Ever have one of those movies that you not only just don’t like but absolutely detest? A movie that you develop such an intense hatred for that you can’t even think about it without feeling the bile gurgle in your throat? I have a lot of movies like that, too, but if I had to pick the one I hate the most, it would be Forrest Gump.
First, a qualification: I have nothing bad to say about the artistry, directing or acting in this film. It’s superbly acted and beautifully shot. And who could not love Tom Hanks, right? The guy is the very embodiment of everything that the character he is playing is supposed to represent. He’s wholesome, sweet, and lacks the cynicism of today’s world. You can’t not love this guy.
Given all that, just what is it about Forrest Gump that has me hating it so much to where it’s one of my most hated films of all time? After all, look what it’s all about:
First, it’s a sweet and sentimental life story told in the vein of the inspirational “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. We are given an uplifting tale of a slow-witted man who is able to beat the odds and experience a life of successes that we could only dream of. He becomes a major celebrity, runs a successful business and achieves the American Dream in spite of so many odds being stacked against him from the start. He even fathers an adorable little child who is the epitome of sweetness and light.
Secondly, the movie plays out as a kind of combination escapist fantasy and farce. Not only does Forrest stumble across some of the most iconic events and figures in Baby Boomer history, he is completely oblivious to their historical and cultural significance. Call it the Being There of the 1990s.
Lastly, Forrest Gump presents itself as a nostalgic trip down Baby Boomer Lane. As the film unfolds, we follow him from birth up through the 1990s while touching upon every single pivotal moment and historical figure that defined the “Boomer years.” Even the soundtrack hits the right notes–every song is like something straight out of a Time Life Remembers compilation disk.
And all throughout this movie, there is some kind of tragic love story between Forrest and a childhood friend, Jenny, who lead two very different lives after they separate as young adults. While Forrest goes on to have a happy, successful life, Jenny goes down a path of self destruction before prematurely dying at a young age.
Touching, beautiful, sweet, wonderful and uplifting, right? What could be possibly wrong about all of this for someone to hate this movie?
Well, now I’ll tell you.
Forrest Gump as Historical Revisionist Propaganda
Forrest Gump came out in 1994. That year, we were still at the height of the Baby Boomer Nostalgia Craze, a period from the late 1980s to about the mid-1990s when everything from Hollywood movies to the fashion industry was taking a major look back at the Baby Boomer years, particularly the 1960s. The reason why is that this was a period when some of the most dramatic technological, cultural and sociological events of that period were hitting their 20th anniversaries. Naturally, with so many anniversaries down the pike, Boomers were beginning to reminisce about how wonderful and exciting their formative years were.
Forrest Gump looked like one of many Baby Boomer nostalgic trips that came out during the craze. But the reality is that it was only pretending to look like a nostalgia trip as a bait and switch. Audiences were supposed to go into it thinking it would be another fond look back at the Boomer Years. But the real purpose of the movie was to feed everyone propaganda about what those years and the Boomers were all about.
What was this propaganda and how did Forrest Gump present it? Let’s take a look at the so-called Jenny and Forrest romance–or, like I call it, the “fauxmance.”
If you were one of those people who were completely confused about the “love story” between the two lead characters, you were not alone. The reason why you sensed something was wrong is that when you get down to it, there was nothing remotely close to a love story between the two. Basically, their relationship–if you could call it that–boiled down to a self-centered flake writing off her mentally disabled childhood friend for most of his life, then showing up out of nowhere decades later to use him, because he was the only person left whose bridge she hadn’t burned.
Since there was no love story, what were you really seeing in Forrest Gump?
The reality is that Jenny and Forrest were not really characters so much as symbols. Jenny was a symbol of the Counterculture Boomer who protested the government and rejected tradition by living a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Forrest was a symbol of the Establishment Boomer who didn’t protest, did everything the authority figures told him to do and settled into a life of tradition.
