April 24, 2009

Chivalry = Chauvinism

I'm going to pull an ENG 101 student here in order to show that two words that are technically opposites are really the same.

According to WordWeb, my new dictionary friend, "chivalry" is defined as "courtesy towards women." "Chauvinism," then, is "activity indicative of belief in the superiority of men over women."

Really, though, aren't they the same thing?

Let's unpack this box: modern notions of chivalry—holding the door open for women (more on this later), opening car doors, etc.—are informed by medieval chivalry. We all know medieval chivalry: women on pedestals, women as inspiration figures. These women were entirely without agency, though. They were allowed to keep up their knight's weapons and hand their knight his sword before he rode into battle, but they certainly were not allowed to follow their knight into battle. In other words, wars were fought over women, but never were they fought for women. This is the history of woman (see The Iliad).

If we shift the example from medieval to modern chivalry, it becomes clear how chivalry = chauvinism. One of the most infuriating things in my world is when an adult male refuses to go through a door opened by a woman—"Hell, no! My mama raised me better than that!"—somehow relying on the crutch of chivalry as the final bastion of civility. That form of unthinking chivalry, though, rests on the assumption that women are somehow more delicate, more in need of having a door opened for them.

I also love what happens when one guy opens the door for another guy who happens to be into the whole chivalry thing. I love destabilizing people's world view, so I will frequently force chivalrous people to go through a door I'm holding open for them. Just the other day at the gas station, I had one guy refuse to go through the door four or five times, until I looked him square in the eyes and said, "Please go through the door, sir. I promise you that my holding it open for you is not some kind of homoerotic gesture."

He quickly hung his head and beat a hasty retreat for the nearby bar, likely puzzling over just what "homoerotic" meant and wondering whether or not I was hitting on him.

1 comment:

  1. I love that gas station exchange!! Big props to you for saying the word "homoerotic" in Maine, outside of the university setting. :) Hilarious.

    In my blog this would be filed under "awkward interactions."