A feminist asks if chivalry and gender equality co-exist

September 11, 2014
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Imagine you’ve actually managed to leave the house this weekend and you’re on a date with a cutie from your politics elective. Eager to impress, you move to hold the restaurant door open – she crosses her arms and accuses you of patronising her. You know the place and order for both of you in easy, practiced Italian – she spends the next 20 minutes in the bathroom throwing up the contents of the mysterious ‘chef’s choice’ risotto. You were so preoccupied with impressing her with your perfect Italian you forgot about the shellfish allergy she told you about. The dinner ends on a sour note. Sex is off the table. You’re left alone with your right hand and a jumbo box of Kleenex, wondering what went wrong.

It’s a horror story that plays out on the comments thread of many click bait articles about Gen Y relationships, or any old Reddit forum – sometimes accompanied by the saying ‘if chivalry is dead, then women killed it.’ Women’s thriving independence and the blurring of traditional gender identities is seen as a threat to chivalry in the modern day. In a time of Tinder and Snapchat, this relic – leftover from the Arthurian romance tales of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere – is in need of a serious makeover. But first, let’s debunk the fairytale lies Disney has spoon-fed you.

In medieval times, the truly chivalrous cared more about upholding the church doctrine and military valour than they did about trading social niceties with the opposite sex. It began as a social code among knights, emphasising courage, honour and loyalty to the monarchy, church and the Knight’s Order. It was only in the late Middle Ages that chivalry came to be idealised in literary fiction as a part of ‘courtly love’ – made popular in Arthurian romance novels featuring the forbidden desire between a lady and a travelling knight. It is this sanitised, later version that has manifested itself in our modern world. When in reality chivalry was a value system practiced between men, there’s no reason for it to remain firmly grounded in an ageing masculine rhetoric now.

Benevolent sexism – or an emphasis of traditional gender roles – has long been touted as a broad justification of gender stereotyping. It pigeonholes men and women and pressures us into interacting in certain ways with society, each other and ourselves. ‘Chivalry’ is no different. If a man opens a door for a woman he risks offending her, but a recent study has found a man could feel emasculated or experience lower self-esteem if the same courtsey was extended to him by another male. Am I chivalrous to offer my seat on the tram for a man, or a woman? Yes. Does it mean I want to sleep with them? No. The truth is anyone is capable of politeness and respect, and human kindness is something we could all stand to practice whole a lot more. Especially on the morning commuter train. We don’t need to assign a relationship or gender to the effort of just being nice.

This is an opportunity to rewrite chivalry in the modern day and reassess the social standards a childhood of Disney fairytales has brainwashed us with. Ours is a society that says good manners and politeness aren’t real priorities unless they’re services that can be paid for – like in a cafe or a store. We can all be nicer to one another; not like the guy who took the liberty of ordering for his date and forgetting her allergies, but like the young woman who retrieved my Myki card from the tram floor when I was struggling with my unruly umbrella last week. Fellow tram rider, I salute you.

Go figure, people like it when other people are kind. Why do we feel the need to assign gender politics to common decency?

Emma Nobel

Emma Nobel is a journalism honours student at Monash University. She is a feminist, cheese connoisseur and tweets at @emmanobel

Image: Monty Python and the Holy Grail