Here is what happens if you are a 20-something woman and you offer an able-bodied man under 70 years of age your seat on the subway. First he’ll take one earbud out, smile wanly at you, and be like: “Sorry, what?”
“Do you want to sit down?” you ask again, Genteel as Fuck.
He’ll glance quickly around the subway car, trying to figure out if he is on some new hidden camera MTV show called Emasculating Men on Public Transit. Finally, he’ll quizzically shake his head, no, thanks.
In a handful of cases, however -- in my case, specifically, it was one 40-something in a fedora on the Q train and one slim and acne-riddled college-age boy on the G -- he will straight-up glare at you in a way that’s not just hostile but also mildly paranoid: my balls are too majestic and girthy for sitting. Who told you my balls weren’t majestic? Was it Steve? Was it fuckin’ Steve?!
The interaction doesn’t end there. Responding to these glares as myself (“I am so sorry, I’m a journalist -- or, haha, not like a journalist, an Internet writer, but not like a blogger, I mean, for money, and I have to pretend to like -- oh this is your stop? OK, haha, bye.”) would obviously ruin the whole point of the experiment. So I actually had to devote as much energy to channeling the “man” part as I did the “gentle” part, just to be able to respond with the appropriately glassy and neutral face of someone who’s unthinkingly adhering to social mores.
Over the course of the 13 subway rides I took during my week of chivalry, not a single guy accepted the seat I offered him, not even the one clinging to the pole on a brutally unsteady uptown 6 while simultaneously attempting to read and highlight passages in Infinite Jest. Perhaps we accept the seat we think we deserve.
First: The Code
It wasn’t until the 20th century that chivalry started resembling what it is today: holding doors, walking on the curb side of the road, lending out your coat, and making women feel ambivalent. I consider myself a feminist, and at the same time I’ll judge a guy if he doesn’t pay on a first date. I get the cognitive dissonance there, but ideologies and rituals clash peacefully all the time, like not believing in God but still celebrating Christmas.
A fun urban legend dreamed up by men’s rights activists is that “these days,” when you hold the door for a woman, “she’ll scream at you,” because “feminism.” Actually, women generally equate those gestures with the basic unisex etiquette you’d hope for from the human race in general. Women unthinkingly hold doors for people all the time; we’re not monsters. (But I’ll cop to a Larry David-esque elevator-holding technique: I flail weakly for the closing doors just for show, then, as they close in the person’s face, I shrug helplessly like “Forget it, Jake, it’s elevators.”)
The chivalric code I was adhering to was genteel but pretty moderate -- the sort of behavior you’d imagine at a Vassar-Yale mixer in a J.D. Salinger book. I didn’t really think one week of it would be that different from my usual routine.
My First Day as a Gentleman
On my first day as a gentleman, it rained. I accompanied my boyfriend to his car to get his overnight bag and held an umbrella over him as we walked down the street. Greg is 6’3” and the spokes kept jabbing him in the forehead. He tried to grab the umbrella from me, but I wouldn’t let him.
For my past assignments, Greg has been a very good sport, even a co-conspirator. He’s let me write about his balls in national magazines. One time he even okayed having sex to a Disney soundtrack (with just the right amount of foot-dragging; if he’d been too okay with it I’d have called social services). It felt unnatural keeping my new ghost dick from him.
He hauled his bag of stuff out of the car.
“Hey, let me carry that,” I offered.
He seemed a little surprised but gave me the bag. It was my first true act of chivalry, and I felt... honestly, kind of emasculated, in a weird Victor/Victoria sort of way! If I were a dude, I’d want my persona to combine the courtly graces of Sir Lancelot with the crass, alpha-male sexuality of Stanley Kowalski, and that seems harder than I thought. Unfortunately, Stanley wouldn’t have smoldered quite as much if he held the door for people.