Chivalry or Common Courtesy: The Etiquette of Romance, Or, What Does a Feminist Relationship Look Like?
Don’t worry, this is not yet another takedown of Valentine’s Day. Some people love the holiday, some people hate it; I’m mostly indifferent and have nothing new to add to that particular debate. However, the approaching holiday reminded me of a different dispute that has simmered among feminists for decades: is chivalry dead, and is feminism its rightful assassin?
I noticed that particular theme in recent editions of two advice columns in the Washington Post. (Yes, I always read the advice columns. I think they’re tiny windows of insight into the human condition. Don’t judge.) In the January 20th paper, Miss Manners responds to a letter from a woman who is miffed by the responses of men when she holds a door open for them. The woman writes,
The other day, I was walking into a coffee shop as a man was walking out. His hands were full balancing three cups of coffee, so I held the door open for him. Two other men followed behind him and one said to me, “Don’t you just love equal rights?” Not long ago, a man in the office where I work was coming through a door behind me while he carried a heavy paper box, and I held the door for him. He made such a big deal out of it (“Wow, this is the first time a woman has ever held the door for me!”) that for a second I wished I had just let the door slam back in his face. This just seems like a matter of common courtesy to me. Why can’t they just say thank you instead of trying to make it into some kind of gender role issue?
I could relate somewhat to the woman’s dilemma—as I imagine most women (and men?) these days are, I’m accustomed to holding the door open for anyone, no matter the person’s gender. Sometimes I’ll receive a polite “thank you” from men, but other times the response is less gracious. I still remember one instance when I was leaving my college Laundromat as a guy carrying a bulky bag of laundry was entering. Judging by the icy glare he gave me, this guy thought I was taking a potshot at his masculinity by holding the door open for him.
So what does Miss Manners have to say about this? Her wry reply is one of the best summaries of the US feminist movement I’ve ever read, and it’s a little defeatist.
Gender was injected into precedence when chivalry came up with Ladies-First to replace Out-of-My-Way-I’m-Important-and-You’re-Not. But in a shocking oversight, the new principle was not applied to such other areas as money and power.
In the 20th century, some feminists attempted to make a trade — forgoing minor courtesies for major gains. As it turned out, they were instantly successful in having the courtesies dropped, but somewhat less so in making the gains.
Unfortunately, courtesy was lacking on both sides. When gentlemen attempted to follow the courtesies they had been used to, they were often treated as if they had offered an insult, and were insulted in return. Apparently, it is payback time. Miss Manners asks you to bear with it while it lasts, which can’t be much longer.
I don’t quite buy the explanation that real or imagined past ingratitude from women excuses these men’s snarky remarks—surely Miss Manners of all people would believe that two wrongs don’t make a right? I’m of the opinion that simple acts of consideration such as holding a door should be practiced by both genders, for both genders, with appreciation on both sides.
It seems like a simple solution until you move from the realm of interaction with strangers to the complicated world of heterosexual relationships. This brings me to the second advice column, Carolyn Hax’s February 3rd response to man who says he purposely avoids traditional acts of chivalry out of respect for women, and has no love life as a result.
I am 29 and single. I have a very strong mother, who raised me to treat women with respect. I was taught women are strong, intelligent and independent. And that women don’t need any special treatment.
When I go on dates I treat them that way. I respect them, but I don’t offer to hold their door open, or always take my car. I ask if they want to drive. And I always split the check rather than pay for them. I think it’s insulting to think women are fragile and we need to treat them as if they are.
As you can imagine, I don’t get very many second dates. And most of my female friends say I act like a jerk. Am I a jerk? Should I change my way of thinking, or stay strong to my beliefs . . . and remain single?
This man’s problem reveals the fine line between treating someone as an equal and treating someone as though they are not worthy of special consideration despite a special relationship.
Carolyn Hax’s response is a spot-on endorsement of gender-neutral common courtesy (emphasis mine):
Dates have nothing to do with scoring political points. If you ask someone to dinner, you pay. Not because your dinner companion is financially dependent upon you, but because you are the host and the pleasure of someone’s company is more than worth paying the tab.
If you get to a door first, you hold it for the next person. Not because that person is too frail to handle the door, but because it’s the courteous thing to do.
If you are amenable to giving your companion a ride, then you offer a ride.
Note that none of these is gender-specific. Each is one person showing kindness to another — and people of all varieties appreciate kindness, even (especially?) the strong, intelligent and independent ones.
As far as I know this new vision of chivalry is agreeable to most feminists, and is becoming the norm in many circles of young people. More people especially seem to be adopting the new version of “going dutch” whereby the person who initiates the date pays for it, and things even out in the end.
But the spectrum of traditional gender relations in heterosexual relationships is wide, and many feminists are still questioning which traditions they want to keep and which to discard. For example, take feminist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano’s June essay in Marie Claire, where she complains about the pitfalls of having a feminist boyfriend:
When a fancy new French restaurant opened in my neighborhood, I had visions of going with my boyfriend — me in my sexiest halter dress, him wearing an expression halfway between desire and pride. “You’ll have to take me there,” I said to him. He corrected me: “We’ll take each other there.”
Here we go again.
He explained: It’s not that he didn’t want to go to dinner with me, or even that he wouldn’t pay. But he objected to the notion that I should be “taken” anywhere. “It sounds like I’m putting you in a briefcase and carrying you along,” he said, slipping his arm around my waist. “I mean, you’ll be eating, too, right?”
Whitefield-Madrano goes on to say that while she loves being able to talk about feminist issues with her boyfriend, she wishes he would woo her with gifts and compliments as in a “traditional” relationship. Her boyfriend thinks such things as complimenting his girlfriend’s appearance contributes to “the female-objectification pile-on.” I get the impression that this guy, like the one in Carolyn Hax’s column, is defining good feminist behavior in a relationship a bit too narrowly. Knowing better than to catcall women on the street is one thing; refusing to voice appreciation for one’s partner, when presumably her appearance is at least a small contributing factor to the attraction in the first place, is another. One commenter on Whitefield-Madrano’s essay suggests that if the author wants compliments about her appearance, she should try complimenting her boyfriend on his looks once and a while—rightly implying that such small acts of appreciation really are not gender-specific. The other commenter sees a very different problem in the author’s relationship, suggesting that the boyfriend’s behavior is controlling.
Okay, maybe I’m overreacting, but he tells you when to be offended and goes out of his way not to complement you? Sounds more control freak than feminist. If he ever suggests that you change the way you dress or stop waxing “because it degrades you as a woman” RUN LIKE HELL! It will only get worse from there.
So if this is not what a feminist relationship looks like, what should one look like? I’m curious to hear from you, readers, what you think a feminist relationship means—be it a straight or LGBT relationship. What aspects of traditional romance do you like or dislike? Can a woman be a feminist and still expect to be “treated like a lady?” Share your thoughts in the comments section!
And in the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to all the couples and singles out there. If you’re looking to make it a feminist holiday, check out Colleen’s post from earlier this week about buying fair trade chocolate, this list of suggestions for feminist date nights by my friend Danielle at the Choices Campus Blog, an exploration of activism tied to the holiday around the world at Campus Progress, and of course see what’s new with Eve Ensler’s VDay movement to end violence against women.