Many people who bought into the fauxmance saw the many points of the film in which Jenny and Forrest crossed paths at various key moments of the Boomer years as a type of “two ships passing in the night” type of relationship, as in, “Awww, look at them. They were destined to be with each other. If only all this other stuff hadn’t gotten in the way.”
Although the relationship on the surface looked like it was a tragic love story between Jenny and Forrest, it wasn’t. It was really an allegory using these two symbols to teach the audience what happened to the dorks like Forrest who respected the establishment and the hip, cool kids like Jenny who joined the counterculture.
This is the real reason why we got to see Jenny and Forrest crossing paths over and over in the movie. It wasn’t about seeing two star crossed lovers constantly missing their chance at various points in their lives to be together. It was to get a blow by blow comparison of how life played out between these two Boomers as one went traditional and the other went counter-cultural.
The pattern throughout the movie is always the same. We see a bunch of great things happen to Forrest. He catches up with Jenny, and we see her singing nude at a nightclub. Years later, they cross paths again. Forrest is having a great life, contrasted with scenes of Jenny–now an antiwar protester–getting abused by her boyfriend. Years after, it happens again. In the 1970s, Forrest is having a great life, and we cut to a scene of Jenny–at the height of the disco and Sexual Revolution–contemplating suicide. Fast forward to the 1980s. We see the umpteenth great thing happening to Forrest, and now she’s dying of AIDs, a natural outcome of her sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle.
The message is clear. The kids of the 1960s who took to the streets and joined the counterculture all wound up as druggie deadbeat socially irresponsible losers who burnt out early. The kids like Forrest who respected the Establishment wound up living a perfectly charmed life.
Some people will argue all this by saying, “No, you’ve got it wrong. The reason why we see Jenny’s life going so horribly wrong compared to Forrest has to do with her terrible childhood. Forrest had a great mom. She had a terrible dad. So it’s not a statement about the counterculture as a whole. It’s about how an upbringing can impact a person for life.”
Fair point. The problem is that Forrest Gump makes it clear that it was Jenny joining the counterculture that made her life a mess, not her childhood.
Naturally, some people are going to want to counter this assertion with, “If the movie is saying that Jenny joining the counterculture is why her life went so bad, why make an issue of her abusive childhood to begin with?”
Well, the answer is so that the movie could further imply that Jenny joined the counterculture as a result of her father’s abuse. Being sexually abused, she develops a skewed sense of sexuality. Because of this, she joins the Free Love Movement of the 1960s and Sexual Revolution of the 1970s. Angry at her father, she lashes out at authority figures in general by joining the antiwar movement. Lastly, with no strong, morally upstanding parent to guide her, she also lives a nontraditional life of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Now here’s the problem that I have always had with all of this. There was nothing inherently wrong with any film wanting to counteract everyone’s rose-tinted glassed trip down memory lane of the Boomer Years. In fact, given how over the top the Baby Boomer Nostalgia Craze was, it was necessary. After all, the Boomer Years weren’t all flowers and love beads. The 1960s were the most turbulent decade in American 20th century history, and the 30 years that followed saw a large number of social problems in the fallout.
So counteracting the romanticism of the Boomer Years and the Boomers themselves has never been my issue with the film. The issue is that Forrest Gump’s alternative take on the Boomer Years isn’t objective. It’s 100% reactionary historical revisionist bullshit (pardon my French), a lot of which was based on either half truths or flat out lies.
Let’s take the scenario of Jenny dying from AIDs, for example. There was no way, no how that she would’ve both caught and died from AIDs as early as she did in the film. At the time, AIDs was a disease that had primarily afflicted gay males, and to such an extent that it was literally called the “gay cancer” for years before it was officially labeled AIDs. So the movie making it look like as if there were female fatalities in the earliest phases of the AIDs crisis is just a flat out lie, and purposely invented to imply in not so subtle ways that many women like Jenny wound up dying of AIDs as a consequence of the 1960s’ Free Love movement and the 1970s Sexual Revolution.
Another example of Forrest Gump’s playing fast and loose with the facts is its portrayal of who the members of the counterculture were and what the counterculture was all about.
