THE RETURN OF THE GENTLEMAN: A PROPOSAL

I taught yesterday an MA seminar on my research, mixing Cultural Studies and Gender Studies. I gave examples of the work I have done within the area I specialize in: Masculinities Studies (and popular fictions). As happens, the aspect of my research that generated the greatest discord was my proposal that we bring back gentlemanliness as a necessary code of behaviour for men. I have dealt with the need to offer specifically young men new ideals in the post following the Barcelona terrorist attacks of August 2017 (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/08/21/indoctrinating-young-men-in-search-of-ideals/) and I have praised good gentlemanly men in another post, about Dickens’s Bleak House (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/11/05/in-search-of-good-men-as-anti-patriarchal-role-models/). However, I have not addressed the topic of the gentleman directly and this might be a good chance to do so.

One of the students in class, a young woman, reacted very negatively when I explained that we should welcome a renewed code of gentlemanliness. She complained that the gentleman’s behaviour is patronising, using the classic example of the man opening a door to let a woman pass. I replied that this is a courtesy I would not personally reject and that in order to make it less patronizing (which I don’t think it is) we just need to make it mutual: you open the door for me, I open the door for you. Actually, this renewal of general courtesy seems to me more urgent than ever: getting off the train at my university’s station is terribly stressful, as absolutely nobody gives other passengers way. A walk I took in Barcelona last week turned out to be everything except relaxing as I had to dodge constantly other pedestrians who insisted on going their way even at the risk of crashing onto me. At full speed…

I do take into account, as another student reminded me, that gentlemanliness was used hypocritically by many men throughout the 19th century. Of course, both R.L. Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, among many other authors, exposed this hypocrisy with the extreme cases of Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray. Yet, unless I am utterly deceived, most Victorian men who wanted to be respectable in society abided by the codes of gentlemanliness: politeness, protection of those in need, restrained behaviour, firm management of aggressive urges, care of one’s person in looks and manners. Not bad, I should think. And not just upper class: remember that working-class men have always made a great deal of being respected by their community. Perhaps being a gentleman is about making the most of the best qualities that a man possesses.

As I explained yesterday in class, unlike the Spanish ‘caballero’ which simply alludes to the medieval figure of the knight who possessed a horse (‘caballo’, of course), the Anglophone ‘gentleman’ signals that to be an ideal man one must be gentle (not just own a horse!). ‘Gentle’, unfortunately, came to be identified with that awful American word, ‘sissy’ (which derives from ‘sister’, see how misogyny always lurks behind patriarchal insults). Today, as I acknowledged in class, no man appreciates being called a ‘gentleman’, particularly the young ones, because they see that as something bland and phoney. In short, ridiculous. (Here I need a footnote to remind readers that possibly older classy men like George Clooney, or similar, do enjoy being called ‘gentlemen’).

In part, the loss of the gentleman is to be blamed on WWI, when the horrified soldiers on all sides discovered that in that atrocious, mechanical war the codes of knighthood and of gentlemanliness so far ruling in warfare no longer applied. Gassing your enemies is not what gentlemen do, nor kill them by blasting them off the face of Earth and into gory smithereens. Yet, the biggest blow against the gentleman, as we know, was the feminist rejection of all notions of chivalry as patronizing (the word my student used, remember?). This does not mean that all women rejected the gentleman, as the continued popularity of fantasies like Austen’s Darcy prove. What I mean is that WWI (and later wars, like Vietnam) and 1970s radical feminism told men, in one way or another, that they needn’t pretend to be gentlemen because at heart they were only patriarchal barbarians. Many men told themselves, ‘ok, so that’s what we are’ and stopped acting as gentlemen. Others, better behaved but more puzzled, simply stopped obeying any specific ideal of manliness and got by as they could in life, navigating with great difficulties between Scylla and Charybdis, or feminism and patriarchy.

I will insist again and again that gentlemanliness was not only a pragmatic set of rules for respectable men to follow but also a great shaming mechanism. A man who engaged in what the American press defines coyly today as ‘misconduct’ or ‘inappropriate behaviour’ could be told “you’re no gentleman!” and be shamed, in private and/or in public. Honestly or dishonestly, most men were wary of keeping up a reputable image and an upright behaviour was part of that. Now, what do you tell the likes of Harvey Weinstein, or simply a man that puts his hands were he should not? How do you shame them? “You’re an abuser?” “You’re a monster?” The justice system and the threat of a jail sentence is not working, as we all can see, so there must be something else that acts as a deterrent against intolerable patriarchal behaviour.

