Gender roles: Fun until they aren’t! Right until they’re wrong! Good until they’re so very bad. But the trouble is, which is which? What part of gender roles make life dynamic and interesting, and which ones contribute to terrible, unequal gender dynamics that fuck us all over and prevent us from really viewing each other as true equals? And in modern terms, when does it cross a line from lighthearted role play into a reminder that women don’t get paid enough, and are still getting hassled, groped and worse on a daily basis? Careful, I think it’s a trick question!
An example: the antiquated gesture of men kissing a woman’s hand upon meeting or greeting her. Is it charming or creepy? Acceptable or off-limits? Is there any way to pull this off that isn’t weirdly chauvinistic or downright sleazy?
To be clear, there are different kinds of hand kissing, and they mean different things. The original hand-kissing gesture dates back to Spanish and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth royal courts in the 1600s. It was the height of womanly and gentlemanly, refined, cultured behavior. Extending one’s delicate, feminine hand to be kissed on the knuckle by a man of equal or higher status was an act of deference and respect.
But nowadays, only jokey or eccentric women go around offering the hand, and it’s more common for the man to reach for it to perform this gesture. It’s often done by:
- a man who is either your legitimate lover,
- a man who would very much like to be your legitimate lover,
- a man who is poking fun at the chivalrous act of hand-kissing (but either is or would like to be your legitimate lover), or
- a man who still carries an old-fashioned sense of gentlemanly conduct, who may or may not find you even remotely attractive and be doing it for old-fashioned fun or who would like to be your legitimate lover. (If I can find another way to write legitimate lover in this post, trust me, I will.)
But a lot has happened lately in the gender wars, the least publicized of which is probably the last frontier: All the leftover little things that define gender roles subtly but explicitly, and that used to be slam-dunks of gentlemanly behavior but now which come with the risk of insulting your female companion: the opening of doors, the paying for dinner, the asking out on dates, the planning the evening, the ordering the food, the walking on the outside of the sidewalk, the leading the dance, and so forth.
There are two arguments really about these little behaviors that we can’t seem to ever officially agree on in an era of as equal-ish as we’ve ever been. Can men and women still act out these roles of respect and deference while still pursuing full, equal treatment? Or should they be retired alongside segregated employment ads and pin money?
Is it possible to have both? Can the hand kiss be done in a way that’s good-natured and lighthearted, or is it now squarely in the creep zone? To be clear, I’m talking outside of a situation during already established courtship, where it might be romantic, but rather social situations where the person is either a stranger or acquaintance.
A recent Reddit thread gave me pause when it wondered how effective it is for men to kiss a woman’s hand in terms of “getting the girl.” Those answers proved that when actually used to score a chick or whatever that it’s actually pretty lame.
Lots of women hate it, too, because it’s interpreted as either sleazy or chauvinistic — this blog post details how much the author absolutely detests it and notes that in her experience, it’s only done to women, never anyone presenting as a man. They don’t like that it’s unpleasant to be kissed at all by a stranger, but more specifically the “genderedness” of it, that it “so clearly separates “men” from “women.”
In a history of the hand kiss, another woman writes that she couldn’t find any reference of it in Emily Post when searching from 1830 to 1920, but found that the U.S. made clear in an etiquette guide from 1899 about public ceremonials in Washington that it simply isn’t done:
The form of kissing by way of salutation between opposite sexes is obsolete in the United States, except among relatives. Among ladies it still prevails, but it should be confined to intimate friends, and then on the forehead or cheek. In ancient times it was in vogue between the sexes in the best society, it being applied to the cheek, forehead, or hand. It is still customary to a limited degree in Germany. In the United States it is never used, except restricted as above.
However, she did find a reference from an etiquette guide from Amy Vanderbilt in 1967:
In her section on the “Masculine Graces” she describes how to perform a hand kiss in case an American man encounters a married French woman who presents her hand for a kiss (hand kisses are apparently not given to unmarried ladies unless they are “of a certain age” aka really old). The technique is for the man to “take her fingers lightly in his, palm upward, bow slightly over her hand…, and touch his lips to the back of it, not really implant a kiss.” She also calls it extremely rude to kiss the palm of the hand and says that some foreigners will try it on naïve American ladies who don’t know any better.