Look, it’s definitely true that some kids did, in fact, join the counter-cultural movement as a response to poor upbringing. However, most members of the counterculture were kids who had grown up in perfectly stable, normal homes but had felt stifled by middle class values of the 1950s, which had stressed conformity, materialism and the blind acceptance of authority.
They were also the kids who had been made to feel like outcasts for being “different” from their conformist peers or couldn’t handle the pressure of having to live up to the extremely high standards of their middle class parents–in other words, kids like Forrest.
If you want a glimpse of who the average counterculture member was, look at Janis Joplin. Joplin was the quintessential hippie. Ironically, her upbringing couldn’t have been more traditional or Middle American.
So why did she act out? She grew up feeling completely outcast by members of her ultraconservative town and was ridiculed throughout her life for her appearance. (She was cruelly voted “ugliest man on campus” by her classmates at the University of Texas in 1962.) It was experiences like this that drove her and so many people like her to give birth to and join the counter cultural movements of the 1960s. Not child abuse. Not coming from a broken home. Being different–like Forrest.
So, contrary to Forrest Gump‘s simplistic viewpoint, it wasn’t the case that anyone who had bad parenting wound up in the counterculture and anyone who grew up in a traditional, ultraconservative household like Forrest didn’t. Not even close. More members of the counterculture came from the type of morally upstanding, conservative upbringing that Forrest had than you would think.
If that was the case, why did Forrest Gump go out of its way to say that the hippies and everyone else who was a part of it were the products of child abuse or came from broken homes? The answer is simple–to suggest that there was nothing legitimate about the 1960s protest and counterculture movements, that all it really came down to was a bunch of hurt angry and confused kids acting out the pain of child abuse and bad parenting. In other words, if everyone had had the morally upstanding, traditional parent that Forrest had, there would’ve been no counterculture.
This, of course, is ridiculous. The 1950s and 1960s were a period in which blacks were being hosed down like dogs in the South, Civil Rights workers murdered in cold blood and gay men routinely rounded up, beaten up and arrested in police raids. This was an era in which kids with their whole lives ahead of them were being drafted into a war that didn’t make sense to them. This was also the era in which there was a growing cynicism about government after the Warren Commission’s report on the JFK assassination.
To suggest that the only reason why the counterculture happened was that everyone was either damaged goods or had terrible parents is a disgusting dismissal of the very real social, political and cultural issues that were not only plaguing the United States but the world as a whole.
It’s bad enough that Forrest Gump basically lied about AIDs and who and what the counterculture was all about, it further piled on by making it seem as if the children of the counterculture merely became burnt out losers who all wound up dying of AIDs while Establishment Boomers like Forrest Gump went on to live amazingly successful, wholesome lives.
You’re kidding me, right? Look, I’ll give you this–probably next to no Establishment Boomers died young from sex, drugs and rock and roll. But while very few didn’t, many of them lived well into middle age being hooked on booze and pills, with vicodin and other painkillers–not heroin–being the drug of choice. Others died early from heart disease and all types of other cancers–particularly lung cancer–while laughing off health nuts, environmentalists and the anti-smoking lobbyists who warned them about the dangers of smoking, pollution and a fatty diet.
Furthermore, many of them didn’t come close to embodying the wholesome “apple pie” American values that Forrest Gump is supposed to represent. If you want to see what became of Establishment Boomers, here ya go: Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Dennis Miller, Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity. There are your Establishment Boomers right there–angry, belligerent, divisive demagogues perpetually at war with the world and even other Americans in the name of patriotism, not a bunch of sweet, angelic-faced dorks spouting cheesy aphorisms on a park bench about chocolates. Gimme a break.
A 1950s Educational Film Writ Large
Besides feeding audiences a line of bull as to what the 1960s counterculture and the Baby Boomers were all about, there was another purpose to the Jenny and Forrest fauxmance of Forrest Gump–to serve as a heavy-handed, simpleminded morality and cautionary tale. There’s the message that if you always respect authority, never protest and hold the right kind of values–in other words, toe the line–you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams, and you’ll live a charmed existence. Everything will just fall into your lap like magic. Don’t toe the line, and you will wind up like Jenny–miserable, lonely and dead at a young age of a fatal venereal disease.
