Chivalry Isn’t Dead, It’s Confusing

Couple Popcorn Lincoln Park Zoo Photo: Alanna Bagladi
Scenario A: I’m in an elevator full of men. The doors open before my floor and nobody moves. Someone gestures politely at me to go ahead.
Scenario B: I linger behind my boyfriend as we walk toward a restaurant. I hesitate before the door, silently encouraging him to open it for me.

These are minor, personal examples of the ways chivalry still affects how many navigate male/female interactions, for better or for worse. In the case of whether chivalry is dead or not, I’d argue for the latter, if only because the concept itself continues to spark debate and influence behavior, chivalrous or otherwise.

Yet as the idea/question of chivalry lives on, and the more I think about it, I start to find it more confusing. To me, Scenario A seems unproductive and impractical, while Scenario B seems welcome and normal. Meanwhile, there’s an entirely different set of expectations for those who aren’t in the middle ground, who either outright reject or wholeheartedly embrace the idea of chivalry.

As I think through and experience these different scenarios, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to imagine that chivalry can live harmoniously with the feminist idea that we should all be treated equally. I don’t think it’s fair for women to expect any type of appropriate behavior from men. Because if you turn the scenario around and men start expecting a type of behavior from women, it’s grounds for an uproar.

It seems to me that chivalry is a trap. If I judge a man based on his chivalrous or gentlemanly behavior, my negative or positive assessment hinges on the idea that his gestures are either antiquated or required. As a feminist, I don’t want to be told I should act like a lady. Why should I expect a man to act like a gentleman?

That’s not to say I think we should throw it all out the window. Notice above, I’ve said “appropriate” behavior. There are clear, definitive guidelines for how men—humans—should act, because to say otherwise would give people a pass on harassment and other abusive behavior. I think what we need to do is expand the idea of chivalry. First and foremost, it needs to be expanded beyond a male/female setting to be more inclusive. These are not the only types of relationships, and I believe the original idea of chivalry lives in a heteronormative, antiquated world. By extending chivalrous behavior to human/human relationships, I think it becomes less a focus of “who should pay for what” to “how can we all treat each other better.” In that kind of world, we can hold open doors for each other without having to delve into the social implications.

I think chivalry comes from a place of good intentions. But I’ve come to acknowledge the inherent problem behind expectations that are set up for men. I’ve also learned to accept that some will continue to hold open doors if I’m behind them and that sometimes I will find it charming despite my best efforts. At this point, I’m trying to even the playing field in my own life by treating others the way I want to be treated. I’m ready to be a chivalrous woman.