Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jenny and Motherhood

“Jenny’s private trauma comes to stand not for the toxicity of familial privacy or patriarchal control of children, but for a public ill whose remedy seems bizarrely to require a return to the family, albeit a kinder, gentler, more antiseptic one. Before Jenny dies she is redeemed from her place as an abject sexual and historical subject via an act of reproductive sex with Forrest.”

Berlant, Lauren. “On Being Normal, Average, Common, Ordinary, Standard, Typical, and Usual in Contemporary America.” The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham: Duke University, 1997.

Berlant’s feminist reading of Forrest Gump critiques the movie’s advocacy for the family—which she sees as inherently patriarchal. For Berlant, Jenny’s redemption from the terrors of the “sexual and political revolution of the ‘60s, the drugs and disco culture of the ‘70s, and then, finally, the Aids pandemic of the ‘80s” (182) is reproductive sex. This indicates for Berlant the conservative bias underlying the film—that is, that reproductive sex is good and healthy and non-reproductive sex is unhealthy and immoral. I disagree with Berlant’s harsh reading. Throughout the film, we see time and time again how Jenny takes Forrest’s affections for granted, abandoning him repeatedly. In the final stage of the movie, when she returns after a long hiatus, she moves in with Forrest for a while and seems to be approaching happiness and healing for the first time after a troubled, traumatic past. Forrest asks her to marry him, and she declines—to which Forrest imparts the rejoinder “I know what love is” to her rejection. The following night, she comes into his room and has sex with Forrest. I disagree with Berlant’s interpretation that the sex is necessarily portrayed as a redeeming act. While I do believe both characters were emotionally engaged, it seemed to me as though Jenny felt some degree of responsibility to Forrest—as if she owed him something for all the time she abandoned him. The next morning she leaves before Forrest awakes and disappears for years—and the sequence of her leaving looks no different than the earlier sequences in the movie of her leaving and running away from other lovers. Berlant may argue that Jenny intended conception—intending to pay Forrest back with a child for his devotion, but I think the fact that Jenny disappears for multiple years denies the credibility of this reading. Jenny knew she could not continue to torture Forrest by staying with him and refusing to marry him, so she left. Only when she has lived on her own for a while, had the child, and become responsible for the child does she contact Forrest. One could argue too that Jenny decided to marry Forrest because she felt she owed it to him, making the marriage both an emotional engagement and an ameliorating act. Also, if one watches Forrest’s face carefully when Jenny proposes, he looks troubled—almost as if he senses the possibility of her proposal as an act of pity and/or apology. She does, however, prove faithful in the end. The point of all this is that Berlant fails to prove that Jenny’s reproductive sex is directly related to her redemption; she leaves the years of Jenny’s absence an unexplained blank, and seems to argue that Jenny gifted Forrest with a child. The evidence is simply correlational evidence; after all, Jenny could have chosen to be a single mother. What was her motive for contacting Forrest? The fact that she ran away proves that she didn't plan on having a child. Berlant assumes that Jenny needed the redemptive family--but I think if anything she needed to be away from males for some time. This is corroborated by the fact that when Forrest visits Jenny one of Jenny's friends walks in, and she is female, when the audience is certainly expecting another male lover.

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