To understand the world in which society lives, there are many lenses through which they must look to gather information about the surrounding environment; it is crucial that one examines their own life through these lenses to get a more complex understanding of their effect upon the world, as well as the effect the world has on them. C. Wright Mills’s book The Social Imagination (1959) sheds light on this important concept using sociology as its cornerstone. This concept of social imagination can be extremely useful in understanding the world, as well as where the individual fits into it. Forrest Gump is an interesting film to analyze in the context of this theory because of the effects of a lack of social imagination that are displayed in the film; social imagination theory consists of three specific lenses through which one (should) view the world: individual, social, and historical.
Humans are fairly selfish and self-centered. It is not uncommon for an individual, or group, to narrowly view society and their place in society on a superficial level. When examining one’s life, it is helpful to understand how one’s family, gender, life events, peer groups, education, and even neighborhoods shape the way one sees the world. For example, in a movie such as Forrest Gump, Forrest in unaware of his place in the world, mostly due to his below average IQ. He simply does not grasp the ramifications that having a single mother in a time where this was taboo, or even how having braces on his legs shape the way in which his life develops.
Social imagination also asserts the idea that one must be aware of the effects of class, occupation, religion, and how these places in society could affect how one views it. The social aspect of this theory is one of the most important because it is focused on the effects that their social class or maybe educational history have on the opportunities they are afforded, or the sphere in which they live. The groups with which people identify and how they interact with them are, more or less, the basis for how someone carries out their life.
Historical context in which one lives also has a profound effect on one’s worldview. Examining the economy of the time, war efforts, or even social climate of the time help shed light on the causes for events. For example, Forrest Gump grew up in the 1940s/1950s in Alabama, and, while Forrest did not use sociological imagination to understand how this affected him, this time in history was a turbulent and racist time in America.
Forrest Gump, with an IQ of 75, was born in the 1940s in Alabama to a single mother. He was constantly told by his mother that he was “no different than anyone else,” but this seemed to not affect him. He grew up with the townspeople calling him and idiot and being bullied by other children. However, these events did not “connect” with Forrest, he just lived his life, accepting information he was given, and did what he was told. He found a best friend in Jenny, a girl his age with a normal IQ.
Jenny was a sweet child, but she had an abusive past that affected her whole life. She was more socially aware as she grew up; this helped her eventually form herself. She constantly looked for love and acceptance and used Forrest as a crutch when she needed one. Forrest had a great support system in his mother, but outside of her and Jenny, he had no friends, but he did not seem to be bothered by this; he was not socially aware of the things that would affect nearly anyone else.
He grew up with rampant racism all around him, even though he seemed oblivious to it. While in college at the University of Alabama, an attempt in integrate the school took place. While at the opposition conference, one of the black students dropped her book. Forrest quickly ran to grab it for her and return it, completely unaware that this was something that was not deemed appropriate for him to do as a white man. Upon graduation, Forrest was approached by an Army recruiter, and, in no time, he was being deployed to Vietnam.
Forrest has no clue what he was fighting for, he just did what he was told. Upon his return, he receives the Medal of Honor, but he still does not see himself as a hero. He is duped into speaking at an anti-war rally, which he does in his full uniform, willingly. Forrest’s lack of social imagination is evident in this section of the movie simply because he does not see how this war affects him, or those about which he cares. He loves Jenny, but does not even seem to realize that she is a counterculture participant at this time or understand what it means to be at a Black Panther meeting, for example.
Forrest does not see any of the things that those around him see; he is not self aware in any appreciable way. His worldview is consists of what is directly in front of his face. He fails to see how historical, social, and individual contexts act as catalysts for the society of which he is apart.
Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” On the surface, this quote rings true. One must be socially aware to live a fulfilled life. It is paramount to constantly grow and become more educated upon one’s impact in the world. It is also important to understand how one’s surrounding are guiding one’s life. By examining one’s social, historical, and individual contexts, individuals can clearly understand how society impacts them, as well as how they impact their society. Leaving any of these elements out of the equation would be doing disservice.
In the case of Forrest Gump, however, there are a few other things that should be considered. Forrest is mostly unconcerned with his place in the world. Seemingly, he is blissfully unaware. On the whole, it should be noted that most people should be knowledgeable about how various factors affect their daily lives and how they affect how they fit into it. In Forrest’s case, though, it is a little different; he has a lower IQ. While it is important for Forrest to understand his life, it is also probably for the best that he does not know exactly what is going on around him. Since he is not capable of understanding some of the things that catapult the events in his life, his lack of awareness shields him from the emotional turmoil that could have ensued if he did not have the faculties to grasp what was really transpiring, especially in the tumultuous environment in which the movie takes place.