For some time I have struggled to understand why the word ‘gentleman’ (and the concept, moreover) tends to repel me a little bit. It seems to me that the perfect man longed for by young women and living apparently mainly in Nicholas Sparks novels is charged not only with the responsibility of being a decent person in general, but should also volunteer himself for any remotely physically challenging task, regularly spend money to treat the women in his life, and should make obvious efforts to protect his female partners from the rest of the men in the world. I always felt like it was too bitchy to admit that I don’t really want any of that.
As a feminist and a fairly independent person, I don’t want any person in my life to take responsibility for my finances, or any other part of life as an adult woman. Fortunately my partner shares my critical stance on gender norms, and has never had to be told not to pay for my dates/pull out my chair/protect me from the world. I understand how these behaviors must seem like the kindest option to many men, but the truth is if I had a man insisting upon paying for every date or carrying heavy objects for me, I’d feel patronized and robbed of autonomy instead of enamored. I want the world to see me as a person who can do things for herself, and I definitely wouldn’t want my partner of all people to treat me as if I can’t, even if that wasn’t the intention behind his actions.
But my reaction to these norms of the gentleman stereotype runs deeper than these purely personal objections. I think in modern life we have managed to separate these ideals from their very problematic origins, and in doing so we’ve cast a sheath of innocence over something that’s actually quite offensive if we interrogate it at all. The notion of chivalric romance belongs to the medieval institutions of knighthood and courtly love, wherein a man’s honor depended upon his adherence to a code of nobility. The courtly love trope depicts medieval men securing women’s affections through a cycle that looks something like this:
1. Initial attraction based solely on woman’s appearance
2. Worship from afar
3. Declarations of passionate devotion
4. Virtuous rejection by the woman
5. More insistent declarations of passionate undying devotion
6. Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (this is the first time I’ve ever used words directly from a Wikipedia article, but that’s just too good)
7. Heroic deeds of valour which finally win the woman’s heart.
Of course there is little evidence to demonstrate conclusively that these codes existed in real life as well as literature, but even just as a model to aim towards, they hardly promote wholesome romantic relations. Women in medieval literature exist mainly as idols or objects (or both). And although many of the men who engage in what we can call modern chivalric behavior may not be well-versed in Arthurian literature (no judgment here, that was by far my least favorite university paper), I would argue that the connection still very much exists. While many people today would understand why the relentless wooing and idolization of women considered noble in medieval society are actually very problematic, still more would consider them harmless at worst and charming and desirable at best. Thus, many of the things modern men do to try and win a woman’s heart (paying for her meals, opening doors, lifting heavy objects, etc.) are not so far divorced from the norms of the 13th century. These actions can be placed on the opposite end of a scale also featuring stalking, controlling and abusive relationships, and all of the uglier forms of sexism, because they are all based in the same rarely examined idea: that women are innately more precious, more delicate, and less human than men.
This is a problem not only because of the connection between what might be seen as harmless chivalry and extremely damaging sexism, but because chivalry is constantly used as an argument against feminism. People already confused over the term ‘feminist’ have claimed to me that it is paradoxical because modern women want both independence and to have dates paid and doors opened by their male romantic partners. This, of course, is a massive and unhelpful generalization, but as long as women continue to accept and encourage displays of chivalric behavior, it will continue to be used against us.
Of course, these dark beliefs need not be present in order for men to treat women kindly and respectfully, and I don’t want to suggest that a better world would be one in which no one opened doors for anyone. I just don’t see why courtesy has to be gendered. If you believe sincerely that women are just as capable as men, you can perform chivalrous acts towards anybody who might be in need of a hand or just because you feel like it. We could be a society not of gentlemen and fragile ladies, but of gentle people, who don’t need an age-old sexist behavior code to tell us where and when to bother being nice. And if that were the case, I would also probably be less inclined to worry that the men who want to buy me things and perform acts of servitude are secretly expecting some sexual reward in return.
As a feminist, I want to participate in building a society in which my sex is not seen as a disability, and to me that means pulling my own weight (literally). I want to be the woman who volunteers to carry the heavy boxes of paper up the stairs at work. Unfortunately, this has been difficult for me to pull off, because:
a. I am not very physically strong, and
b. I have arthritis – an actual disability – in my hands, shoulders and neck. And long-term muscular strain issues relating to the chronic pain.
However, participating in any way in the perpetuation of the ‘women are fragile and must be looked after/served by men’ ideal bothers me a lot, so I’m making it one of my fitness goals for the rest of the year to build up my upper body strength in whatever way I can manage. I may never be able to move furniture on my own, but I’ll be damned if I can’t at least lend a hand when I want to. I hope this leads people to see me as someone who doesn’t depend upon anyone else, much less on a gendered system of special treatment. Because I don’t want to be treated differently, or seen differently, even if it’s in exclusively positive ways.