If chivalry isn’t already dead, then at the very least, it seems to have passed its best-before date.
Gone are the days of the chivalrous knight in his shining armour – a knight who would slay any number of dragons to rescue a beautiful princess. A knight who would hold the castle gates open for said princess to walk through. A knights who would pull out a throne for the princess to sit upon during a banquet, pay the full bill for said banquet and then, at the end of the evening, would walk the princess back to the portcullis of her own castle.
Recent research has found that over three-quarters of men would not offer to assist a woman with heavy bags and only 1 man in 7 would offer their seat to a woman on public transport. For many men, their reluctance to display chivalrous behaviour is linked to a concern that women now view such acts as embarrassing or even insulting. Would-be knights are left wondering: Can holding a door open seem patronising? Does carrying a girl’s groceries imply that she is weak? Will giving up one’s seat for a woman make her feel uncomfortable? And so on.
The notion that chivalry is sexist is a belief subscribed to in many branches of feminism. Chivalry, it is claimed, relies on a gendered premise that women are weak and need protection. Thus, while chivalry might be benevolent (at best), ultimately it just puts women down.
In part, I think this problem with chivalry stems from a reluctance to actively recognise the differences that exist between the sexes. It’s argued that chivalry is unnecessary, because if men and women are equal, then there should be no substantial difference between the way men behave towards women and the way women behave towards men. This kind of thinking confuses equality with sameness. In reality, while men and women are certainly equal in dignity, we are not the same.
One of the most obvious differences is physical strength. A quick glance at a Belarussian female power-lifter would reveal that strength is not the exclusive domain of men, but even so, this trait has always been associated with masculinity.
Strength has been an important aspect of chivalry since the Middle Ages, when knights would swear an oath to defend to their uttermost the weak, the orphan, the widow and the oppressed. The point of such an oath was never the subjugation of women or male dominance. Rather, chivalry was fundamentally about men using their strength to serve and protect others.
In her article “Death to Chivalry, Long Live Politeness,” Katie Baker condemns chivalry on the grounds that it leads to “pro-modesty crusades, purity balls and the assumption that women warrant additional protection.” Now, pro-modesty is another post for another time and I’m honestly not too sure what a purity ball is (though I’m left picturing some kind of terrifying variation on the medicine ball), which brings us to the “assumption that women warrant additional protection.”
In some instances, yes, yes they do.
To be sure, this argument would be a lot easier to make if I was a 6th century knight driving off hordes of invaders who sought to rape and pillage. Nonetheless, I live in a big city and when I spend time with a female friend I always make a point of walking her home or back to her car, especially at night. I probably wouldn’t do the same for one of my male friends. In some situations, like this one, I would argue that it is just common sense that a woman warrants more “protection” than a man.
Now, some of you are probably thinking “this is all well and good for the very specific example that you are giving, but what about things like opening doors, paying for dates, pulling out chairs and so on. Surely there are very few women out there who actually require a man’s physical strength to get a door open.”
I agree, but there is a deeper symbolic significance to such acts.
At this point, I want to share a story I read The Atlantic about the life of Samuel Proctor, a 20th century Baptist minister. One day Proctor was in an elevator and a young woman entered, so he tipped his hat to her. She was offended and responded by asking, ‘What is that supposed to mean?” to which Proctor replied, “Madame, by tipping my hat I was telling you several things. That I would not harm you in any way. That if someone came into this elevator and threatened you, I would defend you. That if you fell ill, I would tend to you and if necessary carry you to safety. I was telling you that even though I am a man and physically stronger than you, I will treat you with both respect and solicitude. But frankly, Madame, it would have taken too much time to tell you all of that; so, instead, I just tipped my hat.”
The vast majority of women don’t NEED men to hold doors, give up their seats or tip their hats. However, the importance of these little acts lies in the fact that they convey a deeper willingness to love, to serve and to sacrifice.
Underlying all of this is the reality that ultimately, chivalry is not really about certain courteous acts. Rather, chivalry is fundamentally about a mindset of respect. There is no place for chauvinistic thinking in true chivalry. A man should not perform chivalrous acts for women because he thinks “they can’t do it themselves.” He should perform such acts out of love and service.
