Is it possible to be an old-fashioned gentleman in a world of gender equality?
Is it really true that in the 21st century women don’t want men to hold doors open for them? Or help carry the groceries, bring them flowers, and pick up the check? What’s a guy to do when he’s brought up to believe that being chivalrous is the right thing to do, that it’s how to please women, only to get slapped down by women with whom he practices this ancient – and increasingly lost – art? Oh, woe is the gentleman in the world of the big mean lady feminist types.
We hear it all the time. “Women say they want nice guys, but when we do nice things they tell us we’re sexist.”
So let’s get this straight. There is absolutely a place for Gentlemen in the modern feminist world. All those gentlemanly things you think of, we just call them manners. You can still do them. So can women. Women can even do them for you. We call that equality. And manners. And it matters.
The nuance lies, perhaps, in why and how you do these so-called gentlemanly things.
Let’s back up to a recent conversation that I had the dubious pleasure of spending an hour listening to, because it perfectly sums up the false dichotomy so often presented in this dialog. In what can only be described as an emotionally sadomasochistic dystopian fantasy, in which two personalities battled each other for dominance while trying not to look like they were fighting, Troy Patterson, Slate’s “Gentleman Scholar,” sat down with Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel, to discuss if a “Gentleman” can exist in a feminist paradigm.
I have never so badly wanted to reach through the Interwebs and slap some sense into two adults. But their quarrel sums up so much of what has come to define gender discussions in the 21st Century. I can sum it up in a single word: Posturing.
This auspicious war of egos took place to mark the publication of The Book Of Jezebel, in which they define “gentleman” as “a man who believes that by conforming to a certain code of behavior—opening doors, pulling out chairs … —he may cultivate a benevolent superiority over women.”
It is worth noting the snark in that definition. And how it sounds the same to me as the Jezebel definition of “Gentleman.” Just substitute the words. “A snarky person is a person who believes that by conforming to a certain code of language – cynicism, sarcasm, insults and one-liners – they may cultivate a superiority over others.”
But she specifically says she doesn’t want to be seen as snarky. She complains that she hates that word, asking if there’s not another word we can use to describe the language used on Jezebel. Holmes suggests, “Spirited, perhaps? Biting?” Because the connotation of “snarky” is just so… what? Mean? Yet so too is the language used to describe “gentleman,” which many people would reasonably see as “good manners.”
And therein lies the rub. As long as we choose to interpret people’s benign idiosyncratic proclivities as offensive, we will perpetually see each other as offenders. As long as we are addicted to our own ideas of ourselves as culture warriors, everything around us will be an act of war, justifying our use of our powers to defeat them.
If you listen to the interview – and I highly recommend you do – you will hear two people who are so committed to their own identities that they cannot hear a word the other is saying. They literally cannot have a dialog about an issue that they both claim to be trying to unpack. Neither one of them.
On the one hand, Patterson is saying, essentially, “I have the right to express myself as a gentleman without people getting pissed at me and assuming I’m trying to hurt them.” And really, I can’t argue with that. On the other hand, Holmes is saying something like, “but I am the defender of women, and my job is to illustrate all the microagressions that hold women back.” I can’t actually argue with that either.
By the end, I wanted the Snarky Monster to come in and eat them both.
If this is the level of discourse that we are counting on to create a brighter future, hand me some popcorn and a tub of Cherry Coke, we’re gonna be right here for a while.
Because they’re both right. And everything they’re doing is wrong.
So can a feminist and a “gentleman” get along in the 21st century? Of course. It’s not even all that hard. All you have to do is the right things, for the right reasons, for all people. Voila!
The Right Things:
There does seem to be a gentleman code of conduct; a list of little things that one must do, some of which are nice, most of which are antiquated and a few of which are downright creepy.
