Even though biology might not be destiny, Hugo Schwyzer writes, there’s nothing wrong with a man being chivalrous.
Two weeks ago, we hosted a PTA meeting at our house. (I’m heading into my second term as president of the parent-teacher association for my daughter’s school.) After the other board members had left, our dear friend (and PTA vice-president) Sheva stayed to chat. As my wife and I stood with the veep in the kitchen, noshing on hummus and crackers, the conversation turned to gender roles.
Though Sheva is in many ways a thorough progressive, she takes the position that men and women are fundamentally different and that those differences have significant meaning in terms of how we function in public and private spaces. At least to some extent, she believes that biology is destiny; I tend to reject that claim as unreasonable straitjacketing of individual potential. (For more on Sheva, visit her Grown Up Girl blog.) In my courses and in my writing, I take the stance that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary. Men and women may be different, but the differences between members of the “same” sex are so vast that it’s unreasonable to extrapolate any universal truths about how “men” and “women” should behave.
When you teach gender studies for a living, this is the sort of argument you expect to have on a weekly basis with friends and family. When I’m debating in good faith with good friends, I enjoy these discussions immensely. At least some of the time, they generate more light than heat.
We don’t live in a particularly dangerous neighborhood, but this is Los Angeles, and it was rather late on a Wednesday night. Sheva didn’t ask me to walk her; I volunteered and she accepted. We strolled to her car, continuing our animated but friendly debate all the way. As she unlocked and opened the door, I said good night—and then we both laughed at what seemed like a potential contradiction between my words and my actions.
My wife is a first-rate kickboxer; she spars with guys and has a thundering left hook. If it came to fending off a mugger, I suspect that she’d provide more protection for Sheva than I would. But what led me out the door with our friend while my wife stayed inside had little to do with hard-headed insight into the practicalities of protection. Instead, it had everything to do with a clear-headed embrace of the pleasure in performing certain traditional gender roles, particularly those that revolve around “chivalry” or “common courtesy.” (Both terms are rooted in medieval notions of how aristocratic men and women ought to treat one another.)
One of the common misconceptions that a lot of people have about feminism is that it requires its adherents to act as if they are blind to gender. For example, it’s remarkable how many young women, convinced that a fondness for playing traditional gender roles is at odds with egalitarian ideology, cite a fondness for “being treated like a lady” (or a “girl,”or a “woman”) as a primary reason for rejecting the feminist label. There’s an enduring false assumption that taking pleasure in playing certain traditional roles cancels out one’s right to demand equality.
It’s not just women who buy into this canard. As one young man in one of my women’s studies classes once sulkily put it, “Women can either expect me to be a ‘gentleman’ or they can expect to be treated as equals. But they can’t have both.”
This false choice doesn’t just misrepresent feminism. It robs all of us—men and women, gay and straight alike—of the chance to create something pleasurable and workable out of our complicated, inherited beliefs about men and women.
The key, as feminists have pointed out for decades, is seeing gender as something we choose to perform for pleasure. Perfomance isn’t an academic theory; it’s how most of us live, whether we know it or not. A woman who says, “I like wearing heels because it makes me feel more feminine,” is surely aware that she doesn’t become more biologically female by putting on stilettos—or less so by putting on Crocs. She knows she’s playing a part. Sometimes that part may be burdensome (like having to wear heels because of work); sometimes it may be pure fun (like putting them on to go on a hot date); sometimes it may be a mix of both.
So when I walked Sheva to the car, I was performing a traditionally masculine role. I knew Sheva well enough to know that my escorting her would be appreciated; frankly, I enjoyed her appreciation. Playing that part didn’t undercut my contention that men and women are fundamentally equal with (a tiny number of biological limitations aside) essentially interchangeable roles. We all knew that if there had been a more serious danger, my delightful but potentially lethal wife would have made a far better escort for Sheva. If necessary, that would have been a subversion of traditional expectations. But it wasn’t necessary.
That little performance from our house to her car made me feel good. Because I know her well, I knew the gesture would be appreciated. If I hadn’t known Sheva as well as I do, I would have been far more cautious about the offer to escort her. We don’t get to play parts that make us feel good at the expense of others. A “gentleman” shouldn’t foist his manners on to others; to use another example, if a woman doesn’t want a man to race ahead and open doors for her, he shouldn’t be miffed if she doesn’t thank him profusely every time he does so. The performance of traditional roles is about mutual pleasure, not about mutual obligation.
Even for those of us who don’t think biology is destiny, there’s still something comforting about playing out an old and familiar script. And while it’s worthwhile to analyze the source of that comfort, it’s not worth letting that analysis block us from the simple pleasure of performing a role we enjoy.
The conversation continues with Aaron Gouveia’s article.