Conventional Gender Roles In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
“War has been, for almost all peoples and all times, the purest test of manhood” states Evan Thomas in Why Men Love War. War is a biased and gender-preferenced activity that excludes women. During the Vietnam War, a strong backlash against the pro feminist movement was presented in novels of the time. O’Brien’s genre of literature is just that. In war, men suffer from anxiety and extreme trauma. O’Brien retells his story in order to share on a deep level, between author and audience, the nature of these experiences. But, who is welcomed into this genre of brutality and brotherhood?
In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, women are alienated from the storytelling circle of war, oversexualized and disrespected by men, and exiled whenever they try to break free of the patriarchal culture present in America. Instead of creating a story that is challenging for non-veterans, O’Brien purposely excludes women from his retelling of his Vietnam experiences. In The Things They Carried many examples of tight camaraderie exist between the soldiers with no division when it comes to race, religious affiliation, or age. Evident in their language and attitude, they all share their ideals and treatment of women. Michael Sanders describes women as “personal poontang”. The soldiers accept this vile language, revealing their shared opinion of women. The female characters lack personality, opinions or realistic experiences involving the war. Kat Riley believes all women are ignorant beings, referring to them as “those girls back home, how clean and innocent they all are, how they’ll never understand any of this, not in a million years”. He underestimates American women as domestic and mundane who do not hold the capacity to understand him.
O’Brien is gender biased because the war affects every citizen, whether they are in combat or not. He omits the stories of women who are abandoned and affected by the deaths of their husbands, brothers and fathers. He alienates them by not sharing their narratives. Women are marginalized and disregarded in terms of the war. According to O’Brien, “they weren’t listening”. For example, the first female character we encounter is Martha, a poet from Jimmy Cross’ hometown of New Jersey. She writes to Jimmy, however, she never discusses the war. Martha is silenced in the story telling cycle and we never learn the true reason behind Martha’s lack of cognition regarding the war, although she should be suffering from her own anguish as a result of Vietnam. Proven by Martha’s lack of dialogue, Lorrie Smith explains that “Martha is barely more than a plot device signifying Jimmy’s life of virility and innocence destroyed by the war”. Cross’ obsession with Martha results in fantasies in which he “wonders if Martha is a virgin”. While Jimmy contemplates Martha a man in his company is shot down by a sniper. Jimmy pushes Martha out of his mind for the safety of his men as he blames himself for the event.
The idea that men “hump” pictures and items “implies burdens far beyond the intransitive”. Humping photographs reveals an emotional side to the men. They display their more gentle, feminine sides. When Jimmy burns these photos it reinforces that women have no place in war, even in the minds and hearts of the soldiers. Cross symbolizes the destruction of femininity within soldiers as a masculine survival tactic. Smith postulates that “survival itself depends on excluding women from the masculine bond”. Sally Kramer is the best example of a female used as an outlet for a man understanding his own trauma. In the chapter “Speaking of Courage,” we are given a look into the life of Norman Baker, a soldier who is unable to become a fully functioning citizen after the war. Sally is one of the many female characters in the book with no dialogue, but is very important to Norman’s character. Norman completes crucial conversations with her in his mind. He makes harsh assumptions of how she feels and thinks. He believes Sally and her small town cannot comprehend war because they “did not know shit about shit and did not care to know”. Without giving her an opportunity to function as a character of her own, Sally, a woman, is perceived as less, as if she is unable to have meaningful conversations about Vietnam. Men use the women as accessories so they can decipher their own traumas and experiences. Lorrie Smith explains that “O’Brien represents women not as characters with sensibilities of their own, but as projections of a narrator trying to resolve their trauma of war”.
Martha and Sally’s characters are added to the list of females in the novel who have their identities stolen from them. They are simply tools for the men to find a deeper meaning or truth to themselves. These women are not only exiled from the battlefield and its stories, but are discriminated and oversexualized. When discussing soldiers who self-inflict wounds, they are described as “pussies”. Many examples of vile language occur in this novel that displays a bigoted attitude towards women. A common idea in O’Brien’s work is using immaturity as an excuse for impermissible actions. For example, Jimmy Cross condones his oversexualization of Martha because he’s young, “he’s just a kid at, war in love”.
