I remember the first time I heard the word chivalry. It was said at a family friend’s barbeque, a smoky haze of miscellaneous meats filled the garden and a balding, sunburnt man was clearly mourning its application in modern-day society. He spoke of a time, “back in his day”, when men knew how to look after women. I presume now—given his age—that this must have also been the period in which Harvey Weinstein grew up.
If a woman exits a car unassisted, asks to pay for her own meal, or drunkenly collects her coat from the cloak room, would that not be a win, one for the boys? Well, as it turns out, not really.
That kind of reliance on men, regardless of the scope of manners or behaviour, has never really been for the benefit of women. It’s problematic how these gestures—simple in execution, but symbolic in nature—are reflective of masculine standards we’ve historically preferenced and still foolishly value.
The history of chivalry bears light on certain protective roles we’ve maintained for hundreds of years to substantiate male power. What we define as chivalrous behaviour now is derived from the ideal qualifications of medieval knights, such as courtesy, generosity, valour, dexterity in arms, and strength etc. These bizarrely insignificant gestures are based on the goodness of men living in 500AD. From this gendered, idolised archetype grew a kind of code, for which a man’s integrity could be upheld.
And that, right there, is the greatest problem with chivalry, because the knight’s code has always had to function as a binary. It relies on other people, mainly women, to act out the ideal qualifications of its counterpart, in this case the ‘damsel in distress’.
It’s hard to measure how and when these things will change. Sometimes it seems like they’re not going to. One thing I do know, is that the time for swords and shuffling of chairs has passed. And it seems like the most chivalrous thing to do now, by definition, would be to rethink what actually constitutes considerate behaviour, not just towards women, but everyone.