cloaks over puddles. But I'd contend that a more equal playing field demands that women show the same courtesy they expect to receive, not that men show less courtesy.

they [women] are so busy trying to be like men (independent)...

Okay. I think it's obvious that my friend could be called more conventional, more old-fashioned, more traditional, or more feminine than me. She inherently defines independence as a masculine trait.

I protest. A thousand times, I protest. I'm a very independent person. I always have been, and my parents always encouraged me to think and take responsibility for myself. I don't think they were trying to make me manly. I don't think dependence is inherently feminine. I think certain social norms try to make it so, and I think other cultural customs combat this. If females in nature, including our fellow primates, have typically relied on protective male strength for survival, I think it's true that males often rely on females to an equal extent for something else, like food. Drones do very little in a honeybee colony. Lionesses are the hunters of the pride. Females in nature often bear more of the responsibility of tending the young, and if you don't think this is something males depend upon them for, then you're ignoring the post-coital portion of the biological imperative of sex as procreation. A male's drive to sire as many offspring as possible isn't going to do him much good on a genetic level if no one takes care of the young. All in all, independence isn't some new-fangled crazy notion women have gotten into their heads. Self-reliance and mutual inter-dependence are much more natural patterns than total dependence one way or the other. In being independent, in holding my own well-paying job, in cultivating my own skills and talents to maintain that job, in relying on my own abilities to navigate my world, I'm not trying to be a man. I'm trying to be a woman who can survive and, more, thrive in a world that does not just hand me a male to take care of the dirty work. And I'm trying to put myself in the best position possible to be relied upon as well as rely upon the people I need and who need me, male or female.

they, the ladies, actually killed the chivalry

A woman who scolds a man for opening the door for her is equally as rude as a man who lets the door shut in a woman's (or anyone's) face. A man who feels so affronted if a woman opens the door herself that he considers himself justified in no longer opening doors for women is as dependent as a woman who never opens her own door. Not everyone is considerate, not everyone is fair, not everyone is generous, candid, and kind. Personally, I think I prefer knowing the have-nots up front, and not being in the dark because a strict social code has forced a person to behave with a consideration they don't really feel. (I also think that nice guys need to take gallantry back instead of complaining that girls prefer smooth-talking jerks. Of course we like to be flattered. So do you. Give a little, get a little. But that's a related but distinct topic.)

I don't think at all that independent ladies killed chivalry. We've only exposed the fundamental flaw in the system it propped up. I think people are just lazy, and are eager to blame the results of their laziness on anyone but themselves. In a world where gender roles are becoming less well defined, it *is* more difficult to negotiate the expectations on both sides. I think a more equal playing field demands more of everyone's courtesy, not less, as the old assumptions don't hold and we are all required to act and speak out of true respect and consideration, not just mouth and motion our way through a preordained script. And I think that if chivalry is dead or dying, it's not because women killed it with their independence, or men killed it with inherent sleezery; it means neither men nor women have risen to that challenge.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to say that's all well and good, but chivalry really means it's always the man's job to take care of the woman, and it's a woman's place to always require or insist upon that care, then personally, I think it can't die fast enough so we can replace it with something better.

But that's just me.

1 comment:

Britton said...

Speaking as someone who orginally hails from the Deep South, I'm particularly fascinated by your post. I recall vividly the first time I called my (Texan) high school English teacher "ma'am", as well the first time I attempted to hold open a door for a girl I dated in college. Both times I was met, not with hostility or rudeness, but with a quizzical stare; they simply could not fathom why I was doing what I was doing.

And yes, since then I've met several good friends who are offended by the idea of chivalry, seeing a strong connection between it and the objectification of women. As such, I've learned to play it down, as a quaint custom more befitting my often-archaic homeland than more modern parts. If chivalry ever experiences a resurgence in America as a whole, I'll certainly be happy, but until then I'm content to let it slumber.