This paper is a two-part personality analysis of Jenny’s character in the movie Forrest Gump. Jenny is the lead character’s childhood friend who, as a child, is sexually and physically abused by her own father and, as a young adult, gets into drug addiction and attempts suicide, and eventually succumbs to an early death, leaving behind Forrest and their only son.
Section I looks at Jenny from the points of view of Social Cognitive and Psychodynamic theories. Section II is an in-depth analysis of Jenny’s personality using Social Cognitive Theory.
Section I: Character Personality Matrix
|Structure||Process||Growth and Development||Psychopathology||Change|
Social Cognitive Theory
Jenny has a talent in singing but has poor self-perception, low self-efficacy and does not have goals.
Jenny lacks self-regulation.
Jenny has a mal-adaptive personality which is a result of her low self-efficacy. She could have learned her anti-social or maladaptive behavior (drug use, being associated with anti-social peers, and suicidal tendencies, among others) through observation from models as well as through direct experience.
She was brought up by an abusive father, she has witnessed aggression (she was present when Forrest was bullied by the kids at school) and, as a grown-up, been a direct recipient of an aggressive behavior (she was hit in the face by her boyfriend in the Blank Panther party).
Jenny’s maladaptive behavior is a result of dysfunctional learning — she has observed and directly experienced inadequate or sick models (his father and his peers) — and maintained this kind of learning through reinforcement.
She seems to have a phobia in relationship, that’s why she keeps running from Forrest who loves her and whom she professes to love.
Jenny shows a remarkably altered behavior toward the end of the movie — the result of her acquiring new thought patterns and behavior, and improved self-efficacy.
|Psychodynamic Theory||Jenny has a weakened ego caused by an internal conflict.||Jenny is suffering from anxiety caused by earlier trauma (her traumatic experience with her father, and even her experience of witnessing traumatic events happen to Forrest). Jenny is living in a distorted reality. She has learned to repress her emotions. She may also be living in denial of her traumatic past.||Jenny’s maladaptive behavior from young adulthood and into adulthood are mainly caused by her traumatic experiences when she was a young girl (that is, the physical and sexual abuse she received from her father).||Jenny exhibits a conflict of wishes and fears. She has carried over into adulthood her childhood wishes and dreams.||Jenny’s altered behavior toward the end of the movie may be the result of undergoing cathartic hypnosis or free-association method.|
Section II: Application of Personality Theory
Theory Description and Rationale
Social cognitive theory is a personality theory proposed by Albert Bandura and Richard Walters in 1963. Taking its roots from the social learning theory proposed by Neal Miller and John Dollard in 1941, it views people as “neither driven by inner forces nor automatically shaped and controlled by external stimuli… [but are] active agents who exercise some influence over their own motivation and actions,” (Bandura, 1986, p. 18, 225). It views people as “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting and self-regulating rather than as reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by environmental forces or driven by concealed inner impulses,” and human processes as “the product of a dynamic interplay of personal, behavioral, and environmental influences,” (Fajares, 2002).
What’s good about the theory is that it takes into account the individual’s beliefs and expectations. It emphasizes that although reinforcement and punishment affect motivation, they do not directly cause behavior. According to the theory, the beliefs that people have about themselves are critical in their response to situations.
People are both products and producers of their own environments and of their social systems, and, though they are influenced by their environment, their interpretations of their situations greatly shape their behavior. Humans, in the view of the theory, posses intricate capabilities that define what it is to be human. They can symbolize and deduct meanings from symbols, learn, self-regulate, and self-reflect, among other things, and these capabilities help them define their own personality (Fajares, 2002).
According to the theory, modeling, which can be direct (from live models), symbolic (from books, movies, and television), or synthesized (combining the acts of different models), lies at the core of social cognitive theory. Modeling can cause new behaviors, facilitate existing behaviors, change inhibitions, and arouse emotions (Pervin, 1989).
The choice of the social cognitive theory to analyze the character of Jenny in the movie, Forrest Gump is mainly due to the author’s perception of the theory as the most comprehensive of all the personality theories, and hence, the most fitting to analyze the character in question. The theory takes into consideration factors that behavioral and cognitive theories dismiss. It can also clearly explain things that the other theories cannot explain, as it does not have as many limitations as the other personality theories.
