The Unrealistic Life Lessons of FORREST GUMP

Revisiting the cinematic equivalent of dad jeans. 

Forrest Gump

On the surface, Robert Zemeckis' film is a story about overcoming obstacles, about the way that the least likely human being can influence and affect so much of our history, about the ways in which we shouldn't underestimate the little guy or treat people who are different from us poorly. It's a feel-good movie with mawkish and contrived emotional beats that bludgeon that place in your brain where you think your heart lives. Forrest Gump is such a dad movie that to love it today, people would deride you as dad-core and wonder if you own a cellphone holster to attach to your leather belt that's holding up your Dockers.

For years, I identified Forrest Gump with my father, and I've overlooked its flaws because it seems so harmless and earnest. The film is best-viewed with your brain reduced to the cognitive power of the film's protagonist, played with wide-eyed naiveté by Tom Hanks - who is undoubtedly your father's favorite actor (unless he's a Kevin Costner or Tommy Lee Jones man; your dad's mileage may vary). This cinematic equivalent of dad jeans won Best Picture at the Oscars, and although "best" is merely subjective, Forrest Gump defeated both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption - the latter of which is the favorite film of many exceedingly basic white people, and probably your dad's second favorite movie of all time.

But here's the problem with Forrest Gump, and it directly relates to my generation and the ones who came after: at its heart, it's a film that validates the thinking that we are all special snowflakes, that we are all more than capable of achieving our dreams through circumstance rather than hard work and talent, that we should be persistently coddled rather than learn from our mistakes or grow intellectually and emotionally. Does Forrest Gump grow? In height and age, and, I suppose, in some emotional measure - although much of his emotional growth correlates with the story of Jenny, a free-spirited and understandably flawed woman who lives through the '60s like she gives a damn.

If Forrest Gump has ideals, they're decidedly more conservative. He consistently comes to Jenny's "rescue," the oblivious white knight who charges across the floor at a cabaret to cover her naked body from leering men (who also don't appreciate her acoustic Bob Dylan performance art). Forrest tells Jenny what's best for her, rescues her from an abusive hippie, and tries to keep her locked up in his fine southern home like a princess in need of protecting. Jenny evolves over the years, but Forrest simplistically remains the same. "I'm not a smart man," he tells Jenny, "but I know what love is." Unfortunately, love is not pushing your agenda, however unwittingly, onto someone you care about.

At every improbably momentous turn in Forrest's life, he's rewarded for his simplicity. Of course it's not his fault that he's not as intelligent as the rest of us, and the message of Zemeckis' film means well: those who are mentally-challenged are by no means stupid or incompetent; in fact, you could argue that Forrest is more emotionally evolved because he looks at life through a much more simple lens. But there's an unrealistic message packaged inside the film's rose-colored outlook like a Trojan horse - a message which says that we can and will be rewarded for our stupidity, and that happy circumstances will carry us through life like a feather floating on the breeze. Life will coddle and make concessions for you, and people will adapt to suit your needs and your way of thinking. People will come down to your level, so you need never rise above or adapt.

Forrest becomes an entrepreneur through sheer luck and circumstance, the same way he's succeeded in everything else. Everyone finds his deficiency endearing. President Nixon looks at Forrest as if a tiny dog just did a backflip. People join Forrest on his impulsive run across the country and readily devour every word he says as if he's some sage spiritual guru, and every mundane utterance is accepted as some divine platitude. These moments are meant to be perceived as comedic, but instead they simply reinforce the idea that everything we do is special and amazing and wonderful and worthy of praise; that we should be rewarded for simply existing; that every minute achievement deserves to be stuck to the collective, figurative refrigerator of life with a magnet your parents brought back from a tourist gift shop in Florida.

No one wants to feel as though they exist for no reason; everyone wants to feel as though their lives are exceedingly special. This isn't to say that you're not special or unique, but the idea that you should be coddled and rewarded simply for being alive is absurd. Forrest Gump leads an incredibly and improbably charmed life despite never really earning everything he's given. He comes into a nice home because his mother dies. He takes his dead friend's idea and starts a business, which only becomes successful due to a coincidental (some would say divine) storm. He just happens to invest in Apple because someone told him to, so he becomes a millionaire. I'm not arguing over whether or not Forrest Gump is a good person; he is, and he does many kind things because they are simply the right things to do.

But this idea that we can just coast through life and get everything we want and need without much effort is toxic. The character of Forrest Gump isn't stupid, he's just challenged, but in the metaphorical sense, the film teaches us that it's okay to not challenge ourselves mentally and intellectually, and enables a sense of entitlement. Life should be challenging. Life should be trying and unpleasant sometimes. Obstacles are difficult to overcome, and sometimes we'll be defeated. We should stop often to reflect upon ourselves and our lives and strive to improve our attitudes, our intellect and our emotional flaws. We can't wait around for life to shit gold into our cupped hands, or just assume that everything and everyone will adapt to our deficiencies and flaws. To repurpose a sentiment from the film, good shit doesn't just "happen."

To borrow another: stupid is as stupid does, but it's not endearing the same way that people find Forrest to be endearing, and it shouldn't be celebrated. Forrest Gump isn't a smart man through no fault of his own, and his fictive endeavors are intended to inspire us, and to make us realize that a mentally-challenged or handicapped person is just as capable of greatness as those of us who are more mentally or physically privileged. But the message it gives to generations instilled with a false sense of individualism and entitlement is decidedly negative: just keep being your stupid, willful self and the world will reward you for it.