According to the traditional conception of women, we women aren’t so womanly anymore. Thankfully, hegemonic ideas of femininity — being delicate (honestly, just a euphemism for “weak”), submissive and servile to men as well as pretty and attractive at all times — are constantly being challenged. Things are looking much better for women today. But many notions of sexism — chivalry being one of the worst offenders — are still embedded in our society today.
Compared to the formerly oppressive status quo, the progress of gender equality in the United States is undeniable. Today, women possess the right to vote and can walk down the street with their ankles showing in broad daylight without anyone gasping in horror.
Besides the obvious stuff, we’re beginning to notice the subtle, underlying gender stereotypes in previously disregarded aspects of everyday life, such as the media. There are compelling arguments about the effects of gendered colors and toys on the development of children’s identities and hidden gender discrimination in the almighty Walt Disney Company’s movies and fairytales — all things that most people used to see as completely harmless and pure. But this makes it easy for some people, frustrated at the nitpicky feminist for pointing out every minor form of perceived sexism, to say that those brutish, modern “feminazis” are just overreacting.
But noticing covert sexism matters. Recognizing subtle forms of gender discrimination allows us to see just how systemic sexism truly is and helps us get that much closer to achieving gender equality. When a boy acts slightly too feminine, it’s totally routine to say, “Come on, be a man. Stop acting like a girl.” Although it is increasingly frequent, rarely will anyone notice the unyielding societal expectations and burdens imposed on that little boy. Some of the highest grossing children’s movies (“Shrek,” “Aladdin,” “Tarzan,” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc.) depict a woman falling in love with a chivalrous man … who is a complete stranger. For her, their first kiss is magical and, in many cases, literally and figuratively transformative.
No matter how ordinary or traditional these incidents may seem, their messages reinforce gender stereotypes. Now, with my friends’ mushy, picturesque, tear-jerking Valentine’s Day stories still fresh on my mind, I want to talk about an instance of this subtle sexism, and one that I’ve noticed is regarded by most of my girl friends as “more than OK” and “not sexist at all” — chivalry.
Let’s be clear about the definition of chivalry here. The term “chivalry” derives from a system of values, such as loyalty and honor, that knights were expected to follow during the Middle Ages. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term as “an honorable and polite way of behaving especially toward women.”
So here’s the simple question with no simple answer: Is chivalry sexist? Well, what do you think? He pays for her dinner, he gives up his bus seat for her, he carries her bag and books while walking to class, he pushes in her chair for her once she sits down. Is this discrimination? It can definitely get confusing, and my own friends found they were contradicting themselves. One of my female friends said, “It’s probably sexist since it’s implying we shouldn’t do things on our own … but I still like when a guy does those things for me.” Then one of my male friends chimed in, “I don’t see it as sexism at all. It’s just politeness and courtesy.”
He’s right. Doing all of those things is merely polite and can definitely be seen as a means of affection or kindness toward another. There can never be enough kindness in the world, and it seems counterproductive to question people who are simply being nice. But let’s take a look at the rigid gender construction at play here. One hardly expects women to ever do those things for men. (Ladies, have you ever take a boy’s stack of books from his hands? And fellas, try telling me you’ve had or wanted your car door opened by your girlfriend.) Because of this lack of reciprocity, I can’t help but wonder if these aren’t mere acts of kindness and affection but acts rooted in protection and power as well as displays of masculine strength and resourcefulness.
OK, whatever, maybe men just like doing nice things for women, regardless of whether they think women are weak or not. So what? It’s about the implications: If a girl shouldn’t carry her own books, does this promote an image of fragility, perhaps even in other aspects of her life, such as her career? I mean, do you want your CEO, someone who is leading you, to be a person who appears weak? If the man should always pay for dinner, does the woman even need an equal salary? In such scenarios, chivalry is certainly discriminatory.
I’m sure most chivalrous men are well-intending. But to me, chivalry still seems like a rather contradictory representation of kindness, maybe better off left in the dark ages.