THIS CONTENT WAS REPUBLISHED FROM AN EARLIER DATE.
If you want to get technical (and who doesn’t?!) chivalry went out of style in about the 15th century when cheaper professional armies and gunpowder replaced knights as the standard for warfare. Nevertheless, we like to hearken back to days when being a gentleman meant avoiding your lady’s seductive advances and wearing plate armor. Good times.
Okay, I’m being facetious. Being kind and considerate to fellow humans should always be encouraged, and it can overlap with what is regarded as chivalrous behavior.
However, the idea that (certain) men are noble protectors comes from the eras of rigid hierarchy. From the Middle Ages to the Victorian era and later, being a woman, a child, or poor meant having almost no power, which was a feature, not a bug. A chivalrous man believed that this situation made him responsible for those who couldn’t care for themselves. It is honorable all things considered, but better than the relief that the person controlling your life is a decent guy is the ability to control your own person and property.
The concept of chivalry seems to exist in the hazy past, like how the 1950s were the good old days instead of the days of potential nuclear annihilation. There’s this idea that once upon a time men were gentleman, women were ladies, and various behaviors underscored a more genteel way of living. What’s left out of this daydream is all the people who don’t neatly fit into the simplistic boxes of what manhood and womanhood are “supposed” to look like.
It turns out living in the present has its perks, including no longer having to adhere to crushingly rigid social and gender norms. We still have a long way to go, but in general it has become more okay to be who we are instead of following prescribed roles. Men can be primary caregivers, and women can be primary breadwinners. Men can be soft-spoken and abhor violence, and Ronda Rousey is a household name.
LGBTQ people are especially left out when it comes to chivalry. If you’re not part of a heterosexual gender binary, it’s hard to see how some of these rules are supposed to apply or make sense. Even if you are cis and straight, the rules of chivalry have become muddied.
Does it indicate a lack of respect if a man doesn’t stand when a butch lesbian enters a room?
What about a trans woman? Is there a threshold for how feminine she is perceived before you pull a chair out for her?
How old does a man have to be before giving up your seat on the bus is welcome instead of emasculating? If a young man with a cane, a female athlete, and a mumbling bag lady all get to a door at once, who’s responsible for holding it and who should go through first? Does this question even matter if it’s an automatic door (that vile aperture, creator of anarchy and vehicle of the breakdown of everything we as a society hold dear, that is, the importance of proper-door-holding proceedings)?
Despite what manners websites may say, there aren’t actually any solid answers because if chivalry were solely about consideration and good behavior it wouldn’t be so damn confusing. People wouldn’t be so pissed off if it were simply about being kind to each other. (Well, maybe pissed off differently.)
In some ways, chivalry is a way to reinforce gender roles under the guise of refined behavior. But we simply don’t have the same expectations anymore. A man picking up the tab for a date made sense when women’s earnings were severely limited (instead of just limited.) Opening doors and providing a steadying arm made sense when even sensible women’s wear was difficult to move in. Men providing jackets, holding umbrellas, and carrying heavy bags made sense when male physical weakness, especially compared to women, was a great source of shame. Making all the rules for courtship about straight people made sense when queerness was unspeakable.
I’m not saying that we live in a magical, accepting world or that the inequalities that made chivalrous behavior make sense are gone. That much is obvious, and perhaps that’s why there are those who insist it’s still necessary. But as we focus more on achieving equality and we open our eyes to the full spectrum of humanity instead of just “respectable” straight people, the rituals that soften inequality and shore-up outdated ideas have begun to fall away. That’s a good thing.
Last modified: August 1, 2017