By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:
What a week we’re having, eh? Let’s take a load off and look at today’s question instead.F asked:
I’m all for gender equality, Aunty Feminist, but I’m confused whether chivalry is my patriarchal privilege or just me being nice.
The first time I went for a movie with my friends was way back in the day (I’ll tell you how long ago it was—we were watching Jurassic Park in the cinema when it released for the first time). This was my first time for many things: a) the first time going for a movie without my family; b) the first time I was watching a movie with a mixed group of boys and girls and c) the first time this “movie outing” i.e., a movie and dinner afterwards was actually happening.
Now, I was a shy, awkward pre-teen with thick unruly hair that my mother insisted on cutting into what was then called a “boy cut” to save time before school, thick spectacles for my astigmatism and I may or may not have had braces by then. After the film, which made us all jump and shriek (the dinosaurs were scary!), we went as a group to the Nirula’s pizza next door for a snack before we went home.
Now, I remember starving. Popcorn wasn’t really a big thing at movie theatres back then, or at least, it was, but it might have been too expensive for us to afford. But when we all got our pizzas, the boys began eating and the girls—well, they took some demure bites of their slices and then they set it down and began doing what I can only describe as Girl Things In Public. This involved brushing their hair, pushing aside the half-finished pizza and saying they weren’t hungry, mocking the boys delicately for how much they were eating and spending most of the time engaged in this long social dance, no less intricate than the balls in Jane Austen’s time. Everyone knew what to say, it seemed as though there was an actual script, and I knew then that if I wanted to fit in, I needed to follow the code as closely as though it was actually written down.
This may not have been the case for all the girls. I notice even now in my thirties, that the popular girls have their own code. Maybe I’m a popular girl myself, all grown up, because I certainly have no trouble scarfing down a huge messy plate of butter chicken and naan, even in front of mixed company. But back then, as a very awkward, slightly shy 12-year-old, I was willing to grab on to every social nicety I could find, just as long as it meant that I was fitting in.
I followed this rule for years—not eating in front of boys. When at last—at last— I was out of my wilderness years and well into my teens, I began dating someone, we’d have the kinds of dates that lasted all day and some of the evening. I’d leave my house without a meal, and by the time it got to be dinner time, I was so hungry, I could have eaten my own arm off. However, when he asked what I’d like to eat, so ingrained were those early rules, that all I could say was, “Oh, a Coke would be nice. Maybe some fries.” And he’d eat this massive messy meal, and there I would be, delicately picking up one french fry at a time and transporting it to my mouth. This was also because I had braces, so lived in dread of having food caught in my teeth, something that the be-braced boys never worried about.
In the same spirit of things, when it came to dating, like dating-dating, there was a set of rules we’d have to follow. If the guy paid, or if he held a door open for you: plus points! If he celebrated Valentine’s Day (very corny, I know, but bear in mind, I was an unenlightened 17-year-old) by giving you a bunch of things, the most expensive the present, the better boyfriend he was. Sometimes I think of these circumscribed rules and I think, “Eeek! What was I thinking?” except I wasn’t, you know? I was just going along with what society told me would make me happy.
Such an awkward girl was I, that in later years when boys said things like, “Oh, you’re such a girl” I’d blush and thrill to the fact of my femininity. How were they to know they were part of a long con I was playing? I had no idea about how to be a girl either, but if they were buying it, thanks to my religious following of all the rules, then obviously I was doing something right, and obviously the rules had to be right as well. Q.E.D. No one ever had to tell me to “smile a little more, sweetheart” or “wear a dress more often” because I was way ahead of them. In uncomfortable situations, I smiled. On first dates, I wore a dress and crossed my legs demurely. I did the “cool girl” things as well—nothing as feminine as leaning over and having a boy light your cigarette, the perfume on you sending out a message, hi, I’m a girl, nothing as feminine as a delicate person with long (ironed) hair, drinking an Old Monk and Coke, but of course, it would be very unfeminine indeed to get drunk around a boy, so I saved that mostly for when I was out with my girl friends. To this day, I am more comfortable with women than I am with men, even though I tossed the rules into the trash long ago. Some bit of my early training still comes up. I’m still demure and cool in bits, until I have to remind myself that it’s okay, I’m a grown-up now, I can do what I like, haters gonna hate and so on.
So… chivalry. This comes up a lot in early feminism discussions, mostly with the tone of “if you guys like feminism so much, why don’t you pay for dates? Or open doors?” You realise when you’re opening a door for someone, it’s a combination of two things. One is good manners, which is great for everyone—open the door for your parents, for your employers or employees, for your kids—it’s a nice gesture, it indicates you looking out for them, you’re saying, “I’ve got your back.” The second, more insidious reason you’re doing it (even if you don’t realise it at the time) is the big c-word. Chivalry. You’re “saluting” the weaker sex, in a much less harmful way than the KKK was formed in the Deep South of the USA to “protect” white women from black men. Closer to home: how fathers would rather kill their daughters than have them marry someone not of their choice. How the real reason a man pays for a woman on a date is because women did not traditionally have access to their finances.
So, in part, if you don’t question why you’re doing something: am I doing this because I’d do it for anyone of either gender or am I doing this because I think this is what boys do in this situation, then you’re no better off than I was in my teen years, following some strange code that everyone knew and no one talked about. If, however, you question your decisions—and your date’s—then you’re well on your way to breaking out of “patriarchal privilege”. No one can question your masculinity or femininity except yourself. And you don’t have to either.
For this step alone, I congratulate you. Welcome to the other side, it’s great.