…because 4's a crowd…
As a generation, we can’t seem to make up our minds about chivalry. We complain when we don’t see it, but also cringe when we do. It’s almost as if the word will elicit specific reactions – or expressions, if you will. There’s the ultra-feminist reaction of ‘Don’t you dare.’ Then there is the more traditional ‘Oh, that was so sweet.’ And then finally, we have what I like to call the consensual chivalry, a notion termed by Emma Watson. So today, let’s take a look at the expression of chivalry from it’s noble conception to modern times.
Paving the Road to Hell with Good Intentions
As most things, chivalry came into being for a specific purpose. Established as a code of conduct for knighthood it served to reign in the powers of knights by checking them with notions of nobility, honour and service. While now, it has petered down to dictate the relationship between men and women, back then it addressed a range of behaviours in a variety of settings, including war and heresy.
The version of chivalry we witness today seems to be derived from only one branch of the chivalric code: Duties to women. But one can see rightly so why this was an important peg of the three legged stool of medieval chivalry. In an era when women were awarded almost no rights, no property, and no means to survive except through their patriarchs, one can see the a necessity to keep said patriarchs in check. It did function on the notion that women are the weaker sex, because in that period they were.
Make Way For the Gallantry
With the advent of the early modern period and a decline in Europe’s wars, chivalry became quite dated by the Baroque period, to be replaced by something a bit more sinister, gallantry. It more explicitly states the proper behavior of men toward women and this is where the chivalric code became a means to assume and preserve power.
Gentlemen, derived from the land-endowed gentry, were actually the lowest of the low in complicated rankings of land-owners. It was a time where the more direct connection one had to land, the more privileged they held. When land meant everything and could only be passed on through first sons, the only way to acquire was through war or marriage. And thus daughters and women became fiercely guarded. While they themselves could not hold any property, women became one of the fundamental ways to acquire titles and prestige. So the behaviors and movements of women became strictly scrutinized and guarded. The gallantry code enforced those notions, using the chivalric ideas of protecting those without rights into controlling them.
Here Come the Suffragettes
By the 20th century, the rules which ran society for centuries began to change. As currency replaced land as a measure of success, the pressures on women began to ease. The two World Wars further brought women to the front lines of society, enabling them to contribute on a larger scale.
Of course, this brought the suffragette and feminist movements. As women demanded to be treated as equals in terms of voting, marriage, and property rights, gallantry (and it’s parent, chivalry) had to go. As women rejected the ‘protection’ that had restrained their rights, they eschewed the code all together as an infringement of their rights and selves.
Throwing Out Chivalry With the Bathwater
With the advent of the 21st century, online dating and second-wave feminism, the attitude towards chivalry has changed again. Women continue to fight for independence and equality on new fronts.
The changing nature of feminism also has some people feeling nostalgic about the chivalric code. As people became wary of offending women’s intelligence and threw out the chivalry with the bath water, we lost many expressions of nobility and propriety that made humanity into a society. Doors slammed in our faces, people struggled with their luggage alone. And this isn’t just with women. I vividly remember the time I chose to watch an old gentleman wrestling with his carry-on instead of offering my assistance. I didn’t want him to feel emasculated, or weak because of his age. But doing so prevented me from assisting another human being who might have needed my help.
Similarly, I have listened to many friends whom I consider strong, independent women lament when a first date doesn’t offer to pay. “It’s not that I can’t pay. It’s just that the offer is sweet.”
Which if you think about it, isn’t that big a deal. If you were to go out for coffee or a meal with your mother you wouldn’t think twice about offering to pay. It’s understood within the context of the relationship that the gesture is meant to be a sign of affection rather than dominance. So why do we hesitate to do the same with other meaningful relationships in our lives.
Chivalry with Consent
I think chivalry still has a place in our lives. If anything else, in an age where we are absorbed in our smartphones, it’s very much needed to force us to pay attention to our surroundings. But how do we rationalize chivalry with feminism? I think Emma Watson has stumbled around the way to do it.
In an interview she gave recently, she spoke about how chivalry and feminism can co-exist. But because both terms mean vastly different things to different people, the way around it is to just ask. Ask your date if you can buy her(or him) a drink, because hey, you asked for their time and it’s the least you can do. It doesn’t have to be formal; you just want to let a gesture show how much their time means to you. And if that is disagreeable to them for whatever reason, well now you know and can show affection in other ways.
Feminism does not and should not give us license to be rude. If anything, it should encourage you to continue treating everyone with respect and gentility, in addition to equality.