As a male feminist, I have to wonder – What part of me is drawn to the romantic idea of chivalry, and what part of me is ready to let it go?
“It is impossible to be Chivalrous without a horse,” said medieval historian Denholm-Young.
This idea of “chivalry” brings up visions of outward shows of respect to women… of mercy toward defeated foes… of a “code of conduct” that gentlemanly knights might follow. The code has been handed down in ink from generations of epic heroes like Roland, El Cid, and Arthur. Modern “chivalry” seems to begin and end with opening doors as a show of gendered politeness. It’s been translated to us through screens for the past few generations by Cary Grant, Tom Hanks or George Clooney.
But as a male feminist, I have to wonder – In a world where women have fought and earned more rightful equality (though there is more to accomplish on that front) – is chivalry necessary or even ethical anymore? What part of me is drawn to the romantic idea of chivalry, and what part of me is ready to let it go?
It seems like there are multiple camps.
1. The Equal Treatment Camp
This is the camp that sees gender as irrelevant. We should all be treated equally, and with respect. Chivalry originates from a sense of superiority or paternalism… which creates inequality in the long run even under the best intentions. So don’t open doors for women, open doors for people regardless of gender… or don’t. Just be consistent.
2. The Modernized “Code of Conduct” Camp
This is the camp that thinks there’s a new chivalry. The old code doesn’t work for anyone, but maybe a modern code will! Yes, guys should be respectful toward others and have a solid set of ethics; but the way respect is shown involves more “show of vulnerability” and less “show of strength.” Women also get to be in on this code, so it’s not all on the guys to invent or hold to the rules. Paying for a shared dinner is okay in this camp, but often it’s agreed to be seen as a gift with no strings attached. It’s also common for this code to involve a lot more line-item mutual consent in relationships… whereas the old Chivalry code was a broad-based yes/no consent (at best). Because of the emphasis on mutual consent… this code also has built-in room for LGBTQ relationships and the ever popular hetero bro-mances.
3. The Traditionalist-Nostalgic Camp
This is the camp that likes to see their home as a castle, their car as a mighty steed, and their relationships as a heroic-romantic narrative. This camp opens doors, pulls out chairs, and expects everyone to acknowledge the code. It’s perfectly okay in this camp to put women on pedestals, and for women to see themselves as princesses or queens in their own right. This can create some relationship challenges when women “fall” from that pedestal. There are more “love games” based on accepted unknowns in this camp – like playing “hard to get” or “the unrequited/jilted lover” – which can lead to some confusion and lots of drama. This camp’s understanding of relationships is what Hollywood blockbusters show. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.