Language & Popular Culture- Schiffinan
April 25, 1997
The Exploration of Dialect to Show Ideals in Characterr
Throughout many forms of media in American culture today, language variation is increasingly being used to manipulate the audiences' reaction to the intended message. Media producers have realized that by combining visual images with creative uses of language variation, they can be more successful in delivering their messages. For example, in print advertising, we saw earlier that images of beautiful women are often combined with Romance languages to create a mood of prestige and beauty. By combining these two forms of media variation, the marketers are able to attract customers more effectively to their products.
Similarly, visual imagery is being combined with dialect variation in movies to show differences in the personalities of the characters. This technique of metaphorically linking in media is evident in the movie "Forrest Gump," in which the three main characters are all associated with particular visual images and also use slightly different dialects of English. Although these three characters do share a common Southern accent, they possess individual differences in their language variation which help illustrate their stereotypical personalities. It is the combination of these visual images, the differences in language variation, and the characters' life experiences which allows the audience to identify the stereotypical personalities of the characters depicted in
the movie. One step further, these representations and comparisons of stereotypical personalities help the audience understand the "greater message," or theme, of the movie: in order to be happy, you must accept that "life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get."
In "Forrest Gump," the intended message is that happiness is acquired through the process of accepting and experiencing the challenges of life. Forrest himself represents this ideal lifestyle, and he reinforces his method for happiness to the audience by repeating the simile"life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get"- again and again. The movie, however, presents several different theories about how to pursue happiness in order to emphasize Forrest's success. "Forrest Gump," therefore, includes many types of characters who demonstrate the effects of various lifestyles. In this paper, I will show that it is Forrest's method of pursuing happiness which is the most successful and thus presented to the audience as ideal, and that the specifics of the visual imagery which surround Bubba, Jenny, and Forrest, along with their language variation and unique lifestyles, are essential elements in the success of understanding the intended message about the pursuit of happiness.
"Forrest Gump," which was released in 1994 as a Paramount Pictures Production, is based on a novel under the same title written by Winston Groom. Not only did the movie win the 1994 Academy Award for best film, but it was also the biggest money-making film at the box office that year. Tom Hanks was honored for his performance as Forrest Gump both with an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award. Robin Wright, who played Jenny Curran, also won a Golden Globe Award for her role as a best supporting actress in "Forrest Gump."' Even after the movie left the big screen, it continued to prosper as a rental movie, and even extended its profits into movie merchandise such as hats and T-shirts that advertised Forrest's company in
I Internet Movie Database. http://us.imbd.com/weIcome.htmI
the movie- The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. The overall success of the film displays not only the entertainment value of the film, but more importantly that Americans identified and respected the moral message of the film. Again, to fully understand the audiences' understanding of "Forrest Gump's"message, we must consider the visual imagery, language dialect, and lifestyles of the main characters.
The first aspect of character representation in "Forrest Gump" to consider is the use of visual imagery. Since imagery is defined as "the use of vivid or figurative language to represent objects, actions, or ideas,"' visual imagery is therefore the incorporation of the sense of sight into the communication process for the symbolic material. For example, light colors are often associated with good, where as darker colors tend to represent evil, and these images are seen rather then read. A is important to realize though that the success of any visual image depends on the audiences' ability to recognize the meaning of the image. Therefore, visual images are often very straight forward and are frequently repeated to ensure clarity. Once a visual image is viewed as meaningful, it can accomplish one of two goals. The first goal is simply to reinforce the intended message or mood of a specific scene in a movie. Again, this is most commonly done with color or light. The other purpose of visual imagery can be to suggest ideas to the audience which may not be appropriate to show or discuss. Such ideas are usually sexually
2 The American Heritage Dictionary, 3' Edition, 1994, p.417.
related'. However, visual imagery is less commonly used to accomplish this goal in the 1990s, because modem society has raised the level of appropriateness for the expression of sexual ideas in the media. Therefore, most of the visual imagery we see in "Forrest Gump" is used to reinforce the personalities of the characters.
