forrest gump and his legacy
Reading Time: 11 minutes A sign! It's a sign! (Ron Cogswell, CC.)
Reading Time: 11 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Is it time for a Biff story? Oh my gosh, it is! Today, let me tell you about the time he fanboyed all over the movie Forrest Gump — and how his freakout helped me along the path to apostasy.

forrest gump and his legacy
A sign! It’s a sign! (Ron Cogswell, CC.) Obviously, Forrest Gump really totally for realsies existed then. You just don’t want to be accountable to His Gumpiness.

(Consider this your TVTropes Walkabout Warning!)

Set Your Wayback Machines for 1994.

Forrest Gump came out in July of 1994. At the time, Biff and I had recently moved to Portland, Oregon after a disastrous attempt to make our way in Japan.

Biff was still very sore at me for completely and totally wrecking his shot at becoming a hugely-wealthy evangelist and pastor in that country.

But slowly, things seemed to be getting under control again. Biff still couldn’t find a job, making me our primary and only breadwinner with my print-shop gig, but overall our lives were going fairly well. We were starting to recover financially and emotionally. He’d even found a church he liked and begun attending it — without me.

We didn’t have much money, but he really wanted to see this Forrest Gump movie in the theater. Remember, he was super-duper-Pentecostal. Officially, movies were off our menu. However, this one was rumored to pander enormously to right-wing Christians (in addition to being Boomer catnip in general — I’ve heard plenty of Boomers sneer at Ready Player One, but the facts remain that this movie was their equivalent).

So Biff wanted to see Forrest Gump.

One summer evening, then, we went out on a date together and watched it. I probably wore my super-fashionable dark purple hat with a big fake flower on the band.

My Impressions of Forrest Gump.

While we watched the movie, I remember thinking to myself, Wow, this isn’t a really impressive movie at all. 

In it, Forrest Gump galumphs through the world as a simpleton. However, he’s a wise simpleton. That makes all the difference in the world to his life.

After maturing into a sweet, likeable, innocent man who reveres his mama and his country, Forrest Gump leads this amazingly charmed life — becoming a war hero along the way — and ends up fantastically wealthy, popular, beloved, and most of all happy. People just gravitate to him in the movie — to the point that he accidentally forms a cult of personality around himself!

At the end, Forrest Gump wins his one true love Jenny. She dies soon after they unite at last, leaving him to raise their son as a single (and fantastically wealthy) father.

I thought the plot was ridiculously saccharine. In its world, people didn’t operate much like actual people. The main character himself simply wasn’t believable to me, nor even pleasant to watch.

Worse, a lot of really dark things happened in the movie that hurt and harmed a lot of people, but the movie doesn’t care at all about anything except how those events help or obstruct Forrest Gump on his journey to happiness.

An Offensive Morality System.

The movie’s morality system bothered me even more.

If someone likes the Just World Hypothesis, then this was their movie.

In this movie, Jenny represents Forrest’s lifelong love interest. Indeed, the movie defines her entire existence by her shifting relationship with the hero.

Unlike Forrest, a straight white man, Jenny suffers enormously from the sexism of her day. She becomes a flower child and experiments sexually, eventually becoming a casualty of the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. The movie makes clear that her illness and death are a punishment for her transgressions against Forrest himself, but also for her disobedience to evangelical rules.

“Lieutenant Dan,” the other main character in this movie, expresses vehement disagreement with both Forrest’s religion and America’s government. The movie punishes him as well for his dissent against Forrest and evangelical dominance: he loses both his legs in combat.

Forrest, on the other hand, gets literally everything he ever wanted as a result of his purity, rules-following, and sheer optimism. Though Jenny and Lieutenant Dan repeatedly reject him at first, eventually he wins them both to his affections.

It’s such a simplistic, overly moralistic universe. 

Like a lot of its critics, I found the movie manipulative, unconvincing, and tedious overall. I was glad when it ended — and disappointed that Biff and I had spent money we barely even had on it.

“Glamourised Gormlessness.”

Even at the time, Forrest Gump received quite a lot of criticism.

The October 6, 1994 edition of Financial Times called it “Glamourised Gormlessness.” Their reviewer, Nigel Andrews, called the main character himself “an Alabama Candide: a man around whom great events happen but who remains blithely unscathed and unimpressed by them all.” Then he marveled at how America had already become “besotted with Gump wit and wisdom.”

But maybe that infatuation shouldn’t surprise Mr. Andrews, who realizes in the end that Gump himself represents “America herself.” He writes:

He is, we begin to realise, America herself: that dear, untutored land that redeems itself by its innocence even when it creates tragedy by its ignorance. This rose-tinted mirror held up to the USA by the USA says, “If we have never truly grown up — never do grow up — nothing can truly be our fault.” If sentimentality were a crime, Forrest Gump would be put away for life. As it is, it will probably be with us for life: the ultimate feel-good film in an age when no one any longer has the courage to feel bad.

As well, The New York Times discusses how primitivism equates with purity and goodness in Movie-Land. They also call Gump “an American Candide.”

