Monday, October 12, 2015

Chivalry Me Not

“Chivalry is dead,” you may hear someone lament at a man’s neglecting to attend gallantly to a woman’s presence. But there are two problems with this statement. 1. Chivalry was never really "alive" and 2. Good. 

If you are a steadfast believer in both women’s empowerment and the importance of good old-fashioned courtesy, you may find yourself torn on your feelings toward chivalry, as we understand it today. Is a man’s failure to swoop in and rescue a woman from the indignity of having to open a door for herself proof that men finally no longer see women as helpless damsels in distress and respect them as capable equals? Or is this merely evidence of a depressing trend in our society away from general courteousness? You may reconcile this by saying, why can’t we have both? “I don’t need him to open the door for me,” you may say. “But it would be a nice gesture.” A gesture indeed it is – and a powerful one. But let’s look a little more closely at what the message really is.

On its surface, chivalry, or gentlemanliness, seems like nothing more than common, or depending on your perspective, uncommon, courtesy. In this world where women have to bear so much – childbirth and childrearing, the not infrequent physical brutality of men, and the perpetual heartache of being the ones most often called upon to give up our dreams – it seems the least society (men) can do in return is to open the occasional door or carry the occasional bag of groceries. So then, the rationale goes, it’s good for women since, if even for a moment, it lessens her burdens, and it’s good for men in that, if even for a moment, it calls them to mind.

But in reality, there is nothing good – or noble – about what is really happening for women in that moment (not to mention the rest of the time). 

First, these kinds of gestures distract from real efforts to achieve true gender equality in society by posing as expressions of honor and respect towards women. But in truth, they don't help women's condition and they don't provide any positive affirmation on a mental or emotional level. Chivalry is a symbol and a symptom of institutionalized gender inequality, not an effort to counteract it. As chivalry in medieval times did nothing to undermine widespread patterns of oppression of and brutality towards women of that time, so today chivalry fails to actually address the uniquely female burdens it purports to lessen. It perpetuates the illusion that inviting a woman to exit an elevator first will somehow compensate her for the fact that, even though she may arrive at her desk first, she won’t be paid equally once she gets there. It distracts from the fact that even though a man may go gallantly out of his way to give a woman a ride home late at night, the world will not thereby be made a safer or more welcoming place for her.

Chivalry is an attempt to hold on more tightly to male privilege by behaving more graciously towards those from whom you are denying it.

Second, it reinforces men’s hold on the outside world by treating women as merely guests. By, say, opening a door for a woman, a man is posing as a sort of host, graciously offering her entrance into his world. It is a subtle reminder that, even though he is allowing her entrance, it is still his world. And like most hosts, chivalrous men expect to be repaid for their kindness through a kind of reciprocity. Though direct reciprocity - women in turn opening the door for them - is the last thing they want (after all they, of course know, that this would feel belittling). Instead, men want to be repaid by experiencing from women the same deference they are pretending to show to them. And brilliantly, they ensure this through the effects of the gesture itself. If men can evoke in women a sense of obligation towards them, knowing have been socialized to respond this way, by performing a presumably generous gesture on their behalf, men can ensure women feel beholden to them, collectively, in some vague but unmistakable way. A sense of obligation that men can, at some future time and in some way he chooses, can cash in. It is an investment in his future comfort and pleasure - to ensure favorable treatment - and compliant behavior - from women. It is a manipulative attempt to disguise a power play as humble service, and demeans women by making them feel beholden to men for paying them lip service. So this gesture is, despite appearances, not intended to lay the groundwork for equality through respect and honor, but to reinforce inequality. It is man's way of perpetuating his dominance in society by ensuring that, although he is letting her share the turf, she understands it is on his terms. 

Chivalry is a symbol that men consider women's consent to their exercise of control over them to be at best presumed and at worst irrelevant.  

Third, chivalry reinforces the disproportionate lack of consent women give for the ways their lives are shaped by men, both on a societal and on a personal level. By intruding, unbidden, into a woman’s life to perform a gesture which expresses his power over her powerlessness, a man establishes the precedent for intruding again, in less benign circumstances, unbidden, into a woman's life to perform gestures that express his power over her powerlessness. The incidence of violence by men towards women continues unabated in our world, and at an appalling rate. This is because we give men the power to dominate women, and then naively expect them to self-regulate this power. That's tantamount to giving the wolf the right to decide when to eat the hen. It is foolhardy. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Until we deliberately build a society where no blanket permission to dominate one gender is given to the other, this violence will not abate. As long as men believe that, merely because they are men, they have the power to impose their will in women's lives, merely because they are women, the analysis will stop there and discernment, wisdom and humility will never enter into the picture.   

Chivalry is not a gentle offer of support but rather an ominous reminder that although men sometimes choose to use their power over women benignly, it's still their prerogative.  