The second aspect of characterization to explore in "Forrest Gump" is the variations in language concerning differences in dialects. According to Edward Finegan, in his book Lan2uaRe: its Structure & Use, (1994) dialects are defined as "language varieties [which are] characteristic of different regional and social groups" (400). Considering this definition, it is logical that dialects change the most in relation to the speaker and the situation of use of that dialect. For example, dialects change between people of different genders, ethnic and economic groups, as well as between people located in different geographical locations. Also, it is important to note that speakers of standard language-in this case a dialect which is not associated with any low socioeconomic class groups- are viewed as having more power than those people who do speak with a "low" dialect. This is an important observation to bear in mind because the Southern dialects which Bubba, Jenny, and Forrest share make the characters appear inferior in certain situations.
The final area of character differences to explore with in "Forrest Gump" is the variation of lifestyles which the characters experience. It is the reaction of the various characters to the challenges that are presented to them which demonstrates the characters' ability to obtain
3 Besides sexual themes, movie producers have also traditionally avoided showing scenes of death, simply
because they were too depressing and disturbing to the audience.
happiness. Although Bubba, Jenny, and Forrest lead different lives based on their unique personalities and the challenges they face, they posses certain similarities which allow the audience to compare them. For example, they are all Southerners, and are approximately the same age. Also, their interaction with one another allows the audience to see how their reactions vary to the same problems. For example, all three characters must rationalize their individual involvement in the Vietnam War, and this shows how their lifestyle handles adversity.
Now that we have examined the three aspects of visual imagery, dialects and lifestyles in the characters of "Forrest Gump," we can begin to understand the message of the movie, and learn about the variety of ways people try to obtain happiness.
Bubba first appears in the movie "Forrest Gump"when he and Forrest are traveling together to Vietnam. Through their time at the war, Bubba and Forrest become best friends and share all their experiences with each other. By considering his visual images, dialect, and the lifestyle which he leads, we see that Bubba represents a humble and somewhat unintelligent man who does not reach true happiness in his life. Even though his path for the pursuit of happiness was ended prematurely when he was killed in the War, Bubba still did not demonstrate the ideal lifestyle which Forrest enjoyed.
The first aspect of Bubba's appearance which is noticed by the audience is his black skin. Although the audience never witnesses any examples of Bubba being discriminated against for his race in the movie, it is still part of the visual image which the audience associates with his character. Blackness has come to represent many different personality traits in American culture,
-6and these traits are emphasized in Bubba through other mediums- such as his speech patterns, which will be explored later. In any case, the fact that Bubba is black means that the audience immediately makes assumptions about his personality. Some common assumptions about African-American males include being unsophisticated, stupid, or even violent. However, by dressing Bubba in lightly colored clothing and always surrounding him with an aura of innocence, the movie producers manage to downplay the stereotype of the violent, black male. With the addition of Bubba's Southern dialect and his respectable behavior, the visual image of Bubba's blackness therefore reinforces the idea that he is a stereotypical innocent, Southern, black male, who has lead a sheltered and unsophisticated life.
It seems logical to point out at this time Forrest's reaction to Bubba's visual imagery. Even though the audience is meant to judge Bubba by his appearance, is important to note that Forrest does not treat Bubba differently because of his skin color, but instead values Bubba for his personality. Perhaps this is because Forrest is aware that people characterize him (Forrest) as stupid, and therefore he does not want to judge his friends in the same way. As Forrest himself explained, "I'm not a smart man, but I know what love is." This shows Forrest's ability to overcome the visual images of his friends and value them for their real identities. Even so, the incorporation of visual images remains critical in the movie as a way for the viewer to understand the intended characterization of the characters. This Point is simply another example of Forrest's ideal personality because he is able to overcome the common reaction to judge people based on stereotypes.