Immaturity vindicates any incrimination even in acts of extreme violence. Azar decides to blow up a puppy and excuses himself because, “he’s just a kid”. The author highlights this rhetoric to provoke sympathy from the reader. Gender and age is no excuse for negative treatment and perceptions toward women. Jimmy Cross sexually fantasizes about Martha. He could have “carried her upstairs to her room and tied her to the bed, and touched her left knee all night long”.
This fantasy is not innocent or quixotic, but violating. The narrator does not reveal that Martha is interested in Jimmy, which makes this a transgression of all boundaries Martha had placed on their platonic relationship. However, Jimmy believes this plan is “something brave”, which demonstrates that forceful and intimidating actions against women’s consent are courageous and manly. Martha says she is glad that Jimmy had never acted on these urges, or the so called brave “things men do.” Rat Kiley’s offensive language is another notable example of the mistreatment of women. He objectifies women by categorizing them by their sex instead of as human beings. This debasing language enhances his hypermasculinity. When Curt Lemon dies, Rat Kiley is emotionally traumatized. He decides to write a letter to his sister explaining “that Lemon was a real soldier’s soldier with stainless steel balls.” This language and description of Lemon would make any sister uncomfortable. He goes as far to explain that her brother was a great guy who “liked testing himself, just man against gook”. The letter was riddled with racism and virile language. There is no question why Lemon’s sister didn’t write back, yet it is praised by the narrator as a “terrific letter”. Kiley is dependent on her response for closure. He blames her for not accepting his trauma and calls her “cooze” (65).The narrator shows a true disregard for women by describing this level of ignorance towards Curt’s sister’s emotions about her brother’s death. We must forgive Kileys’ belligerent and sexist language because he is “nineteen years old. It’s too much for him”.
The women in this novel are clearly affected by the horrors of war but are disrespected and oversexualized. They throw in with a plethora of women who will never understand. Women are categorized in the majority of this novel as blind and careless to the war. The outlier of women who don’t understand war is Mary Anne Bell. A primary theme in this novel conveys that Vietnam can change anyone once they’re “up to their eyeballs in it”. Mary Anne arrives straight out of high school. She is epitomized as the perfect, beautiful all-American girl. She is shipped in like an asset by her sweetheart, Mark Fossie. Who believes that completing this task took a “pair of solid brass balls”. As Mary Anne spends time in Vietnam the patriarchal ideals of America and Fossie seem far away to her. She second guesses her destiny as a housewife, she no longer dreams of “three kids” and considers “traveling” before marriage. The “Garden of Evil” takes hold of her and the traditional gender roles in America seem far away to her.
Smith describes the reason behind her transformation as “she is stimulated by entry to a place so exotic and masculine, beyond the constructive boundaries of a conventional society”. This is frightening to Fossie because Mary Anne becomes more in touch with her femininity and threatens his masculinity. Suddenly she disappears into the jungle and returns as a ghost that “floats across the surface of the earth, like spirits, vaporous and unreal.” Once the men come into contact with her again, they discover a completely different entity. She is no longer Mary Anne, but something beastly. She becomes the Eve of the “Garden of Evil”. This character change is notable because once Mary Anne questions the patriarchal values of American society, she turns into a frightening monster who wears human tongues around her neck. The men are unable to comprehend this level of independence within a woman. They decided there was nothing that could help her because she has turned too far away from their sexist culture and beliefs. She becomes a legend and is turned into an antidote. This re-establishes the patriarchal society where men are most comfortable.
In O’Brien’s work imagination becomes truth, the dead come to life and women are categorized as being unable to understand war. They are disrespected by the soldiers and never given enough characteristics or ideals of their own to stand apart from the order that men force upon them. They are plot devices used for men to understand their own trauma. When a woman learns combat and war better than a man, she is a threat to masculinity itself and disappears forever. This novel disproves many preconceived notions about the Vietnam war. However it leaves women exiled from the war, adding another level of pain and suffering that they are too familiar with.
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