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Masculinity & How to Carry Its Weight

Updated on September 19, 2012

“I try to laugh about it; cover it all up with lies. I try and laugh about it; hiding the tears in my eyes…'cause boys don't cry.” These famous lyrics by The Cure perfectly summarize society’s construction of masculinity and the pressure it puts on males to “be a man.” Authors Tim O’Brien and Michael Lassel put this idea into story form with the titles “The Things they Carried,” (O’Brien) and “How to Watch Your Brother Die” (Lassel). In both of these pieces, the authors magnify the social construction that says, “Because one has a penis, he should not act upon his emotions.”

In Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Lieutenant Jimmy Cross believes his masculinity is challenged after his unrequited love for a woman consumes his every thought and, as a result, one of his soldiers is shot down under his supervision. He knows that he can’t continue dreaming and feeling and the weight of this realization seems to be more than he can bear. “…while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling. He tried not to cry…he felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.” He continues to dig a foxhole so that he can have a safe place to weep. Safe from the rejection he might face because, as The Cure and society state, “boys don’t cry.” Even after the death of a fellow soldier, “they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity…and afterward, when the firing ended…they would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand…they were tough,” Not only does O’Brien reiterate society’s ever-present demand to “be a man (no matter what),” but he talks about the soldiers’ greatest fear and most common secret. “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained…they carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” This speaks incredible depths to the implications of the command, “Be a man.” It says that not only should a male go to war, kill, and die, but he should be ashamed of himself if he doesn’t.

Michael Lassell tells a similar story of society’s definition of masculinity, titled “How to Watch Your Brother Die.” This is what I would like to call a MANual; a guide to manliness when faced with a painful situation. First, Lassel says, upon the arrival of the news that your brother is dying, be calm. “Listen to the doctor with a steel face on.” It is clear in this poem that, as in “The Things They Carried,” the gender construction placed on males is that of distance, hardness, and apathy. It says that you should never show fear or discomfort; that though you’re falling apart inside, your tough exterior must remain. Unlike “The Things They Carried,” Lassell’s piece explores specifically the ways in which heterosexual masculinity defends itself against emotional connections and affections of brotherhood. Lassell points out a very large flaw in society’s construction of the male gender that a “real man” should disapprove of and feel uncomfortable with homosexuality. “Watch the tears well up in his eyes. Say, / ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what it means to be/ the lover of another man.’ … Hold him like a brother while he/ kisses you on the cheek. Think that/ you haven’t been kissed by another man since/ your father died. Think, / ‘this is no moment not to be strong.’” Strong: a word interchangeable with masculine. Strength, however, is in the eye of the beholder. A part of real strength, I believe, is being able to let go when you need to. Lassell continues to instruct, “When he slips into an irrevocable coma,/ hold his lover in your arms while he sobs,/ no longer strong. Wonder how much longer/ you will be able to be strong” (373). These instructions allow you to question your strength, but not to abandon it. Lieutenant Cross follows these instructions in “The Things They Carried.” He mourns for a time and then makes his decision. “He would accept the blame for what had happened to Ted Lavender. He would be a man about it…He would show a new strength, distancing himself.” The key to “How to Watch Your Brother Die” is distance. Michael Lassell concludes his instruction MANual with this: “Fly first class and drink Scotch. Stroke/ your split eyebrow with a finger and/ think of your brother alive. Smile/ at the memory and think/ how your children will feel in your arms,/ warm and friendly and without challenge.”

Tim O’Brien and Michael Lassell understand the tremendous pressure society puts on the male gender to act a certain way. They understand the deeper meaning to the phrase, “Boys don’t cry,” along with the demand to “Be a man.” What these phrases are really saying is that because a man was born with a penis, he is not entitled to freedom of emotion, or fear, or passion. He is a prisoner to these things, covering them up with either violence and aggression or simply apathy. “Briefly, in the rain, Lieutenant Cross saw Martha’s gray eyes gazing back at him. He understood. It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.”

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