Chivalry has never been my thing. Even when I was little and deeply invested in fairy tale Disney movies, I remember thinking that if I were in life-threatening danger, I wouldn’t want some Prince to come rescue me. I grew up with adults shouting “stranger danger!” to instill crippling fear and suspicion of basically anyone I had yet to encounter in my ripe 6 years of life. So: some dude tells me he wants to kiss me so that a “spell” can be broken? I’ll pass, creep. As I got older and started realizing that “Princes” are usually the ones us ladies need saving from in the first place, Law & Order: SVU became, and remains, my favorite fairy tale of all time.
Nonetheless, aside from the couple of times a year when various magazines declare “Chivalry is Dead!”, I never really think about the term. There was one time a couple of years ago, when I did that insane thing girls sometimes do and went on a first date. I dutifully noted throughout the entire night that he kept opening doors for me. Even if the door was out of his way, like my car door, he would zip around the car and open it. If there was no door, he would step aside and gesture with his arms that I walk in first, flight attendant style. On the ride home I observed, “You open doors a lot” (you can tell how great the conversation was flowing at this point). He asked if that was a problem and I said it wasn’t, it’s just kind of weird because I know how to open a door. And he said, “You’ve just never experienced chivalry like this”. Then I believe I told him that opening someone’s door is polite, not full-blown chivalrous, and he asked me if I was “one of those feminists”, and now we live happily after.
The next time I thought about chivalry was today, on the subway. Now, it should be noted that on NYC public transportation not only is chivalry dead, but so are all rules of human morality, ethics, and decency. The subway is to behavior what Twitter is to opinions: mayhem. So, to put it mildly, I don’t expect much “chivalry” whilst on the F train. This morning I was on a full train, but I boarded early enough to get a seat (such a rare occurance, it almost made me believe in God). Right before the doors closed, a very pregnant woman walked onto the train. Once we started moving I looked at the mostly men sitting around me, who could all clearly see the pregnant woman standing in front of us. “Excuse me, miss, do you want to sit?” As the words came out of my mouth I have to admit it felt odd. I fancy myself a feminist but kind of felt like I was saying what a guy should be saying. I’ve never called another girl “miss”. Before the woman could respond, the guy next to me stood up and proudly gestured towards his seat like a true gentleman… just as my flight attendant date did for little ol’ me. The girl sat down, turned to me, and said, I shit you not: “They open your door but god forbid they give up their damn seat on the subway.”
I realized what chivalry really means, to me at least. It’s not being kind, or polite, or gentle, or helpful. It’s doing something that puts another person’s well-being before your own, possibly by sacrificing your own well-being, and without the promise or expectation of getting anything in return. So, chivalry is not a guy buying you dinner or opening your door. Trust me, he thinks he’s getting something out of it. Chivalry is altruism I guess… but that spirals into the philosophical debate of the existence of altruism, so let’s let that slide and just get to the bottom line:
Chivalry is giving up your damn seat on the subway.