The Problem with “Gentlemen”
by Geo Sique
A gentleman stands at the door. In his suit, he rings the doorbell. When a woman opens the door, he walks her to the car, opens the car door, and helps her in. When they arrive, he gets out quickly, walks around the car, opens the door for her, and helps her out. He laughs at her jokes. He compliments her. He pays for dinner. After dinner, he walks her to the car, helps her in, helps her out, and drops her off at the door with a quick good night kiss.
This is what pops into my mind when I hear the word gentleman.
Clearly, our culture has largely moved beyond this ritual and dating is now typically a casual endeavor.
Still, I am confused when people say there are no more gentlemen, as if they were special breed of beings birthed to be polite and to talk like Cary Grant. As if gentlemen were an endangered species and have since died out.
I am confused because people aren’t referring to the man ringing the doorbell and opening doors. They are referring to men being polite to women, as if when a man wears a suit and is presentable, he can’t do any wrong.
This perpetuates the idea that men are only held accountable if they are labelled gentlemen, and if they don’t accept that title, they get to be excused and not be held accountable for their actions. The truth is, “gentleman” is nothing more than an adjective, and men who don’t accept the title don’t get to be excused from accountability. This is an issue that extends beyond a technicality and has impacted our society by the way men and women interact.
The Importance of Language
The age old advice to think before you talk is more serious than most people may realize. Not only can words have a lasting effect on an individual, but they can also permeate societies and affect people’s actions. Sexism isn’t only portrayed in the form of sexual harassment, but also in the way we talk as a society.
Though it often goes unnoticed, there are plenty of normalized microaggressions in the way we speak and can lead to abusive treatment of women. Calling grown women “girls,” for example, is common, but is also derogatory. Furthermore, grown men are hardly ever referred to as “boys,” so the habit is demeaning specifically to women.
In an article about sexism, Classy Career Girl asserts the importance of such faults in language:
Just as companies design advertisements to subconsciously influence potential customers, the use of gender-biased language can subconsciously influence the way people think about each other. Your thoughts are often reflections of your social climate. Most of the phrases you say and jokes you make are from other people or sources. In this way, language is not only recognizant of but also a reinforcement of the culture around you.
Calling a man who treats women decently a gentleman asserts that normal men don’t treat women nicely. In reality, everyone should treat each other nicely, and making this specification implies that men who aren’t gentlemen don’t need to be nice to women.
The reason it is important to use the right language is that it bleeds into our actions. Though women have fought for and gained many rights in the past 100 years, piggish thinking and discrimination still exists. It’s no secret that women are paid less money than men, and sexualized photoshopping is still an everyday occurrence. More concerningly, sexual assault cases are frequent in our society to say the least.
The Huffington Post reported the following sexual assault statistics in 2017:
17 million female rape victims since 1998
99 percent of sexual assault perpetrators go free
13 percent of rape victims attempt suicide
Over 16 percent of American women have survived a rape attempt or assault
90 percent of rape victims are women
These statistics are disturbing and illustrate a horrific reality that the American community faces. Recently, the #MeToo movement has been working not only to expose but to eliminate these unacceptable realities. This is not a trend, but a responsibility that all people should work for. Taking a look at the language we use every day and not tolerating language that conveys dangerous messages is a task that anyone can undertake.
Perpetuating the Right Culture
Though it might seem trivial, removing sexist phrases and language from our vocabulary is important. It conveys that we understand cultural issues and are not willing to accept them or take part in them. Though “gentleman” is innocent enough as a word, using it in a context that excuses some men for taking blame for their actions is unacceptable.
“Gentlemen” aren’t supposed to be polite to women; all people should be polite to each other. Furthermore, the stereotypical actions of a gentleman — always picking them up, opening every door, paying for dinner — insinuate that women are not capable of doing these things for themselves and that men need to take care of women. It is an action of power.
Yes, it’s nice to have these things done for you sometimes, but it shouldn’t be restricted as a something that only men do for women. It may not seem like a big deal, but some men are even reluctant to let women reciprocate these actions for them. This highlights the implication of power over the “weaker” sex in these actions.
I appreciate a gentleman as much as the next person, but while it might be a determining factor in your wardrobe, whether or not you call yourself one does not determine the standards you must live up to. In fact, no physical, economic, racial, or other superficial factor should influence how you treat other people.