It Just Happens Sometimes: Subverting Gender Roles in “Shiloh”
Bobby Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” is seen as a masterpiece of feminist short-fiction and it is through this prism that the author skews the traditional love story and readers’ understanding of gender roles. The story is named after a Civil War battlefield that serves as the setting for the final scene in the story where Norma Jean and Leroy face the end of their marriage. The story was published in 1982, a time in which the second wave of feminist politics was facing its most decided opposition, other women who claimed to be feminist but strongly supported the type of gender role for women that the second wave of feminism sought to dispel. What makes this story remarkable is the way in which Mason gives us characters that are opposite of those expectations.
This is most clearly expressed by Leroy when he asks his wife “[i]s this one of those women’s lib things?” (Mason 587). Arguably, this is the only time in the text when Leroy speaks as a representative for men, attempting to blame the liberated female for his inability to fulfill her emotional needs in their marriage. This is apropos because this is Leroy’s story. All of the important things that happen to Norma Jean, all of the moments that propel her character’s change, happen off-page and we only learn about them through Leroy. Those moments when we learn that Norma Jean is “startled to find Leroy at home” (Mason 579) or knows that Leroy “doesn’t know any history” (Mason 587) come through the filter of Leroy’s perspective. There is a dissatisfaction within Norma Jean, just like the women in the feminist movement, not just about how men see them but how they see themselves. Their marriage is represented through the metaphor of the log cabins in the story. The cabin he wishes to build for her is symbolic of how he wishes he could repair their marriage and escape from the reality of their life and loss. The cabin that Mabel insists they see at Shiloh is surrounded by spectators “looking for bullet holes” (Mason 586) and if the log cabin in Leroy’s mind symbolizes his idealistic view of marriage this log cabin is how Norma Jean sees it and the bullet holes are all too visible to her.
Mason muddies the waters by subverting gender stereotypes. When we meet them, Norma Jean is exercising her pectoral muscles. While exercising in and of itself is not overtly masculine, well-developed pectoral muscles are typically a hallmark of masculinity. In juxtaposition, Leroy does very little. His injury prevents him from driving…