The Pick and Mix of Equality
Equality is a funny word. Not literally funny– not laugh out loud funny, but funny in that it elicits such vastly different reactions depending on who you talk to. Some people use it on its own to mean ‘everyone is the same’, some people qualify it with suffixes like ‘opportunity’ or ‘outcome’ and some people use it when they really shouldn’t.
You’d think the dictionary definition would shed some light on exactly what ‘equality’ actually is, but even then it’s surprisingly vague. Does equality mean every job has to be represented ‘50/50’ male to female, or just that everyone gets a fair crack at it? As always, dictionary definitions can fast become outdated in a world where language constantly evolves and is reshaped, but to what extent can something evolve when its base notion is so seemingly difficult to understand? Not only that, but equality isn’t even something tangible, it’s not something that is visible or quantifiable. When do we know when we’ve achieved equality? Is it that simple?
Equality is a concept, a theory that, it seems, is difficult to underpin. Equality is massively important to our society, but how do we understand something that we can barely even agree on, how do we strive to achieve something we can barely define? In a world where even the simplest definition is up for debate, is it even possible to claim, with any real authority, ‘we have achieved equality’?
If equality is a drive to make both sexes valued ‘the same’, if it’s a drive to make everyone seen as ‘the same’ both legally and socially, then do we have to forfeit the bits of history that we like but that still buy into the idea of ‘separateness’? To that end, is it possible to pick and choose exactly how ‘equal’ we want to be? Is it possible to simply ‘go with the majority’ in something as polarizing as equality? I know there are a lot of questions there and I don’t for one second claim to have the answer but there’s definitely a sense that there are some aspects of previous generations that, despite being rooted in what we would now consider to be outdated and sexist times, people still seem to be quite fond of.
From a male point of view this seems to manifest itself pretty squarely in the form of chivalry, particularly male-led chivalry. I know that chivalry, particularly by modern standards, is as hard to define as equality itself, but there seems to be a desire amongst women living in a post-millennial society, both young and old, to keep what they see as traditionally masculine behavior. Chivalry, as a concept, ranges from simply holding doors open for women to those saccharine ‘real man’ lists that invade my Facebook feed on a daily basis and tell me how I should behave.
For those who don’t know, John Salmon is a pseudonym. My real Facebook feed is populated by real life friends and colleagues. These ‘real’ friends and colleagues, not explicit feminists or anti-feminists or proponents of any form of equality movement, ideological or otherwise, regularly clog up Facebook with these wistful images about how ‘real men’ behave. Sometimes men post them but, 95% of the time, they are posted by women for women. The implication is simple but clear – women still desire the chivalrous man.
Perhaps more significantly, these ideas of chivalry that are so hard to define yet are so desired by the average woman seem to be shared by more famous or more influential women. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the highest paid, most successful actresses in the world, recently lamented the fact she’s lonely. She seems not to like nasty men who hurt her feelings, which makes sense. Nowhere in the article, however, does it suggest that, perhaps, being a modern, influential woman she could go about finding her own dates.
This is the paradox of modern chivalry, the idea that women are strong and independent, yet still like to be made to feel precious and protected. Is that genuinely how women feel? I really don’t know, I’m not a woman. But that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? I’m the one who’s supposed to embody these traits, yet I have no idea which women want them and which women don’t.
When it comes to equality, is it possible for chivalry to still exist? There is a definition of chivalry that falls within the remit of equality, the simple mantra of ‘don’t be a dick’ seems to fit a nice gender neutral pocket, but that doesn’t seem to scratch the male-centered and male-led chivalrous itch that I find most women have. That doesn’t seem to appease the desire for ‘manly men’ that women seem to crave.
It’s not just the women on my timeline, or Jennifer Lawrence, either. There have been numerous articles over the last few years from feminist websites, feminist authors and feminist media outlets that seem to decry the loss of traditional, male-centered acts of chivalry. In this case, is that missing ingredient the ‘dominance’ that Lawrence doesn’t like? Can you be chivalrous in an equal society, or does chivalry, by definition, require a dominant role, usually played by the male? Can you, as a feminist, really decry the loss of ‘real men’ when the ideology you subscribe to is partly responsible for its disappearance? Can we attribute the loss of chivalry solely to the laziness of post-millennial men or is the ‘fairytale’ that some entitled women expect in life finally being busted as the sexist lie that it is?