From the view of the social cognitive theory, Jenny is a talented woman, but has poor self-perception and low self-efficacy. This means that she most likely thinks of herself as incapable of coping with situations. Likewise, Jenny has poor self-regulation and is without goals. This means that she does not have a guide that will help her to establish her priorities, and is more likely incapable of regulating her own behavior. Having directly experienced physical and sexual abuse from her father as a child, and having lived in an environment that tolerates maladaptive behavior as a young adult, Jenny eventually exhibited maladaptive behavior herself as a result of the interplay of her environment and her poor self-perception, self-efficacy and self-regulation. It is also a result of her dysfunctional self-conception and expectations.
Towards the end of the movie, we see an altered Jenny. She is more mature in appearance and in the way she carries herself. She is shown performing a normal job (a waitress) and finds it easier to talk to Forrest about why she keeps running away from him. From the point of view of the social cognitive theory, this improvement in her behavior is a result of an improved self-efficacy and the acquisition of new thought pattern and behavior.
From the point of view of the psychodynamic theory, Jenny may be described as one who has a weakened ego due to her internal conflicts, which is brought about by her traumatic experiences in the hands of her father when she was a child. She has carried into adulthood the memories of the traumatic experiences of her childhood, albeit in a repressed manner.
She may not be conscious of the underlying problems in her personality, but it is shown in the way she keeps running away from Forrest whom she says she loves, and as manifested by her involvements with drugs and her having suicidal tendencies, among others. The altered Jenny that we see in the movie may have been the result of undergoing cathartic hypnosis or free-association method. She could have finally discovered and resolved her inner conflicts and set free her repressed memories.
The character of Jenny in the movie has a talent in singing. In fact, her dream is to become a professional singer. As a young kid, Jenny showed ability to relate with another person on a personal level; she and Forrest taught each other some tricks. She also showed the ability to encourage others to overcome their fears; she urged Forrest to climb tree, shouting, “Come on Forrest, you can do it!” from the tree top.
However, even as a kid, she already seemed to have escapist tendencies: she is seen running away from her father, and praying to God: “Dear God, make me a bird, so I can run far, far away from here” (Tishe, Finerman, & Zemeckis, 1994). She also urges Forrest to run away and to run fast whenever she sees her friend being bullied. She shouts: “Run Forrest, run!” Many years later, when Forrest was assigned to Vietnam, she would advise him not to try to be brave but to run away from trouble, fast.
But while her friend’s Forrest’s runs are in the literal sense, Jenny’s is both in the literal and in the figurative senses. She did a lot of running, but not away from trouble, but towards it, and away from the person she loves — Forrest.
Viewed from the structure of her personality through the lens of social cognitive theory, Jenny appears to have poor self-perception, as manifested when, as an answer to Forrest’s question as to why she wouldn’tt marry him, she says it is Forrest who would not want to marry her (implying that Forrest deserves someone better than her) and, again, when she gives Forrest her being screwed up as the reason for her running away from him. She tells him when she explained for the first time why she kept going out of his sight: “I was just messed up” (Tishe, Finerman, & Zemeckis, 1994).
Jenny likewise has a poor self-efficacy. According to Bandura (1986) in Pajares (2002), self efficacy is the perceived ability to cope with specific situations. It is the people’s “judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances.” Having a poor self-efficacy hindered Jenny from achieving her dream of becoming a famous singer because self-efficacy is the very basis of motivation.
People with poor efficacy tend to avoid activities that they perceive to be beyond their capabilities, may not put much effort to achieve their dreams, may not persist when there are obstacles, may have negative thought patterns while performing the tasks needed to be done to achieve their dreams and may have negative emotional reactions while anticipating an event, or in the middle performing a task. Hence, she always finds herself wanting to fly but couldn’t.
Finally, though Jenny had dreams of a good future, she did not have goals. According to the social cognitive theory, goals are those that “guide us in establishing priorities among rewards and in selecting among situations that enable us to go beyond momentary influences and to organize our behavior over extended period of time,” (Pervin, 1989, p.338). Jenny failed to establish her priorities and overcome the bad influences in her life and to have an organized behavior over a period of time. Hence, since attending an all-girl school, she has been involved in maladaptive behavior, such as getting into drugs, being with bad crowds, having suicidal tendencies, as well as having relationship phobia, among others.
As a young kid, Jenny had been exposed to and directly experienced aggressive behavior from his father, and from the bullies who mistreated Forrest in her presence. And while attending an all-girl school, she might have had negative influences from peers, and these negative influences may have been accepted in her new environment. Having been introduced to an environment that gave positive rewards to bad behavior by means of acceptance, Jenny eventually turned out doing the modeled behavior.
