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sponsored post: is chivalry sexist?

chivalry

This post was sponsored by eHarmony.com.au. If you have a question about sponsored posts, please contact Zoya at editor@lipmag.com. 

When I was in university, taking my first Gender Studies classes and writing for Lip in my spare time, word got around pretty quickly that I was a feminist (and still am, I might add). I earned myself a bit of a reputation as a supposed ‘man-hater’, and dudes started acting a bit strange around me at times. Specifically, they’d say things like ‘I’d open the door for you, but I don’t want you to think I’m being sexist!’, or ‘Don’t worry, I’ll let you pay’, at the end of a coffee date.

I assume some of this was just gentle ribbing, but there was an underlying assumption that being a feminist meant that I automatically hated any chivalrous actions, and that this made guys feel a bit awkward and defensive.

Well, according to the Society for the Pyschology of Women, small acts of chivalry could have bigger, dangerous implications for the status of women more broadly. Put simply, chivalry is sexist. In an issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, a group of researchers put forward a list of potentially ‘damaging’ acts that men could commit, that are actually insidiously sexist and affect the status of women in society.

Included in this list were such things as offering to carry heavy things, offering to drive on a long distance journey, or telling a woman you ‘can’t live without her’. Now, here’s the thing – I am definitely a feminist. I can see how some perceived acts of chivalry are actually a bit insulting and imply weakness in women (like some of the other acts listed by the researchers, including helping a woman choose the right computer etc). I can also see how many acts of chivalry are steeped in old-school sexism that stretches back centuries and is based on ideas of gendered difference that  imply women are vulnerable, physically weak and generally incapable of taking care of themselves.

However, when it comes to modern life, and especially modern dating, I just don’t think that the occasional act of chivalry is going to derail equality between the genders.

No, I don’t think that men should always have to pay on a date. However, if I guy I’m on a date with offers to pay, I’m not going to slap him in the face, cry ‘sexism!’ and storm off. Yeah, I can carry my own groceries. But if a male friend offers to grab a bag for me, I’m not going to struggle alone just to prove a point.

In the context of the 21st century, chivalrous acts are less about sexist implications, and more about courtesy and politeness. Especially in the context of dating, chivalry is a well-understood way to demonstrate interest and generosity through gestures rather than words.

The Society for the Psychology of Women claim that chivalry is benevolent sexism – I can see how it’s a complex issue, but I can’t help but think that there are enough malevolent forms of sexism out there (like sexual assault, discrimination in the workplace, and the pay gap to name a few) that I can let a bit of door-opening or dinner-buying slide.

Does that make me a bad feminist?

Just in case, here are some chivalrous moves that I don’t think are sexist, and that would pass the test for me on a date:

  • Offering to pay for dinner:  I just don’t think this has to be sexist. I think it’s only sexist if it’s expected that the guy pays every time. I think most couples will switch between each other when it comes to getting the bill, and to me that’s perfectly ok.
  • Carrying the groceries: Alright, maybe I just really hate carrying groceries. But frankly, I would always offer to carry things for a friend if I thought they were struggling, and I would be a bit perturbed by any date (male or female) that didn’t at least offer to help – it’s just polite.
  • Offering a coat or jumper on a cold evening: Even if I don’t need it, it’s always nice to feel that a date is concerned for your comfort. Offering to loan me  a coat doesn’t mean that my date thinks I’m pathetic and weak – it probably just means he thinks I look cold.

Like with anything, chivalrous gestures are only sexist if the person offering them is sexist – the act itself can just be a polite, friendly and caring thing to do. And trust me, if the guy you’re dating is sexist, you’ll be able to tell from far more obvious traits than the occasional door-opening.

Brought to you by eHarmony.com.au

By Zoya Patel

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13 thoughts on “sponsored post: is chivalry sexist?

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the point that chivalry in the twenty-first century is more about courtesy and politeness than about sexism.

    As a man, it’s a point of pride for me to be able to pay for things when I go on dates and stuff. I like to buy my date’s movie ticket, and her snacks, and when we go out for lunch or dinner before/after, I want to pay for that too.
    It’s not that I think she’s incapable of paying for herself or incapable of making her own money and it’s not that I want to own the date to prove a point. It’s that I care more about just having a nice time with her than I do about money.

  2. I think it is just about being helpful and polite to people. If anybody is carrying something heavy help should be offered. I agree that taking turns in paying is good and I am not going to say no if they offer.

    At one point my partner was studying so I payed for things then another boy friend paid when I did not have a job. It is just about caring for people regardless of who they are.

  3. ‘Chivalry’ as a term used nowadays is very different from ‘chivalry’ as a concept, say, 200 years ago (or, for that matter, 600 years ago).

    All of the examples given above of ‘chivalry’ could equally be described as ‘etiquette’. Chivalry as it would have been originally recognised – the code of honour between men and women of high degree (knights, lords, the aristocracy), and their relations in court, and on the battlefield, and in other modes of life – is interesting, and worth discussing, but has little direct relations to any of this modern-day etiquette. It’s probably a cliche best dispensed with. (Sorry for being pedantic.)

