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The Male Gender Roles of American Society During the 1960s

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“The Things They Carried”, by Tim O’Brien includes an assortment of fictional war stories, providing a moral insight into the Vietnam War for those that were privileged enough to escape its grasp or miss it altogether. What is particularly fascinating about O’Brien’s novel is his incorporation of context regarding the different gender roles existent within American society during this turbulent period of history. These stereotypes are displayed in explicit detail within the chapter entitled, ‘On The Rainy River’ of the novel, in which O’Brien deliberates the exact effect that these gender conceptions had on the young men that were told that they had to go to war.

America was in Vietnam for fear of the Domino Theory and communist expansion throughout South-East Asia, however the individual men that were made to serve, fought for very different reasons indeed. Whether or not the young men were enthusiastic or opposed to the concept of serving in the Vietnam campaign, within, ‘On the Rainy River’ of “The Things They Carried”, O’Brien suggests, through his own experiences, that the deciding factor in the decision to fight was in fact measured by the gender perception of males within the confines of society. This can be observed in reference to his moral conflictions when first presented with the draft notification in the summer of 68, stating,

“Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. The only certainty that summer was moral confusion.”

O’Brien applies the word, ‘certain’ repeatedly within this example, illustrating to us, the reader, the degree of confusion he faced with the arrival of the draft card. This confusion evolved for the reason that, in O’Brien’s case, there laid uncertainty in his opinion of whether the war in Vietnam was being fought for legitimate reasons. Although he was neither a conscientious objector nor pacifist by law, in this, O’Brien suggests that he was unable to identify with the Vietnam War in any way or form. To him, the war in simplest terms seemed wrong. Despite this, he, along with the young men around him, were prepared to place their lives in the hands of the American Government to do with them as they wished. In order for us to understand exactly how a level headed man of O’Brien’s status could offer what was essentially a sacrifice of sorts, one must first examine the position a man was expected to hold within American society during the 1960s.

As a rule, stereotypes generally dictate how, by whom and when it is socially acceptable to display an emotion. Reacting in a stereotypical manner may result in social approval, while reacting in a manner that subverts a stereotype could result in disapproval within the parameters of what society deems acceptable. Of course, for Tim O’Brien, when first presented with the draft notice in June of 1968, aside from thoughts of death and the reasons for America’s involvement in the war, his mind quickly focused on the implications involved with possibly running away from his commitments. Escaping, so to speak. This can be observed within O’Brien’s thought process,

“Run, I’d think. Then I’d think, Impossible. Then a second later I’d think, Run”.

O’Brien has intentionally applied short, succinct sentence structure in order to not only emphasize the sheer significance of having such thoughts within the scope of the stereotypical society that he lives, but also to depict the actual process in which such thoughts occurred to him. The subsequent effect of this sentence structure provides an insight for the reader, allowing him/ her to empathize with O’Brien and understand the conflictions involved in his decision-making after receiving the draft notification. Additionally, the sentence is entrapped by the word ‘run’, which in turn illustrates the captivity of his thoughts. The thoughts between these two words are insignificant as the word ‘run’ captivates the sentence and thus, his thoughts. In terms of punctuation, the author has also introduced a capital letter after each comma, regarding the words ‘Impossible’ and ‘Run’. Sub-consciously in the reader’s mind these particular words are identified in a way that allows them to stand independently, so when studied individually the sentence reads, “Run. Impossible. Run”, with italics added to the final ‘Run’ for emphasis, thus demonstrating the tantalizing appearance of the concept in O’Brien’s mind. Unfortunately for O’ Brien, and all men that received the draft notice for that part, running away from the Vietnam War carried with it very significant implications indeed as it was considered a criminal offense.

Now, besides the legal complications, there were also the social consequences to be considered. Within the journal entry entitled, “Men in America: Two Studies in Gender History”, Michael C.C. Adams argues that,

“The definition of American manhood is increasingly at odds with the expectations of American fathers.”

What this essentially means is that the gender roles existent within American society are but a product formulated by the previous generation of men. Interestingly, O’Brien acknowledges the premise of C.C. Adam’s argument within, “On the Rainy River”, stating, “My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted. It was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Cafe on Main Street, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O’Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada.”

Within this observation of his fellow townsfolk, O’Brien makes reference to the importance of ‘traditions’ within his small country town. However, he is not acknowledging the importance of the traditions so much as he is accepting the position that gender stereotypes hold within the town. O’Brien inserts colloquially frank language within the paragraph, evident in the phrase, “the damned sissy”. This diction generally presents an image of conservative, hardworking and ‘patriotic’ Americans, or in Tim O’Brien’s case, people that had lived through the Second World War. The effect of this language technique is that it illustrates the expectations that O’Brien holds in his perception of American society. Due to the fact that he has been brought up by a generation that have, in some cases, experienced war first hand, he can only imagine that his desertion will have a significantly negative appearance in their eyes. In this respect, there were really only two options for a young man placed in this situation; stay and accept the responsibilities handed to him in the form of the draft card, thus achieving social approval, or burn his draft card and escape over the border to a new life, behaving in a socially disapproving manner. In general terms, it was either ‘fight or flight’.

Tim O’Brien personally described it as a ‘schizophrenia’ of sorts, or a ‘moral split’. This is summarized within “On the Rainy River”, wherein he states, “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile… I feared ridicule and censure.”

