Modern Chivalry: From Sleeping Beauty to Woke Beauty

Once upon a time, there was an intelligent, well-educated princess with high self-esteem and a strong sense of self. She lived in a lovely apartment with chic interior design, and she paid the rent with her own gems and treasure that she had independently secured while on a quest to a dragon’s den. On the wall of her chamber hung a beautifully-illuminated parchment reading “Bachelor of Arts, Australian National University.”

The princess would often hear jokes from her third-wave-feminism-approved counterparts in the Disney universe about the “kind of feminist who still likes to have drinks bought for her.” Would they just let it go already! Indeed, she was that kind of feminist. But what was so wrong with that if she was willing to buy Prince Charming a drink afterwards? What was so wrong if, every so often, Prince Charming had to scale a tall tower to save her, if she was equally capable of saving him from his evil stepmother when the occasion arose?

This, she thought, was the main problem in her not-so-fair kingdom: chivalry had become synonymous with chauvinism. Really, the two concepts had about as much in common as a poison apple and a spinning wheel!

The princess was attempting to get a perspective not propagated by bitter princesses who, despite being forced to sleep for a hundred years, seemed as irritable as a student in exam season. So, she asked a confident hunter she knew what he thought of chivalry, and he responded (albeit jokingly): “Chivalry is dead … actually, I’ve never thought about it.” Yet, perhaps this was the issue at hand: what in the past may have been considered good manners or politeness had become a symbol of oppression.  

Chivalry is, if anything, perhaps something we should think about less. The princess’s compatriots were focussing on who pulled out their wallet first, rather than the real issues: (mentally) small men singing “hi, hoe” rather than “heigh-ho” in disturbing acts of slut-shaming, and telling women “I’ll make a man out of you” rather than recognising the awesomeness that is girl power (cliché, but accurate).

The real problem occurs when a man has a problem with a woman paying for dinner, opening the door, or driving him home. It’s lovely when a man hands a woman her glass slipper (or perhaps helps her limp home without it after a night at Moose), so long as he recognises she’s capable of putting it on herself, or that she may simply not want his assistance.

Moreover, we aren’t bound by the scripts of Disney movies. Just because a helpful knight does something nice, it doesn’t mean you are locked into an endless cycle of subordination through perception as being weaker, or needing male support. Real chivalry isn’t a ‘masculine’ attribute; modern-day chivalry is  – or should be – about people doing compassionate things for each other to show that they care. It’s about mutual respect, not entering a contract.

So, what is the real monster we modern-day princesses should band together to slay, our protagonist enquired? It’s the linguistic obsession with the word “chivalry” itself. Many opponents of the term, labouring under the illusion that they are doing women’s rights some good, argue that the meaning of chivalry is coalescent with “defending the weak”. Yet this illusion is more akin to a curse cast on them by a malefactress who was insulted by a lack of an invitation to a party. Knights in shining armour gleam less when it seems they are only doing the ‘noble thing’ because women are helpless or infantilised. However, words are just words, and in terms of protagonists, fairy godmothers were often more active than princes, who seemed carried away by plotline. Indeed, few question the empathetic, caring acts of fairy godmothers. They prefer only to query the motives of princes.

Who is afraid of the big bad Woolf? Not this princess! There is nothing to fear in the statement: “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages” – so long as we recognise its veracity. The opening of a door is only an insult when we consider it through the eyes of someone who sees a helping hand as a slap in the face. The more we reject the perceptions of others, and the fairy tale dungeons they lock us in, the more we can control what it means to buy someone – anyone –  a drink.

For every simpering, passive princess who is liable to be whisked away by a dark knight, there is an Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Boudicca, or a Theodora. A princess who fucks, but doesn’t give a fuck about who opens the door. It’s alright if Theodora wants Justinian to buy her a whiskey sour.  She’ll buy the next round.