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Things They Carry

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Things They Carry

This quote is stated by John F. Kennedy in one of his speeches during the Vietnam War. He mentions that only ‘men are killed or wounded in war’ and never states women. In the book The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien gender stereotypes women who are involved in the Vietnam War, he represents this through most of the short stories. Stories in particular; “Love”, “Stockings”, and “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” which describes one woman who participated in the Vietnam War and went beyond some of her gender roles that are placed on her. In this war women had certain roles they had to fulfill with many of them being non-traditional ones. This paper will discuss the concept of sexism in the stories Tim O’Brien expresses during the Vietnam War.

Although women play a small role in The Things They Carried, it is a significant one. Female characters such as Martha, Mary Anne Bell, and Henry Dobbins’s unnamed girlfriend all affect the men of the Alpha Company, although in two of the cases, the women aren’t even with the men they are affecting. The men idealize the women and use their presence; in letters, photographs, and even their imagination, as a kind of heaven and a reminder that a world does exist outside the mayhem of the Vietnam War. Jimmy Cross, in “Love”, carries pictures of Martha and memories of their only date. He carries, also, the hope that she might one day return his love so that he has something to look forward to after the war. Martha is pictured as the girl in the high shorts playing volleyball, never as the women who could have a job with her own life. Jimmy Cross can not let go of the girl that he knew.

In “Stockings,” Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose for a similar reason: to remind him of home and to distract him from the harsh realities of the war and they giving him a feeling and a state of mind that he is invincible because of those pantyhose. Even though she dumps Henry, the fact that Henry still thinks that she is not connected with the war and she couldn’t be involved with something this horrible. He still sees her as something pure, untouched, and chaste still gives him that feeling of invincibility, so he still wears the stockings. “No sweat. The magic doesn't go away” (118).

These men think of the women because they believe their presence might save them from the horrors before them and to have something from home with them. Home is where there is peace, where you don’t have to watch for booby traps or for snipers. You are free to think about the future without a care in the world, you do not have to worry that your life could be over before the next sunset. These men do not think of these women as beings with thoughts, fears, and needs. They instead see them as things that aren’t involved in the war or their lives at this particular moment. The soldiers look at them as outsiders, like the soldiers do in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” towards the Greenies. People that come and go without a trace, stay when they want, or write when they want. They have no real responsibilities, only to that of each other.

Women in the Vietnam War had numerous roles they had to fulfill both physically and mentally. For example in the story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” the character Mary Anne is flown down by her boyfriend to Vietnam. She is dressed in “White culottes and a sexy pink sweater” (90) which are very traditional for a woman. “Right off the bat the men were attracted to her and was especially liked when she wore her cut-off blue jeans and a swimsuit top that was black” (95). In this instance she was representing a traditional feminine role in her dress and her actions. Traditionally

women in the war were nurses; women worked for the Red Cross or worked in other types of medical facility, never in combat. Also you found women who were on the Clerical staff and who were Support Personnel. Only on a few occasions did you find a woman who actually fought in the war.

Some roles women had were non-traditional. In the same story that was represented in the preceding paragraph Mary Anne shows some of her own non-traditional roles. “She becomes very fond of military paraphernalia and even blackens her face with charcoal and carries around an M-16” (102). Her hygiene also becomes second hand.

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