A Fish with a Cigar

Apparently men have become less manly, and it is All My Fault.

I’ve been reading reviews of a book that seems to be getting glowing reports at the moment – Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys.  I really need to get a hold of a copy (cheap) so I can see the argument in the author’s own words (though plenty of reviewers are happy to tell me her argument in their own words) before I can say anything really conclusive about the book. Because heaven preserve me from becoming one of those people who blithely trashes texts unread, for instance: “I’ve never read Derrida, but I don’t have to, to know he’s nuts.”  Academic gnosis! Must be nice.

It was the title that caught my attention – the moment I saw it little red flags started going up in my head. Because I’ve heard that tune before, you know: chivalry is dead, and it’s because of all of us those howling man-hating feminists who beat men over the head with a copy of The Feminine Mystique, every time they try to open a door for us.  

I can’t begin to count the many times this archetypal scenario has been referenced (in classroom discussions, in internet discussions, in regular life discussions) but I have never seen it happen – and don’t know a single man to whom it has ever actually happened. It’s not that I doubt that it happens; I just don’t think it’s the norm any more than I think pacifists spitting on veterans is the norm.

It came up in an online discussion today.  So I got to thinking about doors, and also about history, chivalry, tradition, men, women, etc.


Courtesy dictates (to me) that if I go through a door and someone else is behind me, I automatically hold it for them. I don’t step aside and hold it for them obsequiously; I just hold it until they get there.  Exceptions to this include: people carrying heavy stuff, pregnant women, people with small children, old people with walkers, anyone pushing a cart or a stroller…for them I will stand aside.

An exception in the opposite direction: I might be tempted to let the door slam in the face of someone with a swastika tattoo.  Maybe.

If a man stands aside and holds a door for me obsequiously, I actually don’t like it much. It strikes me as unnecessary (unless I am, at that moment, in one of the “exceptions” categories).  I feel like I have to trot faster to get to the door, so he isn’t stuck holding it for a silly amount of time, letting the cold air in, running up the utility bill.  However, in the interest of courtesy, I will smile and thank him.

If someone lets a door slam in my face, I like it even less.  I once had the dubious pleasure of working in a country club, and witnessed a man “chivalrously” escorting his wife through the door to the ballroom – and then let the door swing shut bang in the face of a waitress carrying a huge tray stacked with entrees.

I was thinking about the rule that applies for old people. Hold doors for them, offer up subway seats for them, etc.   But what if the old person doesn’t think he’s old? What if he takes umbrage? I can see that happening about as frequently as I can see the feminist-door-holding scenario happening.  I don’t think either the feminist or the not-so-old old person should whinge about having a door held. Yes, we want to beat away at the fortresses of bigotry. But rudeness is not the way to go about it.


Chivalry has nothing to do with opening doors.  The word derives from the French “chavalier,” meaning “knight,” or, literally, horseman. So being chivalric in the strict linguistic sense means being good on a horse.

High Plains Drifter

Historically, however, chivalry was a socio-political-military code according to which a knight (a horse-owner) would swear fealty to a feudal overlord, practice various arts of war, and maintain the correct standards of etiquette and heraldry.  Etiquette certainly would have involved correct behavior towards ladies, but, by ladies, we mean…ladies. In the strict aristocratic sense.  Keep in mind that in the days of chivalry, class was a fairly rigid structure – not like today, when you can have “class” in one sense if you have good manners, or are considered “upper class” in another sense if you make millions a year, no matter how.  Donald Trump and Snooki are upper class – you can tell, just by looking at them.

The country club bumpkin who slammed the door in the face of a waitress was acting quite traditionally: too busy attending to a LADY, to waste time cosseting the help.  Of course, we have a literary instance of a knight being kind to the help – Sir Lancelot befriending Gareth, when the latter was disguised as a kitchen boy, and mocked and shunned by everyone else at Camelot.

However, Sir Lancelot also bedded the wife of his friend and overlord. Not very chivalrous, hm?  But wait!  Medieval literature romanticized the chivalric tradition  – thus our notion of the “parfit knight.”  Part of this romanticized ideal included Courtly Love which HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MARRIAGE.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, a it was “love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.” Because, ideally, the knight should be in love with a woman who is totally unattainable – he should desire her ardently, and sublimate his eros into a poeticized, spiritualized affection that would find expression in poetry, song, and ritualized activities.

