A few weeks ago I was out to dinner with some friends when we started discussing feminism. I told them that in this day and age, I believe that you’re either a feminist or a misogynist. There is no grey area in my book. American actor and comedian Aziz Ansari put it very simply: “I feel like if you do believe that men and women have equal rights, and someone asks if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes, because that is how words work.”
If you believe that men and women have equal rights, equal worth and an equal voice in our society, then you are a feminist. If you are not a feminist, then you are a misogynist. Despite this, I recognize it is a lot more complicated because some people who call themselves feminists harbor very ambiguous sexist thought patterns and behaviors that will require decades of painful and frustrating unlearning before these patterns are corrected.
On the topic of ambiguously sexist behaviors, I am brought to the issue of chivalry. Most of us view chivalry as a man opening doors, carrying luggage and paying the tab for a woman, but let us examine the actual definition of the word “chivalry”:
: the medieval knightly system with its religious, moral, and social code
: the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak
: courteous behavior, especially that of a man toward women
Even more enraging than the fact that chivalry is a medieval practice and therefore outdated with regard to modern women, is the overall premise of chivalry itself, which is that women should be especially regarded, and treated differently, because of our sex.
Now comes the part where I tell you that you need to toss out your attachment to chivalry.
Don’t get me wrong, a part of me has loved having a man pay for me on a date. It made me feel special and cared for in that moment. Sometimes it’s nice as a broke twenty-something who is exposed to lackadaisical jerks on a regular basis to have a date with a “gentleman” who picks up the tab and treats me like a princess.
However, I am a feminist, which means that I absolutely must stay true to my ideals during a time when my freedoms are constantly and relentlessly challenged by the society I live in and the people who run that society. The problem with chivalry is that chivalry is a product of gender roles and gender roles are harmful to modern-day men and women.
Chivalry is a perfect example of “benevolent sexism,” which is a phrase used to describe acts of sexism that appear complimentary or positive, but are actually harmful to individuals and to the larger goal of achieving gender equality.
If you are a man who believes it is necessary to pay for a date with a woman, or if you are a woman who expects your dates to be paid for by a man (and feels disappointed if he does not pay), then you are complicit in this subtle form of sexism. Even if you consider yourself a feminist, there is really no logical way to justify perpetuating this antiquated gender role that is harmful to both women and men.
Chivalry is harmful to women—even if it feels good—because it sends the message that women are weak and incapable of caring for themselves, and is so heavily rooted in such a deeply engrained form of patriarchy, that the majority of us don’t even notice that it is patriarchal to begin with. Either we don’t notice, or we feel there are “greater” issues of sexism to be tackled. We might give chivalry a pass because it “comes from a good place” and is “well intentioned.” At the core, though, chivalry is not well intentioned, and there are no greater sexist issues to be tackled than those that are the subtlest.
Women do not suffer alone in a world where chivalry is dying far too slowly. Chivalry hurts men, too, not only because it places extremely unbalanced expectations onto men, but also because it promotes antiquated ideas of masculinity, and assumes that men do not yearn for or need support, caring and even the simplest forms of politeness; an assumption that is grossly incorrect. Many men would feel insecure about a woman paying for his meals because he doesn’t believe he deserves for someone to treat him and take care of him. We live in a world of unhappy men because society puts the weight of the world on their shoulders and tells them not to feel or need, and chivalry is one of the many tools we use to maintain this devastating prison of masculinity.
I want to live in a world where every man and woman is a proud feminist, but truly achieving that world means letting go of our expectations of chivalry, even if we don’t want to, and even if it seems to benefit us. The fact of the matter is that chivalry is sexism masquerading as benevolence, and it promotes gender roles that are harmful to both sexes. It is a difficult truth but it is, in fact, a truth: chivalry and gender equality can not and must not coexist.