Is Chivalry dead? Sexism and Swordplay

My morning routine was starting nicely. I woke up just after 3pm (I work graveyards,) had breakfast, made coffee, planned to do some housework and prep dinner for when my fiancée got home. I give myself a free hour everyday to catch up on the interwebs. Things went sideways.

I was reading an Academie Duello blog post, and watched the attached video about the recent Canada Day parade. Twenty two minutes in, disaster strikes. Two students are fencing in protective gear, at an easy pace. Male and female. The male student gains an advantage on the female student, and leans in to land his shot. The announcer seems surprised by this. The quote: “…goin in for the kill! I mean, is chivalry dead?…” The announcers female counterpart, after a slight pause, makes a comment that it might be about equality.

I’m just stunned by this. Honestly, I just took a five minute writing break to vent. It’s the fucking 21st century. It’s Vancouver. Canada for gods sake. I suppose I’m having a hard time articulating why I’m so worked up. It’s the assumption that a man shouldn’t hit a woman. It’s the assumption that, by default, even with similar arms, a woman is not going to be as capable of defense as a man. She should be pitied and given handicaps because nature has punished her enough by making her not a man. When the Feminist Frequency thing hit the web, I kind of ignore it. I made the assumption that it was just trouble stirred up the usual portion of humanity that fills the bottom of the well. It had to be, because we’ve grown past the need for feminism. Heck, we’re almost past the point of needing gay activism. Good for us!

Except, not. Dinner at my mom’s (I won’t use her real name) last Christmas will serve as an example. My mom had a big turkey cooking, and she was worried about manoeuvring it back out of a hot oven. She asked for help. My girlfriend was right there, so she jumped in to take it out. Serious screeching erupted from my mom and the other women in the room as I stayed put on the comfy couch watching. The screeching was directed at me. How dare I not jump up and help my poor, weak girlfriend? It was a huge turkey, and she was just a woman! How dare I expect her to lift it herself?!? Yeah… This is my girlfriend:

I firmly believe she could shotput a thirty-pound turkey the length of a football field, if she wasn’t worried about blowing our mortal minds.

I guess when a woman takes up swordplay, the menfolk are supposed to humour her. Don’t attack back! Just let her attack you, and defend yourself. Don’t want to treat her like a real person, with a real interest in learning something, do we? Hells no.

I’m just struggling here to find the right analogy, but I don’t think I can find it. I will just never understand the mindset of some people. I honestly think they live in a fantasy land. I realize that it’s a shared hallucination, and a sizable chunk of humanity participates. I don’t. I won’t. I hate it. I hate every little bit of what it stands for. I hate where it came from, I hate what it means.

We are human. We are animals of free minds. Even though so many of us decide to surrender our freedom, and keep our minds locked into a false world, that does not mean all of us have to. What I am comes from my mind, and is expressed by my body. I am limited in what I wish to do with my body solely by the amount of effort I wish to spend. It is within me to reach as high as I want to reach. The only failure is never to try. If my dick magically fell off that would not change. If I sprouted boobs I would not suddenly feel like I had better sit down and shut up and accept my role in life. No matter what sex I am or chose to express, I will do what ever I goddamn want to. Life puts enough limits on what we can do, without sex roles being tossed in where they don’t belong.

Sure, sex hormones can cause the body to grow in different ways, and at the high ends of performance that can have a strong effect. Big fucking deal. Give me a hundred people, one of them might have the genetics to reach that level. For the remaining ninety-nine of us, what we do in life is dictated by the work we put in.

I love swordplay because it’s so clearly true that what makes success is hours of practice. The genetics of growth and muscle reflex speed have their say, but time with sword in hand is supreme. A length of steel respects no gender, only sweat. Endless buckets of sweat spent in perfecting every tiny, elusive increase in skill. Chivalry was about protecting the weak, and no one with a sword in hand is weak.

