Chivalry is dead -- long live good manners in a less chauvinistic form
While charming, the male 'niceties' of 'Downton Abbey' have no place in this day and age, writes Julia Molony
Published 30/10/2011 | 05:00
Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery has publicly lamented the loss of old-fashioned manners in modern life. Her foray into the nostalgic world of Downton, the period drama in which she plays Lady Mary Crawley, has left her feeling that contemporary men are rather lacking in chivalry.
They don't stand up when women arrive at the table, they don't hold doors open as a matter of course. And the actress thinks this represents a sad loss of delicacy in relations between the sexes.
"We take so many of our freedoms for granted nowadays -- I can travel where I like, I can have a baby when I like, I can do any job I want -- but I do think chivalry has been lost a little bit," Dockery told the Radio Times, of her hankering for Edwardian values.
"Those old manners -- such as men standing when women arrive at the dinner table or opening doors for you -- are lovely, and it's lovely when you see a man doing that. But young men wouldn't think about that for a second because it's not the culture any more."
I can see how the idea of a world full of dapper gentlemen always stepping back deferentially in doorways, or laying down their coats over puddles for any person in a dress might hold a quaint, old-world appeal. Like taxidermy and tea parties, chivalry seems like an art lost to time -- a throwback to a gentler age.
Personally, though, I've always found over-blown gentility a bit, well, awkward. It creates a sort of static in social interactions -- relating to the person you are faced with in a normal, natural way gets lost within a complex code of behaviour. And without any widely understood rules anymore, it's so easy to feel like one is forever at risk of getting it wrong.
Certainly, these days, I'm more likely to be wrongfooted rather than reassured by too much politeness.
Whenever someone tries to hold open my coat for me to slip into, I always get my arms in a tangle.
On dates, the moment at which the gentlemen gallantly stands back to let the lady go first is usually the moment I trip over my heels. Faced with
too-careful courtesy, I always feel like I'm in danger of developing Tourette's, blurting out obscene language at exactly the wrong moment.
That said, I can see the charm of those little gestures nonetheless. They appeal, let's be honest, to the princess in all of us. They pay the compliment of care and attention, an acknowledgement of the human -- something that feels to many of us so woefully scarce in modern times, in which a sharp pair of elbows is needed when making one's way around town on an average day.
But it's a mistake to think about manners in terms of gender. It has no bearing on smooth relations between the sexes. For one thing, any given man's superficial courtesy with the ladies is no better a measure of his true character, or a reflection of his gentleness to the fairer sex, than his taste in shoes.
If anything, I reckon, anyone whose exterior manner has been too carefully cultivated quite likely has something rougher within to hide. And let's not regret the passing of an age in which men's behaviour to women followed a formalised, courtly code. Back then, chivalry was just a charming veneer which concealed a whole world of unfairness and disrespect.
It's a bit like the difference between etiquette and manners, this issue. Etiquette is all about adhering to stuffy, formalised rules -- using the right fork, no elbows on the table sort of stuff.
Whereas having manners is about behaving in a way that takes other people into account -- the spontaneous demonstration of consideration to one's fellow human.
Chivalry has more in common with etiquette than it does with manners. It looks nice, and sounds nice, but in the days when it was in common practice, it usually glossed over some rather brutal realities underneath.
It demonstrates respect only on a purely cosmetic level. In Downton Abbey days, chivalry was little more than chauvinism's acceptable face. At that time, social niceties between genders were mere tokenism -- surface gestures that distracted from the more general attitude of casual dismissal with which men treated women back then.
Given the choice, I'd take a modern man who never holds a door but who treats me like an equal, rather than a trinket, every time. Chivalry might be appealing, but it's no substitute for genuine respect.