Some say chivalry is dead, and oftentimes I would have to agree with them. Despite being in the habit of accepting chivalrous gestures from men, chivalry has never really seemed more than an antiquated gesture. When we all know that most women can handle the bags they pack for themselves, and are not overly distressed when faced with opening a door, why must men assist women with burdensome tasks in life?
The reality is, many men also do not understand why they must be solicitous to women. If anything, men today seem to use chivalrous behavior as a pick-up tactic, expecting or hoping for something in return for their services. The classic miffed gentleman comes to mind―the one who went through the trouble of buying a girl a drink and is shocked that no phone number was offered in exchange. This kind of utilitarian attitude makes chivalry a tool for romantic pursuit that, under the guise of courtesy, becomes meaningless and susceptible to being hijacked for self-serving purposes.
So imagine my surprise when I spent time this summer with a group of male friends who not only understand the spirit of chivalry, but carried out chivalrous gestures with the air of ones who have practiced it their entire lives. I was struck by the natural ease with which they looked for ways to show deference to their female friends. The unnecessary, yet solicitous, gestures were free from obligation, self-interest, or condescension. On the contrary, their chivalry made me feel, in a word, honored.
Honor has always been the most important feature of chivalry. Although the idea of chivalry began as a strictly militaristic application of honor, it moved towards a set code of conduct as it relates to relationships between men and women during the 15th century. The proverbial "knight in shining armor" was gentle, selfless, and respected the honor of women. Indeed, chivalry had more to do with an immense respect for women as the bearers of the human race than attention to any kind of perceived frailty of the female sex.
I'm beginning to think of it this way: What would you do if the President, the Pope, the Dalai Lama or your CEO approached the doors of your office building? Despite the fact that these individuals are probably strong enough to open the door, as a gesture of respect or honor, you might assist the individual with the door and have him or her walk through first, right?
Many women grit their teeth when men take on a "ladies first" mentality and if you ask the average man why ladies should go first, they would say something like, "because they are ladies?" Men and women often translate this as perceived weakness and women do not want handouts, especially if the intention is that our male counterparts think that we can't "handle it". But perhaps if honor was the intention of the gesture, we wouldn't roll our eyes at it so much. Can this kind of chivalry stage a comeback?
I think so, if chivalry can be brought back to life by men and women who practice it in its true spirit. A male friend once suggested to me that chivalry is a two-way street. Women can also show honor to men by graciously accepting gestures of respect when that respect is sincerely and selflessly given.
I may be an independent and successful woman, but last time I checked my sex is still the bearer of the human race. If a man wants to show some respect for that, it would not kill me to simply say thank you.
Photo via flickr user Deannster.