    That being said I can see the point for some of those rules. For instance, carrying heavy weights for women. Now that’s both polite and has an obvious applicability in some circumstances (women are advised against carrying heavy weights while pregnant.)

  4. Etymology Online sez:

    chivalry (n.) Look up chivalry at Dictionary.com
    c.1300, “body or host of knights; knighthood in the feudal social system; bravery in war, warfare as an art,” from Old French chevalerie “knighthood, chivalry, nobility, cavalry, art of war,” from chevaler “knight,” from Medieval Latin caballarius “horseman,” from Latin caballus “nag, pack-horse” (see cavalier). From late 14c. as “the nobility as one of the estates of the realm,” also as the word for an ethical code emphasizing honor, valor, generosity and courtly manners. Modern use for “social and moral code of medieval feudalism” probably is an 18c. historical revival.

    So there you go.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post about the relationship between chivalry and sexism.

    Hey Jon, you seem nice and all, but I think you *might* be being benevolently sexist by taking ‘pride’ in paying for your date, partly because ‘I care more about just having a nice time with her than I do about money’. Pride is an expression of power and prestige. In this case, holding the position of power on the date ‘over’ your female date. A nice movement might just be to give your dates the choice. To make an offer, and be prepared to have it refused, and to split the bill, or have her pay it. THAT would be both chivalrous, and non-sexist, I reckon. Choice. The ladies like it :)

    Ask yourself: what if your date, too, cares more about having a nice time than about money? What if you paying makes her feel obligated to you in some way? What if she wants to pay her own way?

    Here’s a test I’d like to suggest all you str8 folk mentally apply. Would it be inappropriate to perform this act of chivalry if the other person were the same sex?

    If you see a woman carrying groceries and you (a woman) offer to help out, you are being sexist/benevolently discriminatory or judgmental.

    If you see a woman shivering on the street and you (a woman) offer her your coat to wear, you are exercising your power to help others. Sure, it’s a subtle expression of your power and her vulnerability, but so are most acts of compassion. If you’re on a date and your girl is shivering and you (a woman) offer her your cardigan …?

    If you are in a car with a woman and you (another woman) keep telling her how to drive, you’ve got a problem. Unless you’re a driving instructor.

    If you’re in a car yard and you see a woman looking at cars and you (another woman) make the assumption she needs some help from you, ask yourself what she’s doing, exactly, that suggests she needs your help. Does she look confused? Is she looking around for a sales assistant? Have you seen her trying to test-drive the car by getting in the passenger seat?

    See. Easy. If you’re assuming you are smarter, more capable, etc, than the woman you are being chivalrous towards, you are being a knob. Perhaps a sexist knob. If you are offering help to a fellow human being on an equal basis, in the full understanding and acceptance that they can turn down your help if they want to without offending your delicate chivalrous heart, and that their need for help is probably temporary and not in any way connected to their gender, then you’re probably alright.

    That’s my two cents, anyway.

    • Note: I’ve had to think about the wording of my response a little here. I have a prodigious talent for rushing into discussions/arguments on the internet and then having to defend the semantics of any number of points which are really tangential to the actual topic of discussion. So try and read just the ideas of what I’m saying in case the words are stupid.

      The main point I think I need to make is that I don’t believe that benevolent sexism is even a thing. Sexism is widely accepted to be a bad thing. I’m of the personal opinion that I’m a pretty good person. I can back that up with a number of examples, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The reason for saying that is that I look at sexism and racism as things that will not only insult others, but will make me less as a person and less as a man.

      There are likely people who would read that and think I’m sexist for using my gender in an argument or something. I’m proud to be a man. If I were a woman, I’d be proud to be a woman. Whatever I am, I am proud to be it, and if I am not, then I change myself so that I can be proud.

      That tangent aside, this “benevolent sexism” thing is a distraction. As the OP states, there are enough malevolent forms of sexism to be contending with. I’m of the belief that in the circumstances we’re discussing that you can be sexist, or you can be nice. There isn’t a middle ground with this sort of thing.

      That thing you say at the end is the most important and relevant thing to me: “If you’re assuming you are smarter, more capable, etc, than the woman you are being chivalrous towards, you are being a knob.”

      I do “chivalrous” things because I believe it will make the other person feel good. About themselves, about me, about something. That’s what I strive for in my relationships with anyone.
      And to distinguish a certain point: if I were a gay man, it would still be a point of pride for me to pay for everything on a date. For me it’s not because I’m a man. It’s because it’s the man I’ve grown up to become, and through my years of growing, I’ve earned the right to be that man.

      • Hey Jon, Thanks for your response. I, too, am wary of getting into big overwrought discussions online, so I appreciate your tentativeness, it’s something I relate to :)

        I think the term ‘benevolent sexism’ is interesting because it calls attention to the ways in which good intentions can underlie sexist (or racist, or homophobic) behaviour at times. Or, perhaps, that sometimes sexist, racist, homophobic, etc, behaviour can be minor and unintentional. Perhaps that happens more often than not – our unconscious biases affect our behaviour more than the ones we are conscious of and work to overcome. We think we’re just being ‘nice’, but actually we might (also) be acting out of our own sense of our superiority, and implicitly diminishing another person. It’s a *big* example, but one that works for me as an analogy, to consider that many people involved in removing Indigenous children from their families in Australia were acting out of a sense of benevolence – ‘saving’ children, as they saw it, from lives of poverty and neglect.

