Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy

I once heard a story about Sir Walter Raleigh that goes like this: One day Sir Walt was hanging around on the street, as English aristocrat/poet/explorer-types were wont to do, when Queen Elizabeth herself appeared. The queen was so busy resenting her late father for beheading her mother, reversing her crazy sister’s religious policies, and avoiding marriage that she failed to notice her entourage was rapidly approaching a giant mud puddle directly in front of Sir Walt. (Actually, I think the puddle was the size of a man’s cloak, and maybe even smaller. It definitely wasn’t the end of the world, is what I’m saying.)

When she finally noticed the squishy antagonist, she slowed down and paused, probably mentally berating herself for not wearing her royal wellies. In that brief moment of hesitation, Walt whipped off his brand-spanking-new cloak and laid it across the mud so the queen didn’t have to soil her shoes. Queen Elizabeth looked at him regally, crossed the puddle via cloak, and went on with her day. I like to imagine that she rolled her eyes when she was past him because it was the 16th century and she was stepping in way worse stuff than smallish puddles all the time, but apparently the gesture floored her and after that, Sir Walter Raleigh was a favorite in her court.

raleigh

I’m a sucker for Olde Urban Legends.

This story has stuck with me since I heard it in elementary school. It haunts me. When I’m lying in bed at night, cringing over all the things I’ve ever said or pondering really dumb stuff, I think about Sir Raleigh’s beautiful cloak. There are a lot of questions that story leaves unanswered: What happened next? What did he do with his soaking, dirty coat? Was it salvageable? If it was, does that cheapen the gesture? Why didn’t he just lead Elizabeth around the mud? He could have made a joke about circumnavigation, but instead he let the queen step all over his amazing technicolor dreamcloak because he was a chivalrous, gallant dude.

I think he was an idiot.

Although I am not a queen (yet), I am a female, and that means occasionally men open my car door for me or try to carry my purse. I can’t decide if I think these chivalrous gestures are harmless and sweet, like an adorable chinchilla, or if I kind of resent them, like 80 adorable chinchillas I can’t get rid of.

English: Photo of a standard gray chinchilla.

It would almost be worth it.

As a feminist, the whole thing weirds me out. Chivalry is so deeply rooted in gender roles that some of the gestures are outdated, condescending, and exclusionary– for the most part, gallantry limits itself to male/female relationships. It’s also such an integral part of manliness that criticizing it can make a lot of men (and women) feel like you’re criticizing masculinity itself. On the other hand, as a human I like the idea of treating other people with respect, and as a lazy person I like the idea of never having to lift a finger again if I play my cards right and wink enough.

The thing that bugs me most about the chivalry I see today is that it often comes across as a hollow gesture that men can use as a shortcut to gaining a woman’s respect. It’s also characterized by an extreme lack of foresight, as demonstrated by Sir Walt and the squishy cloak that probably threw a wrench in his plans for the rest of the day.

All of that was a pretentious way to say that I’m pretty sure chivalry isn’t dead, but it is dumb.

Good Guys Gone Wild

1. I can’t open doors anymore. I noticed this the other day and it’s driving me crazy. If I’m walking with a man and we come to a closed door, I won’t even try to open it anymore. I just stop and stare at the door like I have no idea what to do with it. It’s like the part of my brain that knows how to turn knobs and pull on handles shuts down as soon as it senses a nearby Y chromosome.

2. I’m really bad at scooting. I read somewhere that the tradition of pulling out a lady’s chair for her began when women wore enormous skirts. I don’t even know what a crinoline is, so whenever a man does this for me, it turns into an uncomfortable dance while I try to figure out if he’s going to sit in the chair or offer it to me. Once I actually sit, the chair is always too far from the table and I panic trying to figure out the most graceful way to scoot closer. The Hunch and Drag? The Lift and Bounce? The Hope-He-Doesn’t-Notice-I’m-Perched-On-The-Edge-Of-The-Seat?

