The etiquette of equality

Published

Stephanie Gilmartin

If you can cast your caffeine-addled minds back to last year, you may recall Movember, when  the boys — sorry, men — of Glasgow were encouraged to grow a moustache during November to raise funds for the Prostate Cancer Charity and to promote awareness of the disease. Verily, our cup of testosterone runneth over, because this manifestation of masculinity was apparently not enough for the Glasgow boys. It was this tidal wave of testosterone that precipitated the creation of “Manuary”, a Facebook group whose main objectives (if we may so call them) are “fighting, meat, beer and chivalry”. This good-humoured pastiche of masculine stereotypes started life as a joke between creator Mark Stewart and some friends in December, but has now expanded to include over 30,000 members.

The backlash group, “Femruary”, has attracted only 146 members so far, perhaps because girls are none so keen to identify themselves with the unprepossessing by-line image of an overweight woman in a swimsuit. Creator Annie Beauchamp assures me that the origin of this picture was a Google image search for feminism, which is in itself troubling. The tongue-in-cheek gender stereotypes suggested by Femruary include giggling, drinking cocktails, shopping and, of course, pillow-fights in your underwear (as if boys don’t do that).

Why are people suddenly flocking towards gender stereotypes as society at large strives to become ever more gender-neutral? Beauchamp suggests, “Gender stereotypes make it easy to categorise people, and that’s where their attraction lies — simplicity. Obviously, not all stereotypes hold true for everybody, but they are always founded on a commonly perceived truth.” These Facebook groups are a deliberately ironic pastiche of gender stereotypes — we are now supposed to be sufficiently distanced from a time when these stereotypes really did hold sway to be able to find them laughable and trite.

However, as journalist India Knight suggested recently in the Sunday Times, women today are still clamouring to emulate the ideal 1950s household — on top of having children and full-time jobs: “We’ve had the whole Nigella-Cath Kidston thing, where what started off as a camp, tongue-in-cheek joke — the ‘domestic goddess’ — mutated into a strange sort of reality which ended up with women feeling they weren’t worth their salt if they couldn’t rustle up a batch of cupcakes in their 1950s-retro kitchen, complete with pastel accessories and baby-blue Smeg fridge.”

Knight focuses on the extra responsibilities heaped on women, but men too are feeling the strain. As we push towards the ideal of a gender-equal society, everyone is expected to be “a good all-rounder”, with both men and women expected to be just as adept at baking and childcare as they are at DIY and managing a business. These are certainly positive aspirations, but one can see how the monumental pressures they incur (who has the time? the energy?) could drive people back towards traditional gender stereotypes whereby the roles of men and women were clearly defined and everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do, and how they were supposed to relate to each other.

For Beauchamp, it’s not as clear-cut as that: “I don’t think people actually want to return to gender stereotypes as such. A lot of girls I know are proud of the fact that they don’t conform to traditional feminine stereotypes. I can see, however, why people would want to celebrate particular aspects of their gender — it forms a sister/brotherhood, and creates a sense of camaraderie. It can help to bring people together.”

This is perhaps the most attractive aspect of gender tribalism  — it unites people under a common denominator, allowing them to celebrate what they consider themselves to have in common. Homosocial bonding between men has become much more relaxed of late, with the preponderance of “bromances” spouting forth from Hollywood and the mock-unhealthy relationships between JD and Turk in Scrubs, or Mark and Jeremy in Peep Show.

Where confusion exists now, though, is in how we should relate to each when we’re supposed to have moved beyond fixed gender identities, yet so many of our relationships — especially the romantic ones — are still predicated upon older, more traditional concepts and structures. There remains a fissure between  chivalry and feminism — no-one has rewritten the rule-book to correlate the two, meaning that we’re just as confused as ever when it comes to relating to the opposite sex. Many boys are confused about what exactly girls expect of them on dates these days — will it offend her feminist sensibilities if you offer to pay? Will you look cheap if you offer to go halves? What about same-sex couples? Surely the solution is obvious, though — if everyone could just have better manners, it would solve many a potential dating conundrum. Luckily for all of us, Debrett’s, “the modern authority on all matters of etiquette”, has stepped up to the mark, creating modern etiquette guidelines on subjects from text-messaging to chivalry and beyond.

Generally perceived as archaic and elitist, Debrett’s daily business is ancestry, peerage and the social calendar of the aristocracy. When it comes to dictating manners, however, their website proves to be rather insightful and surprisingly modern. Their line on chivalry is that it should be “manners with a sexy edge”, and that it is entirely possible to manifest good manners towards your lady friend without patronising her. According to their wisdom, “Chivalrous gestures should not feel creepy — there is a fine line between flattering attentiveness and smothering sleaziness.” A lot of their suggestions could easily be described as common sense, and whilst their approach is a little prescriptive at times, this is by no means a bad thing — for example, when it comes to “making a pass”, their suggestion is that one should “never attempt it if you have overindulged”, and I think the majority of us could agree that sounder advice was never given.

Men are advised that boasting about their sexual prowess is not likely to gain them any admiration: “You may want to impress her with your man-about-town credentials, confident that she will be seduced by your savoir-faire and worldly finesse. But be warned: if you get it even slightly wrong, you will look like a sad roué — lecherous, needy, debauched — and she will be making a rapid exit.” This may be something that the boys who wrote about their sexual conquests on Manuary’s wall should bear in mind — all I can say is woe betide you if the ladies in question find out.

Their final, refreshingly gender-neutral word on paying for dinner is that going halves is a sure way to kill the romance of the occasion: “There is one abiding rule — the person who requests the pleasure, pays for the pleasure. So, as a simple point of etiquette, you should pick up the tab for a lunch, dinner of raft of cocktails — if you have invited the other person. The other non-paying party should, however, assume one or more of the minor expenses of the date — after-dinner drinks, a taxi home…”  There is definitely scope for a relaxation of this rule for students, and personally I don’t know many girls who are likely to mind splitting the cost of a meal. The other issue here is that you may find that you’re always the one doing the inviting. Well, perhaps that’s a good indicator that it’s time to find worthier recipients for your invitations.

Equality is a two-way street, and we ought to be able to expect the same treatment from people of every gender, whether it’s paying for a meal, cancelling an engagement or replying to a text message. Good manners cost nothing, and yet we are coming to be surprised when we are treated with the respect we deserve. If we aim to replace stereotypical conceptions of how we ought to relate to each other — conceptions based upon outdated views of gender — with the simple aim of treating everyone with equal respect, then gender relations needn’t be so fraught with tension. We just need to treat each other a little more kindly and put a bit more thought into our conduct. In the meantime, enjoy what’s left of Femruary, look forward to “Gaypril” and “July-curious” — and brush up on your manners!