WHAT FORREST GUMP’S MOM TAUGHT ME ABOUT DISABILITY IN THE MEDIA:
Taking a break from comic book fights for a minute, I wanted to talk about great moms to disabled characters in honor of this past mother’s day. My first exposure to a disabled character was Forrest Gump, and from the moment Forrest’s mom has her son’s mental condition described to her, she adopts a strong can-do attitude and just takes to explaining things so her son can understand them. It is through her that he learns the witticism: “Life is a box of chocolates…” and he learns how to focus on what he’s got instead of what he doesn’t.
Invariably, this helps him on his trek through American history, running across the U.S. (Along with Jenny’s “Run Forrest, run!” we have “Momma said they was my magic shoes.”) and his experiences in ‘Nam, in love, and generally just preferring to explain things in ways he can understand. “…and that’s all I have to say about that!” I remember seeing this as a kid, and thinking how cool it was that the main character was disabled, and they didn’t try to change it! Beneath his simple storytelling was wisdom. (Arguably from his mother’s early attempt at communication.) And he was the hero, in a sense.
My only other exposure to disabled characters up to that point were characters like Professor X, Tiny Tim, and the kid from The Secret Garden, which is even now to me, one of the worst movies I have ever seen, both for the story and the moral. But, here was no attempt to “cure” the character’s disability. Instead Forrest’s mom raised him so that he understood that he simply has a different way of explaining things. I am empowered by such attempts at understanding.
Now, I know some out there will say that Tom Hanks promoted a bad moral for ex: “You should just look at things simply, and not be critical.” Maybe even some would say that since Hanks is able-bodied, he can’t play a disabled character. Well, I’ve never bought that and never have. I don’t see “simplicity” as the point, from the prospective of Hanks’s character. True, Forrest’s mom was tough and no-nonsense, but I see it as she was preparing him for the negativity that he would eventually face because of his condition, not because she herself was simple. She even says that he needs to do the best with what God gave him. That’s all I have to say about that.
My point is, that as a boy I had so few role models to look up to that had disabilities. For every Forrest Gump, which argues for understanding disability as a different cultural setting/life point of view there was Secret Garden and The Christmas Carol. Both of which I hated, and should probably review at some point in this blog. Look, I understand the Christmas spirit, and Tiny Tim is there to gain sympathy; but that’s just it. He serves no other purpose. The story would’ve been equally as cheery without him. But, those were my early exposures to two schools of thought with disability. One that says “God bless us, everyone!” after being miraculously given a feast by a rich man, and one with a tough woman who said: “Do with what God gave you.” (And of course Professor X’s “We’re not dangerous [Moira], we’re different.”; but that’s another post.)
Watching Forrest Gump’s mom was like watching my own mother who in those days told me not to focus on what I couldn’t do. But then, I knew I had a public voice. A decision to make in how to view my disability. And it still wages on in the media today…(Particularly in X-Men, I must say!) Cure us, or understand us. Sympathize with us or empower yourself with us; the choice is ours, whoever we are. And I know where I stand. Forrest’s mom inadvertently taught me how to watch movies for positive portrayals of disability, rather than outwardly pathetic ones. And it is through my own mother that I’ve felt empowered from my early days! Next time you watch A Beautiful Mind or My Left Foot, or Million Dollar baby…pay attention to how disability is treated! Happy late Mother’s Day! Love you, Mom!