Returning to the exploration of Bubba's characterization, we see how his African-American Southern dialect shows that language variation is used in media to manipulate an audiences' opinion about the personality of a character. As noted before, it is important to consider both the speaker and the situation of use when considering the impact of a dialect. In Bubba's case, the Southern accent he uses to utter his slow, and often slurred words, is meant to reiterate to the audience that he is an average black male, who was raised in a rural setting, and is comparatively uneducated. His simple vocabulary symbolizes his poor and rural upbringing. Also, considering the situations of use, Bubba is often perceived as unconfident. Throughout the movie, when Bubba is presented with the experience of meeting someone new, he stutters over words and exaggerates his pronunciation. This is an example of how nonstandard language can be viewed as less powerful, while also demonstrating that Bubba is both less intelligent and unsophisticated.
Considering Bubba's lifestyle is the most critical element of his character to examine in terms of understanding the ultimate message of the movie "Forrest Gump." The combination of his visual imagery and language variation help to characterize him to the audience as a certain stereotypical personality, but it is his actions themselves which are meant to be compared to Forrest's to see the results of an effective method toward the pursuit of happiness. For example, both Bubba and Forrest grew up in small Southern towns in Alabama, and thus lead rather sheltered lives. When Bubba went to Vietnam, it was the first great journey for him, and once there, he did not succeed at being happy in his new environment. Instead of trying to learn from the new experience, as Forrest had done, Bubba simply spent his time at the War talking about home. Although this can be viewed as focused and hopeful to some people, it turned out to be
self destructive in Bubba's case because he died in Vietnam, never having lived a life in which he tried to learn more about other people. Bubba's dying words in Forrest's arms seem a good representation of the fact that Bubba never tried to assimilate to his new lifestyle, and thus did not gain happiness. His words, "Forrest, I want to go home," emphasize his characterization as an unsophisticated and unintelligent man who was unable to adapt to the adversity in his life and thus died unhappy.
The next character in "Forrest Gump" to explore is Jenny, who played a major role throughout the movie while she went from Forrest's first friend to his wife. Through the visual images which surround Jenny, along with her unique~ Southern accent and her life experience, we can see that Jenny is meant to represent a woman who tries to defy her social identity as a way to reach happiness, but fails in the process. Again, the Vietnam War plays a vital role in considering how the characters in "Forrest Gump" react to adversity, because much of Jenny's rejection of her identity and lifestyle is based on her personal reaction to the War.
Even when Jenny is introduced in the movie "Forrest Gump" as a young six year old, she is already a pretty girl. Although Jenny remains a beautiful woman throughout the movie, other elements of her visual imagery change depending upon her geographic location, as well as the state of her happiness. For example, when at home in Alabama, Jenny is seen as an exceptionally pretty woman who has fair skin, blond hair, and high check bones- and generally personifies a Southern Belle. She is shown clothed in light-colored, flowing dresses, which reinforce her characterization as an innocent and happy person. However, after Jenny runs away from home, and joins members of the hippie movement to follow peace marches across the
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-9country, Jenny begins to look unhealthy and is shown wearing darker, more high-fashion clothing. Here, Jenny's visual imagery has shifted to represent that she is someone who is not as happy, and someone who is not necessarily innocent anymore. When Jenny finally returns home to Alabama to marry Forrest several years later, she again is depicted in lighter colors, both in clothing and lighting. In fact, when Jenny lies in her death bed in her home with Forrest, she is engulfed by light as she is surrounded by windows and warm sunlight filters into her room. This visual imagery seems to symbolize that Jenny had finally reached a point of happiness in her life. Although this is pleasing to the audience, Jenny still dies, and we are reminded that Jenny's method of reaching happiness was not ideal because she contracted AIDS in the process. Only Forrest's method of the pursuit of happiness can be viewed as ideal.
