By JULIA CALAGIOVANNI
October 28, 2011
“Are you, like, offended when guys hold doors for you?” In the two months I have been at Yale, almost every male classmate to whom I have identified myself as a feminist has asked me this question. The question always comes with a certain amount of defensiveness. Men are just doing the “nice” thing, the “right” thing, the “polite” thing. And here I am, criticizing them for it.
The first half-dozen or so times it happened, I was perplexed. Did my peers—male or female—really think that this was feminism’s chief concern? Was it some sort of litmus test to determine whether I was an angry feminist or just a regular feminist? Or were they making some kind of horribly awkward small talk? Either way, I was obligated to answer.
The short answer: no.
The long answer: no, I’m not offended. When I’m in a hurry or have my arms full, it’s nice when someone grabs the door. But I hold doors for men, men hold doors for me, I hold doors for women, and women hold doors for me. I’m just not interested in chivalry—the idea that a man “should,” for example, hold a door for a woman, or pay for her dinner, or buy her flowers.
Foregoing chivalry doesn’t mean completely disregarding any concept of etiquette. Common courtesy is just that – common and courteous. Being nice shouldn’t be predicated on rules of gender. Being nice to someone just because she is a woman and you are a man isn’t actually thoughtful; it’s more of an act of obligation. Holding doors for a woman just because she’s a woman or paying for a meal because it’s the “gentlemanly” thing to do seems strange at best, and thoughtless at worst.
A chivalrous society, whatever that would mean, would still have plenty of flaws in its culture of gender. Accepting the habits of “chivalry” as the only acceptable standard of behavior would reinforce and perpetuate problematic misconceptions about gender. Inherent in the “lady and gentleman” binary is the assumption that women are somehow more delicate and needy, while men are strong and capable. It is easy to see how this leads to discrimination or inferior treatment disguised as respect. Strictly constructed gender roles are never a good thing, and confusing them with “manners” only further legitimizes unequal treatment of men and women.
Chivalry, is, in many ways, the easy way out. It means choosing a path of action based on a broad generalization of how a woman should be treated, rather than understanding an individual woman’s viewpoint and desires. No, there’s not going to be an in-depth conversation every time a door is opened. But a couple with serious differences of opinion on, for example, splitting a dinner check might have larger issues to negotiate.
Holding a door is easy. Confronting the situation’s implications is, of course, more intellectually and personally challenging. So, while it frustrates me to hear my peers’ misunderstanding of, or unfamiliarity with, the feminist cause, I’m glad they asked. The issue of door holding is a common, everyday, and confusing instance of gender interactions. While larger issues loom, it is still indicative of the imperfect progress made toward gender equality. My peers’ reflex – to bring up the question of chivalry – means that someone – maybe me, but maybe someone else – has called chivalry into question. But with that standard of behavior challenged, we’re not sure what to put in its place.
We all know that chivalry—first-wave chivalry, if you will—is dead. That happened approximately five hundred years ago. It’s time for modern chivalry to go, too. If the vague idea of a centuries-old past where men were perfectly gallant and women perfectly helpless is a man’s only reason to be kind to women, chivalry is little more than an excuse for sexism.
If the time and energy spent reinforcing the flawed idea of chivalry were devoted to a discussion of the systematic ways women are mistreated and discriminated against, progress could be made toward real cultural change. So, if chivalry isn’t dead, I hope it’s on its way out. There are plenty of other doors to be opened—and discussions to be had.
Julia Calagiovanni is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.