The shaming mechanism that is currently used is absolutely counterproductive because what we’re screaming at these patriarchal abusers is “You’re a man! What a shame!” Sorry to disagree with many other feminist militants but I firmly believe that men are not all the same. By not distinguishing between gentle/men (if you don’t like gentlemen) and ‘cads’ (to use another quaint Victorian word) we’re failing to find solutions for the problem of generalized patriarchal violence. Tell Donald Trump, “You’re no gentleman!” and he won’t care because this means nothing today (though I think Barack Obama would care); tell him “You’re a man!” and Trump will say, “Exactly, that’s what I am, and proud of it”. So, it boils down to this: unless we have a way to label good men in such a positive way that most men want to be viewed in that way, we’re lost (we women, but also they, the good men). And unless we do find an insult that clearly defines what patriarchal abusers are, we have no effective social and personal shaming mechanism.

Can a man be a ‘feminist gentleman’, as an ex-student used to define himself? I usually find that the men I know and that fit that label do not proclaim their own gentlemanliness (or feminism), for part of being a gentleman is restraint–no need to proclaim out loud what other should see for themselves. Restraint, on other hand, does not mean an inability to show feeling, a problem that indeed plagued the old-fashioned Victorian version of the gentleman. No, restraint means here the ability to show positive feeling and control negative feeling: gentlemen do cry if they feel moved to tears but do not hit others in anger. Bullying and intimidation are not part of their conduct, either.

I’m beginning to sound, I know, like an etiquette book, but, then, I’m not alone in this: Margaret Atwood recently declared that men need “etiquette books on how to behave” and even a Mr. Manners’ column in 1950s style (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/06/margaret-atwood-modern-men-need-etiquette-books). I understand that speaking of etiquette and gentlemanliness in 2018, rather than the pre-second wave 1958, may sound obsolete but, believe, it is not.

I’m taking these days a course for teachers on how to detect sexual violence in a university context and we were shown yesterday what can only be described as a lesson in etiquette. This is a video published by Thames Valley Police in 2015 which very cleverly compares sexual consent with having tea. Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ. I complained that the tone is childish, and wondered whether young men shown this film would resent being treated as not too bright. But a younger female classmate patiently explained to me (thank you!!!) that the sexual etiquette which the video explains makes perfect sense for girls, who are often unsure about how to show or withdraw consent. She said that it’s a common experience for women of her generation to engage in sex they don’t really want (see The New Yorker’s popular story by Kristen Roupenian “Cat Person”, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person). This means that women are suffering not only because gentlemanliness has been lost but also because we also have lost our own etiquette in the generalized rush to free ourselves, sexually and otherwise.

The difference is, let me explain, that whereas we women are constantly surveilled and punished by a hundred different shaming mechanisms (from “You’re not a lady” to “You’re a fat, ugly, old bitch!”), men are not. Let me correct myself: patriarchal men do use “You’re not a man!” to mean “You’re not acceptable as a member of patriarchy” but this is not at all the kind of shaming mechanism we need to support. Nor is the radical feminist cry “All men are the same (kind of bastard)!” If you’re thinking that all shaming strategies are barbaric and should be suppressed please consider that there is an enormous distance between body-shaming someone who is not normative and shaming publicly and privately a physical or psychological abuser of any kind.

In short, I believe that we do need a new version of gentlemanliness to deprive patriarchal men of the privilege of deciding who is a ‘real’ man and who is not. We, women, need to inform each other of who is a good man and who is a patriarchal bad man, just like that. What we’re currently telling each other is that all men are patriarchal abusers, without distinction, which is why, perhaps rightly, some personalities are complaining that there is a risk of generalizing a witch hunt. Of course, when Donald Trump is the one complaining we need to dismiss his words, for he is only protecting himself. But when a woman like Margaret Atwood sends this kind of warning, perhaps we need to listen (I say perhaps because I’m certainly not listening to Catherine Deneuve, see my previous post). As for the good men, whether you like being called gentlemen or not, you need to oppose the idea that all men are the same type of patriarchal abuser with more determination. “Not all men are rapists” does not sound to me like an effective defence of masculinity; “all men should fight patriarchal abusers and absolutely reject rape” does.

I know what you’re thinking: so, how about women as ladies? Women rejected ladyhood, beginning with the suffragettes, because it was an unsustainable burden, which limited our chances to be educated, make sound personal choices, be economically independent and, in short, full human beings. Whereas gentlemanliness limited men and regulated their behaviour in a way that benefitted them socially, it was the opposite for women oppressed by ladyhood. However, just as gentlemanliness can be recycled as a valid code for men today, I believe that ladyhood is perfectly compatible with feminism. This is not 19th century ladyhood but a 21st version by which a woman makes the best of her own personal qualities. For me, being a lady is about being self-possessed, knowing how to behave, being sure of your own codes, insisting on mutual courtesy, treating the good men with respect, supporting other women.

There is no way I can exactly translate into English the Catalan “quedar com una senyora” (um, “make a ladylike impression”?) but this is certainly my own personal maxim. Now, I invite all men to make a gentlemanly impression… and reject toxic, barbaric patriarchal masculinity.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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