The next aspect of Jenny's character to explore, her dialect variation, is also very revealing about the type of stereotypical personality. which she represents in "Forrest Gump." Like her visual imagery, there are three stages in Jenny's language variation. When she is a young child in Alabama, she has a sweet, Southern accent, which reinforces her characterization as innocent, kind, and happy. However, when Jenny leaves home, she appears to lose her Southern accent, and take on a more standard dialect. The audience can interpret this switch as having two very powerful meanings. On a more straightforward and simpler note, Jenny's dialect change reflects the evolution of her character development. In Alabama Jenny's accent reflected her characterization as an innocent and sheltered girl, but when she leaves the South and joins the hippie movement, she begins to experience some of the harsher aspects of life, such as drug use and physical abuse from her boyfriend. This new, more standard dialect which Jenny takes on helps to represent Jenny as an independent woman who is no longer innocent and naive.
More importantly, Jenny's dialect variation can be seen by the audience as reflecting an attempt to change her identity. Considering Finegan's explanation that " Language is perhaps the major
source of our social identity" (435), and the fact that Jenny shunned her Southern accent when she left Alabama, suggests that the purpose of this language variation was to illustrate Jenny's attempt to redefine her social identity. We can assume, therefore, that Jenny was aware of the stereotypes surrounding her Southern accent, because she believed that by defying it, she could appear more refined and respectable to her new companions. As sociolinguist William Labov has pointed out, women "are more sensitive to prestige patterns" and therefore alter their dialects
both more easily and more noticeably than men'. Also, as one other critical point concerning Jenny's dialect variation, it is important to note her dialect pattern when she returned to Alabama
to marry Forrest. Although much of her Southern-accent is lost, Jenny does retain a certain
Southernly-influenced way of saying "Forrest," which signifies to the audience Jenny's return to the acceptance of her true identity.Already by considering the visual images and dialect variation in Jenny's character in "Forrest Gump," we have touched on her lifestyle and attempt at reaching happiness. Although Jenny also does not follow the movie's ideal method for how to obtain happiness, she does demonstrate a typical approach which in her case ends up killing her. Her approach to happiness can be viewed as typical because of the countless examples throughout all forms of media in which people leave their families and "start over" in order to become happy. By leaving
4 Labov, William. Sociolinguistic Patterns. 1972.
Alabama, we can assume that Jenny was unsatisfied with her life in the rural South, and that she wanted more excitement and stimulation in her life. The Vietnam War provided her with a cause to fight, and thus led her to travel around the United States simply living day to day. While Jenny tried to pursue happiness and freedom, she entered into a destructive life of casual sex and drug use which eventually led to her contraction of FUV. When Jenny returned to Alabama, her shift in lifestyle from a "lost soul" to a responsible Southern mother and wife demonstrated the realization that Jenny's original plan to attain happiness was unrealistic. Upon her reunion with Forrest, Jenny admitted that she "had been really messed up," but that she had then changed. In the end, Jenny dies of AIDS. To Forrest she leaves their son, Forrest junior, and to the audience, she leaves the reminder that one must accept who they are in order to find happiness within themselves.
After considering the characterizations of his two dearest friends, we can begin to explore Forrest's character and fully understand how he is perceived as the hero of the movie "Forrest Gump," as well as how his method for the pursuit of happiness is viewed as ideal. It is important to recognize the irony that Forrest is the hero of the movie, because as we will see through his visual imagery, language variation, and lifestyle, he is represented as the "idiot savant" of the movie who might attribute his success in life to "dumb luck." In any case, Forrest is the messenger of the moral in the movie- that moral being that "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get."
The visual imagery which surrounds Forrest is rather simple, however, it still succeeds in reinforcing his characterization as an unintelligent, yet caring and compassionate, man. Like
-12Bubba, Forrest's clothing is light-colored and very tidy, which sends positive messages about his personality to the audience. The neatness of his attire helps to emphasize Forrest's practicality, which carries into his whole perception of life, and thus effects his method for the pursuit of happiness. Another aspect of Forrest's visual imagery relates to actual physical appearance and the way her presents himself. After being born with a crooked spine, Forrest developed a rigid and precise pattern of walking. Even so, scenes which show Forrest striding across a room make him look determined and confident, and represent his ability to overcome adversity. Forrest's walking style reiterates the image that he is a practical and forward-looking man, who takes challenges as they come.