3. Watching men walk on the inside of the sidewalk fills me with dread. This one seems sweet on the surface, but it has some horrifying implications. If the man I’m walking with is protecting me from being coated in street sewage (which has gone the way of the crinoline), he’s set himself up for being coated in it. Is there a contingency plan for this, or is he stuck looking and smelling unspeakably bad for the rest of the day? If his intention was to protect me from being struck by a car, that’s heroic, right? Only what if he is hit and killed by a car? Honestly, it’s more chivalrous to let me die rather than force me to deal with the long-term psychological trauma that inevitably follows watching a friend get splattered on the side of the road.

4. Carrying my things dooms me to a life of noodle arms. There are some things in this world (elephants, locomotives, heavy pieces of farm equipment) that I can’t carry, no matter how many pushups I do. If someone saw me attempting to lift one of these things, it would be genuinely kind of them to offer their assistance, and even kinder to try talking me down. There are other things (grocery bags, my purse, most cats) that I am absolutely capable of carrying and implying otherwise hurts my feelings and won’t help me build muscles I’ll have to use when you’re not around.

What if I have to fight a robot, or open a can?

What if I have to fight a robot, or open a can?

5. I will be less impressed that you gave me your coat when I have to take you to the hospital for walking pneumonia.

I have some edgy opinions: I believe weddings are beautiful, puppies are cute, and it’s really cool when people are nice to each other. That’s why I’m loathe to damn chivalry altogether. I just think it needs a facelift. Maybe everyone needs to become a practitioner of chivalry. Maybe we should all be less focused on empty, gallant gestures and more focused on being sensitive to other people’s needs and how they might affect our own needs. That also gets rid of that squicky business with the outdated gender roles.

Or maybe I just need to accept it as it is and let my boyfriend get hit by a car.

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18 comments

  1. shenanitim

    I’ve always wondered what happened as the Queen walked across the cloak. Wouldn’t she still get kind of wet? Was he wearing a cloak made out of Shammys? Maybe that’s why he’s famous, because he predated the whole “As Seen on TV” meme by nearly 400 years.

  2. Shelldigger

    Interesting perspective. I was always taught that the gentlemanly thing to do was hold the door for a lady or the elderly, or help with a dropped bag of groceries, or help to change a flat etc. I have always just just accepted that part of my self without question, till now….I never once considered I might be insulting someone by a simple act of altruism.

    I do not see myself changing my ways anytime soon though. To me, these simple gestures are that little thing that is needed in society, to selfishly reach out to someone you do not know, or expect anything from, and commit and act of kindness. I think it goes a long way to brighten someone else’s day, and indeed to infect them with the same desire to be equally helpful the next time the opportunity arises.

    Maybe I’m an old dinosaur that has lived past his era. Maybe I am wrong in my assumptions, but I think I will risk the possibility of insulting 1 in a 1000, against the benefit of helping the other 999.

  3. eventer79

    I agree — I never understood the cloak thingy. Is it made out of a garbage bag? Otherwise, it would be all wet and gross too, so how is that helpful????

  4. Is Everyone an Idiot but Me?

    i’m with you, sometimes chivalry gets in the way, like when it is logistically impractical for a guy to open a door and wait for you to go through it. The funniest thing is when I open a door for a guy. They stand there in shock like they woke up wearing a dress.

  5. theliteraryhorse

    Hilarious as usual….and interesting. Our family (2 dykes + kids) has dealt with this idea in facelift mode. We ALL rush to open the door, protect the youngest or eldest, try not to have grumpy faces about sitting in the middle of the backseat because we have the shortest legs. (The adults, that is, the “kids” are now taller than us.) As a newly anointed elderly person (grocery stores must have a decider who passes the info around along with a mug shot to the rest of the staff) I have to politely fend off a lot of “Can I help you out to your car?” In favor of pointing sweet helpful people to the person in the next lane using a walker. I would totally take the SHP up on the offer when I start have having trouble with lifting 50 lb saddles above my head. Glad you addressed Sir Walter. The ruined cloak has always bugged me. I mean, the Queen could afford new shoes, right? Would have been a much more fitting gesture for her to walk through the mud.

