It started with a Reddit post.
Alright, let’s go back a bit – technically it really began in 1986 with a novel by Winston Groom – but the point remains. If you google “Jenny from Forrest Gump”, one of the top results is titled “Worst Character Ever.” It sets the tone for a barrage of hits that can be summarised as just about that; Jenny is a bitch, don’t you know that?
It seems to be a popular view, and maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise; the film’s protagonist is Forrest, after all. Kind, sweet, vulnerable, and given the run around by her more than once (there’s not getting away from that). His emotional turmoil is tied up in Jenny, and her push-pull relationship with him forms much of the film’s backbone. It’s an undeniable fact that Jenny isn’t always kind to Forrest, and she hurts him more than once.
So, why isn’t Jenny actually the Worst Character Ever?
It can be tempting – and often the default – to stubbornly refuse to see a film from more than one perspective. The protagonist is the protagonist precisely because it’s their perspective we’re watching, and mainstream movies don’t always ask us to switch it up and look at the world upside down. But Forrest Gump is one of those rarer-than-we’d-like creatures, a box office success with a hundred onion layers to peel away – and the most important of those onion layers is Jenny.
The Reddit post in question threw out the open-ended question, “Who is the most misunderstood character in all of fiction?” (that’s all of fiction, guys). Answers range from the Phantom of the Opera to Long John Silver to Tom from Tom and Jerry. And pretty high up on the list? Our already-mentioned contender for Worst Character Ever.
Coming in at over one thousand words, this Redditor’s spirited defence of Jenny is like opening a Pandora’s box. Even long-time defenders might have their eyes opened by its detailed reasoning and psychological breakdown of the character, pulling at threads the movie only hints at.
“Instead of realizing that narrative even exists in the story,” Namtara says, “people just bitch about how Jenny is such a slut, but she won’t even love the only person who cares about her. Jenny always loved Forrest, during the whole fucking movie. She loved him so much, she thought she was taking advantage of him and ran away for his sake. She didn’t realize she was wrong until it was almost too late.”
Nailed it. Jenny’s push-pull relationship with Forrest is not about indecision or an easy ride, but the spiralling decisions of a woman suffering abuse from all (but one) of the men in her life. It’s this crucial, crucial fact that “Worst Character Ever” arguments seem to miss entirely – and it’s the most important one of all.
There are two things that Jenny’s character suffers from, and one of them is that she’s a woman. Not because female characters are the weak link, but because audience expectations and reactions are. Put Jenny and Lieutenant Dan’s stories side by side; both suffer from familial abuse (one physical, one emotional) and carry it with them to such an extent that it shapes their lives and their almost-deaths. Jenny doesn’t value herself enough to understand Forrest’s unconditional love, and neither does Lieutenant Dan. Yet Lieutenant Dan (admittedly a wonderful character in his own right) doesn’t get half of, if any, of the flack that Jenny does; the world isn’t conditioned to see their periodic rejections of Forrest as part of the same journey.
Jenny also suffers from one of the film’s most defining characteristics – its innocence. We might get hints of the darkness – Jenny’s sexual abuse as a child, her drug use, the trail of abusive boyfriends that follow – but even if the audience is aware of these things, the film always reflects Forrest’s own naivety. It acts like a blanket – though the knowledge is there, the film’s haze of optimism buffers these facts, rendering them less real than Jenny’s direct interactions with Forrest. The audience takes on a childlike attachment to black and white – Forrest is good, and Jenny is bad. Even those who might usually sympathise are tricked into the sincere opinion that Jenny is a bitch from hell.
Times change, of course. The Pandora’s box is open now, and the world is undeniably more progressive than it was twenty years ago, but the thread of misunderstanding that has blighted Jenny seems to remain, stubborn as a red wine stain. It’s an undeniable casualty of the representation of women in film, and it’s important to embrace it and to engage with the argument on that level – but it’s also a long-held and unnecessary butchering of a truly brilliant character. Forrest is lovely – the most loveable protagonist in cinema, even – but his emotional development does not anchor the film. Forrest’s story begins with love, continues with love, and ends with love; the flaws, mistakes, and character development belong to Lieutenant Dan and Jenny.
Without Jenny – without the house at the end of the lane, or the Washington monument, or that moment of indecision on the edge of a balcony high, high up – the film would be so much poorer. So do yourself a favour – go and watch it again. And this time, don’t judge Jenny. Just try and understand her.