3 Jul 2013

What Makes a (gentle) Man?

I get sent a lot of bizarre emails telling me the results of surveys I have no interest in - you know the kind of thing - 'French women chew more gum that Balinese women!', 'American men have more bumps on their toes than Italian men!'. However, the latest email I received today did give me a little pause for thought. It was entitled "World's Best Gentlemen Revealed!" (spoiler - it was Japanese men) so I thought, OK, let's see what their definition of 'gentleman' actually is. These were the ten questions that the 'survey' had used as its criteria (when pissing yourself laughing at the second one, remember this survey was actually done by a company that makes - wait for it - BLACK SOCKS):
  • Do you dress modestly?
  • Do you shun white socks in public?
  • Do you show patience if made to wait?
  • Do you avoid swearing in public?
  • Do you have clean fingernails?
  • Do you cook dinner?
  • Do you hold open doors for others?
  • Do you drive safely and responsibly?
  • Do you give up your seat on public transport? 
  • Do you say please and thank you?
It seems that to be a  modern 'gentleman', you need to combine old-fashioned chivalrous behaviour (holding doors, giving up your seat) with 'new man' behaviour (cooking dinner), and throw in some simple basic good manners for measure (patience, personal hygiene, courtesy). Oh, and if your socks make you look like Michael Jackson, you're doing it wrong, but let's leave that to one side for a moment. What this made me think about was the varying definitions of how to 'be a man' and 'be a gentleman', and the accompanying fierce debates. Earlier this year I wrote about how concepts of 'chivalry' still get conflated with women wanting special treatment, and are used to accuse feminists of hypocrisy, the argument being loosely 'You want equality, well then no more holding doors for YOU, sista!'. I've also written about how 'being a man' is a concept fraught with implications that masculinity must always entail being dominant, an oppressive notion to men who choose to eschew stereotypically aggressive, alpha-male behaviour. What makes a 'man' or a 'gentleman' is something I spend a fair amount of time thinking about, contrary to the stereotype that feminism means always privileging women's issues, to the exclusion of the opposite sex.
However, what today's email made me think most of all, was how definitions of being a 'gentleman' manage to be at once both dependent on the opposite sex, yet also removed from it. Nowhere in the above questions is there any mention of women, yet we assume that women are implicitly included as the person for whom the gentleman is cooking dinner, holding the door and giving up their seat on public transport. Which is all very nice, but to me are largely artificial gestures, not to mention things that all people, of all gender identities, can do for each other as a matter of simple niceness. If I was going to have a set of questions designed to determine a real 'gentleman', they would be much more explicitly related to how a man treats the opposite sex, because I do think that is a great litmus test of a man's true nature, intentions and integrity. Just like I believe you can measure how truly 'civilised' a country is by how it treats its women, minorities and most vulnerable, I think you can also measure how truly honourable a man is by how he interacts with women (NB, for these purposes I'm looking at heterosexual men - although gay men are obviously not excluded from the obligation to treat women well, their interactions with women take place under a very different set of constraints and expectations). So, my questions would go something like this...
- Do you think that being nice to a woman means you deserve sexual contact from her?
- Do you tell, encourage others to tell, or laugh at misogynistic jokes?
- Do you witness other men behaving in sexist ways and do nothing about it?
- If you offered to walk a woman home and she refused, would you still persist?
- Do you judge women for their sexual behaviour more harshly than men?
- Do you believe that because women don't say what they really want, it's OK to assume?
- Do you say you believe in equality while secretly believing you are superior to women?
There are, of course, plenty of others I could add, including ones so blunt that I don't think they'd ever get an honest answer ('Ever hit a woman? Raped a woman?' for a start). But the blunt ones are almost too easy, because of course every guy who considers himself 'good' would answer with spluttering outrage 'Of course I haven't!!'. And fair enough, no one likes to be called a rapist if they aren't one. But that alone still doesn't make you a gentleman. You may consider yourself 'one of the good guys', who says and does all the right things. You don't rape, you don't hit, you believe in theory that women have the right to be mechanics and pilots and soldiers and get equal pay and not be discriminated against etck etck.  But are you sure that underneath all the right-on proclamations, you don't secretly harbour sexist convictions? Have you never complained about being 'friend-zoned' by some uppity woman who refused to reward your friendship with sex? Never 'liked' a sexist joke on Facebook? Stood by while your friends cat-called some poor female just trying to walk home? Condemned a woman for being dressed scruffily/bizarrely/revealingly? Or perpetuated myths that all women are two-faced/irrational/deceitful, simply because one woman you've encountered may have turned out to be this way?
Because I'd rather have the door slam shut in my face from a guy who answers 'yes' to any of my criteria questions, than endure any amounts of 'chivalrous' behaviour from a person who secretly believes women are weak, stupid, deserving of mistreatment and violence and exist only for his sexual gratification. And I suspect that there are a fair few guys out there who do exactly that, while masquerading as 'gentlemen'. If you don't swear in public, keep your fingernails clean, don't drive like an arsehole and are keen to erode the notion that women belong in the kitchen by whipping out your oven gloves, then that's all very nice. But I'd rather have the dude in white socks who knows that being a gentleman is about actions, not appearances, than the black-socked dude who thinks that looking the part earns him privileges over a sex he privately believes is inferior. 

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