I used to feel differently. I used to be a child. When I studying Shotokan Karate in my teens I learned better. There was a very cute woman in our school. She was short, curvy, and very pretty. I got partnered with her during a sparring session, and I did the right thing–being gentle with her. She called me on it. I told her it was because she was a girl, and I was a guy. She proceeded to show me that she was a woman, not a girl. A brown belt woman who was on an elite competition sparring team. She proceeded to literally kick my ass all over the dojo. Trying not to sit on my bruises for the following week, I revised my opinions. People are more than they seem. Appearance does not reflect the real person.

Not enough people learn that lesson. More people should. I love women that fight, because they teach people that important lesson every day. Every woman that studies a martial art helps make the point that we should be defined as people first, not gender. There are a lot of women out there with sword in hand teaching that lesson. They don’t intend to teach that lesson, they are just doing something that they love.

Chivalry is an unknown and mutated concept these days. No one understands what virtue means. Without that understanding you can’t grasp how chivalry is an expression of virtue. But when you fence an exchange of rapid blows, miss a parry and watch your opponent stop her blow from creasing your skull, letting it gently bounce off of your mask instead? When you and a friend fence a friendly bout on the beach, and laugh at how the wind is blowing your blades off track? When you share a look of mutual exhaustion with the woman across from you in a gruelling drill, and that camaraderie gives you the strength to go on just a little longer? When you feel that, maybe you are starting to understand what chivalry is.

11 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, of course, men aren’t the only ones who think that way, and the reasons aren’t always naive. I often have to be particularly aware of it because I practice BJJ, where size and strength matter more than in fencing (no force equaliser but technique alone), and where a lot of women clearly suffer a lot of discomfort. It’s not just that men go (too?) easy on women; many women are very loath to spar with men, especially where close contact is involved (and especially women who may have history of past trauma: you can hardly fault a victim of past abuse to find the notion of a large man on top of her applying a chokehold frightening). There are women who can and do kick my ass, and other women who can’t but who enjoy an intense bout of wrestling nonetheless, but there are also many women with whom I am and I think I should be more careful, gentle, and aware — not only because I am a larger and stronger opponent (that applies to small guys, too), but also because unfortunate though it is, the sparring does take place in the context of a society where genderised violence is a reality.

    I find that even in fencing some women tend to approach it with a very different mindset — culturally conditioned to be less aggressive, more passive, less able to pull the trigger and go for it, in spite of the great force equaliser that is the sword. As always, individual differences always supersede gender generalisations, and there are certainly women who can aggressively skewer me all day long, but as much as I wish there were no gender differences going into it, that’s not entirely true.

    I would like to see those differences disappear, but I think that the way to achieve that is not to pretend they don’t exist. Rather, I try to feel out my opponent and, if they fight more timidly (and it is my experience that this is more common with female beginners than with male ones) adjust my fighting style to avoid being excessively aggressive, so as to avoid intimidating new people and scaring them off.

    The ones who move beyond that — whether because they were blessedly free of initial hangups, or because they moved past them (perhaps, I like to think, because people took care not to intimidate them out of their first few classes) — I will of course fight as hard as I need to protect my own skin, if I can.

  2. David R. Packer

    Hello Petter,

    Thanks for your reply! This is what I like about martial arts…we come in the door from a world that forces us into a lot of roles, and when we are in the school, we treat each other as individuals first and foremost. It’s the equality of first analyzing someone’s threat level, and THEN adjusting your response based on what you see.

    As you pointed out, we can’t pretend differences don’t exist, but we can practice really seeing other people for what they are, beyond the packaging. Seeing each other that way allows everybody a better chance to grow into their potential.

    You go into class one person, come out a slight bit different. The changes add up.

    If only the whole world fenced…

  3. “Chivalry is an unknown and mutated concept these days”.

    Ah, yes. There’s an old bugbear of mine raising its ugly head. I used to be an academic medievalist (who specialized in chivalric literature to boot), and this one still drives me batty.