        I think acts of benevolence/chivalry are incredibly interesting because they are often about making ourselves feel good for being nice, hoping to have others feel good about us, and so on. So they ARE generous acts, but they’re also about making us feel good about ourselves. It’s when that feeling good about ourselves comes at the expense of someone else’s sense of self/agency/etc that I think we need to be careful.

        • I really only have a couple of points to make about what you’ve said.

          First, all forms of altruism aren’t fully altruistic. Being altruistic makes you feel good about yourself, as you said, “for being nice”. I totally agree with that, but that’s the basis of pretty much all human life. I’d rather make myself feel good by being nice than feel good by pretty much any other means.

          Second, and this may sound like it’s against everything else I’ve said, but other people’s feelings are not my responsibility. I can only control the direct implications that I put into my words and which are behind my actions. Usually, I imply nothing bad with my words or actions.

          I can’t control what other people infer from my actions or words. I think that this entire argument about benevolent sexism comes down to the saying, “hindsight’s 20/20″. It’s all in retrospect.

          When I do something nice, I don’t overthink it. It comes to me as a “this would be nice to do” situation, and I act on that. When it is done, that’s when I and anyone else involved will begin to think about what it means. That’s part of being human. But part of being nice back is not overthinking things. Taking the act as the kindness that it is.

      • This brings to mind one of my favtrioe quotes: Enjoy the little things in life because one day you will look back and realize they were the big things. . So true. Lovely post and picture too

    • Nike, from those examples and your analysis of those examples it would seem that ALL acts of compassion or generosity must logically be described as an admission of power, and therefore not desirable. It does seem like the rational end-point of your argument. It puts us all in a bit of an ethical bind, because if we do do something nice for other people then it’s an expression of power (bad!) but if we don’t ever do anything nice for other people ever again, then, well, that is obviously (bad!) too. And I don’t buy your distinction –

      If you’re assuming you are smarter, more capable, etc, than the woman you are being chivalrous towards, you are being a knob…. If you are offering help to a fellow human being on an equal basis, in the full understanding and acceptance that they can turn down your help if they want to without offending your delicate chivalrous heart, and that their need for help is probably temporary and not in any way connected to their gender, then you’re probably alright.

      Because from that it appears that actions only matter if they’re accompanied with the right intentions. What? Intentions matter. But actions matter too. Anyway, my personal instinct is to not worry about whether I’m expressing ‘power’ or not in any particular act of generosity: how, in the end, could I know whether I was? And even if I did know, what could I do about it – apart from attempting to be nice to others?

      • Hey Tim, Thanks for your response. You’re really helping me think through my feelings on this. You’re right in that my examples and analysis do highlight the ways in which acts of generosity are always (often?) expressions of power in some way, but I guess I would disagree that this makes them all inherently undesirable.

        Power used well can be an incredibly good thing, can’t it? It’s just that we often associate the use of power with negative outcomes/abuse of power. If I have the power to help others, and do so, that’s good, I think. But I guess I would say that it’s important to notice that you’re exercising a subtle form of power when you help others, and to ensure that the help you offer is wanted, and in a form appropriate to the person you’re helping.

        And, yes, I think intentions matter – I was trying (not totally effectively/clearly I know :)) to suggest that one way to self-check whether an action might be inappropriate before you act would be to examine your own intentions. But you’re right. ACTIONS are what matter in the end. The point I was trying to make is that if you examine your intentions, you might discover that an action you’re intending to take is inappropriate, and adjust your behaviour, or not, depending on whether you are comfortable with both the action and the intention that informs it.

  6. OOPS! I made an error. The 5thP above SHOULD read: “If you see a woman carrying groceries and you (a woman) offer to help out, you are NOT being sexist/benevolently discriminatory or judgmental.” Sorry!

  7. I think it was Naomi Wolfe who said the last bastion of feminism is hetro relationships, but honestly I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by deliberating over the semantics of opening doors (at least unless they’re metaphorical). It just makes us seem whiny. We want men to be considerate and caring don’t we? For me, a point of feminism is being able to choose how we express our femininity and how we live our lives, if that means we accept a relative amount of ‘traditional behavior’ then so be it. What ever the act of ‘chivalry’ is, its how we deal with it that matters. If we want to carry our own groceries we could on feeling confident enough to say so. Maybe having people care for us gives us confidence? Personally I think its an equally sexist scenario where a man would sit and watch a woman carry out domestic chores such as carrying groceries without helping. Thanks for the article Zoya, I’d like to think this is the end of the debate (I’m sure you’d agree – we have bigger fish to fry), but until all women are strong in their sense of self, and are fully confident to say yes or no to this or that with men, it probably won’t be.

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