It’s not like this conundrum is new. People have spoken about it before but this confusion around exactly what kind of chivalry is acceptable doesn’t seem to abate. It’s been looked at from differing perspectives, even appearing on feminist websites but, again, the response from women seems to be one of disbelief and dislike. The consensus is clear – chivalry is a male-led thing.
So the maelstrom of confusion rages on. We’re told women don’t want to be treated like precious little darlings, they want to be seen as strong, independent, capable, forward thinking trailblazers who are able to get through life without relying on a man for their help. However, they decry the loss of those men who will fight their battles and belittle those men who don’t conform to the idealized social norms of old. We celebrate acts of heroism that are rooted in chivalrous notions and lament the loss of those same acts when they are absent while aching for a return to those easier, simpler times. Never mind that the generation from which those norms are celebrated is often berated for its archaic and less-progressive attitudes of racism and sexism towards women.
But that’s not it. The application of equality is so ad-hoc that we are letting it affect our children and their lives. Our desire to stamp out such horrific crimes as sexual assault and harassment is leading us to crack down on innocent acts perpetrated by our children. We teach young children, particularly boys, that such acts are now beyond the pale of accepted behavior. But we then let them grow up into men who are bombarded with images and articles asking why they don’t behave in the very way that saw them previously suffer reprimand. Then, as if to add a cherry on top of the cake of utter bewilderment, we declare certain aspects of that chivalrous notion to be outdated and oppressive. It seems that even within the realm of chivalry there are certain chivalrous traits that are not appreciated. So not only is there a pick and mix when it comes to equality, there’s a further pick and mix within the chivalrous attitudes that, seemingly, women don’t want to lose. Utterly bamboozled yet?
The equality pick and mix, it seems, is entirely dependent on the person who holds the bag. What does this all mean in the wider discourse? I guess that’s still up for debate. In a society that craves and fights for equality, can an attitude that, essentially, belongs to a past generation really be supported and accepted? Can we truly want to be equal while there’s a vocal desire from some women to see men behave the way past generations did?
The simple answer is no. An equal society does not put one sex above the other, it does not allow one sex to discard the parts of past generations that they do not like but keep the parts that make them feel special. It does not allow one sex to dictate how the other sex is to behave. An equal society cannot strive to keep something that’s a fundamental building block of the time they are trying to leave behind. The fairytale of chivalry cannot exist in a world where the princess is just as likely as the prince to don armour and fight the beast. In a world that is more accepting of homosexuality, transgenderism, and diversity, it is impossible to keep men pigeon-holed in the position of saviour, protector, and sacrificial lamb simply because it makes women feel special. If women, be they feminists or otherwise, crave a world where they are not treated negatively simply for being women then it’s impossible, and hypocritical, for them to want to live in a world where they are treated positively simply because they are women.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think we should obliterate chivalry completely. Some couples make it work for them, some men seem to like their role in the same way some women seem to enjoy theirs. There’s nothing wrong with that. Likewise, the simple mantra of ‘don’t be a dick’, depiction of the male anatomy as inherently bad aside, seems to work for everyone. Good manners, as the saying goes, cost nothing. The simple idea of being nice to each other, being polite and friendly, warm and considerate are not concepts that are too difficult to uphold. However, expecting one sex to behave in a way that contrasts with the new society you are trying to mold is impossible to uphold.
Equality is not a pick and mix, it’s all or nothing. If you think it’s offensive that women be expected to have dinner on the table ready for when a man gets home, then you should also think it’s offensive to assume a man will provide in the first place. If a couple is making it work for them then does that couple actually have a place in an equal society? Can we truly be equal if there are people who are choosing to uphold qualities and roles that others are trying to eradicate? And who exactly is right in that situation? Should we allow one set of people to dictate how other people live their lives? If the answer to that is yes, then how do we go about choosing which people’s views we should all abide by? Is there a right or wrong in that situation and, more importantly, is a society that actively forces people to live a certain way truly equal? Isn’t that exactly the kind of behaviour we are trying to move away from? When can we truly declare victory for equality and at what individual cost does that come?
I’m sure there’s a parallel article a woman could write about the things men expect of women that are seen to be outdated. That’s the problem though, isn’t it? We’re so obsessed with making sure it’s our personal vision of equality that is put forward that we neglect to consider whether it’s truly a vision of equality at all. Until the very notion of equality becomes something tangible, all we can do is talk ourselves in circles.