Like the other two characters already examined, Forrest's language variation demonstrates more stereotypical qualities about his character to the audience. Forrest's Southern accent is the most noticeable quality of his dialect, and it is interpreted as symbolizing his less sophisticated and rural lifestyle. He also incorporates careful and articulate pronunciations of words, which can be viewed as another example of the fact that Forrest is aware that people judge him based on his appearance and behavior- and that he behaves hypercorrectively. Even though Forrest views his friends for who they are, not what they appear (like the unimportance of Bubba's skin color), Forrest still tries to overcome his own adversity and thus carefully articulates his speech. Another way to examine Forrest's dialect is to see how it compares him to other people. As seen again earlier in the case of Bubba, Forrest's Southern accent sometimes makes him appear less powerful in situations with a speaker of more standard language. For example, while at Vietnam, Forrest's commanding officer speaks a very standard English dialect, and this helps the audience to see the Lieutenant's power over Forrest. In Forrest's case of language variation, the stereotypes reinforced through dialect are negative. However, the audience overlooks these negative images, and comes to sympathize with Forrest because of that fact that he is able to overcome adversity and obtain true happiness even with these personality "flaws". Forrest's nonstandard language, therefore, conveys authenticity, and the reader sees his words as genuine, not fake.
We are finally left with all our knowledge about Bubba and Jennys' characters to explore Forrest's lifestyle and see how it is the ideal method to obtain happiness. It is through a saying that Forrest's mom taught him that we see Forrest's view of how to obtain happiness in life. He often reminds other characters in the movie (and thus the audience) that "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get." By this, Forrest explains that a person must be open minded to new experiences and try to make the best of them because that is their destiny. This is in direct opposition to the approach Bubba tried to take in Vietnam, because Bubba relied to much on his memories of his past home life, and did not try enough to enjoy his new life environment. Forrest's notion of destiny also supports his ideal that you should be yourself and live the life that is presented to you. Forrest knew he was different than everyone else, but he accepted it and made the best of the opportunities (chocolates) presented to him. This aspect of the pursuit of happiness is where Jenny failed. She tried to deny her Southern identity and as a result died. It is important to note that Jenny did realize that her original plan for happiness was not effective, and that she tried to change her lifestyle to obtain some happiness before her premature death.
It seems clear, therefore, through this exploration of three key characters in the movie "Forrest Gump," that the combination of various forms of communication can send a more dynamic and intense message to an audience. By combining visual imagery, dialect variations, and lifestyle differences, the producers of "Forrest Gump" were able to develop complex and meaningful characters which were better suited to deliver the intended message. The message about the proper method to pursue happiness is a common theme in media, and the particular approach of message delivery in "Forrest Gump" made it more unique. As film critique Gregory A. Swarthout said, "Although bittersweet, 'Forest Gump,' was a memorable film filled with subtleties .... Hanks, himself, did a wonderful job playing Foffest, and was able to master a slow, Southern accent with apparent ease. On the whole, an enjoyable change of pace."' This review shows that the movie was not only respected for its originality, but also that the audience did observe the dialects of the characters as critical representations of their personalities. Therefore, audiences will remember the message and the simile- "life is like a box of chocolate"- for years to come because of the great depth to which the path to success and happiness was explored through both visual and linguistic devises.
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American Heritage Dictiongiy, 3' ed., 1994.
Finegan, Edward. 1994. Language: Its Structure And Use. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
"Forrest Gump."produced by Paramount Pictures, 1994.
Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Movie Databases: http:Hus.imbd.com.welcome.html
Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct, New York: Harper Collins.
'Note: I tried to go back to this page, and it seems to be down. But I do have a print out of the material I
quoted which has the same address I have been trying printed across the top.
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