Chivalry’s Dirty Laundry

moon-bloodgood-maxim-usa-june-1The cover story of a recent issue of Maxim magazine sparked some interesting thoughts on the state of chivalry today. The piece was an interview with Moon Bloodgood, one of the stars of the summer action movie, “Terminator: Salvation.” Among a variety of questions, the reporter asked Ms. Bloodgood:

Q: How can a guy get your attention?

A: I’m into chivalry. As much as I’m a guy’s girl with a potty mouth, a polite man who opens the door is so refreshing.

Now, while it’s encouraging to see a popular model and actress (whose words command the attention of a lot of impressionable young men) mention chivalry, her comment isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the concept. In fact, this backhanded compliment seems to reflect a general attitude toward chivalry in today’s world. Consider another example …

A few weeks ago, a mid-day AM radio talk show advertised a segment on chivalry. Women who tuned in got a 10-minute diatribe on the vanishing practice of chivalry in the world of dating and romance. Why don’t men dress nicely when they take a woman out to dinner? Why don’t they bring flowers to their dates? Why don’t they hold open doors for ladies? And, in general, why don’t men treat women with “class” anymore?

Ironically, immediately prior to the segment lamenting the lack of chivalry, there was a station-identification spot that featured, as background music, the song “Redneck Woman,” with lyrics such as:

I ain’t never been the Barbie doll type
I can’t drink that sweet champagne; I’d rather drink beer all night
I’m a redneck woman, I ain’t no high-class broad,
I’m just a product of my raisin’, and I say “hey y’all,” and “yee-haw!”
You might think I’m trashy, a little too hard-core
But get in my neck of the woods, I’m just the girl next door.

These days, our culture seems to have a conflicted relationship with chivalry (or at least the qualities of refinement and dignity that are sometimes defined as “chivalry”): People admonish others for a lack of propriety, consideration and etiquette, while simultaneously excusing themselves from any personal behavior that implies “formality” or “high class.”

In short, it seems there are a lot of people who expect others to go to the effort of being chivalrous, yet at the same time want to be exempt from that effort themselves.

Not surprisingly, this dichotomy is nothing new. Even back in the days of the 14th century, when Sir Geoffroi de Charny wrote Livre de Chevalerie (The Book of Chivalry), he recognized the difficulty of “practicing what you preach.” He noted that many young ladies tried to portray themselves as noble and “classy” through their rich dress (including wearing “coronetals, pearls, precious stones, rings, embroidery … and fine ornaments”), but failed to internalize the personal values that went along with nobility and chivalry.

But, as Charny observed, a lady who wanted to inspire a knight to chivalrous deeds (which, in his approach, meant courage and valor as much as dignity and courtesy) needed more than mere outward trappings. He said a lady needed to be:

“Wise, loyal, without arrogance, joyful, generous, courteous, expert … and of good conduct toward all others, without indulging in self praise. These qualities are the kinds of jewels you should use to adorn your garments … if you would everywhere be safeguarded, loved and esteemed.”

(Interestingly, Charny was progressively equal-opportunity in his expectations of gentle behavior. He said that the qualities he described were more “stylish” than the most expensive gown a lady could wear, and also more “elegant” than the finest armor a knight could put on.)

This isn’t to say that country folks and people of humble background can’t be dignified and courteous, nor that chivalrous people can never relax and be casual. But living by a code of honor — that includes dignity, nobility and the “good breeding” that was once reserved strictly for the knightly class — requires effort and dedication. Having a “potty mouth,” being “trashy” and “too hard core,” and then admonishing others for a lack of chivalry is a bit like showing up at a formal ball in a stained T-shirt and ragged jeans, then complaining about other people’s lack of fashion sense.

Before criticizing anyone for a lack of chivalry, perhaps we should all look to the garments of honor we dress ourselves in. The condition of our own wardrobe of knightly virtues may be the best indication of the fashions of chivalry we see in the world around us.