Ladies present! How to deal with chivalrous sexism.
During my lunch-break today (having recently become Gainfully Employed) I was sitting in my favourite cafe, drinking tea and eating a slice of lemon cake. Two or three men walked into the cafe – all, like me, regulars. I know them by sight. They recognise me. One of them commenced telling an anecdote of some variety to the man who works there (who I chat to frequently). Now, I’m not sure exactly what the anecdote was about, but the words “useless fucking cunt!” were uttered by the teller. The guy working there immediately said “Shh, ladies present!” and gestured to me.
It’s difficult to know how to deal with this kind of comment. It’s certainly sexism, albeit of a more benign kind than some.
- As the only woman in the cafe, I was singled out in a way which made me uncomfortable.
- The comment “Ladies present!” made it clear I was to be considered something different and separate. I wasn’t like them. I’m a lady.
- Not only am I a woman, and thus different, I also need…I’m not sure what. Protecting? Maybe I wasn’t meant to know what words like that meant. In which case it wouldn’t matter if I heard them, right? Or maybe I’m meant to know what they mean, but be utterly horrified at the sound. I really don’t know. But clearly, being a lady, I shouldn’t hear things like that. Guess I’m all delicate or something.
This is what I tend to call “chivalrous” sexism. It’s predicated on the idea that women need more respect and looking after and caring for than men. We need to be protected and guarded. Men opening the door for a woman because she’s a woman. Men not swearing in front of women. Men always paying the bill in a restaurant. Yeah, the intentions are usually good. It’s meant to be nice. But ultimately it buys into the narrative of women’s weakness and inferiority. There are more disturbing implications, too: often the refusal to swear in front of women goes hand in hand with a belief that women shouldn’t swear. I’ve heard people say in all serious before now “Oh, it’s much worse to hear girls swear than it is boys. You’re not allowed to say that, of course, or you get called sexist.” ……there is probably a reason for that. So women get treated with a particular delicacy and respect based on the idea they’re a particular kind of person, and then if they don’t live up to those standards, they’re criticised. Great. Furthermore, there’s often a lack of genuine respect; for example, male customers to the cafe are usually called “Sir” or “Guv’nor”, while I’m called “love”, “darling”, “sweetie”. I don’t want to be deferred to, and I happen to like endearments like that sometimes. But once again, there’s a sharp divide in how women are perceived and how men are perceived.
This kind of sexism is incredibly difficult to deal with, though.
- It’s very hard to point it out. Sometimes, even to know if it’s happening. If a man opens the door for me, it’s quite likely it’s because he’s trying to be a gentleman. It’s also likely and possible he’s a polite person who does it to everyone. Also, how do you ask someone to stop being polite? In the cafe-case, okay, I could just have laughed it off or said “Oh, I’m no lady!” but if you’re on a date and the guy insists on paying for everything…seems like an awkward time to say “Excuse me, I hope that you aren’t doing that based on outmoded ideas about gender relations and are expecting me to pay for everything on the next date.” Conversely, saying “Let’s split the bill,” can sometimes send out signals about something not being a date when you’d rather it was. Also, I don’t want people to stop doing some things. I just want them to do things equally. I’d understand if the guy in the cafe had said “Hey, don’t swear, there are customers in here,” or “Keep it down,” or whatever. That’s fine and dandy.
- People can get very touchy if called out on it. Now, when I say “called out”, I’m not talking about saying “How dare you buy me dinner, you fucking agent of the patriarchy bastard!” Even a casual comment from a woman about how she’d rather she wasn’t treated differently because she’s a woman can elicit extremely defensive reactions from men. Case in point: I mentioned on twitter I was writing a blog post about “chivalrous sexism”; someone tweeted me, without knowing anything about what I was writing: “If I hold a door open for you it isn’t sexism, I do it for everyone.” Other responses can run along the lines of “Oh, it’s respect, you should be grateful.” I’ve seen people blame feminism for no one being able to hold doors open for anyone. (Things To Blame Feminism For: People Being Less Polite. Jeez.)
- Commenting on “chivalrous sexism” often makes me feel guilty myself for moaning about something benign when there are more important issues I could be focusing on. There’s always a nagging feeling that I’m ranting about people being nice to me when I could be launching campaigns on Female Genital Mutilation. This is silly, of course; there’s no reason why just because I choose to make an issue of one thing, I can’t do so with something else as well. There’s not a limited supply of “Things I can care about”. But, however irrational, the feeling’s still there.
- A lot of women too resist any effort to make a stand on this. While I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t make an issue of it, it does piss me off when I get criticised for doing so. I’ll be blamed (again) for stopping men being polite to women. Or something. A bit hazy on that, actually.
- A lot of people who do this to me are genuinely nice people who I like (guy in the cafe a case in point) and I don’t want to offend them. However much it bugs me, it often just doesn’t seem worth the risk of damaging good will to bring it up.
So. What should be done about chivalrous sexism? Thinking about the cafe-incident (I didn’t say anything at the time) I’ve come to conclusion that I should have laughed it off, and made it clear I didn’t mind swearing around me. But in other cases, it’s not that easy. I’m not going to enter into a debate on the nature of the patriarchy every time someone offers me a seat on the tube. I guess the best thing to do, if possible, is to refuse politely whatever noble gesture is being made. Offer to split the bill. Turn down that seat on the train (I admit, I never do this. If only because I like to read on the train, and it’s a lot easier if I’m sitting). And, if the occasion arises, or if it’s at all possible, explain that you don’t want people to stop being polite, but you do want equal politeness.
Oh, and obviously – if you’re a man reading this….please, please treat men as politely as you’d treat women, and vice versa.
I’m not putting this forward as a definitive answer (especially as a lot of people won’t even agree there’s a problem). This whole post is really me musing on how I can deal with it in the future. The cafe-incident wasn’t a biggie; it didn’t affect me much except to irritate me mildly and set off the train of thought leading to this blog post. (Just to pre-empt people accusing me of making a fuss about nothing). And I can see that even my idea of refusing chivalrous gestures is very imperfect. When someone offers to pay for your meal, or makes something easier in any way…it just seems easier to accept. So ultimately, I still don’t know what to do. *sighs*
Suggestions would be welcome.