But more than just having been thrown in an environment that accepts negative behavior, the more important thing that could have contributed to Jenny’s maladaptive behavior is her lack of the ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation involves an individual’s ability to control their behavior rather than mechanically reacting to external influences (Pervin, 1989). If Jenny was able to self-regulate, meaning, she was able to process the influences modeled to her such that she was able to assign which behavior was socially acceptable, and which behavior was not, she could have prevented herself from succumbing to the negative influences modeled to her.
According to the social cognitive theory, behavior is maintained by expectancies or anticipated consequences. Individuals learn to set appropriate goals for themselves, and reward themselves with self-praise, when they are able to model the behavior and with guilt when they fail to. Moreover, behavior is not exclusively regulated by external forces; there is a process of self-reinforcement through which individuals reward themselves for attaining the standards they set for themselves (Pervin, 1989). Jenny, who does not have goals in the first place, as mentioned in the structure section of this paper, also does not seem capable of self-regulating.
Growth and Development
As a result of her low self-efficacy, Jenny has developed a maladaptive personality which she learned through observation from models as well as through direct experience, having been brought up by a physically and sexually abusive father, and having witnessed and directly experienced aggression outside of the home; she was present when Forrest was bullied by the kids at school and, as a grown-up, been hit in the face by her boyfriend during an argument in a Blank Panther party.
Jenny seems not to have become an aggressive person, but she developed maladaptive behavior. Her aversive experiences drove her to use drugs, develop phobia of relationship, and to attempt or contemplate suicide.
Jenny’s maladaptive behavior is a result of dysfunctional learning —she has observed and directly experienced inadequate or sick models (his father and his peers) and maintained this kind of learning through reinforcement. Her exposure to and direct experience of inadequate models may have resulted in dysfunctional expectancies and self-perceptions. Her running away from Forrest who loves her and whom she professes to love may be indicative of a relationship phobia. It may be possible that she is reminded of her painful past which she might be trying to run away from whenever she is with Forrest. Or maybe she has developed fear of pain — fear of being ridiculed when with Forrest perhaps, or fear of the ghost of her painful past.
According to the social cognitive theory, dysfunctional expectations and self conceptions have a great role in the learning of overt behavior, such that people learn, erroneously, to expect painful things to follow some events or to associate pain with an event (Pervin, 1986). In Jenny’s case, her developing a relationship phobia (with Forrest) may be caused by associating pain with being with Forrest, or expecting pain to happen by being with Forrest for a long period of time. Her incessant impulse to stay away from Forrest after brief encounters with him may be a defensive behavior to escape the pain she expects to experience or painful events she expects to happen when she is with Forrest.
Toward the end of the movie, we see a new Jenny. She no longer exhibits maladaptive behavior, no longer runs away from Forrest, and is now able to confess her feelings.
In the view of social cognitive theory, change in behavior happens when there is alteration in the level of and strength in self-efficacy. As the level of self-efficacy increases, a person’s behavior tends to change toward positive behavior (Pervin, 1989).
At some point in her life (while Forrest was running across America), Jenny must have had acquired new thought patterns and behavior, and improved self-efficacy. This change in Jenny might have been brought about in part by maturation and her becoming a mother, but mostly by having new influences to model from. During that time in her life when change started to develop, she could have met new friends who modeled to her good behavior, in an environment that accepts that kind of behavior. She might have had systematic desensitization of her phobia; thus, in the end she is not only able to go back to the man she loves and with whom she has a child, but also ask him to marry her.
Internal and External Factors
Jenny’s personality is both a product of internal and external factors. Among the external factors that greatly influenced her personality include her father and the abuses he inflicted upon her; her aunt who took care of her when she was taken from her father; her peers in school and the people she came in contact with throughout her life; Forrest himself and the friendship they shared together since they were young children; and the events in the society they were born into. Compared with Forrest, Jenny is more involved with the events that shaped their country. The internal factors, on the other hand, include her thoughts about, feelings toward and perceptions of the people that she came in contact with and of the events that took place around her. Together, the external and internal factors have defined the person that is Jenny.
Overall, when seen from the perspective of the social learning theory, Jenny comes out as a person who was not only screwed up by the environment but also by her inability to process her circumstances in a manner that could have enabled her to prevail over the sad events in her life.
Jenny’s greatest achievement is that she eventually prevailed over her maladaptive behavior toward the end of the movie. This change, from the point of view of social cognitive theory, is not impossible. All she needed is someone to model from — someone who has had similar circumstances like hers, but is behaving differently. She must have had at least one such model.
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