Following on from this, if acts such as holding doors are motivated by some agenda, such as attracting a girl’s attention, then these acts are not chivalrous in the slightest. If a girl has to be at least a ‘7’ for you to offer to carry her books then you’re sitting at a solid ‘1’ on the chivalry scale. Men should show respect and consideration for all women, simply because they deserve it. Baker writes, “dude, you do not deserve a special Man Award if you help someone out.” On this, at least, we agree.
In light of chivalry’s supposedly sexist connotations, some think that we should just replace the whole idea with concepts like “civility” or “politeness.” However, I would argue that these words fall short of defining true chivalry. Sure, politeness might call a man to hold a door for a woman, but it would not call him to defend her if she was in danger, care for her if she was hurt or even lay down his life for her.
The 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado gives testament to the enduring power of chivalry. During a screening of the film “The Dark Knight Rises” in Colorado, a deranged gunman entered the theatre and opened fire on audience, murdering twelve people. Among the twelve were three men, all in their twenties, who had thrown themselves over their girlfriends when the shots rang out. They died saving their girlfriend’s lives. The actions of these men went far beyond what would be considered “courteous” or “polite.” What they did was the very height of chivalry, it was heroic.
I’m not trying to say that there is anything wrong with being polite, in and of itself. However, completely replacing chivalry with politeness feels like giving up the aspiration to be hero and settling for merely being a “nice guy.” Sacrifice and service get replaced with something much more sedate.
The point that I think many anti-chivalry feminists are missing is that chivalry has a power to inspire men in a way that “politeness” simply cannot. When I hear stories such as the sacrifice of those young men killed in the Colorado shooting, it stirs something in my heart. It makes me want to do whatever it takes to be a better man in my relationships with women.
This point is particularly important as we seek to address our culture’s huge problem with the objectification of women. Chivalry places a very special emphasis on the way men treat their female counterparts. The chivalrous man is called to uphold the value of women as human persons, not as objects for his pleasure. While “politeness” or “civility” might encourage a guy to chew with his mouth closed at the dinner table, it is chivalry that really challenges men to take a stand against anything that denies the value of women.
To all of my female readers, I think that one of the saddest aspects of the disgusting behaviour some men exhibit towards the opposite sex is that far too many women tolerate it. In a society where this tolerance exists, alongside a widespread male perception that chivalrous acts are offensive, it is no surprise that the way men relate to women has degenerated. I’m not saying that the way a woman acts (or doesn’t act) EVER makes disrespect okay. Period.
However, a woman who sets her standards high will be far more likely to attract men who are willing to meet them. The opposite is also true. I have some female friends who seem to have a subscription to douche-bag quarterly. They put up with the crude innuendos, sexist comments and disrespectful behaviour. Consequently, a lot of the guys in their lives are complete jerks.
If all women demanded respect from the men in their lives, the reality is that many of them would lose “friends” and be without dates for the next weekend. However, it would send a clear message that women are serious about being respected and loved. You deserve chivalrous men in your life, men who will respect you and authentically care for you. Don’t give up on that. Don’t settle for less.
And to the men in the audience, while I remain hopeful that this blog post will change the mind of every person who thinks that chivalry is sexist or demeaning, it probably won’t. That’s ok. The reality is that the vast majority of women in your life don’t feel that way. Research has found that less than ten per cent of women view chivalrous acts as patronising. Just one in 25 women said she would feel embarrassed if a man demonstrated old-fashioned manners such as pulling out a chair. What’s more, research carried out by the University of Florida found that chivalry was associated with greater life satisfaction and a sense that the world is a fair, well-ordered and good place.
Don’t let fears of causing offense be a cop out that allows you be lazy, selfish or apathetic. Saint Josemaria Escriva once said, “There is a need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and nullify the savage work of those who think man is a beast. And that crusade is your work.”
Live a life that demonstrates chivalry. Make your stand.