“My Mama always says, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’” The aphorism can’t cross your lips without the southern twang it’s married to. The saying brings to mind Spanish moss, a box of chocolates and a square southern man with a crew-cut sitting at a bus stop wearing a neat, collared shirt buttoned tightly around his rigid neck—an endearing contrast to the old, worn-out Nike’s on his feet. Forrest Gump, at first glance, offers no impression of where he’s been in those Nike’s. He sits upright and looks as plain as day, blinking and cocking his head like a curious parrot with a smirk on his face. His syllabic Southern accent doesn’t bode well for his intellect, either. Many have referred to Forrest Gump as a stupid man, including Aeon J. Skoble, author of the essay “Forrest Gump: A Subversive Movie.”
Skoble’s critical essay about Forrest Gump begins by praising the admirable qualities of the film, including the exceptional screenplay and special effects, before comparing the film to a ‘box of chocolates,’ which is in his opinion “too sweet and not entirely healthy.” Skoble believes that by developing the heroism of a character with an I.Q. of 75, who succeeds in life by sheer luck, the grace of God, and by doing exactly what he is told, Forrest Gump emphasizes that success isn’t contingent upon hard work or intelligence. This message not only seeks to justify the apathetic attitudes of the intellectually lazy, but also undermines hard effort and devalues ability. This message, Skoble believes, is perpetuated by the naivety of the main character, but also by Forrest’s mother and Forrest’s love interest, Jenny. Skoble writes, “Gump’s mother…keeps admonishing him that he’s different from everyone else. The film insistently advances the idea that there is ‘nothing wrong with being stupid’.” Skoble also notes that Jenny’s questioning of authority and examination of the world is the product of an abusive and dysfunctional upbringing which results in a series of bad decisions and her dying of AIDS. His point is that rather than sending a message of, “an unexamined life is not worth living,” the movie sends the message that, “an examined life is not worth living.” Skoble compares the film to real life and emphasizes that in the movie, ability and hard work aren’t necessary to succeed but in reality, achievement is hard earned.
Skoble’s belief that “the idea that there is nothing wrong with being stupid” sends a “dangerous message” is, in that context, true. Indeed, of course that is a very dangerous message to send! His argument would be valid if that was, in fact, the message the movie was sending. Skoble is, in essence, saying that viewers take from the film an approval to continue with their “disengaged condition.” Assuming his readers have seen Forrest Gump, Skoble offends them as viewers by not giving them the benefit of the doubt.
In truth, the message that Forrest Gump sends may not be emphasizing intellectualism, but it is by no means down-playing the importance of hard work and ability. He earns the love of Jenny, the honor of meeting the President three times, his spot on the college football team, he earns his college degree, his Military medals of honor, his international ping-pong title and endorsement, which he uses to buy a shrimp boat, and only after that does luck take the wheel. Forrest Gump doesn’t succeed out of sheer luck or divine intervention, but by following very simple terms: obedience and persistence.
In the film, before Forrest begins anything new, someone always briefly instructs him how to do it. After the infamous cry, “Run, Forrest, run!” he runs everywhere from that moment on. He may not have done it with intention, but he ran everywhere and received a spot on a college football team as a result. Consequently, he graduated from college and joined the military, which is where obedience and persistence became his greatest aids. Forrest says in the film, “I fit in the army like one of them round pegs. It’s not really hard, you just make your bed real nice, stand up real straight and always answer every question with YES DRILL SERGENT.” Simple terms, for a difficult task that his natural abilities helped him make look easy. “GUMP!!” his drill sergeant yells, “Why did you put that weapon together so quickly, Gump?”
“You told me to drill sergeant.”