So how do we address this? Obviously, opening the door for a woman doesn't cause inequality, and not opening the door for her won't erase it. But by ceasing to perpetuate acts towards women that make them feel belittled, we are helping to remove one of the man-made obstacles to the natural state of gender equality: the mentality that women don't have as much of a right to be here. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Work towards a world where we can all perform true acts of kindness towards anyone based on their need and our capacity to meet it, conscious to uphold their dignity, not out of a desire to build yourself up at their expense. If you tell yourself you're performing an act of kindness but would be offended were that same gesture to be performed for you, it's obviously not an act of kindness. Let that be your guide. 

Chivalry does nothing but perpetuate archaic, limiting and destructive gender roles. 

Let chivalry die. Let respect for human dignity live.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Power of Women

The topic of the power of women came up recently in a discussion during my writing group meeting. A character in a fictional piece I’m writing feels powerful when she is walking through the marketplace of a North African city and is showered with adoration from the men she passes. One of the (male) members of the writing group was perplexed as to how attention from strange men made her feel powerful – rather than objectified – and asked me if it was because she thought the men “would do things for her." It was my turn to be perplexed by this viewpoint. A few days later, however, I noticed my male colleague’s perspective reiterated in Beyonce's supposedly female-affirming song "Run the World (Girls)”. She sings about how a woman’s power of persuasion can get men to "do anything” for her and thus women can run the world through men. This got me thinking: so women’s power is only indirect? Men are the only ones with actual power so women’s only power lies in using her (sexual) powers of influence to get men to use their societal power on her behalf?

It’s no surprise that there seems to be a bit of confusion about this concept of female power. In our society, girls and women are not encouraged to embrace or nurture a sense of their own individual power. It’s considered contrary to the ideal image of womanliness, and counterproductive to our ultimate destiny in a supportive role. Women are taught to mold themselves into and submit to what is perceived to be a proper image for them. The specifics of what this looks like may vary from place to place depending on culture, and in the modern age, women are given more and more freedom to develop their personal talents than ever before. But what has not changed is: women are not encouraged to develop a sense of personal power that is inviolable by any other human being. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Women are taught that their personal power should be subverted to that of almost everyone else, in varying degrees. We are expected to give up our sense of self-determination when in conflict with the needs of our family or the (perceived) obligations of motherhood. From strangers to friends to our family members, we are expected to be accommodating without regard to our own sense of personal integrity.

Women have proven themselves – whether by nature or by necessity – to be much more adaptable than men – psychologically, emotionally and intellectually. But women's reward for being more adaptable has been to be forced to do ALL the adapting. They've had to (more often than not) give up their careers to raise the children and they've had to have more children than they want because they were told they didn't have the moral right to decide (since they are merely a vessel and the man's sperm is the primary decisive element). Almost as a punishment, they've had to fulfill career and motherhood and homemaking responsibilities … because they can – and are judged harshly if they “fail”. Whereas for men, taking on any of these "women's" tasks would threaten their sense of self and therefore, they are usually unwilling to do so. Fortunately for them, social and cultural privilege affords them the luxury of self-determination. Whatever men decide to do, they are lauded for it (whether it be the CEO of a corporation or a stay-at-home dad.) Society does not afford women that same unconditional deference. 

Women’s adaptability is one of their great strengths. But ironically, this and many of women’s other strengths that complement those of men (their role in reproduction, nurturing, emotional intelligence, sensuality, compassion) have resulted in a loss of power for women. Instead of being acknowledged and properly valued, honored and respected as priceless to society, these qualities of women have instead been exploited by society to undermine women’s personal power. In addition to being denied the dignity of being honored for just being women, they are further degraded by having their strengths co-opted by society without proper compensation (and then accused of being weak). This results in depletion of the very resources society uses women for, which impoverishes society at the same time as it impoverishes women. The best way to undercut someone's strengths is to take away her power. And this double-edged sword has, for most of history, been the reality for womankind.

So it’s no wonder that we as a society are not quite clear on what women’s power actually is (other than using her sexual influence to exploit men right back) since we've never really given them an unobstructed opportunity to show us. Unlike the case for boys, exploring their innate personal power has never been a 100% condoned experiment for girls in any society throughout history; they are expected to be obedient, not decisive. But despite greater investment put in exploring for new oil wells than in the deep wells of rich resources within the female spirit and mind, there is no denying their existence. I feel it within myself every day. And despite the incessant efforts of society to keep women in their secondary role, it has not been successful. Because alive in my mind is the truth represented by the main character of my story: she was empowered not by a perception that she held the reins of the men, and could control them for her benefit by using her feminine wiles, but she knew that unbeknownst to themselves, the men recognized her power as standing all on its own.