A guide to hand kissing for the perplexed from the New York Times in 1979 reassured readers that at least in London, Paris and Rome, as well as Manhattan, that things had evolved to the cheek kiss nowadays, so no agony needed.
In my experience, I’ve only been on the receiving end of the hand kiss as one of two things: old-timey, semi-jokey chivalry from a man not actually trying to get in my pants, and purposely semi-jokey chivalry from a guy who is already in my pants.
And as a card-carrying feminist, let me be clear: I don’t really have a problem with either. It’s not that I don’t understand that it’s rooted in dumb, rigid dynamics that are both symbols of and perpetuators of the worst of gender roles. It’s that I’ve come to understand that there is a way to think about gender and do gender that doesn’t have to be limiting and toxic, and it’s far more in the intention and attitude than the behavior, so long as it’s optional and not met with any expectation or hostility for noncompliance.
I asked Facebook peeps I know if any man still does this sort of thing.
Kevin, a gay man, told me he “only does it to guys,” but when I asked if it was charming, he replied, “not at all.”
“Not any men with any sense,” Jeff told me when asked if dudes still do this. “Maybe you could pull it off if you’re an Italian man in his 70s who speaks very little English and is wearing an impeccably tailored suit and a silk ascot. Otherwise no.” Then he added: “I forgot to mention that it needs to be a checked suit.”
Nancy said it was creepy.
“I knew a girl at university who would always extend her hand to be kissed by all genders,” Rachel told me. “But she was an asshole.”
Jerry offered this nugget:
I kiss hands, man or woman, I do a shake and kiss followed by a pat in the same spot that I kissed. Some people don’t mind, other grab their hand sanitizer and slap it on immediately. Guys are the most creeped out, and usually draw their hands back pretty quickly. Silly homophobes. It’s a classic gesture, I’m not trying to bend you over and rail you. Most women find it charming and usually do that thing where they put their hand on their chest like they are in disbelief then do the hair tuck behind their ear. Only been slapped once and it was totally my fault. She had some jelly on her hand and I tried to lick it. It was a big misunderstanding and we laughed about it afterwards.
Tom told me a story about Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter from WW2 who was fond of the gesture:
Jan Karski was a hand kisser. Properly delivered, the gesture was a very light brush, almost an air-kiss. The license for any human to do it expired at his death in 2000.
I should tell that to my friend, who is an Italian American from Philly and probably the only person I know who hand-kisses a variety of women upon greeting without any weird motive. I asked him what the deal was.
“Let me start by saying that not every man can pull this gesture off without seeming like a fedora wearing ‘nice
guy,’” he explains. “I have no idea where I picked it up, but you know me and the milieu from which I’ve emerged, Northeast ethnic, so that probably has a lot to do with it.”
He said it’s definitely not something he does a lot, but he does when he feels it’s appropriate, while conceding that the only person who can really qualify its appropriateness is the woman on the receiving end.
“The only reaction I’ve ever received is neutral or a smile and a blush,” he said. “Older women seem to really like it, and middle-aged Mexican women. I’m not making any generalizations, that’s just been my individual experience.”
That’s the thing about gender roles we’ve only just begun to sort of accept, and which can make it so extremely fraught: It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Gender roles have always felt a bit like an ill-fitting costume to me. Some people wear it well, but when you feel forced into wearing it or else, it easily becomes a straitjacket. Once I figured out I could pick the parts of the costume I liked, and even some from the other side, and wear them when I pleased and how I pleased, I realized it could just be dress-up. For me, that was liberating, but I never get on too well with anyone who doesn’t see it this way.
Which is why I’m able to see some of the gender performance as perfectly silly and enjoyable, because I don’t actually think of it as an internalized identity, and I’m not interested in whether the other person does anyway. Old-fashioned isn’t always bad, either, provided it doesn’t come with thinking women ought not vote. So when I’ve been hand-kissed, provided it’s by a dude I know realizes I can probably run circles around him in debate, I find it corny and amusing. I’m also relieved that I don’t have to worry about whether it would offend someone since I’m never going to do it to someone else.
So I asked my friend if he thought of it is as old-fashioned or what to kiss a woman’s hand. “A little bit,” he said. “But not performatively so, like fucking mustache wax on a hipster or something.”
Which begs the question, then. In an era of such fraught gendered choices with such seemingly high stakes, what could possibly be the payoff for a man willing to risk doing it? “A smile and a blush!” he said.