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22 March 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 9:18am

Can a form of modern-day chivalry help fight toxic masculinity?

It’s not about defending damsels in distress, but creating the conditions in which there’s no distress.

By Katherine Cowles

Before chivalry was about slaying dragons and defending maidens, it was about war. What started as a set of rules for medieval knights on the battlefield – take prisoners, don’t strike the defenceless – became a code of honour that governed many other parts of medieval life, from religion to romance.

Before the Crusades, as Christianisation was getting underway, the clergy came up against a problem: how to stop warriors killing other Christians? In other words, how to pacify men programmed to fight?

In the late tenth century, local bishops landed on an idea: from Thursday to Sunday, knights must not fight, and if they really cannot help themselves they must at least spare the vulnerable, the clerics, women and children. Through this new form of chivalry, it was hoped, the worst extremes of a society that glorified male violence could be tempered.

Over the next millennium, the concept of chivalry evolved with the times and took on a more romantic (and indeed paternalistic) character. By the 20th century, having morphed from notions of courtly love into a code about paying for meals and holding the door open, chivalry had said door slammed shut in its face by feminist critique. Women were equals: financially solvent and with the required upper body strength to push – and even pull! – doors open themselves. Today, a man’s insistence on paying the bill or posing as a human doorstop can feel patronising and presumptuous.

But perhaps it isn’t worth throwing away the concept entirely just yet.

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The death of Sarah Everard this month has initiated a wider societal discussion about women’s safety. While this horrific case is an exceptional one, the experience of feeling unsafe in public spaces or being harassed (or worse) by men is sadly something most women can relate to. And as women shared their anger and stories of abuse and harassment, men asked what they can do to make their female family and friends feel safer.

Some suggestions were so fanciful it was hard to work out whether or not they were meant as jokes – a 6pm curfew for men, for example. But some were more practical: if a woman walks down a street at night, a man can drop back or cross to the other side; he can refrain from staring or making comments at women he doesn’t know; with a female friend, he can offer to walk her home; with a male friend, he can call out sexist slurs or predatory behaviour. Viewed together, these actions appear to form a kind of gendered code of conduct, observed by men for the purposes of safeguarding women.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of medievalists everywhere, I wonder: is this a form of chivalry? Or rather, could this be chivalry’s modern-day counterpart – a way of binding men in an instructive, compassionate social code in order to improve the lives of women? Rebranded as such, a new chivalric code could be constructive, and compatible with feminism today: it could help to create a culture that seeks to empower women, that protects not their honour but their autonomy. At the very least, such conduct from a man sends a message to the woman in the street: that he understands she might feel vulnerable; that he empathises; that he will adapt his behaviour accordingly, without expectation of reward.

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That would be a marked difference from the somewhat toxic model of codified behaviour we might traditionally recognise as chivalrous today – behaviour that can be dismissed as “benevolent sexism”, a form of preferential treatment that, while arguably well-intentioned, nevertheless relies on and perpetuates the sexist attitude that women are weak and men are strong. But the modern-day form of chivalry might have less to do with the way men treat women than the way men treat other men.

There is no doubt that it needs a radical rethink. Chivalry has always been about male competition. In tales of the knight-errant, the chevalier sees off threats and rivals to win the love of a woman – love that ennobles him and is his reward. There is a sense in which straight men today still seek to enhance their status through bravado with women. Terms such as “beta male”, “white knight” and “cuck” are the great slurs of the day – charges used against “nice guys” who are belittled for supporting feminism or being less than “assertive” (and the inverted commas do the heavy lifting here) with the opposite sex. There is an assumption with these taunts that respecting women is a sign of being “weak-willed” or lacking “sexual prowess”.

Such insults, representative of wider attitudes about dominance hierarchy and perpetuating the myth of the all-powerful alpha, are not (and I speak from experience) confined to Reddit threads and the darker corners of the internet. It’s a tragedy that a man’s “lack of assertiveness” with women is often interpreted as a weakness.

So instead of demeaning the betas, could we not, for once, ennoble them? Could we elevate those men who stand up for women, only in ways the white knights of the romances wouldn’t recognise? Modern chivalry is so over saviour stories and fairytale endings: the tired legends of men on horseback swooping in, seeing off the enemy, scooping up his ruffled maiden and throwing her over his saddle with a gentle pat.

There are times when, as Dominic Raab has argued, intervening on a woman’s behalf is appropriate and necessary for her safety. But this new chivalry would be less concerned with defending damsels in distress than in creating the conditions in which damsels feel they can defend themselves – or better yet, in which there’s no distress. In this fantasy, chivalry would ultimately make itself redundant, having achieved an atmosphere in which everyone feels entitled to lead their lives independently and free from danger, not just from Thursday to Sunday, but every day of the week.

Imagine how it would feel for women not to be lectured, controlled or patronised, but to find allies in straight men who listen to our testimony and consider it, engaging in a battle that is not theirs, though it is partly of their making.

But that’s the stuff of fairytales, and every woman knows how they end.