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Is The ‘Gentleman’ Due For An Overhaul?

By Kames Narayanan

Met MuseumA 1800s portrait of "A Gentleman of the Wilkes Family" by American painter Henry Inman, oil on canvas.

In the lead up to a physical altercation in Kingsman (2015), the movie’s protagonist, veteran sleuth Harry Hart utters “manners maketh man” before he strides over to the end of the bar to secure its doors. “Let me teach you a lesson,” he says, before flicking a glass in the direction of the gang members using only an umbrella. As the stylised fight scene ensues, Hart pivots from point to point in his impeccably tailored suit, taking down his opponents all while maintaining an unfazed demeanour.

When choreographed around Hart’s gentlemanly mien, even an inherently barbaric fight plays out as a violent, yet, firmly polite exchange by manner. On the silver screen, there is no lack of protagonists who are the epitome of a gentleman, both by conduct and appearance. These depictions of chivalrous men are seemingly the stuff dreamed up in literary effusions and cinematic heroisms. Where then in real life do these virtues find its place?

Historically, the construct of debonair is inextricably tied to men who were born into British aristocracy. While social standing was maintained as a requisite at the time, it was not
 the be-all and end-all. Encapsulating the values of a gentleman was held up on the
 same pedestal as status. In the contemporary context however, only the latter remains as a barometer.

Owing to pop culture and its depictions of the ideal male, the common man’s expectations of gentlemanly behaviour is pegged to their behavioural approach with the opposite sex. These ideals learnt from entertainment, when applied to real life, echoes the superficiality of the former. The contemporary woman is conditioned to peg the perimeter of being a gentleman to gestures inconsequential on the grand scheme of things.

Does he hold the door open? Does he offer to get the cheque? Does he offer to carry the bags? The true sense of the word, however, transcends these interpretations.

“Chivalry is not an act. It is a way of life,” says Agnes Koh, the founder and director of Singapore-based etiquette school, Etiquette and Image International. In a more tangible measure, “treating everyone equally, practising good manners and showing respect and consideration to others are the markers of a gentleman,” shares Eunice Tan, the founder of local etiquette school, Image Flair Academy of Modern Etiquette.

While most people have an overarching idea of what it means to be a model man, the ethos finds itself drowned out particularly in contemporary Asian societies. “Culturally, etiquette such as chivalry is not emphasised at home, school or the workplace. Unlike in the baby boomer era, where remnants of the British culture remained as an influence, as the years go by, the focus has shifted to academic and hard skills,” says Koh.

While women around the globe lament on the death of chivalry while sipping on Sauvignon Blancs during Sunday brunches, a separate group of voices have found reason for its demise in the rise of feminism.

As the conversation of feminism has moved to the cultural frontier, a post-feminine backlash has left the men in somewhat of a limbo. God forbid the new age feminists take offense to having a man offer a hand in what she is full well capable of doing herself — we are treading a fine line here.

Since the Victorian age, the roles of men and women within the fabric of the society 
has evolved beyond recognition. Left behind in time were the days when women were 
reliant on men and looked upon as the “lesser of”. In a long drawn-out fight for equality,
women are closer to triumph than they have ever been. While women progress forward independently, the society’s encyclopedia on how to be a man remains stuck in the medieval mindset.

Chivalry is long due for a recalibration. In a livestream at the Facebook Headquarters for her #HeForShe campaign advocating gender equality, self-declared feminist Emma Watson may have unknowingly laid the groundwork for change. “Chivalry should be consensual. Both parties should be okay with that,” she offered.

Mutual respect should be the core idea upon which the modern day dandy should turn to for a guideline. For instance: “Due to gender equality, many responsibilities are divided equally. I am not advocating that all costs have to be footed by the gentleman but once in a while, it is a nice touch [to] pick up the tab,” says Koh.

It is time to move forth, men. And women.