Gender Roles In Shiloh
Stereotypes of what is masculine and what is feminine are challenged in the marriage between Norma Jean and Leroy in Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh.” Traditional male/female roles in marriage in the 1970s when the story was set suggested that men would go off to work in the morning and earn enough to support the family of wife and 2 or 3 kids as they lived in a suburban house. The wife was supposed to stay at home and take care of the 2 or 3 kids, keep the house clean, the family organized, and prepare the meals. When Leroy has a truck accident that leaves him unemployed and at home, Norma Jean must go out to support the family.
The change in their social roles forces them to recognize differences in themselves that clash with the gender roles they’ve been assigned. Without being able to identify himself as a truck driver anymore, Leroy begins to learn new hobbies such as needlepoint - a hobby that professional football players use to relax - and he does little more than stay at home and smoke pot, wasting his time on meaningless activity as he imagines women do in their traditional role. Norma Jean, on the other hand, begins lifting Leroy’s weights that he was supposed to use as part of his rehab. Her goal is to make herself hard, like a man would be expected to be. Leroy retreats into the house and tradition while Norma Jean becomes increasingly adventurous.
Setting the story at Shiloh, a battlefield where it is hard to say either the traditional side or the rebel side won, makes it hard to decide what the story is trying to say about these stereotypes. While Leroy clearly isn’t comfortable with his new life and can’t seem to find his way out of his slump even with Norma Jean’s help, Norma Jean is also lost in her new role, wanting both to be independent and to gain approval from others. In the end, she tells Leroy she wants to leave him, but there is no guarantee that she does this for a new independent life. Her exercises on her way to the river embankment seem like she’s going to as much or more of a dead end than Leroy has found.