Much more recently, Screen Prism asks if Forrest Gump could be considered “conservative propaganda.” Given that Nigel Andrews directly compares the main character to Bill Clinton, I’d immediately guess probably not intentionally, and that’s more or less what they come up with as well. If anything, the movie tries too hard to play “let’s agree to disagree.”

To a great extent, these reviews all make accurate calls.

“A Bad Movie That Gets Worse With Age.”

IndieWire offers a very compelling essay exploring the movie’s authoritarian bent and focus. In “A Bad Movie That Gets Worse With Age,” they write:

Viewed today, “Forrest Gump” has the eerie aura of a science fiction movie, with its wandering central figure coming across like an alien who perceives every meaningful aspect of the world around him as so foreign he can only gaze back at it and speak his mind. However, the movie was prescient in one significant fashion. It presents a grinning idiot savant as epitomizing everything about America, suggesting that he could catapult to fame and fortune he doesn’t really earn, while people enduring genuine struggles to make a difference in the world struggle all the way to the grave. To that end, for better or worse, “Forrest Gump” was ahead of its time.

And I’d certainly agree. Forrest Gump doesn’t challenge the wrongs of its setting— and there were many, as we’ve explored many times here:

For all but a very, very few people, the 1950s and 1960s were not a fun time full of self-discovery, heroism, and wealth-gathering. Racism and sexism — as well as of course anti-gay hysteria — made life hell for a lot of people. Every one of those awful things represented a control-grab by right-wing nutjobs — one they’d sure like everyone to forget now, please.

The character Forrest Gump, created and presented as mentally-handicapped, doesn’t recognize any of this awful stuff going on around him or lay any blame for them where it rightly should go. And because he’s a straight white man, there’s no real reason for him to recognize it, much less to care about it or work to stop it.

The movie implicitly and often directly criticizes anyone who does recognize, care about, and work to right these wrongs.

Sidebar: The TVTropes List.

TVTropes has helpfully collected together a whole bunch of entries for Forrest Gump. Here’s a selection:

  • Berserk Button: he’s extremely protective of Jenny, his eternal woobie.
  • Comically Missing the Pointhe’s just so dense that he’s always missing the point of jokes, situations, and potential outcomes.
  • Determinatorhe always keeps his word, no matter what.
  • Dogged Nice Guyhe pursues his woobie Jenny to the ends of the earth, and he eventually gets rewarded with her love.
  • Dumb is Good: he literally can’t imagine anybody being mean to him; he himself is kind to everyone he meets, so he assumes everyone else will be kind to him in turn (this may indicate he possesses no theory of mind).
  • God is Goodneedless to say, he’s got a very childlike understanding of Christianity, but he’s a firm Christian all the same.
  • Idiot Heroin addition, Forrest can’t understand the dangerous situations he gets into as being incredibly dangerous.
  • Innocent Inaccurateand in that vein, he also doesn’t understand racism, sexism; nor can he recognize child abuse when he encounters it.
  • Nice Guyhe’s got to be one of the sweetest, nicest men in the entire history of movies, with the movie’s tagline being “an innocent in a nation losing its innocence.”
  • Seemingly Profound Foolhe speaks in an exaggeratedly straightforward and simplistic way, which other characters often mistake for wisdom and profundity.

None of this sounds remotely like a character or a movie I’d want to see.

So yes. Even at the time, I recognized that this movie was really bad. I didn’t even fully understand why, but I knew it was.

Biff’s Galactic Freakout.

But y’all, Biff took this movie entirely differently than I did.

After the movie finally, mercifully ended, my then-husband was uncharacteristically quiet as we made our way back to the car.

Once in it, though, he began to sob. I mean he SOBBED.

“What’s wrong?” I asked in great concern.

Gradually, he told me.

I’ll summarize here, but keep in mind this took Biff about fifteen minutes to convey. It also involved rather more mucus, sniffling, ultra-significant stares at key points, and William Shatner pauses than I feel comfortable remembering.

Biff had, you see, learned something big about life from Forrest Gump!


You see, almost everything comes down to one’s attitude!

By keeping his mind completely focused on Jesus, and by trying to cultivate as childlike a demeanor and outlook as possible, Biff could at last open himself up to all the rewards Jesus waited to give him!

HOW HOW HOW had he not realized this truth before now?

But he understood now.

At last, he finally understood.

This was what Jesus had always meant for him. This was the path Jesus had always wanted him to take. Biff just hadn’t realized it until watching Forrest Gump. He needed to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God. It was really just that simple! Jesus had spoken to him through Forrest Gump! He’d all but heard his savior’s voice!

Wasn’t I proud of him?

Wasn’t this new divinely-wrought change in him just wonderful?

Did I want to go to church with him now that I’d seen Jesus’ power in action?

I sat next to him in silence during this freakout. I marveled that he’d gotten a message that profound from a movie with about as much gravitas as a Saturday morning cereal commercial.

Geez, y’all, just imagine what might have happened if we’d gone to see The Lion King (the other big blockbuster around that time) instead that evening.

The OTT Performance.

For some reason, I felt cold and uninvolved by Biff’s blubbering performance. And “performance” is really all I can reach for as a descriptive word for what I watched him doing right then.

