Beleaguered Gentlemen

6th July 2012

Clare Finney follows up her examination of modern feminism (issue 497) with a look at the problems on the other side of the fence

Men: do you stand up when a women enters the room and walk kerbside to her on the pavement? Do you let a woman go first through a door? If so, then, according to Britain’s oldest authority on all matters of etiquette, Debrett’s, you are chivalrous: ‘naturally charming, courteous, modest yet confident, and capable of cultivating an air of ease’. If not… Well, that very much depends on who you ask.

While the Debrett’s guide and website – and its readers – would find you sorely wanting, the chances are that most men and women would be largely nonplussed; after all, this is the 21st century and women are, or should be, equal. To reinstate such baseless archaisms is, if not actively detrimental, then at least unhelpful to the female cause. Nevertheless, when the Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery was asked what she thought of this modern approach to etiquette, she replied that “those old manners – such as men standing when women arrive at the dinner table or opening doors for you – are lovely, and it's lovely when you see a man doing that today.”

In short, “today’s men need a touch of old fashioned chivalry,” translated the Daily Mail, for whom Dockery’s words were like manna.

“I wouldn't swap the deal of 2011 for the days of Downton Abbey, when a man would always hold the door open for me – unless there was a ballot box on the other side, in which case he'd slam it in my face,” the Guardian’s Victoria Coren inevitably replied. The exchange between the papers was predictable – yet beneath the politics lies a more deep-seated problem. Forget How To Be A Woman (Caitlin Moran-style, or otherwise), how in today’s world should a man be a man?

Or rather a gentleman, which, let’s face it, is still the breed that every girl idealises. Laugh as we must at the Mail’s misogyny, those questions of chivalry still remain the litmus test for dates. Did he pay? Did he walk you back to home or station? If both, you’ve got yourself a keeper. Looks and personality are well and good, but they’ll pale into insignificance if he’s not a real gent.
Think I’m exaggerating? Then why was it that when female readers were asked to vote for the most romantic men in fiction, they chose Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester? It certain wasn’t for their egalitarian, liberal minded views. Similarly, chivalry was what Cameron Diaz cited when asked recently why she loved British men so much: “It’s something that is innately a part of the culture – it’s not the same in America,” she lamented. Yet while Diaz is gazing longingly across the pond, some women on Blighty’s side are expressing different views.

When I discussed this with Carolyn Jackson, Professor of Gender at Lancaster University, she seemed dismayed that such views persisted: “Notions that women need the door opening for them feed into representations of women as weak, vulnerable and in need of help,” she claims. While by no means averse to good manners, certainly, she would rather counter these representations; after all, as she concludes, “the more we can break down gender stereotypes the better. I welcome general respect and manners towards women and men.”

Put like that, of course, it’s difficult for anyone to disagree with her; how could you, without sounding bigoted? Even so, there seemed to be something about that argument that didn’t ring quite true. Of the men I spoke to for this article, not one seemed chauvinist; on the contrary, each believed more passionately in female independence than many girls I know – but when it came to the question of whether men should follow so-called ‘chivalric’ practices, there wasn’t a single man who didn’t claim to comply.

“I am a real subscriber,” says David, 50. “Maybe it’s an age thing. But then, I am as likely to get up from the train seat for an old man as for a young woman, so I hope a common courtesy underlies it.” Tom, a liberal 27-year-old, agrees. “What we call ‘chivalry’ evokes a loving, giving attitude. I don't think it's about looking down from a superior standpoint. And of course, if she offered to pay on the second date, I’d accept that too.”

Most women would, naturally. For all the romanticising, the general preference is the less is more approach. “We want enough to feel special, but not inferior,” explains Ellie, 23. Here, too, the idea that chivalry stands in opposition to equality doesn’t bear scrutiny: as the notably feminist journalist Angela Philips points out, “most woman accept that if you have equal income then you should pay equally. But you should also have the equal right to treat each other. The expectation that on the first date, it’s the man’s turn, goes two ways.”

For him it’s a sign of admiration for the women’s he’s with. For her, it indicates a certain generosity and respect. “As long as they are seen just as polite traditions and affectionate gestures then they are harmless”, explains Nick, 18. Given his age, his attitude does seem somewhat surprising. Surely the politics of chivalry seem irrelevant to young men these days? Yet, as he pragmatically continues, I can’t help but think that he has the 21st century sussed.

“I open doors for women, yes, but I open doors for most men too if I get there first. Paying for a first date is tricky but if I were the person who had asked the woman on a date in the first place I might feel it’s a nice thing to do.” In short, he says “take chivalry with a pinch of salt.”

Ninety-nine out of a hundred times the man holding the door open is not trying to steal your suffrage. Walk through it, thank him and the next time you find yourself at a doorway before someone, do the same for them.

Of course, it’s not always that straightforward; as David has found, there are a few women who “resent the door and courtesy thing and one must learn from them that they don’t want it”. Indeed, for a long time I was of much the same view. Well do I recall, at the age of 12, being told that women had compromised their right to be treated chivalrously by voting – and for years afterward, like Jackson, considered chivalry as a very polite way of oppressing me. Increasingly I have come to believe the reverse is true.

Equality between the sexes did change chivalry, but for the better, by removing its original meaning and thus making it accessible to both sexes. Slowly but surely behaviours that were once deemed patriarchal have become simply nice things to do. Some are male-specific, but even then it is, like shaking hands with your sword hand, just a nod to tradition. The rest is human kindness. Long may the milk flow.

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