Let Feb. 27 be remembered as a key moment in the culture wars. It was on
that glittery night that "liberal" Hollywood bestowed its most hallowed
Oscar to "Million Dollar Baby," one of the most reactionary films to come
along since Ned Beatty squealed like a pig in "Deliverance."
The film is about a plucky female boxer named Maggie (Hillary Swank), who
through hard work and sheer spunkiness leaps from trailer park rags to Las
Vegas boxing ring riches. Her meteoric rise to success is due in large part
to the strict fatherly guidance of her tough-as-nails (but
softie-on-the-inside) trainer, Frankie (Clint Eastwood). Relationships
The final third of the film takes a tragic turn - and here's the part where
I give away the ending, so avert your eyes if you hate that - as Maggie
suffers a paralyzing spinal cord injury and asks Frankie to kill her, which
Directed by Eastwood, the film has been a critics' darling since its
release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four of them,
including Best Picture. Before that, the film received scads of other
critical awards, including top honors from the National Society of Film
Critics. Roger Ebert called it a "masterpiece," and the New York Times'
A.O. Scott flat-out proclaimed it "the best movie released by a major
Hollywood studio" last year.
Not bad for a flick whose title evokes an old Alice Cooper song.
But like most things in America these days, "Million Dollar Baby" wasn't
immune to conservative criticism, and it quickly became controversial.
Family values guru Michael Medved immediately assailed the film for what he
called its "sympathetic treatment of assisted suicide," and Rush Limbaugh
dittoed the point on his radio program. Debbie Schlussel accurately
predicted an Oscar night win for the film, not because she thought it was
good, but "because it's Hollywood's best political propaganda of the year."
That is, "because it supports killing the handicapped."
Ironically, conservatives found some rare support in the otherwise liberal
disability rights community. In a public statement, the Disability Rights
Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) condemned the film for the way it
advanced "the offensive and dangerous message that death is preferable to
life with a disability," a message echoed by the National Spinal Cord
Injury Association, Not Dead Yet, and other groups.
This unlikely coalition didn't last long, however. Both were criticizing
Hollywood but toward different ends. For the disability groups, critiques
of the film led to considerations of the Americans with Disabilities Act,
which Eastwood actively lobbed against before Congress in 2000. For the
conservatives, the movie bled a trail straight to Roe v. Wade. In every
other way, the film accords perfectly with conservative political agendas,
so conservatives backed off.
I think the disability rights folks are right to talk about stereotypes.
"Death before disability" is a strange message for Hollywood to send the
same year Christopher Reeve passed away.
Further, the stereotypes were built on pure fiction. The film is riddled
with medical inaccuracies. Why was Maggie in a nursing home instead of a
medical rehab center? Why were pressure sores allowed to form on her limbs,
leading to amputation - were all the physical therapists on strike? How was
Frankie able to walk right in to her room at night, do the dirty deed, and
then walk away unscathed? Don't institutions have supervisors anymore, not
to mention machine malfunction alarms?
The film also distorts legal reality. Under existing law it would have been
legal for Maggie to request a withdrawal of her ventilator, which when
combined with proper drug administration would be a humane way to die.
Medically speaking, what Frankie did to Maggie in the movie would be
excruciating. And legally speaking it would be murder. But at film's end,
Frankie just rides off into the sunset to eat his lemon pie. Where's the
Reality is unnecessary because stereotype is the film's point. For DREDF,
death before disability is nothing less than "the most central stereotype
fueling disability prejudice." No other social group has to endure
stereotypes to quite the same extent as people with disabilities. The
public has cultivated certain sensitivities toward negative images of race,
gender and sexual orientation. But give moviegoers a suicidal quadriplegic,
and they'll respond with a tearful standing ovation and an Oscar. But
probably not more wheelchair ramps.
Well, maybe one other group. There's another stereotype kicked around in
"Million Dollar Baby" that I haven't seen anyone rush to defend; namely,
the image of the white trash welfare queen and her Jerry Springer brood.
Maggie's Southern family consists of an overweight and overbearing mama, a
loose-looking younger sister in tight pants with a dirty baby on her hip,
and a greasy-haired redneck covered with frightening tattoos. Guess what?
They just love their welfare.
When Maggie buys a house for her mother, Mama's initial response is to nag
that her welfare might be cut. Later, when the family comes to visit Maggie
at the nursing home, they don't care that she might never walk again,
because they're too busy trying to hoodwink her out of her boxing earnings.
Get it? Just like welfare fraud.
These two scenes - the only in the movie featuring Maggie's family -
bolster cruel images of poor Southern whites, society's last remaining
ethnic group who can be belittled with impunity. The message here is
twofold. First, trailer-trash types are worthless human beings. And second,
given the chance they will rob you blind. It's probably best to cut their
To drive that point home, in a moment of cinematic rapture Maggie finally
stands up to Mama: "You never signed those papers like you were supposed to
because you were worried about losing your welfare. I can still sell that
house right out from under you. And if you show your fat, lazy hillbilly
ass around here, that's just what I'll do."
Fat, lazy hillbillies: what a convenient argument against welfare during an
age of insurgent conservatism. And what a detestable stereotype of human
Native people have long been on the receiving end of stereotypes, and we
understand the political implications of negative imagery. If we don't like
having regressive stereotypes attached to us, we shouldn't sit still when
they're applied to other groups. Not to mention the fact that many Indians
are on welfare or living with disabilities. This movie hits them, too.
If "Million Dollar Baby" is "Hollywood's best political propaganda of the
year," it's certainly not the liberal sort we always hear so much about.
Far from it, with its flagrant stereotypes of the poor and the disabled -
and its euthanizing "solutions" for both - it reflects a worldview that is
darker and more dehumanizing than anything we've seen for some time.
Naturally, in today's political climate it gets Best Picture.
Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, is assistant professor of Writing
and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where he also teaches Native American