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.
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.
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 Chivalry is so deeply rooted in gender roles that some of the gestures are outdated, condescending, and exclusionary– for the most part, gallantry limits itself to male/female relationships.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.
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.