Friday, 17 June 2011

In which a guy holding the door isn't sexism - it's manners

Coming from a pushy girls’ school, notions of feminism have always been ingrained in my psyche, without ever explicitly making their presence felt.

With no boys around, it was a non-issue if we wanted to study ‘traditionally male’ subjects – if you were good at physics and IT, off to the labs you scurried. Those of us more adept at winding up the Classics department with our utter failure to grasp the ablative absolute before achieving 100% in several A-level papers did so. We were always led to believe could do what the hell we liked, and bugger anyone else’s opinion, whether that’s winning Olympic medals; writing classic children’s books or being married with babies by the age of 25 (I went to a school for serious overachievers. Quite what they make of anomalous little me, I dread to think).

The point was that we should make whichever choice would make us happy. That’s the brand of feminism that’s stuck: women shouldn’t be held back from doing anything simply because they’re women, and if they choose to take on a more ‘traditional’ role, then that’s okay too. End of. Any ‘feminist’ view I would never, ever subscribe to would seek to belittle men at the expense of women’s equality, because that’s not what it’s about.

So when I was pointed in the direction of an article of frankly ludicrous perspective in The Daily Telegraph the other day, I was incited to fury.

Some utterly eejit authors at the Psychology of Women Quarterly have declared that men holding open a door, or carrying a heavy bag of shopping, are indulging in acts of “benevolent sexism”. We’re to be horrified, apparently, by having a chap offer to do the driving, or show us affection: these are things that are “helping to create a culture of women being seen as the vulnerable sex and encouraging inequality and injustice”.

Oh, are they fuck.

They’re a display of basic manners and human courtesy. As far as I’m aware, men do those sorts of things for other men too (or at least, the ones in my life do). Hell, women do them for other women. It’s less about men being chivalrous towards women, and more about people being nice to each other.

And, quite honestly, I can’t see how men doing well-mannered things is something to be offended by: I very much doubt there’s ever a sexist slur implied when someone holds open the door, a driver lets you cross the road, or a nice man offers to help you with your bag. And if you are offended by that sort of thing, then frankly you need to get over yourself.

“God, all over the world,” The Writer vented as we discussed the article whilst walking down Carnaby Street later that night, “are people with real problems. One would presume the millions of women having their genitals mutilated, being denied basic rights, and dying of things like obstetric fistula would love an open door.”

A point rather emphatically made, maybe, but spot on nonetheless. There’s enough truly ghastly stuff happening to women for us all – men and women alike – to be really, properly angry about.

You can take your pick from the current male-female pay gap; equality in the workplace and the number of women in senior business roles; or the criminally low rate of conviction in rape cases. In some countries, it’s the right to drive a car. Or you can choose from any one of the hundred issues that are rather more basic: the right to safe and legal abortions; access to property, or basic health care, or education; trafficking; sex slavery; rape as a weapon…

Suddenly having a chap open a door doesn’t look so serious, does it?

So whilst I’d absolutely identify myself as a feminist, if I have a door held open for me; a chair pulled out; a bunch of flowers proffered, I’m not going to get crabby and ridiculous, or harp on about notions of oppression and sexism. I’m going to enjoy the gesture in the spirit in which it was intended; smile, say thank you.

And I’m going to be grateful for the fact that there are men around who’re well-mannered, kind, courteous enough to treat me in a way I welcome. Sexism it ain’t – but benevolence it just might be.


Tim Footman said...

I agree with your overall point, that feminism is essentially about freedom. But I'm racking my brains to think of a time when a woman has held a door open for me.

nuttycow said...

Equality? Yes. Positive discrimination? No. Belittling everything a man ever does and suggesting he's inherently sexist? Hell, no.

Well said that woman.

HC said...

I'm a traditionalist endeavouring to move with the times. For this reason, I will more often than not open a door for a woman. However, if some boisterous moo is approaching the same door as I, with a look on her face that says "open that door for me because I fooking own you", then she can spin. If she tuts, all the better.

Dungeekin said...


Having had the accusation that I'm belittling some right-on sista for holding a door open - receiving a tirade of, "I'm perfectly capable, I don't need male assistance etc etc", it's reassuring to read this.

