The F-Word: Chivalry


As always, a big thank you to both guests on this week’s F-Word: Oliva Rafferty who argued for chivalry as a form of benevolent sexism, and Daniel Swain who felt strongly that it was an old-fashioned and irrelevant argument.

While I can genuinely see both sides of the chivalry debate, I do find it hard to support the suggestion that it’s old-fashioned and not worthy of our time (sorry Daniel). To me it seems that this view comes from a misconception about what chivalry actually means in this day and age. I feel really strongly that you can never just transplant yourself into a different time or place and say that you know how you’d feel or react, and so I’m definitely not making arguments about your Granny and “the good old days when people had morals and men were gentlemen and bla bla bla…”. Simply chivalry as it manifests itself for young women in the 21st century. So it’s true that ‘chivalry’ comes from the French word ‘chevalier‘ meaning knight, and it definitely conjures up images of horsemen and damsels in distress – but one of the main arguments against chivalry

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is that it’s a remnant of an older and more sexist

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time, so let’s not make it credible again by updating its name.

But fair enough, chats about language can be fairly abstract – so does chivalry still exist nowadays in the real world? I think the argument that it doesn’t ignores the suggestion that language and concepts evolve over time and we’re not talking about knights on white horses fighting dragons anymore (although if

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chivalry was still as cool as that then maybe I could get on board). Chivalry as I see it is not just when a man holds a door open or your boyfriend carries something heavy. I’ve rarely found myself personally offended by chivalry despite having many doors held open for me in my time, and that’s because the men holding said doors were doing the same for other women, children and men, and therefore not expecting any return from their action. That’s what marks chivalry aside from general good manners. I can’t lie, I’m a bit of a manners nazi and there’s nothing that riles me more than bad manners; if a man slammed a door in my face, I’d be furious. But I’d be equally furious if he ran ahead of me to sweep it open in a grandiose gesture to save my dainty little hands from – god forbid – pushing it open. Chivalry isn’t manners because it expects something in return and therefore reinforces male control of a situation. You can say chivalry’s dead but I’m willing to bet that a large percentage of the men out there would find their masculinity bruised if a woman pulled out a chair for them or bought them a drink in a bar.

Buying a drink is a perfect example of how chivalry has evolved as times have. I can’t be sure, what with being born in the 90s an all that, but I’m guessng there weren’t many one night stands in the 12th century – chainmail would be a bit of a pest to get off, for one thing – so there wasn’t the same motivation for men to shower women with drinks all night. There were no boardrooms, let alone women in them, so no “saving the budget meeting until later so that the ladies don’t get bored”. And I’d imagine that men were too busy galloping around or sharpening their swords to even talk to womenfolk, let alone censor their conversation because there were ladies present. It’s a shame that the conflation between chivalry and manners means women are often looked down on for wanting an extravagant wedding, or enjoying pretending to be a princess when a waiter in a fancy restaurant pulls a chair out for them. It’s the subtle nuances that mark chivalry apart from manners, and that make some instances of chivalry more offensive than others – in a serious relationship you might expect a man to treat you like a princess now and again but in that situation you both know where you stand, you’ve already got what you want and he’s showing you he appreciates you. It’s not so cool when you feel uncomfortable about accepting extravagant gifts from near strangers or when you’re made to feel like you can’t just go

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home at the end of a date because someone has pulled out all the stops and just paid for your dinner.

But my biggest problem with the suggestion that chivalry is irrelevant and out-of-date goes wider than just chivalry into bigger ideas of feminism and just how to treat people generally. Fundamentally, I think that if something is a problem for even a tiny number of people, then it’s a problem. Not experiencing something yourself doesn’t make it non-existent or not worthy of your time, otherwise we might as well not bother about wars or hurricanes or third world poverty. Suggesting that something simply isn’t a problem for women anymore is to suggest that women are something other than a heterogeneous group of people with opposing thoughts, backgrounds and opinions, which is a slippery slope in my book. I don’t feel personally offended by chivalry on a regular basis, and maybe there are other ‘women’s issues’ that are more relevant to me right now as a 20 year old student in Edinburgh. But maybe if I was 20 years older, or a dress size smaller, or a few inches taller, or living 50 miles away, or in any kind of different situation at all, it might be a mssive problem for me. It might be the biggest problem I face as a woman. And that is not irrelevant.

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