Holly Combe examines the hidden motives behind the calls for a return to chivalry. When Richard and Judy joined the debate recently, did they really have anything constructive to add?
This month, the BBC’s website reported that a survey by the Future Foundation has shown 9 out of 10 women ‘expect men to open doors for them’. An article on the site also points out that it appears someone forgot to ask (or report) how many men would like that courtesy too. I also wonder which proportion of the above 9 out of 10 women quite comfortably open doors for both women and men alike. And how many women out of 10 would quite reasonably object to a door being slammed in their face by another woman? The idea of politeness afforded to all rather than one-sided chivalry seems like such obvious common sense that one could be tempted to dismiss a further reminder of the idea as simply banal. No more need for debate. Let’s just do it and move on to more important matters. And yet, just last week we had Anne Widecombe on BBC 1’s ‘Inside Out’ investigating ‘whether the age of chivalry is dead’ (as if we should care). Along with this, a recent Chivalry feature on Richard and Judy (Channel 4, 8 January 2003) gave me some idea of just how much we seem to have lost sight of the egalitarian approach.
No attempt was made during this show to reiterate any articulate feminist view for the benefit of people who, due to the popular caricature of feminism frequently presented by the media, may have forgotten there actually is any rational reason involved. Of course, there was the recognition that there are women out there who vehemently object to acts of chivalry. But there was no summary, if only in the interests of fairness, of exactly what it is about this particular ‘privilege’ that pissed feminists off in the first place. No effort was made to present, even if to oppose, the idea of chivalry making women reliant on men or, at the very least, hindering our moral development by keeping us passive and lazy.
Like most mainstream television these days, the feminist position – and in the jolly polarised Television debate there is usually only room for one – was therefore reduced to a seemingly spiteful defence mechanism. Richard even went as far to say he believed that if he stood up to offer his seat on the bus he would get spat at!
The phrasing of the questions for the audience vote was, again, limiting and implied the issue to be mainly one of fashion. When asked ‘Should a gentleman open a door for a lady?’ 17 found this to be ‘nice’ and 3 said ‘naff’. Every single audience member felt that paying for a meal was ‘nice’. ‘Standing up when a woman enters the room’, however, was seen as well and truly naff. The latter is an example of chivalry in its starkest form, with no lazy conveniences (like saving money or not bothering to move one’s hand to get the door) to fall back on when we can’t be bothered to consider the implications. When it’s presented in this way, most women can see chivalry for the silly charade it really is.
However, the issue was clouded further with an example from caller 2, who said her husband warmed her side of the bed for her. This was an irrelevant example of a man privately doing something for a woman, entirely with her consent. But, of course, the media caricature of feminism would have us believe that a dislike of chivalry translates as an objection on principle to any act of kindness from a man (even if there is reasonable evidence that the good will is genuine and can be returned in a similar rather than complimentary fashion). It would also have us believe that feminists are unable to recognise the difference between policing people’s private lives and challenging accepted public conventions (or the fact that, as an article on the BBC site states ‘common courtesy is used as a weapon to enforce outmoded notions about the sexes…’).
It seems to have been forgotten that it is the assumptions behind many chivalrous acts that make them objectionable to feminists. Below the surface, male chivalry has never truly been in the name of fairness or real respect. It inevitably gets paid for through female acceptance of a weaker and more needy role. Indeed, there is a particular kind of bitter man who, when recounting tales of rebuffed chivalry will have quite a little temper tantrum, huffing that he won’t bother next time. After all, if we don’t make him feel big and strong why should he make the effort? This kind of condescension is similar to what wheelchair users have often had to endure when being offered apparently well-meaning help from people. If niceness is really what it’s all about then people ought to consider that it really isn’t nice to use others to bolster your own ego (or at least not unless you’re sure you have their consent). Like with many other issues around the politics of power, women have been led to believe that there are only two options: smile sweetly and feel like a lady when he opens the door (thus accepting the price attached) or have it slammed in your face. The message is clear- you’re never going to make him respect you as an equal so you’d better accept the consolation prize of chivalry. It’s his best offer after all.
It’s true that, for some men, chivalry is the only way of relating to women in a polite way. Conservative society would have them believe that this is the only thing that holds in their aggressive manly urges. These men have been trained to respect women for the wrong reasons and the only alternative made available to them is negative. In ‘A Return to Modesty’, Wendy Shalit claims that today’s men are non-sexist but questions whether women are any happier because of it. But the boorish men she criticises could hardly be described as non-sexist. It is not the genuinely non-sexist men who are contributing to women’s unhappiness but resentful sexist men who can only be convinced to conduct themselves in a reasonable and well-mannered fashion if there is a patriarchal reward at the end of it. Shalit says that ‘In the old view, if you weren’t considerate to women you weren’t really a man’. Do men really have so little regard for women that proving they’re Real Men (and therefore not women) is a more important project than the far simpler one of just being aware of the other people around them and not clinging to their prejudices?
A lot of men also need to quit the arrogant bravado and become more aware of potential threats to their safety. What I mean is that while it’s true I do find it reassuring to have some company (female or male) when walking through a lonely or unpredictable area late at night, I often wonder what the point is if my companion has to go back on their own after they’ve left me. What happened to looking out for my friends or safety in numbers? Perhaps I shouldn’t worry my pretty little head about it and just enjoy being irresponsible and ‘morally neuter’.
It is certainly very worrying to see many men’s utter refusal to acknowledge the fact that, in some circumstances, they are actually more vulnerable to a violent attack than a woman is. If I walk alone, through the city centre where I live, just after the pubs have just shut, I am sometimes aware of an aggressive atmosphere. But I also feel completely safe and confident. Basically, when the lads are out looking for a fight, it’s other men who need to watch their backs (aside from the point, I must add that if sexism or chivalrous codes are the only thing protecting me here then we really are in a depressing state).
We spend so much time warming ourselves in the familiar cosy glow of women’s supposed need for protection that we forget how vulnerable men are. Making sure a woman knows where she shouldn’t go late at night is an accepted way of making conversation- almost like talking about the weather. For example, on a recent feature on ‘The Morning Show’ about homelessness and begging, presenter Nicki Chapman said that ‘as a woman’ she often felt threatened when asked for money. Her co-presenter Robert Nisbet was straight in there smugly – but so sympathetically – saying he obviously didn’t have that problem.
Rather than stick to these rigid accepted codes, I would prefer to work towards a society where both men and women can defend and help each other without expecting the reward of power over the person they assist. I want to quicken our progress to the point where a man can open a door for a woman without feeling tempted to ham up the whole experience with patronising winks, over-emphasised hand gestures or, worst of all, that gentle helping hand to the waist. Better still, would be for men to be able to accept help, both from women and other men, without feeling threatened (I expect its been said before but perhaps the reason men are socialised to ‘travel light’ is to avoid the need for help with luggage!).
The problem with chivalry is that it just gets in the way of good manners.