The wave of social change that has taken hold over the past six months has sparked major progress in the move towards gender equality. Yet while so many of our social institutions are being upturned and re-evaluated in the wake of MeToo and TimesUp, there is one glaring anachronism that we cannot seem to shift.
It’s something I see in my female friends, almost all of whom expect the guy to buy the drinks on the first date. I see it in the books I read and the TV shows I watch: from the assumption that the man will foot the bill at the First Dates restaurant, to the fact that the female restaurant critic is always served first on Masterchef, usually accompanied by a hackneyed ‘ladies first’. I see it, begrudgingly, in myself: in my assumption that a man will hold a door open for me, in my unquestioning acceptance of a free drink from a man at a bar, and in my own romantic ideal of a door-opening, flower-buying ‘gentleman’. The notion of chivalry is so deep-rooted in our societal norms and romantic rituals that it can be difficult to view it with any objectivity. Yet when we force ourselves to investigate its roots, this seemingly harmless romantic ideal, thinly veiled as a mark of respect for women, is revealed as something much more sinister.
Chivalry is rooted in an assumption of female frailty: of an innate female weakness that needs protection. It shares its roots with a tradition that idealises the male hero who swoops in to save the damsel in distress, and that in moments of danger groups women and children together as a protected category. It is part of a long history that exalts the man as the more capable breadwinner, who must provide for the fairer sex. However well-intentioned its 21st-century manifestations, chivalrous behaviour is based on a mistaken and outdated assumption that women need protection because they cannot fend for themselves, or need financial provision because they cannot support themselves. It places an unfair burden on men, but more crucially, does a critical disservice to female resilience and value, and must be done away with if true equality is ever to be achieved.
Admittedly, as recent headlines have made clear, men do earn more than women. And on a case-by-case basis, splitting the bill according to purely financial considerations makes perfect sense. However, on a societal level, women cannot ask to be paid the same as men while maintaining the antiquated assumption that we deserve to have our drinks or meals paid for purely by virtue of our gender. The latter stands in stark contradiction to the former, and is a negation of female power, capability and value.
This is not to say that there is no place in a post-MeToo world for romance. On the contrary, after all the moral depravity exposed in the campaign, courteous behaviour, acts of kindness and romantic gestures have never been so welcome. There is no logical reason, however, for them to exist on gendered lines.