All of this is another reason why I can’t stand Forrest Gump. It has all the pretensions of being an Oscar-worthy film and timeless cinematic masterpiece. But strip away the lush cinematography, inspired casting, great direction and amazing special effects and what do you really have? An insipid 1950s educational film, the type that used to be shown in classrooms teaching children how to be good, upstanding American citizens. All that was missing was the stilted narration and a title card saying, “The End.”
Retard Jesus Trope [ETA: 3/2/20]
Throughout movie history, Hollywood has pushed archetypes that on the surface seem innocuous but in reality are offensive, lazy or stupid for one reason or the other–for example, the Magical Negro, the White Savior, the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. Forrest Gump was probably the first movie to create what I call the “Retard Jesus” trope. This is an archetype based on a condescending stereotype about the mentally disabled, that because many have the mental capacity of young children, they are loving and sweet to the point of being angelic. They never get angry, depressed or frustrated; they never swear, become disruptive or even physically aggressive. They’re Jesus personified. (It was this stereotype that Family Guy cleverly skewered in the episode, Extra Large Medium. In that one, Chris Griffin dates an “adorable” girl with Downs Syndrome, only to learn that she’s just as much as a jerk as anybody else.)
Forrest Gump not only perpetuated this stereotype, but compounded it by somehow suggesting that because mentally disabled people are so pure of heart, they’re blessed with the sort of divine grace in which nothing bad can ever happen to them. Life for the mentally disabled is hunky-dory peachy-keen while it’s miserable for everyone else. Opportunities magically fall into their laps, they can dodge bullets literally and figuratively (like not get killed in Vietnam or contract AIDs after sleeping with a partner dying from the disease).
There are a million reasons to explain why this Retard Jesus trope is offensive, but in service of this blog post, I’ll drill down to the most relevant one–what makes it so offensive in this particular movie is the cynical reason behind it. Forrest Grump creates this archetype under pretense of humanizing the mentally disabled; but the real reason why the film created it was to push populist agenda. The idea was to underscore its message that it’s good to be ignorant, stupid and mediocre like Forrest, because all three traits are a virtue.
Why are they a virtue? Not only will you become a more moral person, you’ll stay out of trouble and never have to deal with the anger, pain and frustration that comes with living at full mental capacity, since you’ll be living a charmed life. For example, if you don’t know enough about sex, you’ll never be in a position to contract HIV like Jenny did; if you don’t know enough about the Real World (and all its injustices), you’ll never wind up getting mixed up with a “bad crowd” (rabble-rousing, drug-taking hippies and militant black protestors). Remain deaf, blind and dumb and life will be great, because ignorance is bliss.
Forrest Gump as Petty-Based Fantasy
Out of all the issues that I’ve addressed, the thing I find most repellent about Forrest Gump is what drives the fantastical elements behind it. You see, usually fantasy is based on positive elements meant to create a sense of awe and delight in the audience, such as flight of fancy, whimsy and humor. The fantastical elements of Forrest Gump may seem like they’re in the spirit of something uplifting, but what drives the film isn’t whimsy or anything else remotely like that. What drives it is pettiness.
What do I mean by that? Well, in the 1960s, there was a huge culture war between the Counterculture and the Establishment, or–to put it in plainer terms–the hip, cool kids who lived life off the beaten path and the dorky kids (aka as “squares”) who lived life on the straight and narrow. In the end, the cool kids won. By 1969, they not only got to shape the country’s future politically, socially and culturally, they made their mark in history. Many of them, like Janis Joplin, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, became legends and immortalized. The uncool kids, on the other hand fell by the wayside and became forgotten.