    Chivalry in the watered down “be nice to delicate women and generally Victorian-gentlemanly” is a garbled transmission of 12th Century French literary motifs by way of 15th Century English idealization and 19th Century English Romanticism.

    If it ever existed as a “code” (or at least coherent set of guidelines for conduct) chivalry was about dealing with the realities of having a permanent warrior class as part of your civilization. It worked to (1) protect non-combatants (women among them) from the excesses of a knightly class that tended to turn to fighting amongst themselves when there wasn’t a foreign war to go off to and (2) attempt to reconcile the realities of being a warrior with Christian ideals of non-violence, love for your fellow-man, etc.

    Polish that up a bit to sell it as entertainment literature to a mostly female audience (from 12th C patronesses to the 14th C upwardly-mobile and increasingly-literate merchant class), and the “do it for your lady-love and your God” bits will definitely come to the fore, but what we’ve preserved and even internalized as a culture has little to do with the lived reality of being a knight.

    This makes sense if you think about the fact that most modern Westerners’ experience (of a generally safe, stable life) lines up much more closely with that of the consumers of idealized chivalric lit than that of the warriors it was ostensibly about. Not that it’s any less irritating that the modern incarnation of “chivalry” is more often than not some twit who is afraid to hit me or treats me as if I need to be tutored like a particularly-slow child in the arcane ways of big scary weapons because he’s “just being chivalrous”.

    *sigh*

    (And yes, I’m aware that was a hell of a tangent. But you articulate the main point very well, and the only thing that bugs me more than mindless bigotry is bigotry “backed up” with lazy thinking and bad research.)

    • [please forgive rant-y typos and occasional simplifications — I’m aware that these concepts are more complex than I’ve made them out to be, but also cranky and tired.]

      • You know I’m always willing to overlook such things, as long as the favour is returned. Remind me later to hit you up again about your tangent. I have a vague idea about expanding it into a full on article. Too many things being overlooked these days, I’d like to make some small steps to fix that up.

  4. Also, that header image is wonderful. Source?

  5. I enjoyed reading this piece. For us “chivalry” has as its foundational tenets excellence, truthfulness, loyalty and benevolence — and we go into great detail as to what these things mean and what they don’t. Naturally, these things apply equally to men and women, young or old.

    Too many people are only familiar with the Hollywoodized, watered-down K-Mart version of what they call chivalry, which is, indeed, just what they need to justify perpetuating sexism and inequality.

    A. Crown, M. d’A.
    http://www.classicalfencing.com

    • Thank you, Maître Crown.

      One of the things I have most enjoyed about the study of historical martial arts is studying the ancillary material. Trying to learn how a person in the renaissance thought led me to Cicero, and embracing the practice of Stoicism. Understanding virtue and the various expressions of it through history have shown me how much need we have for those lessons today.

      I love how those lessons seem second nature to everyone who picks up a sword. Sometimes it takes effort and shaping, but the instinct is so often there. I think it is the sword that adds civility to martial arts.

  6. I don’t fence, but I did martial arts and do a mash-up of historical recreation and fantasy role play. I’m widely known as one of the most capable, athletic female fighters in our game and still trip over traditional mindsets like shoes in a kid’s mud room. I’m one of three women in an IT department of at least two dozen men. I hear coworkers talk in line with your article all the time, so I’d have to say the screwed up version of chivalry is still very much alive. I fight being able to do my job everyday without someone offering to help ’cause my load looks too heavy. I wish Rockford were more like Canada 🙂

    • David R. Packer

      Hello Sirilay!

      Yeah, I did IT for about ten years. Apparently it’s gotten worse. Sigh. Keep up the fight, you aren’t alone. The world is full of women making small changes to how people think. There does seem to be a lack of a unified voice/s right now. Needs to be more good role models for men and women both.

      BTW, have you checked out Esfinges? https://www.facebook.com/groups/283087728435063/ I’m a boy, so I have no idea what is like, but a place to talk swords with other women is probably a good thing.

      Thanks for the comment, and keep kicking butt!

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