Around Christmas time of 2014, I was working at a popular retail store. We had just closed and all of the remaining employees were cleaning up the piles of unfolded clothes. If you have ever worked retail during the holidays, you can relate to the feeling of knowing you’ll be folding clothes for hours. This was one of those nights.
After a couple hours of folding, we needed some conversation. There were four of us, all men, and rather quickly the conversation drifted to dating. One coworker whom I didn’t know very well started explaining that he always opened the door for his dates, he pulled out their chairs, he even ordered for them, and according to him, they loved every bit of it. So, like any sane person: I called him sexist.
My coworker wasn’t a malicious person – in fact, he was a rather friendly guy, but he was confused and annoyed by my response. “How is that sexist?” he asked with a sharply defensive tone – a response I’m sure many people are having while reading this article. Of course opening the door for someone or pulling out their chair isn’t inherently sexist, but doing so because you want to act chivalrous is entirely sexist.
Not only does chivalry reinforce a long history of women acting as docile objects, but it also contributes to the larger social contract that dictates the types of exchanges men and women are “supposed” to have. There is a joke that comes up a lot in dating: when the man buys an expensive dinner, the woman has to put out. Of course, you could say that a simple joke like that has no harm, but where did the joke come from? The sheer existence of a joke like that automatically argues that there must be some truth behind it. In the case of the woman putting out, the joke springs from the socially constructed idea that the female counterpart to chivalry is appreciation.
I suggested to my coworker that the reason he did these things was in order to get something back from these women, maybe sex. He said that he didn’t care about sex, he would hold the door open for any woman, as long as she was grateful. This is what it comes down to. Women are brought up to be grateful, appreciative, and polite. Once a man does something for them, they feel the need to reciprocate.
When I explained this to my coworker he told me that sometimes his dates would get mad if he didn’t take actions that aligned with being chivalrous, so he felt like he needed to do it. This was not surprising to hear because gender norms affect men as well. When we teach our boys that they need to be gentleman, that they need to be chivalrous, we are supporting a rigid gender binary that is already a problem, especially among adolescents. Chivalry cannot exist without constantly recycling its support of a sexist culture because when we have such a strict view of gender roles, it’s impossible to foster true equality.
I understand the appeal of chivalry, I really do. I think, on the surface, it comes from a place of kindness. I don’t judge my coworker for his actions, he didn’t understand the extensive consequences they could have. However, when we look at the reasoning behind chivalry, when we look at the cultural significance it’s had in history, we’re shown nothing but examples of female docility and submission.
We finished up closing the store at one in the morning, and I haven’t seen that coworker since. I worry that my words didn’t get past his ears, that they left alongside me that night. So, here I am, another voice on the internet, aiming to give those words some scrap of permanence.