I think most women, feminist or otherwise, can recognise the difference between manners and misogyny.

@HC - If I see said boisterous moo approaching - either the 'I expect it' type or the 'all men are bastards' type - I make absolutely sure I open the door... it drives them *nuts*!


Anonymous said...

The point that was being raised in the torygraph wasn't really about manners or kindness though. It was about why you do something. Would I hold a door for a man or help him with his shopping? Maybe - maybe not - but is that because he needs it less?

To put it another way, if you're a man holding a door open for a woman, are you doing it because she's a woman, or because you're just well-mannered? Because whilst doing something "nice" (i.e. benevolent) isn't spiteful, like not doing something because someone's black, for example, it's still prejudice.

Two points: First - if you just uphold negative prejudice over positive, then you belittle the prejudiced. Second - every time a blind eye is turned to something which is inherently prejudiced - that is to say, it is done simply because of a perceived but irrelevant difference between two people - then the principles of equality are undermined. The same logic goes for why a stripper will often not understand the supposedly harmless effects of her work on the rest of women.

Female circumcision, and holding doors open, are not in the same ball park. But when one happens 10 times, the other happens a milllion, and on aggregate, they both contribute towards the same ongoing, relentless sexism that persists in a supposedly progressive society.

David said...

I would feel very uncomfortable and almost as though I was at fault (failing to be gentlemanly) if a woman held a door open for me...

Martin said...

Hear hear, manners are the grease that helps us all rub along together on this tiny little cramped isle, and that article had me similarly aghast.

Actually, the point in the article wasn't *why* someone does something, the point in the article was that, as soon as you help a woman, you're a sexist, just because you're helping a woman.

I've helped women with shopping climb stairs, men with prams down stairs, opened doors for old ladies, helped old men onto trains and held tube doors for black men. By the linked article's reckoning, I'm sexist, ageist and racist, simply due to the physical characteristics of the people I helped.

That's utter nonsense, manners are manners, probably one of the few universal things left, let's not have them denigrated and degraded any further than they already are.

Amy said...

I agree with absolutely everything, EVERYTHING, in this post. Well said.

YourLocalGP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YourLocalGP said...

(anonymous was a mistake earlier, sorry)

@Martin We obviously inferred different things from the article, but the point stands: If you have true manners, and true kindness, then they are not based on a condition of gender. You may be being kind, but if you're being kind *because it's towards a woman* - then I'm saying that prejudice is prejudice, no matter in what form - kind or otherwise. I will say again: Being kinder to a black person because they are black would be belittling.

Really, if you take this to the Nth degree then it comes down to a nature VS nurture argument. Some things are inherently different about the genders, some are not. Men earn more than women - is that because they're worth less? No, it's because of prejudice. Are women physically different to men? Overall, yes. So it doesn't make sense to say "benevolent" acts of kindness in one respect should be eliminated.

If someone needs help with their shopping, help them if they're struggling. Just do it for the right reasons. @Martin, these are the right reasons, but you're not arguing the point that the article is challenging; it's saying don't hold the doors for the tube for black men just because they're black. Even if doing so is the kindness, fluffiest, nicest, most lovely thing in the world - because then it would be as bad as letting it close on them just because they're black.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone would object to someone opening the door/helping with shopping if you helped everyone (man, woman, black, white) equally.

I (as a woman) will hold a door open if there's someone (anyone) behind me because dropping it on them is plain rude.

I think what is objected to is men who only hold doors open for women. Why the different treatment for the genders?

Martin said...

I think we drew different conclusions from the article then, perhaps that's my latent anger at having been shouted at in public for being sexist for opening a door for a woman, when in fact the fact she was a woman made absolutely no difference to me, simply that I arrived at the door first, and yet, I feel that the article is telling me that I shouldn't do that, that I should somehow behave differently towards women because of some endemic sexist attitude I'm furthering by doing that, which doesn't seem terribly egalitarian to me.

