Recently, I had an epiphany. A woman had a small child in her arms and was attempting to unfold an umbrella stroller. I walked over to help her. She held her hand up, smiled, and said, "No, I'm fine. Don't worry about." The way my Tennessee Mr. Polite Mind/Body/Heart is set up, I was a bit taken aback. I started to insist that I help her, it being the right thing to do, and she said to me again, "I'm really ok. Don't worry about." She smiled. I stood there with my chivalry deflated at my feet.
I then realized that her desire for help is not what motivated me. It was my feeling that she needed or deserved my help because she's a woman. I know, I know. That makes me a nice guy right? Here I am, half her weight, and because I'm a man, I felt the need to save her from the tyranny of a squirming tot and a stroller that didn't seem to be cooperating. Enter the paradox of chivalry. We often think that chivalry is rooted in all good things, but as I looked at the woman today, I was convicted by the idea that she needed my help or protection from her womanly weakness. That is rooted in the notion that women are inherently less strong than me.
I, in my everyday desire to shatter every gender role ever created, was left stupefied by the possibility that my instinctual reaction to help a woman could be wrapped in a patriarchal mindset. When we hold the door for women, when we pay for women’s meals, and when we feel the need to be providers, it could be seen as a man stepping into his natural role to provide a woman something which she deserves. However, it also implies that women are less capable of doing these things. My good intentions rest between two toasted buns of patriarchy. [Shit. That’s a sandwich reference. Is that sexist?]
What in the entire f-ckery? Years ago, I began to notice the glaringly obvious problems with women expecting these things from men due to a sense of entitlement. When I hold the door and she doesn’t say “thank you,” I’m upset. When I’m at dinner with a platonic friend of the opposite sex, and the server hands me the bill, I’m bothered. When a woman demands that a man support her financially as a result of the trappings of archaic gender roles, yet conveniently rejects the gender norms which would require her to act in submission and servitude to the man, the proverbial head of the household’s body, I understand the conflicts there. We’ve evolved. Sisters are doing it for them-muthafuggin-selves. But I have never taken into account the problems with my ideas of chivalry.
I don’t let women open doors for themselves. I don’t let women sit in the backseat of cars while I’m in the front passenger seat. I don’t let my mother drive, instead offering to drive her to where she needs to go. I don’t let women carry heavy things, especially for long distances, even if they appear to be more physically suited to perform the task. It would be wrong to let them do those things.
I don’t let them. Do you see the problem with that language? In my efforts to provide assistance, I have managed to exert my male privilege by denying women the agency to make those choices instead of simply offering them an alternative. When they decline, I’m baffled. Why would she do that for herself when this strapping 5’8” 130 lb hunk of man, in all of his towering masculinity, could do it for her? Am I reinforcing the idea that I’m more able bodied simply because I’m a man? Yep. And that’s patriarchy. [Face palm] It can’t be completely separated from the same patriarchy that would make me think that my same testicular fortitude would allow me to do a job better than her and deserve better pay. After all, my thought processes are not void of sexist prejudices. I will admit that. Woman smokers bother me while I can sometimes find it alluring when men take a puff. I cringe when women use profanity excessively and I have to check myself every time I view something as a “man’s job.”
I check these things. I’m aware of my privilege and my prejudices. Could these bleed into my good behaviors and drown out my good intentions? How different is my incessant chivalry from the white missionary who feels the brown populations are in need of saving?
What does this all mean? I can’t rewire myself. I’ve been taught that men should behave in certain ways around women. I’ve been trained that I shouldn’t wait on a woman to ask for help. I should offer. I suppose I could offer, and if she politely declines my help, I could walk away. I could let that door slam in her face and smile at her while she lugs a huge box across a room. Yes. There we have it. Let that b*tch do it herself. [George checks misogynistic language and repents] I don’t know what life means anymore.
There’s also the reality that women perpetuate patriarchy unknowingly by playing the part of the damsel. You can’t say, “Help me, I’m a delicate princess,” then say “Get thee behind me, I’m a strong queen.” (Yes I understand nuances and dichotomies, and I’m aware of the fact that strength and vulnerably aren’t mutually exclusive) But we have to understand that promoting equality and fighting misogyny and patriarchy do not only rest in the hands of men. If you want the full totality of womanhood to be respected, respect the full totality of manhood. Men can be hard and protective, but men can also me vulnerable and soft.
I can remember a time back in Memphis. A woman and her son were leaving a store, and I was entering. When the little boy held the door for me, much to my horror, the mother yanked him away. “You don’t hold doors for men,” she chastised him. Sexism against women is rooted in patriarchy, but so is upholding unrealistic standards of masculinity among men. Not to mention the many women who engage in the shaming of effeminate men and/or gay men. How can you imply that my femininity makes me weak while maintaining that your femininity and vagina victory make you strong? Is femininity only powerful if possessed by a woman? Is this a Tolkeinistic world in which there is one NuvaRing to rule us all?
Let’s just hold the door for each other. If a man sees a woman struggling, he should help her. Also, if a woman sees an old man on the train, she should offer her seat. That’s a start. Now… where’s my sandwich? Fine… I’ll make it for myself. Could you get that door for me?