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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February News Round Up

This month’s news round up will feature in Issue #3 of wom*news – due out Feb 22nd! Get your hands on a copy from us on Market Day.

▪  The Susan G. Komen For The Cure – a foundation working towards a cure for breast cancer, established in 1982 after Susan’s death from the illness – has hit the headlines recently de-funding Planned Parenthood. The backlash against giving more attention to the right-wing anti-abortion cause rather than the anti-cancer cause it was founded for has been paramount.

▪  6/2/12 marked the UN International Day of Zero Intolerance of Female Genital Mutilation.

▪  February is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know, three women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every day, with 75% diagnosed at an advanced stage? Those out there wearing teal ribbons are supporting the cause.

▪ Greens MP Bob Brown said what we’ve all been thinking: that Julia Gillard has been the victim of sexism in the media. Channel Seven’s show Sunrise had a particularly stupid discussion on this topic with two male radio hosts – one who cried that he never had made sexist comments towards her, and that this was all just hooplah by “angry feminists who don’t shave under their arms.”

▪  American actress Octavia Spencer has won a multitude awards for her feministic film The Help, and has spoken out about the what the media are focussing on – no, not her awards – her weight. She was misquoted after the SAG Awards about her attitude towards health and obesity and has decidedly spoken out against this. “Of course I was miffed that not only was I being misrepresented, but it was sending THE WRONG MESSAGE to kids out there. So, I decided to tell you IN MY OWN DAMNED WORDS the truth! First of all, Ladies and Gents here’s what I am NOT DOING…I am NOT WORRYING ABOUT MY WEIGHT! I AM NOT TRYING TO CONFORM TO an unrealistic model of beauty.” Love you, Octavia!

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Occupy Valentines Day

What is it?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Executive Editor of Feministing.com started up a Tumblr blog called “Occupy Valentines Day” with the tag line “down with couple-talism”. The blog focuses on reimagining and looking at alternative ways to celebrate V Day.

Why?

We’ve all heard the arguments before. You don’t have to wait until February 14 to show how you feel about someone. Likewise, you don’t have to be in a relationship with that person. That said, it’s obvious and an understatement to say that Valentines Day can be pretty tacky.

The thing is that Valentines Day seems to be aimed at a really narrow conception of a relationship. Women are expected to wait for their (male) partner to give them a token gift to reaffirm their relationship. In high school, if you’re a single girl on V Day you hope that an anonymous (male) admirer will use Valentines Day as a time to express their love for you. It all harks back to the tired old female as the pursued one trope.

Likewise, V Day seems to exclude anyone not in a relationship, anyone in a same-sex relationship, those in a polyamorous relationship and so on. Occupy Valentines Day is also really about protesting against narrow expressions of love through the usual suspects red roses, chocolate and teddy bears. (Are these still your standard valentines gifts?!)

This leads nicely into the final thing. The day is all about buying things to make the experience. Apparently an expression of love can only happen with the requisite valentines-themed products.

How to get involved?

There are many activisty and not-so-activisty things that you can do to take part in OVD. Before I get into them though, I’m assuming that a lot of people will read this after February 14. Like the usual Valentines day, you don’t just show your partner/loved one etc love and affection on just one day. Likewise, these tips apply on days other than Valentines Day!

  • Raise awareness about love-related topics (Smoke signals, blogging, facebook status updates) such as…
    • How traditional ideals of romance perpetuate gender inequalities and hurt people of all genders
    • Domestic violence and sexual assault
    • Marriage inequality in Australia
    • Lack of queer visibility in sexual rights politics

V Day is a day when the whole world’s focus is on love. So it’s an ideal time to raise awareness on areas impacting the community at large vis-à-vis love!

Rosie Cuppaidge

Pictures of Me on Your Bedroom Walls: Explorations of Women’s Sexuality Through Feminist Music

‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’
Pictures of Me on Your Bedroom Walls: Explorations of Women’s Sexuality Through Feminist Music
By Joanna Horton

 Trigger warning: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.

