Writen by Natalie Gubbay
I had a friend ask me once: “He opened the door and paid for dinner. Was it just polite? What does that mean?”
What do opening the door and paying for dinner mean? Precisely what they stand for—physical strength and economic power, not courtesy. When we think of manners, we think of a person in front holding the door for the person behind, or splitting the bill. Manners are a form of respect and kindness. Chivalry is rooted not in manners, but dependency. It expects men to struggle in place of women. A man bound by the ideals of chivalry should find it inexcusable to see a woman struggle without stepping in to help.
But struggling is a right. Struggling is important. Strength is derived from struggling; self-sufficiency is derived from strength. To decry chivalry is not to decry common decency because the roots of chivalry lie not in manners but dependence.
On my first day of work this summer, I spent an hour putting up a wooden sign that should have taken five minutes to hang, humiliating myself because I didn’t know how to change a drill bit. In the adult world, this inability has real repercussions; I could have lost my job. To say I was unprepared—even ignorant and helpless—would be fair. What were the odds that a girl growing up in a suburban town would learn to fix things? A young girl in today’s world is told to be intelligent, to be athletic, to be independently minded, but she is not taught how to use a power drill. She is not told to mow the lawn or help move something heavy. She is not told to use her hands, and she is not told to be powerful.
Imagine if someone came over while you were lifting weights and swapped them out for foam balls just to be “nice.” It would be ridiculous. You would argue that you lift weights because they are heavy and because it is difficult. Without difficulty, there is no progress, and arguably, there is no success. Why, then, do I find it hard to say “no” when a man offers to carry something heavy for me? Why do I find it equally hard to refuse someone opening the door? The former denies me a real opportunity, while the latter is simply a gesture, but the response to both is the same: awkwardness. Which may not mean much in the moment, but what about later at night, and what it means to decline sexual advances? For a woman to feel obligated to let a man take over an otherwise everyday function—because it’s a date, after all—is not all that different from feeling she owes him something afterwards. Does that not suggest there is something dangerous, if only symbolic, within that uncomfortable moment of waiting for the guy to walk around the car?
Chivalry comes down to ownership over one’s own body: on the smallest of scales, it takes away from a woman’s right to command her body as the self-sustaining unit it is. It’s not about the actual opening of the door or the $10 spent on dinner. It’s not about proving women have the strength to open their own door or pay for their own meal—no one’s questioning that. It’s the implication of not using that strength that’s problematic. Chivalry expects that we cede capability in the name of formality. It says, therefore, that our self-sufficiency is worth less than tradition, or romance, or ritual. It puts limits on when we should use our own bodies.
Strength is gained by its exercise, and so is power. When a man takes over a basic action just to be “nice,” just to make a woman’s life easier, it tells her to enjoy being helped. It tells her, “you can, but you don’t have to” and in doing so denies her the opportunity to exercise strength, physical or otherwise.
I understand that the intent behind chivalry is positive. I understand that taking the check, in the act of following the code of chivalry, signals something genuine; it might even signal respect. So split the bill, hold the door for the person behind you, but please, don’t buy me dinner.