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Chivalry Certainly Isn't Dead, But That Doesn't Mean Women Can't Open Doors for Themselves

25/05/2016 12:25 | Updated 25 May 2016

Paying the bill. Holding the door open. Standing so that a woman can sit. These modern realisations of the medieval concept of chivalry are, however 'forward-thinking' our society may wish to seem, values that are arguably still held dear by many.

Chivalry still exists in our society and, whilst is has evolved from knights displaying their military skill and poor damsels in distress being rescued from capture, it is fair to say that chivalry still influences the way men and women act towards one another and the status of women.

The popular Channel 4 programme 'First Dates' is typical of this, with men often insisting on paying the bill and women sometimes more than willing to let them. Indeed, it is often the case that not only are men exponents of this gender-heavy version of chivalry, but women too are often only more than happy to accept it.

Although it is the little things that are affected - such as the aforementioned door-opening or bill paying - it is sometimes these seemingly inconsequential parts of the everyday that paint a perceptive picture of the forces at bay in our society.

Chivalry, from the French word chevalier meaning knight, finds its roots in medieval Europe when it was held as an ideal form of behaviour, involving courtly manners (especially towards women), a 'warrior ethos' and generosity. And the phrase 'ladies first', which is still in considerable circulation in the western world, arguably symbolises our modern attitude towards chivalry, and the expectation that a man should always consider a women's needs before his own.

But surely that sounds good as a woman, on the receiving end of special treatment and particular efforts to ensure her wellbeing? Well, not always.

Although anybody trying to be polite and 'chivalrous' should not be demonised, being the subject of chivalry can be patronising and even embarrassing. I personally struggle to voice my objections for fear of seeming rude or ungrateful. My female friend agrees that chivalry, as a loaded and gendered term, is losing its popularity:

'To me, chivalry is something of an outdated concept. It supports old-fashioned notions that women are fragile objects, in constant need of the protection of men, as well as the idea that men must be 'strong', above all else. It shouldn't be confused with common decency, or generousness; these are universal ideals that can be embraced by any gender or sex.'

A quick Google image search for 'modern chivalry' retrieves image after image of a woman sitting in a chair that a man has pulled out for her, of hand-holding and coat-sharing. Such diplomacy is indeed sometimes we should strive towards. But when the motives for such chivalry depart from the notion of common decency, are these acts any more than a modern interpretation of archaic (and patriarchal) traditions?

A male friend helped me out on the issue, saying 'you should [be chivalrous] because you're decent, not because you want to get into anyone's pants. I think lots of beardy blokes on the internet get frustrated by the whole 'women and children first' aspect of our society's code, but ultimately most men would put the wellbeing and happiness of their loved ones before themselves anyway.'

I know that many men make these small gestures out of common decency and generosity and I by no means want to criticise them. But surely chivalry has too strong an emphasis on gender such is its perception in today's society. Thus, men feel pressure to support a woman beyond the necessary, and such efforts sometimes make women feel like property or commodities, not men's equals. Equally, though, some women who describe themselves as feminists would paradoxically accept a man paying the bill, showing the contradictions and hypocrisies that our modern version of chivalry engenders.

There should be more emphasis on chivalry for the sake of common decency, not for reasons relating to the patriarchy or a woman's 'fragility'. Equally, neither individual women nor society should expect men to foot the bill. So, chivalry certainly isn't dead, but that doesn't mean that women can't open doors for themselves.

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