Woman-splaining : Chivalry should retire, but the concept should stay
Freya Wasteneys // Contributor
Can feminism and chivalry coexist? Or should chivalry die? As Valentine’s Day approaches and women march, the question of gender roles and interactions deserves some serious consideration.
The main argument against chivalry stems from its medieval roots, but even the definition has been widely interpreted to fit whatever argument is trying to be made. “The combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice and a readiness to help the weak,” is how it is generally defined (the key assumption here is that women are among the weak).
There are those who argue that the concept of chivalry has changed, and that it doesn’t have to be anti-feminist. The belief is that being chivalrous is simply showing women respect, or the equivalent of being a “well-bred gentleman.” After all, chivalry these days has less to do with acts of valour and more to do with opening doors, changing tires or other acts of assistance that are often meant as thoughtful gestures. In other words, to those who defend it chivalry is a symbolic practice that is meant to demonstrate respect towards and adoration for women.
But like most things, we also enter a bit of a grey-area. Are men helping women change tires because they think they are incompetent? Would they feel offended if women offered to help change a tire? Do they want something else out of it? Most of the time it’s not done out of male chauvinism. Most of the time.
This is where it gets tricky – at a certain point, some men’s perception of what it means to be helpful to a fellow human is at risk of being sexist. Unwilling to deal with the negative flack they will inevitably receive when women decline their assistance, some men will give up – then harbour a bit of resentment toward feminists for their seemingly ridiculous refusal of assistance.
Because the defining feature between doing something nice and being condescending is intent, it can be hard to distinguish between the two motives. Harder still, since most men don’t recognize that they hold problematic views towards women.
So yes, if a man helps a woman because he views her as weaker, less competent, or too pretty to get dirty, then he is 100 per cent reinforcing patriarchal roles, and that’s a problem. But in the end, maybe it’s not so straightforward on either side. There is always a temptation to point out what other people are doing wrong, and often alienate people from the cause by assuming that they had disrespectful intentions. There are times when we want some assistance, and it is unfortunate that gendered power relationships have to get in the way.
According to feminist equity writer Emily Esfahani Smith, while chivalry is typically seen as a man’s virtue, it “does not mean that women cannot be chivalrous too.” Perhaps to avoid the drama, we should retire the word “chivalry” (which sounds pretentious anyway). Instead, let’s be respectful towards each other, regardless of gender, and make it a practice to ask people whether they want help, rather than assuming they need it. “The essence of chivalry is self-sacrifice,” wrote Smith. “Whether or not we name that selflessness chivalry, the compassion that stands behind it is something we should celebrate.”