“Music can change the world because it can change people.”

This incredibly wanky quote can be attributed to an incredibly wanky person: Bono. (Now before you throw down the zine/click away from the page in disgust, I promise that this article will never mention Bono again.) However, there is some truth embedded within the mountain of wank that is the above quote. Music can be a powerful agent of social change – or at the very least, social awareness.

A great example of this is feminist music – and for the purposes of my article, I’ll be focusing on the feminist music explosion of the 1990s. Specifically, I’m talking about all-female punk bands with a feminist edge. Some of these bands fit under the heading ‘riot grrrl’ but there’s so much debate over what and who does and does not qualify as riot grrrl that I’m just going to leave that whole label alone. It’s not what I’m interested in, anyway. I’m interested in how this music explores and portrays women, and women’s perspective on sexual encounters in particular.

I first got this idea for this article upon listening to Sleater-Kinney’s song ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’. The song is about wanting to be (or at least wanting to be able to be) the kind of punk-rock sex symbol that so many male musicians seem to automatically become. The song bases itself on an entirely accurate premise: that fame endows a male musician with the kind of sexual irresistibility that makes groupies seem an entitlement, but not so for a female musician. Undoubtedly there is something sexual about the act of performing and the performer/fan relationship, but the sexuality of a woman musician is still held distant, feared slightly, not embraced in the way that a man’s is. Sleater-Kinney wants that to change:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

I wanna be your Joey Ramone

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Pictures of me on your bedroom door

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Invite you back after the show

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

I’m the queen of rock and roll

 While the groupie/star relationship can undoubtedly be manipulative and exploitative (is it a coincidence that most groupies are young women devoted to male musicians?), Sleater-Kinney uses it as a device to advocate for the free and equal expression and embracing of female sexuality. (The last line of the verse above also seems to poke fun at the traditional male equating of sex and status. See also: slut/stud double standard.) As I’ve noted in this publication in a previous article, being comfortable with female sexuality is an extremely important part of feminism. And at first, I had the idea that this article would go along the lines of ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’, discussing how feminist music helped women to express and discover their sexuality, thus bringing women’s sexuality into public discussion and (eventually, hopefully) normalisation.

However, during my research (which was very rigorous and gruelling and involved a lot of listening to music on public transport), I started to come across darker themes. A lot of the music deals with sex, yes, but it got much more complex than simple equality of sexual expression. As feminists, we can’t ignore the fact that the sexual relationship is the site of intense social, sexual and political warfare. We can’t simply say that male and female sexuality (and for that matter queer, trans* and any other kind of sexuality) should be regarded as equal, normal parts of life, and be done with it. Part of exploring women’s sexuality is exploring how the patriarchy manifests itself in sex and sexual relationships. I found that this theme was explored much more in feminist music than I had originally thought.

Take, for example, ‘Doll Parts’ by Hole. This incredibly sad song is basically all about rejection. The refrain:

Yeah, they really want you

They really want you

They really do

Yeah, they really want you

They really want you

But I do too

Who hasn’t been there?! In the face of such rejection, the narrator literally object-ifies herself:

I am

Doll eyes

Doll mouth

Doll legs 

In other words, just an object to be used (sexually, we assume, as the motif of ‘doll’ wasn’t chosen for nothing) and left behind. While the object of her desire is so badly wanted by so many, the narrator herself is no longer wanted at all. Themes of self-loathing also surface (she has ‘bad skin’; she is ‘dog bait’). She is stripped of all identity and all autonomy apart from a sinister threat of revenge (‘someday, you will ache like I ache’). In essence, the song expresses the cheapening, the degradation that many women feel when used for their bodies but never appreciated for themselves.

‘Doll Parts’ refers to what Germaine Greer calls ‘petty rape[i]’ – a sexual encounter where only one party (often the woman) expects and hopes for a continuation of the relationship, and is later rejected. This is as opposed to what Greer calls ‘Grand Rape’, the physical violation of someone’s body without any consent whatsoever. Another Hole song, ‘Asking for It’ addresses this phenomenon.

