Chivalry degrades women, promotes sexism in society
The word “medieval” has a connotation of antiquity and unenlightenment because of misconceptions about the era like the supposedly widespread aversion to science and bathing. Though some of this reputation is undeserved, one aspect of the Middle Ages should be treated as antiquated and out of touch with the times: chivalry.
The idea of chivalry is full of misconceptions that make it appear to be this shining example of good, instead of its terrible sexist and classist reality.
Most people probably first encountered the idea of chivalry with some variation of the Arthurian Cycle. King Arthur, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Lancelot, and other aristocratic white men from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” are the ones we tend to associate with chivalry.
To be a little more historically accurate, and to summarize Richard Abels’ paper on chivalry for the U.S. Naval Academy, chivalry started with French horsemen and became a loose and evolving set of ethos for medieval knights that fused ideals from war, Christianity and nobility. It was adopted into stories and writings and was romanticized to be all about honor, bravery, strength and courtliness.
The only Merriam-Webster online definition of chivalry that does not have to do with being medieval defines it as “an honorable and polite way of behaving, especially toward women.”
Jousting, dueling and going on crusades have gone out of style, so chivalry today consists of more basic practices, like holding open doors, lending a jacket to a friend who is cold or giving up a seat on the bus for someone who needs it more. It still implies that the practitioner is a noble “gentleman,” and because men are practicing chivalry toward women, the concept places them in a superior position. Chivalry also still suggests bravery and honor and the sort. As such, there has been a push to revive chivalry.
Paloma Phelps, an intern for Feminists Organized to Resist, Create, and Empower and a psychology senior, said she does not think chivalry should return, however.
“It’s problematic because the revival of chivalry seems to only consist of baseless acts of kindness that are meant to affirm a woman’s place as less capable and [more] fragile,” Phelps said.
She has a point; how is holding a door brave?
This is not to say holding doors, pushing in chairs, helping move heavy boxes or any one of the everyday things we do to help people are bad, but we shouldn’t associate them with being a gentleman or being chivalrous. Chivalry makes them about power. The gentleman is showing his strength or resourcefulness to please and protect the lady, which is also a loaded class-based term.
“When a knight or noble male figure would act chivalrously, he would be assuming that the person is in need, is weaker than he, and that the act would make him look better to his peers and higher-ups,” said Emily Carlisle, a studio art junior and a FORCE intern.
Relegation of women into a subordinate position by constructing them as weaker than men, physically or emotionally, is one of the few “standard practices” of chivalry. This makes for an interesting dynamic, because it seems to contradict one of the other theoretical pillars of chivalry, which is the positioning of women as almost idols.
Consistent throughout the history of chivalry is what Abels calls “the idea that the male could win/be worthy of his ‘lady love’ by winning approbation through noble/honorable acts.”
This creates a sense of false autonomy. It suggests that ladies — not peasant women, though, of course — are free to make their own choices about romantic partners and that they are the ones who have the power in a relationship, but that they are also prizes to be won and therefore objects.
Chivalry is full of contradictions, but instead of trying to navigate them now, they should be left to history where chivalry belongs — it’s nothing more than a flawed substitute for general kindness in action.
David W. Mariotte is a journalism sophomore. Follow @DW_DavidWallace.