I’ve been seeing a lot of debate lately about chivalry. Did feminism kill it? Are us ladies dancing on its corpse, or are we supporting it by buying Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps we’re melting or complacent or good at spotting creeps. Now I’m seeing a lot of dude-types about town making with the m’lady. Guys, it’s time to shut it down. Chivalry’s not charming.
Chivalry is a behavioral script: a set of expected behaviors for a situation. This sort of script has its place, and etiquette functions in large part on people knowing what to do in a given situation. Here’s the rub, though: this sort of behavior is not accepted anymore as the universal script for How to Talk to Women (and let’s be honest here, it never was, outside a very narrow cultural window). Behaving this way comes across as tone-deaf at best, and downright rude at worst.
Because even presented with the best intentions, there’s an ugly undertone to chivalry. It’s founded on the assumption that women are less capable of carrying loads or opening doors. It’s a throwback to a time when being a woman was not so great. It’s offering a helping hand with the assumption that all women must need help, because having a vagina is a handicap.
Another reason this rubs me the wrong way is that it’s a script that men are taught to apply to all women in all situations with the assumption that all women are exactly alike. It’s a red flag that says, “I’m not socially adept enough to judge the signals you’re sending about your comfort level, and so I have decided that this particular script for behavior is the Guaranteed Solution to all interactions with Ladies, who are entirely different from men in their habits and preferences.”
A genuine charmer is charming to everyone. True charm requires the ability to read a situation, whether or not A Lady is involved. It’s not a handshake that lets you into the secret club, but a pattern of showing enough concern for others’ welfare to offer help when it’s needed. That kind of empathy is extraordinarily difficult to fake, which is why it’s held in such high regard.
So, is holding doors and tipping hats and saying “m’lady” always the wrong thing to do? No, but it’s behavior that’s appropriate only in very specific circumstances, and if you can already tell when it is and isn’t appropriate to act like this, you don’t need to rely on this sort of script anyway.