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  • History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture
  • Thomas B. Byers (bio)

Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle (really, in fact, struggles develop in a kind of conscious moving forward of history), if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism. And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles. . . .

. . . And when you see these films, you find out what you have to remember.

—Michel Foucault, “Film and Popular Memory”

. . . [T]he undisputed image of man can only be created at the expense of woman.

—Susan Jeffords, “Narrative as Violence”

The morning after Forrest Gump loses his virginity and begets the son who will carry on his name, his beloved Jenny leaves him with no goodbye, [End Page 419] thereby cutting short what Forrest has just told us was “the happiest time of my life,” because during that time “me and Jenny was like a family.” 1 “For no particular reason,” according to Forrest, but implicitly in response to his grief, he takes off on a run that will not end until he has traversed the length of America four times. During this sequence, he gives a self-contradictory account of his motivations that interestingly encapsulates the entire film’s complex relation to history. As he runs, he is asked by reporters who represent the stereotypically liberal media whether he is running “for world peace . . . for the homeless . . . for women’s rights . . . or for the environment . . . or for animals. . . .” Commenting on this in voiceover, Forrest says “[t]hey just couldn’t believe that somebody would do all of that running for no particular reason. . . . I just felt like running.” A little later, however, he offers a different assessment: “My momma always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. And I think that’s what my runnin’ was all about.” On the one hand, he denies all motivation, and particularly any political intent. On the other, he admits to a certain historical project, and specifically to a need to get over the past in order to move forward.

This double account is mirrored in conflicting comments on the film by Steve Tisch, one of its two producers, on the one hand, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the other. Gingrich, speaking first, called Gump “a conservative film. People went to see it as a reaffirmation that the counterculture destroys human beings and basic values. Maybe being simple but good, and decent and romantic, is a lot better” (qtd. in Barnes 5). In response to such assessments Tisch, accepting the 1995 Best Picture Oscar, said “[a]ll over the political map, people have been calling Forrest their own. But Forrest Gump isn’t about politics or conservative values. It’s about humanity, it’s about respect, tolerance, and unconditional love” (qtd. in Courier-Journal A7, in a banner headline on the op-ed page). Like Forrest responding to the media, Tisch explicitly rejects politics and implicitly erases history (Forrest erases history by denying causal relations; Tisch does it by universalizing). Like Forrest invoking his momma, and like the film itself in its treatment of the counterculture, Gingrich admits that the recent past is a problem, and he implicitly affirms the popular audience’s effort to turn their back on it and put it behind them. In his vision, however, this move requires not [End Page 420] only a whiting out of history, but an explicitly political reinscription of it: as historiography the film becomes not a blank page but a palimpsest.

As Tisch’s and Gingrich’s statements mirror Forrest’s own contradiction, they also reflect two somewhat different, though imbricated, tendencies in the operations of the film itself: the forgetting and/or emptying out of history on the one hand, and its re-membering and rewriting on (or in) the other—a hand that at times proves to be remarkably heavy. The protagonist’s naiveté and the film’s comic-romantic veneer serve the emptying out and help lend the film a certain level of “deniability” against political critiques. On the other hand, as I will try to show later, such elements...

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pp. 419-444
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