O’Brien has applied repetition of the word, ‘feared’, in a Threefold Comparison of differentiating ideas, thus demonstrating the flawed reasoning behind his going to war; reasoning that is flawed as a result of the gender stereotypes enforced by American society. Ellipsis is also applied so as to represent his progression of thought from fearing exile, to fearing ridicule and censure. The effect of this is that the audience is once again provided with an insight into O’Brien’s thought process. O’Brien often attempts to force the reader into empathizing with himself, as it provides a medium through which one can grasp an understanding of his wartime experiences. Additionally, the word “yes” is applied in this example, serving to diminish the severity of the war by essentially removing Tim O’Brien from his true emotion self. This is for the reason that if he does not acknowledge his own genuine fear then in his mind it is non-existent.

However, what is so very disturbing about this situation is that the individual belief system of O’Brien proves ineffective when it comes time to decide upon his uncertain fate. After all, there was still the legal option of registering as a conscientious objector in the US magistrate. He had shown clear signs of legitimate moral confliction. But no, as concluded by Tim O’Brien himself, “It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was.”

In a decision that essentially involves life and death, for war does take lives, O’Brien placed his ballot in the category of death because he would be too embarrassed not to. Within this excerpt, the author has deliberately distinguished the word ‘embarrassment’ through application of a comma, allowing it to stand alone in the reader’s head before he submits the final statement, confirming that it is this fear of ridicule alone that causes a man to essentially serve up his life on a silver platter for the US military. O’Brien would kill, and perhaps die because he was embarrassed not to in the climate of his society. Furthermore, the capital ‘e’ directly after the lower case ‘morality’ illustrates the overpowering nature of the embarrassment, which in turn overrides and disguises the issue of morality. What this ultimately circulates back to is a stigma; the stigma of the time that was concerned with men being ‘real men’, and not ‘damned sissies’ as the author has so blatantly put it. O’Brien could not apply as a conscientious objector because in his mind and the rest of societies, it would place him in the same category as any other draft evader, be it by legal or illegal means.

Some hindsight for those that are not familiar with this novel, the Rainy River in O’Brien’s, “On the Rainy River”, chapter serves to represent a symbol for the crossroad in his life to which he has ultimately reached. Throughout the chapter O’Brien explains intrinsically the gender stereotypes existent within American society, the social consequences of these stereotypes, and the exact effect that they had on his own character. It is a process of sorts, and in the final segment of the chapter, O’Brien is placed on the Rainy River and left to grip the terms of his realization. That he will not remove himself from these gender perceptions, but will accept and embrace them. This is outlaid in O’Brien’s epiphany, “All I could do was cry. And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave.”

O’Brien describes his evasive plan as pitiful. It is a ‘pitiful fantasy’. Interestingly, the words pitiful and fantasy have juxtaposing connotations, as the word pitiful is synonymous with judgment and ridicule, while fantasy alludes to a source of escapism from judgment. Therefore the term, ‘pitiful fantasy’ is in fact an oxymoron, the effect of which is informative of the fact that O’Brien’s own belief system has been over powered by the male gender perceptions that dominate society. While O’Brien knows in the deepest facets of his sub-conscious that the Vietnam Campaign is innately wrong, he remains on the boat, frozen by his fear of becoming a pariah. Furthermore, O’Brien inserts the singular possessive form of “my” in a threefold accumulation:

“I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave.”

In this sentence, O’Brien’s hometown, country and life combine as a symbol for his identity. While O’Brien is aware that it is in his identity that these negative stereotypes exist, he is unable to escape them. He is not brave. Through use of the singular possessive, Tim O’Brien is demonstrating to the reader the reason why he, along with so many others, was unable to cross the border; because by crossing the border he was essentially losing everything that he had come to know. He was losing his identity. Simply by telling this story, O’Brien is acknowledging that what he did was wrong, as he did not stand up for what he believed in. He allowed societies gender perception of males to control his decision-making and for that he is eternally ashamed, as demonstrated by his emotional breakdown. But why, you ask, did a levelheaded man of his status kill other men in a war that he knew to be, by merit, wrong?

It is for the reason that when all is said and done, as human beings, what we want above all else is to fit in. The saddest truth of history is that those young men that did cross over the border never could fit back into the society that they had left behind, labeled “draft dodgers” by their own friends and mentors. As stated in the former, behavior that subverts a stereotype can and will result in disapproval within the parameters of what society deems acceptable. It is O’Brien’s inability to cross the border on that rainy day, on the rainy river that acts as evidence for the blinding authority that male gender roles domineered over young recipients of the draft card in the 1960s.

In closing, the chapter, entitled “On the Rainy River”, of Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things They Carried”, provides a valuable insight for the public into the complications encountered by the young men that received the draft card during the Vietnam War. As a receiver of the draft card himself, O’Brien reveals the emotional and moral complications of a man that was told he had to go to war by his government. Within this intimate revelation from his life experiences, O’Brien suggests that, for the majority at least, it was the gender stereotypes attached to males that provided the deciding factor for a young recipient of the draft. These stereotypes, as formulated by the previous generation of men, created a strict status quo through which essentially only two options were provided: fighting in a war that the man may or may not have believed in, or escaping across the border to a new life, thus becoming a pariah in his old one. While responsibility for the man’s decision did ultimately fall upon that man, it is indisputable, as demonstrated by O’Brien’s personal conflictions, that the male gender roles of American society during the 1960s played a significant role in the approach for recruiting soldiers into the Vietnam War.

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