White Knighting Masculinity

One of the most powerful paradigms of masculinity promoted by the Evangelical church is that of white knighting, the man who rides to the rescue a damsel in distress, whenever she finds herself in trouble.

Perhaps the purest expression of this is in John Eldredge’s 2001 New York Times bestselling book Wild at Heart. Though its popularity seems to have waned a bit, it is still probably the most widely read and influential Christian men’s book out there.

Here’s what Eldredge has to say about white knighting:

Once upon a time (as the story goes) there was a beautiful maiden, an absolute enchantress…

But his lovely maiden is unattainable, the prisoner of an evil power who holds her captive in a dark tower. Only a champion may win her; only the most valiant, daring, and brave warrior has a chance of setting her free. Against all hope he comes; with cunning and raw courage he lays siege to the tower and the sinister one who holds her. Much blood is shed on both sides; three times the knight is thrown back, but three times he rises again. Eventually the sorcerer is defeated, the dragon falls, the giant is slain. The maiden is his. Through his valor he has won her heart. On horseback they ride off to his cottage by a stream in the woods for a rendezvous that gives passion and romance new meaning…

From ancient fables to the latest blockbuster, the theme of a strong man coming to rescue a beautiful woman is universal to human nature. It is written in our hearts, one of the core desires of every man and every woman.

This is white knighting in its purest form. And the idea that this is a universal call for all men is not an accidental misstatement. Eldredge is explicit not just here but elsewhere that being a white knight is one of three things a man needs to become truly himself; he needs a battle to fight, a beauty to rescue, and an adventure to live.

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Let me be clear: playing the white knight role can be one of the most dangerous and damaging things a man can do to himself. I will explain some of the many problems embedded in this vision of masculinity.

In real life, White Knights Don’t Get the Girl

White knighting has several embedded and deeply problematic elements.

The first is its pedestalization of women while at the same time patronizing them. On the one hand, women are to be viewed as princesses, something that goes well with the way secular society encourages young girls to think of themselves as Disney princess movies. On the other, women are to be viewed as helpless and need a rescuer. Neither of these tropes is true or healthy to believe, and are actually sexism.

From the standpoint of us men, a second substantive flaw is that white knighting is promoted as a strategy for romantic success. It is a literary trope and not an actual dating strategy. False altruism is not a way to get women. It is manipulative and is nice guy behavior.

Similarly, the white knight concept is viewed not only as a calling but as a technique for making you attractive to women. This is not just believed in the church but widely in the world as well since you see white knights everywhere.  For example, if a man strongly disputes something a woman says on Twitter, you typically see a swarm of internet white knights swoops in to defend her, attack the “anti-feminist” guy, and tell her that she’s awesome and everything she said was totally awesome too.

The problem is that the effectiveness of techniques like white knighting depends entirely on the person doing them and how attractive they are already perceived as being. If an attractive man white knights, the woman may appreciate it. But if an unattractive man does it, she might well think it’s creepy. Frankly, you won’t be her knight in shining armor unless you’re good-looking. You’r more likely to end up in the friendzone than as her boyfriend.

Bottom line: white knighting is an ineffective strategy for attracting women. Similar to the servant leader, it just doesn’t work because it’s built on false premises.

Women Aren’t Held Captive by an Evil Black Knight

In Eldredge’s scenarios, an external enemy (sometimes Satan) holds the woman captive. That is, to him, her problems are the result of outside, nefarious forces. A hostile takeover of her virtue.

Now, it’s true that outside actors definitely can do is harm. But think about your own life and the problems you’ve had in it.  How many of them were the result of outside forces versus your own sin or bad decisions?  How many bad relationships, for example, have you been in where you had no share in the blame for it getting bad? People often bear a significant share of the blame for their own problems.

If you apply even a modest amount of analysis to Evangelical teachings, you will see that they almost never hold women responsible for anything. It’s arguably the signature attribute of their teaching on gender. They always overwhelmingly blame men, and seldom make any negative characterizations of women at all. This is easy for any of you to validate for yourself, and this sort of analysis is something I’d very much encourage you to do on your own.

This is an enormous problem when combined with white knighting. It is sexism that assumes women are entirely blameless for their own problems, it can lead to men bailing out women for the consequences of their own mistakes, thus becoming co-dependent enablers.

Men Should Seek Out the Highest Quality Wife They Can Find

A fourth problem is that white knight masculinity encourages men to marry deeply troubled women as an act of redemption. If every man needs a damsel in distress to rescue, then a man who marries a woman who has her act together is failing to truly be a man.

It’s striking to compare the advice given to men with that given to women. Men are frequently encouraged to consider women whom they might ordinarily rule out because of various red flags, whereas women in the church are generally cautioned against going on rescue missions for troubled men. If a woman is dating a guy who’s a recovering drug addict or who is an underemployed aspiring indie rocker, she’s generally warned against being with him or at least to be cautious and “guard your heart.”

Women are by and large told that they should have extremely high standards in a man they are going to marry. I completely endorse high standards. Because marriage is so serious, and creating a successful marriage is hard today, women very much should hold men to a high standard and try to find the best husband they can. Some men just aren’t good marriage material.

For men, it may even be more important, given that women initiate about 70% of divorces. Men should be looking to marry the highest quality woman they can find and should have high standards for the woman they marry. Contrary to what you might read on the internet, there are plenty of high-quality women out there.

Final Thoughts on White Knighting

In summary, white knight syndrome is a vision of women that is both idealizing and patronizing. It doesn’t work as a strategy for attracting a woman, assumes women are always blameless for their own problems. And may well lead you into making a bad marriage match for yourself.

I reject white knighting as a paradigm, with a few caveats. The first is that if we are already married, then our wife’s problems are indeed our problems too. And there’s no dumping your wife just because she runs into problems in life, as could well happen to us too.

Also, the Bible does say that we should pursue justice, defend the weak, etc., so there’s clearly some role for what you might think of as white knighting – so long as it’s done in light of all the other admonitions in the Bible such as the innumerable calls to be wise, to “give not thy strength unto women,” etc. The Bible consistently warns against folly.

Running into a burning building to try to recuse someone and you could be killed yourself. Marry the wrong woman and you could end up miserable.  We need to take what we are doing seriously, counting the potential costs for both parties, and being humble about our ability to know what’s going on.

I would say that it is explicitly in male-female situations where white knighting can get especially dicey because our romantic interest clouds our judgment. If you want to go there, you’d better count the cost first.

If you want to date or marry someone who has a lot of problems as an attempt at redemption, then that’s your decision.  Just don’t expect her to reciprocate it by treating it as some unwritten, never stated contract that says she’ll love you forever if you do.

To read more about white knighting check out Masc #33 for more details about this phenomenon.

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