Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pernicious chivalry

I disgusted myself this morning. As is customary on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I squeezed myself onto the 107 bus, which transports me and an uncomfortably large number of others from the Metro to the office park where I teach English. About halfway through the ride, something remarkable happened: A seat freed up, and I was close enough to snag it. There was only one other passenger adequately positioned to swoop in: a middle-aged man.

Piece of cake, I thought as I began my approach. Chivalry says this seat is mine.

Not today. Before I could stake my claim, the man sat down and settled in.

I was mad. Outraged. Who did this able-bodied male think he was, usurping the precious bus seat that rightfully belonged to the obviously seat-hungry -- and heel-clad, no less -- woman next to him? The NERVE.

Wait, what? Had I, who cringes when someone uses "man" to refer to humankind and resents that movie theater seats are designed for people whose upper bodies are heavy enough to make them recline, just operated under the assumption that I was less capable of standing because I´m a woman? How could this be? What happened?

Chilean chivalry happened. You see, the unwritten code of Santiago public transportation conduct would have placed that bus seat squarely in my possession. In the absence of someone elderly, pregnant, child-toting or disabled, the seat goes to the closest female. That´s just how it works. I guess I´ve gotten used to it.

Like I´ve gotten used to men carrying things for me and giving me the right-of-way on the street. Like I´ve gotten used to having doors held open for me and being escorted home late at night. Of course, some men do these things for women in the States too, but I find this type of deference to be much more common and consistent here in Chile.

Obviously, the assumptions underlying these apparent acts of kindness are rooted in gender inequality. Like cat calls and the scantily clad models bursting out of their bikinis on the covers of Chile´s less reputable periodicals.

I know that men who give up their bus seats for women mean well. And it´s an unfortunate but true fact that women are not always safe walking alone at night; the last time a male friend didn´t offer to escort me home, a guy tried to attack me on the street. But there´s a difference between appreciating courtesy or being practical and feeling you are entitled to special treatment because of your gender. When you begin to believe that lacking a penis makes you less capable of standing on a bus for 10 minutes or carrying a 20-pound box out to the car.

The deeper question raised by all of this is whether or not chivalry is just sexism with better manners. For me, the more immediate one is the following: Has living in Chile made me sexist?


Abby said...

Ummm your almost assault story just scared the be-jesus out of me. I was just on Matta like 2 hours the dark...but thankfully not alone! Can you buy pepper spray here in Chile?

Regarding your chivalry post, I think the same thing happens to me. Here I expect it to happen, and then it dawns on me that I am a perfectly capable person and can carry my own backpack, thank you very much. Or stand on the micro, lo que sea. I don't know though...I think a little chivalry is okay.

Leigh said...

I think you can get pepper spray here, but my mom ordered mine online for me and I brought it to Chile from the States. Which is probably illegal, but what's a girl to do?

Sara said...

"operated under the assumption that I was less capable of standing because I´m a woman?" That's hilarious, but it's so me. I never used to be like that.