Men with Feelings: Breaking the Gender Stereotype
Men are commonly characterized as individuals depriving themselves of the capacity to openly exhibit certain types of feelings. At best, they are usually portrayed as rarely showing their emotional side. This gender stereotype is further reinforced in literature and mass media, to name a few, by showing men as people more inclined to put emphasis on their bodily characteristics such as physical strength. Perhaps the stereotype is more attached to male soldiers than anyone else simply because they are primarily tasked to serve and protect people with the sheer use of force. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, however, departs from such stereotyping of men especially soldiers in the line of duty. In the novel, soldiers enduring the battlefields of Vietnam during the height of the war are shown what others may describe as their barely visible side as human beings capable of displaying sentiments. Through a poignant exposition of the things that the American soldiers carried, the story gives justice to the often neglected idea that even men are able to feel and remember the things that make them realize that life becomes too unbearable at times because of the burden of carrying heavy emotions.
The focus of the story is on the items the soldiers carry while marching through the battlefields of Vietnam. Each of the items that every soldier brings with him represents a certain personal memory. Aside from the things that soldiers may deem as part of the “essentials” in his job such as “P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, [and] wristwatches” (p. 2), there are also other things in their possession while on duty, things such as letters from loved ones. In the opening part of the novel, O’Brien narrates how “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross” would imagine many things at night while holding “letters from a girl named Martha,” letters that “were not love letters” although the Lieutenant hoped that they were (p. 1). Right at the onset of the novel, the reader is immediately given the impression of how male soldiers behaved while in the battlefield, albeit resting after a hard day’s work.
Another crucial aspect of the things that the soldiers carried with them is the author’s consistent description of some items in terms of weight. For instance, O’Brien describes the letter that Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried as “weigh[ing] 10 ounces” (p. 2) and yet it seems that the sheer weight of the memories that came with it was almost unbearable. Despite the fact that he attempted to burn Martha’s letters in the hopes of getting rid of the emotional weight that it gave, the Lieutenant “realized that it was only a gesture” and it “was mostly stupid” (p. 23), perhaps because, after all, the content of the letters are all in his memory. The Lieutenant may get rid of the physical weight of the letters measuring to a mere 10 ounces, but the truth is that there is hardly any plausible way for him other than dying in the battlefield to lose those memories for the rest of his life. At best, getting rid of the physical items that causes someone to remember memories of his past and his relationships with others can only take them as far as temporarily forgetting about such memories.
Indeed, the most interesting parts of the story are those which give emphasis on the intangible things that the soldiers carry with them. For example, Lieutenant Cross “humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps” (pp. 3-4). It is apparent that the Lieutenant carried his love for the girl wherever he went while on duty which “implied burdens far beyond the intransitive” (p. 4). Another example is the case of Ted Lavender “who was scared” and was eventually shot down “under an exceptional burden” coming from “more than 20 pounds of ammunition” and “the unweighed [sic] fear” (p. 6). Cowardice is yet another intangible thing that the soldiers tried to leave behind but was always trailing them wherever they went and ready to take over their senses the moment it strikes. O’Brien narrates that “cowardice barely restrained the instinct to run or freeze or hide” and “was the heaviest burden of all for it could never be put down” (p. 21). It is the idea that cowardice can never be put down that clearly brings to mind that men especially soldiers are not without fear. On the contrary, even soldiers are able to feel fear despite how some people may view them as individuals leaning on an insurmountable fortress.
The first chapter of the novel provides the essential illustrations in showing that men in general are also very much capable of feeling emotions and showing their feelings to a certain point. It also exhibits how men tend to cope when faced with the challenge of living up to their emotions and the memories that incite them. What the chapter does not reveal is how men deal with their emotions in front of women. Nevertheless, it would suffice to say that men can show what people call their soft side and that the gender stereotype that men are unable to do so is far from the truth. Soldiers in the battlefield like those in The Things They Carried offer a glimpse into the reality that men can in some cases melt into an emotional state so much so that the things that remind them of their heartfelt memories can only deepen their sentiments to the point of becoming inseparable from every moment of their lives. One can only guess that, perhaps, in the face of possible death far away from their loved ones, men are more prone to succumbing to their emotions rather than at times when they are close or together with the people they have strong emotional attachments with.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston, MA: Broadway, 1998.