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In defence of male chivalry

2013 August 15
by Zoe Strimpel
Women are not looking for a knight in shining armour. Just a guy who likes to take them out for dinner sometimes.

Women are not looking for a knight in shining armour. Just a guy who likes to take them out for dinner sometimes.

A friend recently told excitedly of the man she is dating. He’s handsome, easy-going yet intense, and fascinating. He is successful, too, with a flourishing business in high-end property development.

The only issue, she confided sotto voce, is his policy on splitting the bill. As in, he is cool with it. Not after months of extravagant courtship and flowing champagne all on him, but immediately, for expensive dinners that are in large part expensive because of his predilection for luxury foods and other high-ticket items, like wine. “He has certain tastes”, said my friend, a lawyer. “But doesn’t that mean he should be rejecting my credit card at the end of dinner?”

I helped her along with firmer, and more controversial words: “He should be paying for dinner most of the time at this stage. He should be DEFINITELY paying when he orders champagne and caviar blinis as a starter.”

I elaborated:

“Men should pay for most overt in-the-moment leisure costs. They should also hold the door and be willing to put themselves through mild physical discomfort for your ease, convenience or potential safety, for example by walking you home.”

“Phew,” said my girlfriend. “I feel bad saying that as a feminist but it’s what I think. Just tell me how I can justify it?”

Easy!

Now, plenty of people – men and women – have fairly scathingly tried to set me right on the seeming contradiction of being a feminist and expecting a straight male date that I actually DO want to go out with to pay for a few more consumables than me, with grace and panache.

The first biting remark is, and this one tends to be from men, about having cakes and eating them. “You can’t have all your equality then expect men to pay!” This is a fairly big thing – does allowing a man to INSIST on paying for your dinner (women usually offer) – chip into your feminist potential, or even have anything to do with it? I’d say no. But first, when it comes from men, this comment usually contains a good deal of anger, little boy tantrum anger, sometimes justified. It is full of the sense that “after what we’ve had to give up [unfiltered patriarchy, unquestioned command, and women whose main duties were bring us drinks, cook for us and make us look good to our colleagues] and go through [women sneering at offers from us to hold open the door, being always-nearly in the doghouse over casually sexist remarks and borderline harassment, and manufactured identity crises brought about by copious media headlines about 'the end of men'], you’re expecting us to foot the bill for dinner and a bottle of wine?! The nerve!”

What the angry non-chivalry men don’t realise is that they’ve already lost my interest and that of many, many women – no bill-footing they ever do would be in the correct spirit. It would be a calculation of who paid last time, rather than an awareness of why, on dates and in general out-and-about circumstances, he should want to whip his wallet out first.

And why should men do the wallet-whip? It is not a simple matter, for the obvious reason that women now expect to be taken as equals since, after all, they are equals and they act and work like equals. On the surface, money is power, so paying for dinner is power over the co-diner; man over woman. Why would we want that? We don’t. But I’m talking about the kinds of men you and me count as our friends and acquaintances, not the types who take dinner as a green light for sex. There are a lot of the latter, but a lot of the former, too. And the reasons the former type of men insist on chivalry in the crudest form of bill-footing, door-holding and home-escorting are- in my view- very little to do with their views of women in general; very little to do with a crude desire for “power over women”. The men that I have noted being the most chivalrous, the ones that refuse their date’s sometimes prolonged offer of payment, or make it clear any such offer would be futile, are in fact the ones who are the most unconscious of and uninterested in gender polarities in the workplace or in the social arena, don’t judge women for having sex, and either work for women or employ them.

How can this be? Well, in my view, the real reason men are chivalrous has nothing to do with women. It has only to do with how they see themselves. At some point in their lives, men – like most people – develop a strong image of the kind of person they see themselves as. This image is created and reinforced by adult influences, role models, figures in books and films, experiences. Prevalent among the options for “the kind of man I want to be” is the “good, manly guy”. In movies and books, the good, manly guy gets dinner AND wins the woman’s heart AND has lots of sex AND is super intellectual/complicated AND helps his mother AND is a good uncle/father. But most importantly – like many people – men want to be able to live with themselves. Which means living with their idea of themselves. The man who gets dinner finds that he is “the good manly guy”, the “kind of guy who gets dinner”, no flies on him, and he can then live easily with himself. This self-image also extends to social and civic choices. The man who finds chivalry easy, part of his self-image, also likes helping old people on the street, offering first aid to someone who collapses on the Tube, giving up his seat to pregnant women and giving to charity. Complaining this doesn’t count because it’s all for an idea of the self as much as for the goodness of the act is just churlish.