Normally, if someone I love is in distress I’m deeply affected by it.

I still loved Biff.

But that night, I didn’t feel anything at all as I watched him — except discomfort and annoyance. He’d dragooned me into playing audience to his Oscar-baiting performance. I didn’t appreciate it one bit.

Biff was still about six months away from realizing I was fully and completely deconverted. However, he’d already begun to express his frustration and confusion over the changes in me.

His distress wasn’t just about my refusal to attend church, of course. It was just everything. He had no idea what to do about the changes he’d observed in me — so he’d begun to do some very odd things to try to get us back on track.

Knowing that, I couldn’t help but feel he was putting on a one-man show just for my benefit.

And I didn’t want to watch a Biff-style Oscar-bait performance right then. I was tired.

I felt like I’d been dragged into an audience seat and forced to sit there while he groaned and sobbed and shrieked and carried on and spoke in tongues about this ridiculous movie. Seriously, I can’t overstate enough just how absolutely histrionic this display was — or how protracted. I was mortified for him.

His over-the-top (OTT) behavior was just so completely out-of-scope for what that movie had actually been. None of Biff’s performance felt sincere at all.

What I Think Happened.

Like a lot of narcissists, Biff didn’t possess much of a personality of his own. Instead of developing one, he had a habit of trying on and test-driving personalities and plans. He was very good at adapting himself to be whatever he thought his marks most wanted to see out of him. If the new personality didn’t get the attention or reactions he wanted, he just stepped out of it and forgot all about it. If one succeeded, then he’d cling to it long past the end of its usefulness.

So at the time, I thought Biff was trying to cast a sympathetic-magic spell. If he acted like Forrest, then he would gain the same sorts of victories as Forrest, which included my reconversion to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.

Thus, my refusal to play along with this notion represented a setback, but not much of one. He hadn’t invested that much time in creating it. So he simply reverted back to the fundagelical blowhard personality he’d honed for years.

But who knows.

Reasons are for reasonable people, as someone commented recently. I’m open to other interpretations.

And My Flubbed Lines.

When Biff’s performance finally concluded and he’d calmed down, I asked if he was okay. He nodded, swelling up for what he was completely positive was going to be an Oscar-worthy response.

Instead, I said I was glad he’d gotten so much from that movie. Then, I gently hinted that we needed to get home so I could get not-quite-enough rest for work the next day.

He visibly deflated.

We never talked about the movie — or the bizarre display he’d made of himself — ever again.

In Retrospect.

I still don’t think I made the wrong call there.

This supposedly divinely-wrought change lasted no longer than it took for us to get home. I never even bothered calling attention to its transience. It was just another Biff cycle.

it always went like this with Biff
The Biff Idea Life Cycle.

Almost every one of Biff’s ideas began and ended with his initial bombastic announcement of it as his new big thing. Once he began to realize just what it’d take to get the idea into reality, he lost interest in it and then forgot entirely that he’d ever had it in the first place.

This whole Forrest Gump thing was the first time I began to formally recognize that Biff had a cycle and that this sudden deep idolization of a movie character simply functioned as another iteration of it.

In its own way, that freakout helped me along the path of my deconversion — firming up my new rejection of Christianity through the movie itself, with Biff’s performance preparing me for all the future manipulation tactics that he and other Christians would employ in their disastrous attempts to reconvert me.

Fundagelical Catnip.

I’m still not impressed with Forrest Gump as a story. It’s more a hagiography than anything else, and as honest as such stories ever tend to be. Its main character couldn’t even be rightly considered a person, any more than Kirk Cameron’s husband character in Fireproof could be. Forrest Gump exists simply to advance a Christian morality-tale from one point to the next, and to inhabit set-pieces that will wow the target audience.

Perhaps because of those shortcomings, evangelicals at the time all seemed to love the movie. They still do like it. In 2013, a Reader’s Digest poll found that Tom Hanks, the actor playing Forrest Gump, was the most-trusted person in America.

They invoke it frequently — like this Baptist opinion piece does.

Others invoke it like this guy does, comparing a fictional Bible character to the main character of the movie. Somehow, he avoids even approaching the real reason why St. John might seem so similar to Forrest Gump.

And other Christians use it as a teaching tool, reaching for its life lessons without wondering why their religion’s roadmap never seems to get them to its promised destination. (That “teaching tool” link includes a bonus “winning team” trope!)

COOOOOOL pastors name-drop the movie in their bios to look culturally hip and relatable.

It’s just so gross.

What Matters Most.

Christians don’t realize what this movie means or why it’s so bad. To them, the main character begins as a Christian, sees his entire life through that lens, wins all his fights, and ends the movie still a Christian. That might be all they care about.

I’m just glad that I was far enough out of belief that I could recognize this movie for what it truly was when Biff decided to cast his magic spell after we’d seen it. A lot of factors had to come together for my deconversion, and this movie+freakout became one of those factors.

NEXT UP: Similarly, Christians don’t recognize why they have so much trouble putting their ideology into lived reality. Tomorrow, we’ll explore those reasons — and that trouble.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...