For members of the Establishment, it must have burned in their craw to see so many of their hated rivals being lionized as the unsung heroes of that period. But also, when the Baby Boomer Craze hit, there must have been a feeling of being underrepresented, perhaps even the feeling of being completely left out of the official Boomer narrative altogether. That is understandable. After all, as far as that narrative was concerned, the 1960s and 70s were all about the iconoclasts–the hippies, the yippies and the rock and rollers. Everyone else–the “squares”–might as well not have existed.
I can only imagine that all this undivided media attention on celebrating the sheer awesomeness of the 1960s counterculture and its icons resulted in the type of anger, jealousy and frustration that caused Jan Brady to famously rant on The Brady Bunch, “Marsha Marsha Marsha!” Except in their case it was, “Janis Janis Janis!” and “Jimi Jimi Jimi!”
As a traditionalist feeling left out by the Baby Boomer Nostalgia Craze, what to do? Well, you can put out a historical revisionist film that tarnishes the cool kids’ legacies by portraying them as being nothing more but a bunch of druggie burnouts who made nothing of their lives and died of AIDs (see: Jenny). But you know what else you can do? You can also use this film to peddle an alternative history fantasy as an answer to the Baby Boomer Nostalgia Craze.
To elaborate further, like I said previously, the craze was all about the counter cultural icons of the 1960s and 1970s and no one else. For the most part, that period belonged to the Jimi Hendrixes, Jerry Garcias, Bob Dylans and Abbie Hoffmans, not the Perry Comos, Andy Williamses and Nancy Sinatra Jrs. Imagine someone envisioning an alternative history in which the Establishment was not only just as important to Boomer history as the counterculture, but had a folk hero of their own who was just as big, if not bigger than the counter cultural icons ever were? Imagine that scenario and what you have is the movie, Forrest Gump.
Think about it. What do you think was really behind the “joke” of Forrest basically becoming the most famous, successful and iconic Boomer of all time? Or the fact that it was he who became indirectly or directly responsible for all the key defining moments and pop cultural trends of the Boomer Years?
The John Lennon segment says it all. John Lennon–a classic 1960s rebel–was one of the most iconic figures of the Baby Boomer years. His Dick Cavett appearance was an equally iconic moment in Boomer history that was replayed ad nauseum during the Baby Boomer Nostalgia Craze. In Forrest Gump, look what happens in the scene in which Forrest is doctored into the famous John Lennon TV segment. He steals the spotlight from Lennon. Because of this, he becomes just as much a part of that iconic episode as Lennon.
This is what having Forrest being the epicenter of Baby Boomer culture was all about. It wasn’t really about making a joke in the vein of the movie, Being There. It was about the Establishment creating an alternative history in which a member of their own became just as iconic and as integral a part of Boomer history as the counterculture’s icons, if not more. In other words, it was about the “square” kids of the 1960s saying, “If they had Janis and Jimi, we had Forrest, and he was bigger and better than they ever were.”
Forrest Gump also allowed the square kids a feeling of representation in the Boomer narrative, which up until that moment, had completely excluded people like them who had never joined a protest, never did drugs or drank, always listened to authority and did things like wait until they got married to have sex. Of course, the alternative history scenario was total fantasy-based. But it didn’t matter. What mattered was to have something–no matter how illusory–that could finally make them feel as if they were just as important a part of Boomer history as the counterculture.
Now You Know Why I Hate Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump may have done an amazing job trying to portray itself as nothing but a sweet, wholesome, feel-good nostalgic movie and inspirational tale. However, for those who were old enough to remember the 1960s or have lived in its immediate aftermath, and for people who aren’t easily manipulated, it’s very easy to see the movie for what it truly is–petty fantasy, 1950s educational film and historical revisionist propaganda of the worst kind.
This is why I will never in a million years respect or like this film, no matter how many times people try to convince me that it’s one of the best movies of all time, no matter how many times people try to sell me on how “positive” and “uplifting” it is, no matter how many times people try to remind me how many Oscars it won. Forrest Gump is cynical junk. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted junk, but cynical junk nevertheless.