The kind of guy that will be angered by this post is the one who has – from somewhere also quite well-meaning – internalised a notion of equality and thus sees no need to foot the bill. This guy, though, can often be hypocritical. He can be all about gender equality, which is why he never pays more than half, and often less. But, with his natty scarf and skinny ripped jeans, he can be a ruthless, even sordid lover. He is good at taking what is at least half his, and in addition, lots and lots of sex, on his terms. Or there’s the professional bill-splitter, like the one trading bonds for Barclays who made me split the bill for breakfast. He was, clearly, very fond of equality. He was also a self-obsessed, borderline unpleasant person to spend even ten minutes with. No wonder: after all, he had no problem knowing that he was the guy that watches the girl count out pennies for her fruit salad. (I’d have hated allowing any breakfast date of mine to do similar, male or female. It would have jarred with my idea of myself. Particularly if I’d scoffed a plate of pancakes with bacon, as he had).

I guess what I’m saying is that if a man is chivalrous, it’s a good sign about other qualities, and if he isn’t, it’s a bad sign. This can’t be true across the board. But in my experience, and the experience of the countless women I’ve interviewed about dating, the wallet-happy ones are neither rich nor sexist. Sometimes they are – sometimes they’re drunk on their own slickness and lady-killerness and are non-starters. But this doesn’t mean chivalry should be scorned. Often its practitioners are really good guys, emotionally sophisticated, the kind you could see diving in and saving a child from a tidal wave. Meanwhile, the ones that preach equality as a reason to not pay on dates tend to objectify women, be selfish, self-obsessed and – quite often – eventually freeloaders.

So we’ve seen that chivalry is not really about money (if one party literally has zero cash, there are other ways to be chivalrous, and a taco can be as chivalrous a purchase as a Michelin-starred dinner).

Now to clarify the feminist part of this defence. It revolves around the word “equality”. This word is cloudy. It’s valuable, of course, as a very basic tool for measuring the absolute minimum requirements: votes, not being discriminated against at work, professional and sporting opportunities. It is a key concept in establishing a sexual domain where women can say no at any time, and where they can say yes without social stricture. Ditto for men.

But. This is still a skeletal vision of equality, particularly when it comes to sexual dynamics. A lot of women are now calling the shots vis a vis sexual pleasure. But there’s still a great deal of inequality about sex in dating. Men get a lot more out of it in the beginning, namely an unadulterated orgasm with no ensuing expectations or sense that they have given their power away. Women may have the orgasm, or several, too. But – bar the very boldest few – most feel that they have made themselves vulnerable to rejection and that the decision to pursue or drop the relationship is now in the man’s hands. This is a gross inequality. But while it persists, while the man stands to gain his physical satisfaction as a consolidation, rather than a lessening of power, the balance of give and take needs re-structuring. Chivalry is a token of recognition of this fact IN GENERAL. It’s doffing the cap to the persistence of sexual inequality between penetrator and penetratee.

Which is why I will never quite feel at ease with the man who takes your money, takes his pleasure, and runs. Until date-sex (not sex appeal, or the promise of sex, but sex itself) no longer transfers power from women to men, men have a bit of a debt to settle. And if that’s in some ways softened by the tokenism of chivalry, then so be it. In the long-run, anyway, the score tends to be settled and then some, often in the man’s favour. Broadly speaking, in relationships women seem to worry more, observe more, detect more and anticipate more in the man’s behaviour, expressions, emotional needs and so on. They usually end up cooking more dinners, cleaning up more, arranging more fun things to do. Bit by bit, equality is poking its head through the mating rituals of men and women, and chivalry is one of the ways its slow progress can be eased.

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