It seems the Internet is abuzz with Emma Watson’s thoughts on chivalry from a feminist’s perspective. As a fellow feminist and a fan of Emma’s, I was especially curious to see what our UN Goodwill Ambassador would have to say on the subject. What I heard left me torn and confused.
It’s not at all that I had any disagreement with what Emma had to say – in fact, I found myself nodding right along as I listened to what she was saying. In her interview with Telegraph, she recalls an awkward dinner date during which she tried to pay; she had picked the restaurant and so felt as if she should pay.
Emma shares that her male suitor became deeply uncomfortable, and mentions that she was encouraged that the two were able to discuss it and talk about why he was uncomfortable. Of course, those dialogues give me hope as well. However, I found myself feeling a little strange about the whole conversation. Then, after reading a couple of different thinkpieces on the subject, I realized the problem: the problem isn’t with the notion that chivalry be consensual, but instead with the word chivalry itself. That’s right: I think we should ban the word “chivalry.”
Now, before anyone comes at me with pitchforks and torches, hear me out. I don’t feel that we should stop helping one another or that we should start thinking only about ourselves. I do feel, though, that “chivalry” is not how we should describe that selflessness anymore.
First and foremost, the word “chivalry” tends to conjure up some images for people; specifically, people think of men being the ones who are chivalrous. Now, this isn’t without good cause; after all, the word “chivalry” originally described knights — and who were knights? Men.
Obviously, we don’t necessarily think of knights anymore when we think of chivalry: instead, it’s all about carrying bags, holding doors open, pulling out chairs, and paying for a meal or drink. It’s clear that women often are able to do these things themselves, and we see that daily as well. But when a woman does it, not many people refer to her as being “chivalrous”, making it seem that only men are chivalrous.
Which brings me to my next point: it can be deeply heteronormative, meaning that the word generally refers to heterosexual couples – and, in this case, heterosexuals that abide by deeply entrenched gender roles. When a word’s connotations fit only a handful of the countless wonderful couples out there, it becomes less and less useful, and therefore less relevant.
If only there were other words out there to describe what we mean when we say chivalrous… Words that are more universally applicable, and maybe even more specific…
Fear not, friends! There are plenty of words that are better descriptors of what we really mean when we say chivalry. On top of being a word generally reserved for ideal male conduct in heterosexual relationships, it is also super vague. What do we mean when we say that a person is being chivalrous? We normally mean that a person is being kind, thoughtful, or generous. These words are so much more specific; when someone says they’re seeking a generous partner, we understand their meaning far better than we would had they used the word “chivalrous”. Further, these words don’t carry the extremely gendered connotations that “chivalry” often does.
In a time where it’s more and more important for women to ask for what they want in all aspects of life, it is also so much more important to use the most specific words possible to describe what that is. Just as we would never write “whatever will pay my bills” in a salary requirement for a job, why would we just say we want someone “chivalrous” when we can be clearer – and more likely to get what we want?
And it’s not as if we miss out on anything by describing people with words like “kind” and “thoughtful” instead of “chivalrous”. We describe someone’s actions equally well when we use those words, and we can positively recognize people who don’t fit the images conjured up by the word “chivalry”.
For example, if I’m out to lunch with a relative who offers to pick up the bill, I can accurately describe their actions by saying that they were kind or generous. In fact, it’d be pretty strange to refer to it as chivalrous.
The same goes for a close friend who pays for more than their share of something, like a hotel room – calling that action “chivalrous” gives an unwanted romantic connotation to the gesture, whereas calling that action “thoughtful” or “kind” describes what it is in all of its awesomeness.
I’m not suggesting we stop being chivalrous toward one another. In no way do I believe that we should stop holding doors open or buying each other’s meals. In fact, I think that that “chivalrous” attitude should be made more universal than it is; we all should use words that are just as easily applied to women as they are to men.
We should be using words that strip away the gender expectations that feminists are shedding blood, sweat, and tears to break down. When we stop using these clunky, gendered descriptions, we can specify the good things we experience or seek in relationships. We can make space for women to be recognized for their equal participation in relationships – and aren’t fierce women all about making those spaces for ourselves?
Miranda Huber is a recent graduate from Elmhurst College wondering what on earth happens now. Her interests include politics, pizza, and feminist theory. Follow her on Twitter for daily jokes and thoughts on a variety of random subjects.
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