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“Let’s Split the Bill, Darling” -The Sexism of Chivalry

SOME MONTHS AGO, when Bristol wasn’t quite so unbearably cold, I found myself sitting in Fishers in Clifton, across the table from an unusually attractive girl. The restaurant wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to be at the pub down the road, gnawing on a bloody piece of beef and drinking pints of reasonably priced lager. But, Cressida – let’s call her that for the sake of anonymity – was a rather ethereal, vegetarian-type, and I thought that such carnivorous brutality might have been a little insensitive. So I drank white wine and slurped my way through a bowl of overpriced mussels with all the elegance that I could manage. Upon finishing, we decided to head to the pub. And then it happened: I suggested that we split the bill and her look of smiling sweetness became one of bemused incredulity. Clearly, I’d fucked up. Some days later I heard that Cressida found it – ‘like, so weird’ – that I hadn’t paid for her supper and so did her friends.  ‘Does Patrick have no money’?  One of them asked, ‘or does he just not get it’? I suppose the answer is both.

Actually, that’s not quite true, I do get it. Almost 80% of people in the UK believe that men should foot the bill on the first date, and I hadn’t. I had failed in my chivalric duty but not because I’m a rude bastard – although many would probably contest that – but because I believe chivalry to be the most insidious form of sexism.

Perhaps there was a time when things were different. Dr Alex Davis of St. Andrews University writes that ‘The Code of Chivalry was a moral system that stated all knights should protect others who cannot protect themselves [and] use their power to protect the weak and defenceless’. Lovely, protecting the weak and defenceless is a very nice thing to do, but so much has changed since poor Arthur sat at his table whilst Lancelot tried to screw his wife, and ‘chivalry’ is now almost exclusively seen as the way in which ‘good boys’ treat their chosen females. In reality, when a man gives his seat to a perfectly able woman on public-transport, or pays for a girl’s drink or her taxi home, he is promoting himself as some sort of modern-day knight whilst degrading her to the status of a ‘weak and defenceless’ damsel in distress. Whilst it might sound like the war cry of some truculent, spiky-haired, sandal-wearer, or any other go-to feminist stereotype, if a man pays for a woman’s dinner, on the basis that she’s female, then symbolically, he is reinforcing the paradigm of female dependence upon men and promoting the idea of female fragility.

I realise that those who are in the habit of paying for girls’ cheesy chips in the small hours of Sunday morning, will probably object and say that they’re just being nice.  In many ways I sympathise with them, because almost all of us have grown up in a society which promotes this sort of behaviour as ‘gentlemanly’, but that’s the crux of the issue; chivalry is the culturally encouraged devaluation of women. I’m sure that most agree that Bristol University’s rugby club forcing their new members to dress up as prostitutes and wander the city streets trying to solicit business, is pretty unpleasant and makes a mockery of a grim issue. It’s obvious. Yet, it seems that relatively few people have any qualms about a tradition which gallantly stands in the way of gender equality. For example, in a country where 60% of men always pay for their female partner when eating out, is it that surprising that we have a pay gap of almost 20%? The two seem culturally linked. There is a strange irony in all of us arguing for equality of pay, when so many of us support the tradition of inequality of expenditure.

There is of course, a darker side to gestures which hide themselves behind the façade of chivalry. Just what is it that men hope to get back when they buy women drinks or pay for their cabs? In many cases they probably see it as some sort of quid-pro-quo arrangement – ‘perhaps if I buy her a few drinks she might come home with me’. This is a reality that most men, including myself, have probably been guilty of on more occasions than we care to remember.

I was walking home through Clifton some weeks ago as a bus was drawing up to stop. Standing at the front of the que was a smartly dressed young man with a poppy in his lapel. As the doors opened he stood aside to let a person in a wheelchair on first. It made sense to do so and a doddering pensioner followed, but our dapper hero still bravely stood apart and allowed three young women to go ahead of him too, he then filed in behind. This was chivalry in action, grouping women together with the disabled and the infirm. In 2014 it seems tragic that we still play this cruel, patriarchal game, one in which we always allow women to go first with the expectation that they’ll ultimately come last.

This piece was first published by one of our partners – Epigram.

Words by Patrick Galbraith
Image Credit: funelf


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