Nice things include holding doors open, helping with grocery bags, making the long walk to the kitchen in the morning to get me coffee. (Maybe that’s just me.) Those are nice things. Polite things. But why would you only do them for women? If you get to the door first, you hold it open for anyone who is behind you, right? That’s just polite. If you see someone struggling with their grocery bags, you help them out, right? Someone having a hard time getting their suitcase in the overhead compartment? Help them out. No matter what gender they are. Because that’s the nice thing to do.
If you’re only willing to do them for women, you may have an ulterior motive, and we’ll get to that later.
But then there are things like standing when a woman enters the room? That’s weird, I’m sorry, but it is. Unless you stand when anyone enters the room, which is what I do. I have no desire to be a gentleman, but it is polite.
Giving up your seat for a lady on a train or bus. Why? If you were there first, and she’s perfectly able-bodied, there’s really no need. Now, if she’s pregnant, or injured, or old, or carrying a heavy load, or sobbing into her phone for reasons you don’t even know, sure, that would be nice. But, the same goes for a guy. Give up your seat to anyone who appears to physically need it. Because that’s the nice thing to do. For anyone.
What about picking up the check? Personally, I always insist on paying my share unless I know that the relationship is going somewhere and I’ll be able to reciprocate next time. And I admit to feeling very strongly that the financial part of dating should be a two way street. Why? Because far too-often the act of paying for a date does seem like a down-payment on expected affections later. Or it becomes the default expectation that the man will pay for everything, and that just isn’t equality in my book. Sure, once a relationship is established, make romantic date nights and go all out, but again, that goes both ways.
And then there are things that are downright creepy. Pulling a chair out for a lady? Seriously, that’s the beginning of a classic Vaudeville trick. And it’s silly. We can pull out our own chairs, we’re not snails. Opening a car door for a lady? I don’t know, if you happen to already be outside the car on the same side as her door, I guess. But why? Assuming she can open the door herself, there’s no reason. And do you want to create a relationship precedent in which she expects you to do things that she’s perfectly capable of doing herself? No.
Being helpful and kind is always the right thing to do. But doing things for other people that they are perfectly capable of doing themselves does become an unnecessary power game, which serves no real purpose. At some point, niceties begin seeming like a down payment on a debt that can be recalled later, and that’s when we get into dicey territory.
For The Right Reasons:
The problem comes when being a “Gentleman” is part of a game that other people haven’t agreed to play. And it is shockingly akin to the “Nice Guy” game. As Jezebel pointed out, doing those things because you want something in return is pretty bogus. So, check your motives.
Before doing that “gentlemanly” thing you’re thinking of doing, ask yourself some simple questions:
- Are you doing it because you think that’s how you “get the girl?” Wrong reason. Because the girl is not a prize or a pay day.
- Are you doing this to increase the odds that you’ll get laid? Wrong reason.
- Are you doing it to earn “points” that you will cash in later in the relationship? Or to make-up for something that you did wrong? Wrong reason.
- Are you doing it because some external social force says you are obligated to, even though it seems unnecessary? Think first, because if it is unnecessary, then there’s really no need.
- Do you know how the other person will react? While it may seem that there’s no way anyone could be upset that you offered them a seat, for some people, it may feel like a come-on, or a trick. Should it? Doesn’t matter, it might. So rather than just doing it, ask them, “would you like this seat.” That gives you the chance to be a “gentleman” and her the chance to express her wishes. Either way, however, that’s the end of the story. Offering up a seat, whether it’s accepted or rejected, is not a down-payment on a conversation or any other sort of engagement.
On the gentleman’s part, it’s almost as simple as knowing that if you want something from a woman in return for your gentlemanly act – even acknowledgement – then you shouldn’t do it. That’s commerce, not manners.
On the woman’s part, it is ridiculous to assume that because some guy is being polite, they want something from you or are seeking to oppress or demean you. Being chronically offended is a choice that you make, and no one is responsible for that but you.
Maybe we can all put our defenses down, and just be polite. To everyone. For no reason other than it’s the right thing to do. And life is just more pleasant that way.