Courtesy, Chivalry, and Confusion, Oh My!

JB’s talking about chivalry, and it’s got me thinking. Actually she and I have talked about it before, in person, and I’ve read a bit about it in S. Bear Bergman’s books and on a few butch and femme blogs, and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. In fact, I’ve been puzzling over it pretty much my whole life. I don’t really have my head around it, so I’m going to use that labyrinth-traveling method of wandering all around my topic in this essay in hopes I get to the heart of it and find it makes some sense eventually.

Chivalry. I remember early lessons in chivalry and it being very tied up with lessons in being “ladylike” which was something when I was five or six years old I told my horrified mother most emphatically I did not want to grow up to be. My parents are both from the South, raised in socially progressive, intellectual, professional-class families, for whom manners were as essential as meals. My grandfathers were civil engineers and lawyers, my uncles were newspaper editors and bankers and economists and doctors, my father is a lawyer. My grandmothers and aunts were mothers and wives, hostesses to social events, and volunteers to social causes. Except for rebel Aunt Bess, the artist, and rebel Aunt Betsy, who was a fellow newspaper editor to her husband on the International Herald Tribune. But she was from Boston, and she had red hair. And Uncle George had always been a bit of a black sheep.

So there was my mom, married at eighteen, a mother at twenty-three, with a young lawyer for a husband and a little girl who wanted to be a boy for a child. A little girl with a brass-balled inner rebel, a wild imagination, and an unshakable individuality. I was anything but the soft and charming little Southern girl she must have hoped I’d be.

Where was I going with this? Chivalry. My mother and father certainly grew up with all the rules of modern chivalry firmly entrenched, and they tried to instill them in me. My father offered his arm, and my mother took it. My father stood and waited until all the females were seated at the table, carefully settling me and my mother in our chairs, before he took his own.

A gentleman, he taught me, always walked closer to the road, to shield his lady from passing traffic. He carried a pocket handkerchief and offered it as a token of deep care to a lady in need. The gentleman opened doors; the lady had doors opened for her. He was solicitous of her well being, and she accepted that solicitousness as her due. My father explained these rules to me. This was how well-brought-up men behaved. How classy women behaved. This was how things were done.

I remember thinking even then, as a young child, that the right thing would be to grow up to be like my father. To be the bearer of pocket handkerchiefs, and the heroic shielder from passing traffic. The opener of doors, the kisser of proffered hands. I really couldn’t quite accept that I was supposed to take the woman’s role, no matter how many times my mother instructed me in being ladylike. I didn’t like it. It made me uneasy. I couldn’t get the hang of it. I remember practicing over and over how to have your chair scooted in for you by the man helping you to your seat, and not being able to coordinate it gracefully no matter how many times I tried. I remember sitting with one ankle on the opposite knee, and not understanding what the big problem with that was. Dad sat that way all the time. Why should I have to sit there and cross my ankles instead?

I always felt deeply cared for but at the same time disempowered — emasculated, in fact — when at a restaurant my father would inquire what I wished to eat, and then relay the order himself. “The young lady will have the petit fillet, medium-rare, with broccoli and a baked potato, and I will have…”

And then there was Women’s Lib. My parents divorced when I was seven, and my dad remarried a woman who had a subscription to Ms. Magazine, and an early copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which I read with fascination. I watched Billie Jean King play tennis and Gloria Steinem give speeches on television, and I gathered that chivalry might not just be about politeness, and that gender roles were a lot more complicated than those early lessons in civility had shown me. That it might be offensive to imply a woman could not open a door for herself. Chivalry was, it turned out, even more baffling than I’d already surmised.

I did always sort of like it, though, when my dad saw me safely in my seat in the car before he took his seat behind the wheel. But what I learned from that was that when I was the driver, it would be my job to see my passengers settled safely. With some passengers now, I am very careful about that. There is an older woman who sings in my choir, and to whom I often give rides to rehearsals. I open her door for her, wait for her to be seated, and close it carefully behind her.When we arrive, and she opens her door for herself to get out, I always feel a little hint of shame that I was not fast enough to get there and do it for her.

I always wonder a little whether I should do so for JB, when I am driving with her. It becomes a little trickier, somehow, because there is a power dynamic in chivalry, and it is at odds with the equality JB and I share as friends. I hesitate: should I go around and open her door for her? Should I not? If it is raining, do I hold my umbrella over her head? Or does this impose things onto the relationship that don’t belong there. We are, after all, not dating. In the case of the woman I drive to choir, she is much older  than me. My courtesy to her — my chivalry — stems from the rules that govern the respect one shows to elders, rather than from gender roles. But with JB it is gender roles at play. What is the butch-femme dynamic when you are friends who are not and never have been lovers?

I don’t know what is right. I do know, intimately, the dance of who should get the door for whom, when a man and I arrive at it together. I know the discomfort I feel when my friend M insists on allowing me to enter and exit the elevator first, when he holds the door for me. Do I feel condescended to? Is that my discomfort? I’m not sure. I’m not sure why it feels so strange to me to be shown the sort of gender-stereotyped chivalry that he does. When my father does it, it’s different; it’s my father, I expect it from him as old habit, and it reminds me I am his cherished daughter. But from M, it somehow feels wrong. Like he’s imposing gender roles on a relationship where they don’t belong. He is, after all, my “bro”, not my beau.

I’m not sure I’m any closer to an answer than I was when I started. Except I do know my own mind a little better. I can see, looking back, that I’ve always fallen on the butch side of this particular line. I suppose that’s a start.


~ by Nezu on 9 March 2010.

2 Responses to “Courtesy, Chivalry, and Confusion, Oh My!”

  1. […] not unless they were VERY GOOD FRIENDS at the very least. I might have offered tiger balm. Nezu posted about chivalry in response to my post, and I think some of the things she says actually show this off […]

  2. I’m not sure I have a real response, except that after thinking about it — and writing about it AGAIN ad nauseum — I now think, if you want to get doors for me, it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t have a vested interest in it, but I don’t mind, either. 😉 It’s sort of drifting back toward action-centered chivalry rather than person-centered, and as such seems perfectly fine. *laughs*


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