“Jesus H Christ. This is a new company record… you are going be a general someday Gump.” He succeeded in the army because he did exactly as he was told, and he was given very specific, simple directions, “Change your socks, take care of your feet… and try not to do anything stupid like gettin’ yourself killed.” Realistically, viewers realize that in a war zone, instructions are not quite this simple. Then again… in a certain respect, they are. By obeying the latter instructions and his directions to RUN he emerges from Vietnam a hero. As Forrest was recovering from a bullet wound in the hospital, a man handed him a ping-pong paddle, a ball and instructed, “The secret of this game is: no matter what happens, never, ever take your eye off the ball.” He becomes an international ping-pong champion because he has the audacity to never remove his eye from the ball! These simple terms are a big part of the message of the movie. Skoble may have perceived these uncomplicated directions as unintelligent, when in fact this rhetoric is a way of simplifying complex historical events to show it from the viewpoint of an uncomplicated man.
Philosopher Robert Fulghum writes of simple terms in his book Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. He narrates the process behind writing his annual credo, how it resembled a Supreme Court briefing “trying to cover every base, with no loose ends.” He writes, “Recently I set-out to get the statement of personal beliefs down to one page in simple terms, fully understanding the naive idealism that implied… I realized that I already know most of what’s necessary to live a meaningful life. All I really need to know… I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain but there in the sand pile at Sunday School.” Forrest Gump breaks down the complexity of the tumultuous world around him into simple terms such as Fulghum writes of; this is not stupidity, as Skoble so often implies. The world around Forrest appears complex to the viewer but the way it is explained is endearingly simplified, not pretending to be how life actually is, and I give credit to the viewer to recognize this.
Skoble believes that Jenny’s character is reprimanded for questioning authority and for leading an examined life. To a degree he is right; her character does serve as a contrast to Forrest, but not in such a way that admonishes skepticism or intellect. It is harsh and hyperbolic to think that Jenny is “driven to independent thought” by her dysfunctional upbringing and dies a tragic death as a result. In fact in the end, Jenny overcomes her harsh past and emphasis is put upon her beautiful (might I add, intelligent) son, her loving husband, and her peaceful death. Jenny’s character offers the contrast of the changing times against an unchanging Forrest Gump. Her style, attitude and activities are all spot-on with culture that doesn’t seem to influence Forrest in the least. Jenny brings realities of life to Forrest; without her character both Forrest and the viewer would be equally alienated from the ever-changing cultural climate depicted in the film. She does not serve as a tool to condemn intelligence.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” is a misnomer that emphasizes the word ‘stupid’ and not the meaning of the aphorism. When Forrest’s mother says this she means that actions determine character. Skoble interprets what his mother says to him as reinforcement that ‘there is nothing wrong with being stupid’ when in fact, if we continue to honor the validity of this saying, this phrase objectively proves that Forrest is not stupid. His actions are honorable, noble, loyal, honest (albeit naive), but to say they are stupid is a stretch of the imagination by any standard. It is interesting to note that in this film, Forrest’s mother tells him that he is ‘just like everybody else.’ As Skoble points out, he is very clearly not just like everybody else. This profoundly un-American message, the telling-off of individualism, is opposite what is considered the ‘norm’. Usually a sugar-sweet parent tells their marginally ‘unique’ child that they are absolutely one-of-a-kind… and we believe them. The fact that the viewer knows perfectly well that Forrest isn’t, in fact, just like everybody else, even as his mother says he is, jades us. Our disbelief is suspended enough to cause the viewer not to take any sort of message rewarding stupidity with success seriously.
In his most pointed statement Skoble writes, “If intelligence and analytic ability are not portrayed in the most popular film of the year as important components of the good life, an intellectually lazy generation will tacitly take this as support for their disengaged condition.” Never mind that this sentence, arbitrarily deeming a generation as ‘intellectually lazy’, offends the reader as they wonder what generation, exactly, he is referring to. Never mind that, it makes no difference. Either way, Skoble’s main point is off-base because he entirely misinterprets the actual message of the film. Intellect may not play a central role, but it isn’t obsolete, and in Forrest Gump success IS hard-earned and much deserved for a man who becomes an individual simply by doing exactly what he is told in a country that rewards individualism. It is paradoxical and ironic; he who doesn’t strive for individualism attains a unique legacy in a culture full of people who don’t normally follow directions, simply by following directions. The best part of the story is that Forrest Gump displays profound analytic ability in the conclusion of the film. In his last line he says, “I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think, maybe it’s both…maybe both are happening at the same time.”