Forrest Gump: Conservative Propaganda

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Towards the end of the twentieth century, the United States of America was a nation struggling to keep many of its defining ideas. Many people believed the country needed to “redefine” itself, and as a consequence of this new ideology, American pop culture became the dominant platform for the creation of new narratives about American history (Wang). Furthermore, explaining these narratives about American history — especially through film — helped construct popular political sense, which is exactly what occurred in 1994. In this paper, I will argue that Robert Zemeckis’ box office hit Forrest Gump was used by conservatives to express a traditional version of recent American History, and as a tool to define the political ground for the 1994 congressional elections.

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The 1994 Republican Revolution was a conservative movement that emphasized the importance of America — mainly the Republican Party — “redefining” itself. Led by Newt Gingrich, the movement enacted a new wave of partisan politics that had never been seen before. Gingrich rose to power in the 1980s as the leader of a new assertive conservatism that merged the “moralistic language of the New Right with the mystical conservative ideas” creating a powerful ideological message (Gillon). His strategy was to blow up bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating, and then capitalize on the resulting chaos as a way to incite a populist war against Congress itself. In other words, it was Gingrich who ended up creating the hyper-partisanship that currently dominates modern politics.

Furthermore, the Republican Revolution tried to capitalize on the idea that the current family values in American society needed to be revamped. For instance, the presidential campaign of George Bush and Dan Quayle stressed the decline of American morals and made family values a major campaign issue (Fiske). Their main problem was with the disintegration of two-parent families, and how America needs to return to the traditional family setup in order for America to succeed. They stressed how single mothers — especially black mothers — are mocking the importance of fathers with their “lifestyle choices” (Wang). Simply put, their main focus was the reestablishment of the male patriarchy in American families and the reinstatement of a preferably white-male social order.

In relation to the Republican revolution, the film Forrest Gump continues the trend of idolizing family values of the 1950-60’s, which were defined by the traditional family. For example, the film basically takes all the major flaws of American culture in the 60’s & 70’s and pushes them on the female character Jenny. The film made it seem that the reason she died of AIDS was solely because of her counter-culture lifestyle, and the reason for Forrest’s success is because he chose the opposite path: the conservative one. The film promotes a very conventional conservative political position, mainly by making the counterculture life seem extremely unattractive. To illustrate further, James Burton, a professor at Salisbury University, stressed that “the film’s content and advertising campaigns were affected by the cultural climate of the 1990s, which emphasized family values and American values” (Saporito). In addition, conflict over family values was a main reason as to why this movie was such a box office success in 1994. For example, based on data acquired from IMBD’s Box Office, the film Forrest Gump ended up grossing over $667,387,716 world-wide, in large part due to the unsettling political climate. As a result, one can view this movie as a response to the questions of when, where, and how the U. S as a nation deviated from the traditional path, and who was at fault.

To summarize the film, Forrest Gump was about a slow-talking, learning disabled Southerner who wanders through four decades of American history, sequentially finding himself in the heart of several major moments in our nation’s history. In the film, Forrest wanders through the Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam War, the Black Panther Movement, and Watergate, and each event is explained through the perspective of an Alabama man with an IQ of 75. The film attempts to summarize these historical events in a simple manner for the audience, but somehow ends up reshaping some of America’s postwar history. To further explain, the historical events are told in the stylistic way of flashback, and the images displayed are reconstructed and recombined in such a way that it creates a new revisionist history of America’s past. The issue with the recontextualization of these historical events is that the audience is allowed to share in this new American history, therefore creating this wide false narrative of how these events actually occurred.

Another example of how Forrest Gump continued the trend of idolizing traditional family values is with how the film portrays the feminist movement of the 1960’s. In relation to the political message set forth by Dan Quayle, which was how women’s “lifestyle” choices are the catalysts for the feminine and feminized chaos, the film sets the stage that a “free woman” is at fault for the country’s demise (Wang). For example, the film makes it seem as if Jenny is on a path of self-destruction when she decides to be a free loving woman. Jenny ends up joining the counter-culture (hippie) lifestyle, and the film attempts to correlate her sexual experimentation with the political and cultural movements of the 1960’s. While the director mentions these conclusions are unintentional, it is difficult to ignore how the film makes it seem as if sexual freedom is the reason for the historical chaos of the time. Furthermore, as aforementioned, the far Right-wing focus of the time was the reestablishment of the male patriarchy and the reinstatement of a preferably white-male social order. The inherent demise of Jenny’s character once she chooses to be free is symbolic with the notion that once American families — mainly men — lose control of their women, bad things tend to ensue.

With regards to the Civil Rights movement, the film Forrest Gump dives deeper into the notion of selective revisionist history. For example, in the entirety of the film there are only two instances where racial conflict is depicted, the two being the famous scene with Governor George Wallace in front of the University of Alabama and the notorious Black Panther scene. While at first glance the audience member may not catch the film’s skewed angle on these instances, a deeper dive will bring those issues to light. To further illustrate, during George Wallace’s hateful speech, the viewers cannot quite comprehend the message because of Forrest’s inability to understand the speech himself, but on the other hand the Black Panther’s racial war speech is 100% comprehensible. This example reveals that Forrest Gump perpetuated the notion of keeping in line with traditional conservative views on historical events.

10 October 2020

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