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The Skinny By Elaine Langlois

The Downside of Chivalry


"Bad, bad, bad, bad boy. You make me feel so good. I want you." -"Bad Boy," Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine

Bridget Jones's Diary. Kate and Leopold. The man who can unclog a drain, choose the right wine, punch out your ex-boyfriend, and gracefully distract belligerent swans whilst you are eating a romantic picnic dinner (prepared by him) by the river-quoting Proust or Hemingway whilst doing so. Chivalry is in.

It's what we want, isn't it? Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. It's the fellow who, when he takes you on a date to the movie theater that his family runs to meet them, and you spill a giant Coke, runs to get a mop and makes out that he did it. Or the gallant who, when you call him at work and say you need a little catsup for a recipe, and he finds there aren't any packets of it in the cafeteria, brings it home for you, all the way on the subway, in a little paper cup, carrying it like an Olympic torchbearer, so that nobody sits next to him, even though it's rush hour and people are standing in the aisles. Shall we talk about small acts of chivalry, like President Bush's thousand points of light?

Oh, let's not.

Let's face it. Chivalry can be tedious. Tedious. Didn't you find steady, faithful Darcy boring? Wasn't he much more interesting when he was being snooty and rude ("He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger")? Aren't the men we can't predict or rely on-the ones who treat women like fast food-so much more attractive?

For the woman, chivalry consists of a lot of getting ready and doing nothing. There you are, made up to the nines, in your best dress and those irksome stiletto heels you can barely walk in, hanging around waiting for someone to be chivalrous to you, when you could be opening your own doors and dealing with your own dragons. Then there are the obvious health risks of taking up smoking just so he can light your cigarette.

And how about the man? Doesn't he find chivalry boring? Well, of course, there is the possibility of sex at the end of it, but you have to wonder: why is he wasting his time helping you on with your coat or spreading a perfectly good cape across a puddle when he could be engaged in something much more interesting and worthwhile, like defeating an evil knight or bringing peace and order to the galaxy? That's what my sister and I, growing up, would wonder, as we watched innumerable television shows and movies in which much of the action consisted of rescuing a pretty girl from an improbable situation. Why bother?

Now that we are adults, of course, we see that chivalry can be condescending. It presumes we are delicate flowers who must be spared the sordid tasks of life, such as dealing with car repairpersons or installing garbage disposals. Which raises another question: Why, several years after marrying the guy, are we the ones power-washing the house or replacing an exhaust manifold? It's because chivalry doesn't last.

With chivalry, there's nothing to talk about. Nothing to analyze. You can always predict what he will do and it will always be the right thing. With cads, you have relationship drama. When will he call? Why hasn't he called? What is he doing in any spare moment that he isn't calling? What did he really mean when he said over dinner, "Pass the truffle oil, babe"? What hidden emotional turmoil was signified by his incessant tapping of his cup of chai? You redecorate your apartment, lose 20 pounds, and buy a whole new wardrobe, and he goes out with your best friend and forgets your last name. And still you're trying to figure out why. Why can't he have a serious relationship? Why does he act towards women this way?

If there's one place where cads don't come off as well as princes, though, it's in the movies. Which of us doesn't identify with Carol (Helen Hunt) in As Good As It Gets: "Why can't I just have a normal boyfriend?" Or Marie (Carrie Fisher) in When Harry Met Sally: "Tell me I'll never have to be out there again."

©2002 Elaine Langlois

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