This week my class started Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried which looks into the Vietnam War. In about two weeks my class will be splitting up into groups and discussing a film; my group has picked Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which is also about Vietnam. I mention this because O’Brien writes a lot about the idea of soldiers being actors, men playing a part, or a man performing his gendered duty.
O’Brien’s own tale in the chapter “On the Rainy River” admits that he does not support the war, in one of my favorite quotes he states
“Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons (p. 40).”
Yet he goes to Vietnam.
Through the chapter “On the Rainy River” he battles within himself to decide to flee to Canada or go to war. In this chapter I found it really powerful and revealing on why some men feel they need to go to war. O’Brien does not want to be dishonorable, a pussy, a sissy, a bitch, a coward, or any other word that is given to a man with a very natural fear of dying in a war he doesn’t believe in. This idea that society will emasculate a man because he does not wish to fight is motivating to those that do not wish to be emasculated to prove their masculinity. Masculinity’s most defining trait would be violence and a military is the largest entity of violence in a society.
O’Brien doesn’t just talk about his own performance in the military but others as well. In the next few passages he really makes a connection between the performance of masculinity and how men really feel/think.
“They afraid of dying but they were even more afraid of to show it (p. 20)”
The men had a very natural and human fear of dying but to show this fear meant they were less than a “real” man. A sissy, a coward, a pussy.
“They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself (p. 20)”
O’Brien describes the soldiers as actors. Actors have the ability to model themselves into what the audience wants. Actors in gender model themselves into what society demands.
As discussed in most of my blog masculinity is socially constructed and taught to men at a young age. So masculinity being a learned behavior could be comparable to learning to lie or to be polite; the important thing is to unlearn (not teach) this behavior. Most of the my posts deal with some learned behavior—men are unable to express their feelings, men use sexual violence as a form of control, men fear emasculation, etc, (Full Metal Jacket remarkably covers racism, homophobia, sexism, rape, and violence all in the first seven minutes). If society would change its perceptions of masculinity (and in turn femininity) then people would be people not confined to a little box of qualities that one should have and should perform.