  6. smh1992

    Chivalry comes from the idea that a gentleman should do a favour for anyone who asks – male or female – as long as it is not against his morals. Unfortunately, over time it’s been changed to “Hold doors open to get sex.”

  7. cerrosolo

    Taken to the furthest extent, these ‘kind’ acts can take on a life of their own and become oppressive instead of sweet or nice. I am a guy from the south, and the only one I generally always try to do is opening the door. I don’t try to make a big deal or grand gesture out of it, just do it and not make much of it.

    There are some basic etiquette rules that bug me sometimes:
    1- entering and leaving elevators- personally think guys should leave and enter last, and you should hold the door open for people. If we didn’t have these rules, There’d be pandemonium on every floor, arms and legs strewn about.

    Exception- crowded elevator and you’re squished in the front. Trying to wait to get out last just means everyone has to go around you. Same thing if you have a big cumbersome amount of stuff. In DC, it often happens on the Metro elevators: you’ll have, let’s say, an elderly woman, a mother with an infant in a stroller, and a very young guy with a bike. Despite the rules, the guy with the bike may need to get out first to move the bike out of the way.

    2- leaving and entering buildings- you and I are at the same door. One of us going in, one going out. Who has the right of way. The person going out. Gender should be disregarded. If I’m going out, and a woman is coming in, I go out then hold the door open. If it’s the reverse, I wait. That simple.

    3- a somewhat rarer one- people intersecting on a narrow hiking path. Who has the right of way and who yields? A man? A woman? Whoever has the smaller group? Whoever has more stuff?

    The rule is whoever is going up, or towards the main object of the trail, has the right of way. Not everyone follows the rules, but the rules make the decision whether to flatten yourself against a cactus to let a boy scout troop through much simpler.

  8. Nichole

    Laughing through this whole blog. I love your posts. You wouldn’t last one day on a military base. They will stand there and hold that door open until you and your three kids (one which takes 5 extra mins than the rest) go through that door. Honestly, I think you are right about everyone showing chivalry. I think of it as respect. I don’t expect anyone to open my door but I will say when I’m toting three kids around all carrying iceies and walking around like they own the world and I’m ready to leave them, all the while my hands full of groceries from said place. Its nice to have that one person help you out. I personally like seeing teenage boys holding open the door b/c it just gives me hope for the future generations who seem to be very selfish of late.

  9. Mark Dolan

    I feel like it maybe hinders my interpretation of Sir Walter Raleigh that I can only imagine him and the Queen in their Blackadder II incarnations. A wonderful post though, as perceptions of gender roles in modern society (especially regarding Chivalry and the whole Damsel-in-distress thing) is a subject I find ludicrously interesting.

  10. grahamatlinc

    It’s really in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately we don’t know what we behold, if we don’t know the motive.

    As a man, I’m damned if I do and sometimes damned if I don’t. These days I just rely on a polite goodwill and hope for the best.

    Incidentally, chivalry was invented so that men could avoid bashing each others brains out.

    I wouldn’t sweat it though. The world has always been confusing to all of us.

    Best of Luck G :-)

  11. Miss Snarky Pants

    Funny and clever! If you like, I can lend you my hubby for a week. You will quickly relearn to open your own car doors, pull out your own chairs and no cloaks will be thrown at your feet. Is he a bad husband? Not at all; he just doesn’t believe that I’m helpless. And he takes out the garbage without being asked. You can’t beat that!

  12. geralynwichers

    If the “chivalrous” act was done out of respect or politeness I wouldn’t resent it. Actually, I really like it when guys hold the door for me. That being said, I think we ladies should hold the door, pick up things that get dropped, etc, out of kindness and respect too.

  13. Pingback: Knocking on Heaven’s Door | Listful Thinking

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