‘Asking for It’, as hinted by its title, deals with the notion that people (traditionally women) who are raped or assaulted were ‘asking for it’ by giving non-verbal signs of sexual availability or willingness. I’m sure we all know how ridiculously moronic and misogynistic that sentiment is, so I won’t waste words discussing it. The song (written by Courtney Love after she was digitally raped while crowd-surfing) turns the notion on its head with a hyper-literal interpretation, questioning sarcastically:

Was she asking for it?

Was she asking nice?

If she was asking for it

Did she ask you twice?

This points out that there is a difference between really and truly asking for it (as in, “please can we have sexual intercourse now?”) and the kind of ‘asking for it’ that rapists mention. The latter, of course, doesn’t signify any kind of consent whatsoever and is a wonderful example of the way the patriarchy disregards women’s bodily autonomy and uses women as the puppets of male sexual desire. Now, I’m not part of the ‘all hetero sex is rape’ school of feminist thought, but it’s worth giving thought to the way that even some technically consensual encounters involve a certain degree of exploitation and power play, which is again simply based in patriarchal norms and conditioning. As Love sings:

Every time that I sell myself to you

I feel a little bit cheaper than I need to.

Bikini Kill takes up this issue in their song ‘Anti-Pleasure Dissertation’. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit) – the song reflects on the manipulation inherent in the way that many men traditionally conduct sexual and romantic relationships with women. The narrator begins with an admission:

Maybe I like you

Maybe I do …

 But it’s not too long before there’s trouble in paradise, as she realizes exactly what it means to this particular suitor to have her ‘like’ him:

Was I wrong

To trust anyone?

Tell me, tell me

Did you tell them everything I said?

Did you tell them everything I said?

And quickly moves on to a rather apt roasting of the ‘frat-boy’ attitude (still sadly present in many men, frat boys or no) to sex:

Tell me was it good, was it good, was it good for you?

Did you win that race?

Did you score that point?

Are you so fucking cool?

… Go tell your fucking friends! 

The themes here are more or less the same as those explored in other feminist songs: exploitation, objectification, sex-as-conquest, petty rape. It’s quite a long way from ‘I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’ – or perhaps not, as even in that song there is recognition of an exploitative relationship (groupie/star) that men (and exclusively men) conduct.

None of this is meant to reinforce the stereotype that women always want relationships and are incapable of enjoying casual sex. Of course that is not the case, and if both parties agree to a casual sexual encounter, it can certainly be a good thing. However, this doesn’t change the fact that for generations men have been conditioned to believe that they can go around taking advantage of women, using them for sex, raping or sexually assaulting them, boasting about their conquests to their friends, and generally treating them like people without brains or feelings. This makes women feel like cheap, worthless, disregarded second-class citizens. This dynamic is still sadly common in modern relationships and encounters.  And it was this addressed by so many feminist bands as recently as the 90s. (Who would have thought: the biggest challenge for feminism these days isn’t equal pay after all!)

I’m fully prepared to receive accusations of man-hating in response to this article. Let’s be clear that I am not accusing every man of behaving this way and I know many who do not. But the fact remains that men don’t un-learn generations of social conditioning and gender stereotypes by themselves. It’s very easy to keep the blinkers of privilege on until someone comes along and rips them off you. The feminist movement aims to do just that, and hopefully this article contributes in some small way. For that, I make no apology.

Want More?
Here are some great albums by feminist bands to check out (including those featuring the songs mentioned in this article).

Sleater-Kinney – Call The Doctor (1996)
Hole – Live Through This (1994)
Bikini Kill – The Singles (1998)
Sleater-Kinney – All Hands On The Bad One (2000)
The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
Babes in Toyland – Fontanelle (1992)
L7 – Bricks Are Heavy (1992)


[i] Greer, G. ‘Seduction is a four-letter word’. The Madwoman’s Underclothes, 1986. London: Pan Books Ltd. (Pages 152 – 168)

~ Joanna Horton