Sometimes men would pretend to fall in love with married women, because it was fashionable – or because Hopeless Love is a good muse.  Sometimes though they really would fall in love – and if the woman in question happened to be in an arranged marriage with a man many years older, and not particularly interesting or attractive, she might reciprocate.  Sometimes the adulterous passions would remain on a stylized, ritual level – but sometimes it was bodily and real – as in the case of Lancelot, or Tristram, those two heroes of courtly literature.

So yes, chivalry is dead.  But ladies, are you sure you really want to mourn its passing?  Unless you have a hankering to be married off to a 60-year-old baron so that a dulcet knight can woo you with sweet canzones, until finally, overwhelmed with ardor, you flutter like a dove into his trembling arms, and then your husband pops in and whacks off your heads with a mighty sword.

File:Inf. 06 Joseph Anton Koch, Paolo e Francesca sorpresi da Gianciotto, 1805-10c..jpg


I think what we really want is courtesy – which is not just a matter of how a man treats a woman; it’s a matter of treating every individual with respect.  Courtesy means holding a door for someone not because you think an imaginary outmoded social norm is necessary for the common good, but because of that person’s dignity – it also means not snapping at a person who has held a door for you, even if you find it annoying.  Courtesy means stopping and considering that person as an individual, and thinking: what are her preferences? What would make him happy? If you think a woman would rather not have a door held for her, it is not courteous for you to hold it.

Of course, this means taking a little time, and going beyond mere rules of etiquette to a consideration of what mindset lies behind “good manners.”  It can be tempting to flaunt one’s manners as a sign of social superiority.  I know how to set a table for a seven-course meal. I would never wear white shoes after Labor Day (unless they happened to be winter white).  I never clap between movements of a symphony or concerto. There is a special place in hell reserved for people like me.

If manners are going to transcend snobbery, that means we have to think of people as individuals – not as types.  Bloody exhausting.  But honestly, if a man is thinking “Ha! I held that door for that feminazi dyke and there was nothing she could do about it” – that man is no gentleman.  John Cardinal Newman wrote that a true gentleman is one who “never willingly causes pain.”  Manners should not make people uncomfortable.

Men and Women

Here’s what I don’t get: are we sitting on some cosmic see-saw, men on one side, women on another, and every time one side goes up the other has to go down?  Are women supposed to crawl back into their corners and let men go back to whatever they were doing before? I respect men too much to believe that they are utterly emasculated by the mere sight of educated, competent, independent women.  Maybe it’s the guys I hang out with, but I haven’t noticed any marked diminution of assertiveness or confidence or competence in males in proportion to the relative capability of the females around them.  A man  who, in order to feel truly manly, needs a woman to get all swoony every time she sees a mouse or hears a clap of thunder, has got problems of his own he needs to deal with.

The feminist movement is full of man-haters, I have heard. But, first of all, there is no one “feminist movement” since feminism comes in many forms. Some women hate men, and I am sure some of those women are feminists. Likewise some men hate women. It’s all a bit ugly out there, but hate is nothing new.

Secondly, I have nowhere in my reading of feminist literature met any male-bashing quite on the par of the female-bashing with which we are expected to be comfortable in the classics.  See Aristotle: “woman is a misbegotten male.” Apparently, according to The Philosopher, nature slips up pretty often and brings about this deformed creature who, lo and behold, is capable, when joined with a man, of reproduction. If nature hadn’t slipped up there would have been one single resplendent moment of All Men – and the humanity would have ceased forever.

How is the idea that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” more derogatory and sexist than Kipling’s statement that  “a woman is just a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke”?  Does the fact that it is intended as a witticism somehow make it okay?

What I dislike about both those statements – the one angry, the other flippant – is their reduction of individuals to types.   It is true that a woman does not need “a man,” but sometimes she is more fulfilled with one unique particular man.  And a woman is never just “a woman.” None of us are ever “just a” anything, even if rampant ideology and anger and fear sometimes make us act as though we are.

This fish doesn’t need a bicycle, but sure would enjoy a good smoke.



About Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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5 Responses to A Fish with a Cigar

  1. molly says:

    Then come smoke with me:) You make excellent points! Not certain I agree, of course:) But you are so great and fun, I love to chat and pick apart what wrong with the world, with you.
    I love that you and I can disagree and still have respect for the other. You are a great lady!

  2. Rebecca says:

    I love it too! We’re so civilized, aren’t we? Looking forward to hanging out with you soon.

    • Jodi says:

      And I love that our Faith can still contain all of the lovely gray areas of life. 🙂

      Great writing. I am looking forward to more from you.

  3. Boldi Koenig says:

    Spoken from my heart.

  4. Chris says:

    I would love to join you both in a smoke, but I am afraid I have a previous engagement with my insecurities.

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