Not A Medieval Princess: Criticising Chivalry As A Gender Expectation

An opinion piece by Samantha Kelly.
Featured in Wom*news #3. 

It’s just after midnight. The wind howls violently as storm clouds spread across the sky. You shiver on your way through the cold, shadowy streets of Brisvegas. Once you reach the bus stop, you see another figure there waiting. A tall man in a black jacket. You begin to ponder what cheesy anecdote you will use in the introduction for your submission to the wom*news magazine when suddenly, he turns, offering you his coat. He also asks how you’re getting home from the bus stop, commenting that it isn’t safe for a young girl to walk alone at this time of night. Before you respond, the awaited nightlink bus pulls up. The door opens right before his feet. But he steps aside, gesturing toward you. “Ladies first.” You wonder: Is this polite? Or is it sexist?

Having encountered a number of stereotypes and misconceptions regarding feminism, I find those which relate to the subject of chivalry to be the most frustrating. Of the many women who support gender equality, those in favour of chivalry are criticised on the basis of wanting ‘the best of both worlds’ (equal rights and special treatment). Meanwhile, women opposed to it are labelled as unappreciative ‘feminazis’ who complain about simple acts of etiquette. As someone who is often pigeon-holed into the latter category, I wish to defend both.

Upon hearing the word chivalry, ideas such as heroism, honour, romance and ‘courtly love’ spring to mind. But it’s worth acknowledging the less glamorous aspects of its origin. Before the established code of chivalry which preached honesty, generosity and justice, there was a barbaric and bloodthirsty system called feudalism. Even after the Church developed a ‘civilised’ education for aspiring knights, many would take pleasure in violence as a form of recreation. We’re all familiar with the old stories of knights fighting to the death in jousting tournaments for money, land and the ‘honour of a woman.’ The notion of a brave, noble knight was enough to veil the fact that women were viewed as prizes to be won over by whoever was deemed the most impressive. Because we all know there’s nothing more romantic than brutal slaughter.

But enough of the history lesson; it’s time to discuss what chivalry means to men and women today. Let’s go with one of the most common examples, a man opening a door for a woman. A seemingly harmless act. While one woman will feel flattered, the next will view it as an act of patronisation and refuse the gesture. Is she being rude? Are either of these reactions wrong?

In my opinion, no. Every day, friends, families and couples establish mutual favours. It isn’t unheard of for men to carry their girlfriend or wives’ bags, pay for their meals, offer their seats, walk them home after dark and give up their coat when it rains. But this is because both parties agree with this behaviour. The important thing about this issue, like with any other, is that women have a choice.

It isn’t the act of holding a door open I take issue with. I acknowledge that it isn’t always purely directed at women and is often meant as an act of ‘common courtesy’. What I take issue with is the assumption or expectation that men are to open doors for women and that all women like to be protected and catered to.

Having never met this male stranger, nor requested any assistance, a woman in this scenario has a right to respond in an honest way.

I myself appreciate coming across the odd stranger who holds open a door, whether male or female, as I occasionally do such things for others myself. But for a friend or acquaintance to do this constantly, for reasons I know to be gender-specific is different story. It’s at this point that I feel the need to express that it makes me uncomfortable. And whilst this is a personal stance on the matter, different women will feel and react differently. Whether they see it as sweet, or feel the need to object immediately are both valid. We are not medieval princesses, all sharing the same wishes and outlooks determined for us by gender expectations.

If an act repeatedly makes me uncomfortable, I feel I have the right to say so. Some have understood. Some have been annoyed or offended. Some have continued to do these ‘chivalrous’ things out of principle.

And it is this mentality that baffles me. Can treating someone in a way with the knowledge that it makes them uncomfortable really be considered ‘polite’?

I know a number of men grow up learning this as an aspect of how to be a ‘proper gentlemen’. I’m typically faced with the argument that it is out of respect for women, whom they consider to be more valuable. But part of respecting a person, is respecting their wishes. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, someone who insists on treating me in a particular manner based on the fact that I am female doesn’t sit well with me. Whether or not it’s rational to feel this way is irrelevant.

Not only does it seem like an underestimation of my abilities. It extends beyond that. Sometimes, a gesture commonly perceived as chivalrous or ‘gentlemanly’ deprives me of a certain strange, quirky and imperfect aspect of life I enjoy.

In all honesty…

I like the muscles I build from carrying my own bags up the stairs.

I like opening the door to my own house.

I like the feeling of rain on my skin when I forget an umbrella.

I like to play a balancing game on the bus when the seats are full.

I like the unique and introspective thoughts I have whenever I’m walking alone in the dark.

And if I go out after a bad day at work, I find myself liking a movie, a play, a drink or a meal just a little bit more when I pay for it myself.

~ Samantha Kelly


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