I accept that the article doesn't contain the granularity of detail that the report it's based on probably contains, but there are no caveats in the article that offering to drive on a long journey is *not* an act of sexism. The article also says "offering", not "demanding", so, if my wife has had a tough week and we're driving to her parents, should I force her to drive, or should I offer and be daubed sexist? It's the ridiculously broad-brush approach that irks me most, I think.

The quote:

"...said there were many acts of unnoticed sexism taking place every day through acts or comments that suggested women could not cope without men's help."

To me, screams of someone desperately trying to make a point, I mean, what on earth is "unnoticed sexism"? If a door is opened in the woods, and nobody notices it, is it sexist?

Ultimately, I agree with The Writer in the original post, there are so many cases of actual, criminal, dangerous, terrifying, bonafide, objective sexism, that spending time on the semantic stuff is daft, and actually works counter to the cause when everyone ends up squabbling over who gets to drive.

Martin said...

Maybe the article is simply saying "be aware of why you're doing x, y or z", but I think it's going about it in a very antagonistic way.

Blonde said...

Well, you lot can carry on amongst yourselves. I don't think I have anything further to add.


YourLocalGP said...

haha - credit to you for writing the piece we're discussing!

@Martin I agree with most of your points. There is no excuse for someone being rude in public.

All I can offer in response to the "semantic" sexism is that sometimes the "zero tolerance" approach - i.e. working up from the little things - is just as important as going after the clear targets. What is to say that a lifetime of benevolent (but ultimately prejudicially-motivated) favours towards women, a man making a decision on who to hire doesn't subconsciously think the female candidate will be less hard-nosed, independent or capable of making autonomous decisions than the male?

There is still an [ageing] core of people who really, honestly think that women are less capable than men - especially professionally - and this is one of the reasons for the totally disproportionate lack of representation of women in senior position, which in itself creates more problems. These men weren't necessarily misogynists, rapists, domestic abusers or neo-christians - in fact let's hope none of them were - but their beliefs still stem from something, and it's probably the small details like "benevolent sexism" that have a lot to answer for.

Benevolent sexism just means "nice sexism". As opponents of positive discrimination will point out ad infinitum, discrimination and sexism are discrimination and sexism, regardless of what quantifier you precede them with.

Smidge said...

This is interesting to me as I date a boy who comes from what they call an 'old fashioned' family. This includes:

a) men driving (if there is a man and a woman in the car, the driver should always be the man) b) men going to the bar (a woman does not buy drinks)c) women should always walk on the inside of the pavement.

They also always open doors, help with bags etc. In the case of the Torygraph they would be a sexist family. But they do not see they are, it just isn't 'done' for a woman to do these things.

I rebelled against it a lot when I joined the family, but now I let them get on with it and have not come to see it as sexism, just old fashioned manners.

Although I would like to be able to drive once in a while ;)

desperatelyseekingsamantha said...

I honestly could not agree more. I think it's charming when a man has manners and treats a woman like a lady, not a football buddy to slam back beers with.

Women absolutely can do anything men can do. The question is: should they? We all have different paths in life. To each their own!

PS-You're awesome. :-)

Cat said...

I'm delighted when someone (male or female) opens a door for me, particularly at work when I'm generally weighted down with piles of files, laptop etc. Similarly, I hold doors for the person behind me, regardless of who they are.

(Hello, by the way - I've been gone ages, lurking sporadically, but I'm now back. Properly.)

Ali Bannister said...

I hold doors open for everyone regardless of gender and offer to help people carry things all the time. I have found that the same tends to happen to me. As a woman, I am neither insulted or angered by this behaviour; nor do I expect it. In all honesty I am pleased when this happens as it seems to be genuinely motivated by consideration and good manners.

However I once met a lovely guy with impeccable manners who almost couldn't cope if I held a gate or door open for him. It was as if something truly alien was happening in his world and he didn't know how to cope.

By holding a garden gate open for him I was clearly throwing him all sorts of etiquette-related curveballs that he didn't know how to deal with. I like it when people are polite and have good manners, but there has to be some common sense and some flexibility in there too.

I understand a lot of the points raised above but I will continue in my mission to take gender out of the equation when it comes to holding doors or offering help.

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