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Yesterday, the c-word—-chivalry—-arose in the comments section of this blog, in the context of the outdated gender code’s unfairness to men. Ah, chivalry: That old code of behavior that men must follow in order to protect the “honor” of women they know. Through chivalry, a woman’s honor becomes a man’s responsibility; her honor brings honor to him, and her shame brings him shame. Chivalry isn’t just offensive because it forces men to protect women, but also because traditional ideas of what brings “honor” and “shame” to women are often highly sexist. And so, chivalry also works to encourage women to internalize misogyny in order to preempt shame from befalling men.
Three recent events that provide an insight into chivalry, and how it functions:
1. In a recent post on Holla Back DC, a woman describes being harassed by a group of firemen while out celebrating her fiance’s birthday. As her fiance stepped away to retrieve cash from an ATM, she stepped to the curb to look for a cab. She was “dressed up,” but “did not look slutty,” she says; the firemen disagreed:
As I was looking down the street at oncoming traffic, a fire engine drove by. It was not on its way to an emergency, as its lights and siren weren’t on and they were driving at a somewhat slow speed. However, they honked their loud siren at me and started cheering out of the window. This was of course just as my fiance was walking out of the ATM. He was offended that men in uniform would do that, and to tell you the truth, it made me feel like common street trash and that they treated me like a hooker. Even if my fiance was outside with me and it happened, nothing could really have been done. He may have yelled after the fire engine, but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything.
I was really embarrassed and am still embarrassed when I think about it. I even felt embarrassed on behalf of my fiance, as I thought others may have thought he was with a hooker. I don’t know if that’s rational or not. It makes me want to cover up more when I go out, but I shouldn’t have to. I was dressed quite nicely, yet I still was treated in this manner. It was disgusting.
For this anonymous Holla Back DC poster, being treated “like a hooker” was a stunning insult of her value as a woman, and therefore a great source of shame. (As far as traditional expectations of women go, being confused with a sex worker is, unfortunately, pretty low on the “honor” list). This woman’s reaction may help to explain why some victims feel shame after being sexually harassed or assaulted. When women are treated as less-than-human, there are often two conflicting internal reactions: (a) anger at the harassers who devalued her based on her gender, and (b) being forced to consider the idea, however briefly, that she has no value.
Our writer presents a third reaction: A secondary source of shame, derived from the possibility that someone “may have thought [her fiance] was with a hooker.” Since the woman’s fiance is responsible for her shame as well, he may have a similarly conflicted reaction: (a) anger at the harassers who devalued her based on her gender, and (b) shame that he is associated with a woman who is considered by other men to be valueless. Chivalry encourages him to take personal offense to this, inciting one of two reactions: (a) engaging in a verbal or physical altercation with the harassers in order to compensate for the woman’s shame with a display of manhood; and/or (b) chastising the woman for bringing shame upon him, i.e. “Don’t embarrass me in front of other men”; “Don’t go out looking like that”; “See what you made me do.”
In this case, there’s no indication that the fiance openly chastised this woman for dressing inappropriately (though he may have gone after the firemen had he had the opportunity). The actual display of chivalry isn’t necessary to instill in this woman a sense of responsibility for her fiance’s honor. The realization that a man may be shamed when she is harassed for being a woman makes her want to dress more conservatively in order to preempt any further shame on him in the future.
2. This weekend, I had a conversation with a guy visiting the District from Turkey. We got to talking about the evolving tradition of women wearing headscarves in his country. About half the women he knows wear headscarves, and half don’t; his mom wears one, but his wife doesn’t. In Turkey, he said, a woman who doesn’t cover her head brings society’s shaming not only upon herself, but also upon her husband. Insisting that a woman wear a headscarf is considered a man’s responsibility, and a woman with her head uncovered can reflect a personal failure on the man assigned to enforce the rule. “If you follow all the rules of the religion, you get an A+ in being a Muslim,” he explained. If your wife doesn’t cover your head, you can still be a good Muslim, but your grade gets knocked down a few points.
Not all women wear the headscarf because their husbands or fathers or brothers tell them (or force them) to. Some choose to wear it for personal, cultural, and religious reasons. And some choose to wear it in order to preempt any possibility of shame being brought upon the men in their lives. They want their husbands to get an A+.
3. Today, WTOP reported that Vladimir Djordjevic has died after spending three years in the hospital attempting to recover from the extreme burns covering his body. Djordjevic, a manager at District strip club Good Guys, was “doused with gasoline and set on fire” on Nov. 4, 2007, after he ejected a patron for breaking a house rule—-he took a cell-phone photo of a dancer’s butt. The patron, trucker Vasile Graure, returned to the club with a gallon of gasoline and proceeded to light Djordjevic—-and then the club—-on fire. (You can read a complete account of the trial here; Graure was sentenced to 30 years in prison, which may be increased in light of Djordjevic’s death).
So: Graure thought he had complete authority over the naked woman in front of him; Djordjevic informed him that he did not; Graure set Djordjevic on fire.
Djordjevic’s death is an extreme example of how chivalry facilitates the transfer of misogyny from women to men. As Amanda Marcotte noted earlier this year, “when it comes to the patriarchy, sexist men will enforce the rules not just on women, but on other men who seem insufficiently committed to the art of oppressing women,” she writes. When Graure set Djordjevic on fire, he applied his misogynistic rage to the man who would not sit back and allow him to control women. You see the same kind of transfer of misogyny with guys who, thanks to chivalry, will “Never Hit A Woman”; instead, they’ll hit the closest guy.
This kind of misogyny transfer doesn’t just result in the tragic deaths of guys like Djordjevic (who, as club security, had the unnerving professional task of protecting dancers from misogynistic patrons). It also helps to obscure the root of the violence, which is an extreme hatred of women. By placing a male intermediary between a misogynist and the intended recipient of his misogyny (a woman), the misogynist can walk away from a chivalry-induced fist-fight patting himself on the back for how much he “respects women.” Meanwhile, some blame for said fist-fight can be conveniently transferred onto the woman for failing to take the punch herself. In order to avoid both the fist-fight and the self-blame, the woman has one line of defense—-don’t do whatever you think caused the misogynist to get so angry. Don’t wear a short skirt. Don’t protest when he takes your photo in a strip club. Don’t get angry when he sexually harasses you.
“The lesson here is not that women should be more eager to be treated like subhumans,” Marcotte writes. “The lesson is that sexual harassment is a dominance display, and the harassers will often resort to violence to maintain the dominance they desire. ‘Never hit a woman’ doesn’t really do much to address the underlying cause of violence against women, which is male dominance and misogyny.”
Chivalry encourages a form of preemptive internalized misogyny that results in the policing of women, how they dress, where they go, how much hair they show, and whether they stand up for themselves when harassed or assaulted. In the future, the woman harassed by the firemen may dress more conservatively, or avoid standing on the street corner alone, in order to prevent her husband from ever being associated with someone who is confused for “a hooker”. A woman may choose to wear a headscarf in order to preempt any shame being brought to her husband. And a woman who is victimized by a man may not speak out, in order to avoid the chivalrous man-next-door from starting a fist-fight—-or criticizing her for somehow encouraging the harassment.
Chivalry works to unfairly displace misogyny onto men. But focusing solely on that particular failure of chivalry ignores the obvious truth—-that misogyny is unfair for everyone. Women, too!
Photo via David Spender, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0