Saturday, May 07, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

Yesterday, I went to a movie. By myself. See, I hadn’t planned on doing it that way, and, indeed, I’ve never gone to a movie by myself. But I did. And I think that says something about how well I'm progressing in getting rid of my social anxiety.

I was on my way to a meeting that was cancelled at the last minute. Not really at the last minute, but I didn’t find out about it being cancelled until the last minute. I was already out, and so I decided that a dollar movie would be just the right thing. Million Dollar Baby was showing. Even better; I’d been wanting to see that one for a while.

I walked out of the theater still a bit stunned. It was an amazing movie.

But as I began to think about it more (mainly in anticipation of writing up this post), I started to see more and more reasons why I don’t like it so much.

Better get this out of the way now: gender. Most reading this expect my main complaints to be about gender, and they’re not. A little quibble: well, Maggie is supposedly this strong, independent woman. Yet, she must have a man to coach her. And, she must have a man to die. (See medical/legal inaccuracies later on in this post.) She was totally dependent on Frankie. Her whole existence was defined through him. Why do we need yet another movie in which a man is redeemed through the death of a woman? Frankie is absolved of his estrangement through his daughter by his attachment to Maggie.

This movie has been condemned by pro-lifers and disability rights activists both. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE AND DON’T WANT SPOILERS STOP READING—BUT: I went into the movie knowing these spoilers and it didn’t hurt the experience, I don’t believe.

Ok, so, in the end, Maggie suffers a debilitating disability. 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.” Maggie wanted to die. If she couldn’t box, then there was no point to life. (“If I can’t walk/see/hear/etc, then life has no meaning” isn’t really a good message.)

The problem for me, on re-thinking this, was not that Maggie thought that her life would be worthless without being able to box (ok, that was/is a problem, and I agree with the disability activists). My main problem is that while I was in the movie, that kind of made sense to me. Because the only portrayal of Maggie was as a one-dimensional character, defined by her boxing. If she couldn’t box, the character was sort of useless. We know nothing else about her (Well, her family, but I’ll get into that later). That’s not the fault of Hillary Swank, who did a superb job. I don’t know whose fault it is, but her character didn’t have the depth that Eastwood’s did.

Medical inaccuracies: why was Maggie in a nursing home rather than in rehab? Where were the PTs and others? It is unlikely that any staff would let her leg get to the point that it did. It was easily avoidable. Why did the facility have no lights on in the corridor? No people watching who comes in and out? And WHY did he take her off the ventilator? And why did he do it before administering the adrenaline. Why did he do it at all? It wasn’t necessary. And kind of cruel. Maggie’s death would’ve been excruciating.

Legal inaccuracies: I think that legally, Maggie could have requested to stop the ventilator. With proper drugs (beforehand), I believe that this would have been a humane way to die. The disability rights people would still be upset (and the pro-lifers, for that matter), but I guess relying on Eastwood to do it makes it that much more dramatic. Nevermind that in real life, it’s murder (regardless of the actual moral issues involved, legally, it IS murder), and it is not at all likely that he escapes and runs away into the woods to run his store and eat his lemon pie.

None of these things were things that bothered me in the movie. If you’ll read back to the very beginning of this blog, you’ll see where I complained about not being able to sit through movies anymore without having a constant script run through my head with the things wrong with it. Except for some of the stuff I’m about to talk about in a second, none of this went through my head during the movie. Except the pulling-out-the-ventilator-tube-before-the-medicine thing. That was annoying.

I think the difference is this: this was a truly awesome movie: the script, the actors, the story, the directing. I was enthralled and not able to spare a synapse to think about the problems. Other movies are easier to sit there and critique while watching.

As for the stuff that DID bother me throughout the movie:

I find it vaguely ironic that for all that the right complains about the “liberal elite” in Hollywood, the movie that the establishment chose to honor above all others was one that so catered to and bought into conservative ideology.

Maggie’s family is poor, lazy, and welfare dependent. Oh, and southern. They have “accents straight from central casting.” (I read that in a review for another movie and thought I’d steal the phrase.) This movie represents the worst in stereotypes about the poor, poor women in particular.

Maggie’s mom doesn’t want Maggie’s gift of a house, because if they find out about it they’ll take her welfare away. This character’s primary concern is defrauding the welfare system. And she’s good at it. Now I know that everyone knows about that one woman who a)has multiple kids to keep her welfare check, b)lies about how many kids she has, c)has a real job but doesn’t tell anyone about it so she can get her money from taxpayers, too, d) all of the above, or e)something worse. There’s also that family that doesn’t know how to do anything because they’re just dependent on welfare.

How did you hear about her? “Well, so-and-so told me about her.” Or “I heard it on Rush Limbaugh.” Or “Don’t you remember when Ronald Reagan talked about that welfare queen?”

Yeah, I hate to tell you, those don’t count. Firstly, people don’t know circumstances; also, Rush Limbaugh has a lying (and an oxycontin) habit. And that Reagan thing: yeah, that’s proven to be not true. Sorry to disappoint.

The majority of people on welfare are on it for less than a year. But, isn’t it convenient, in this time of deep conservatism, to have straw figures of people who abuse the welfare system, ripping off good tax payers like you and me?

In the end, Maggie stands up to her welfare-queen mom: “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.'' Yeah Maggie, the conservatives chant, show those lazy hillbillies!

Are there people who abuse the system? I’m sure there are. But, the people your friend told you about, or the family Rush likes to talk about, or that one woman you saw on the news… yeah, that’s probably not true. It’s certainly not representative. Because the majority of people on welfare are struggling to make it, they just have to contend with a society that doesn’t really want them to.

So, here’s the ideology of Million Dollar Baby, in a nutshell: If you work hard, try hard, and want something really, really badly, like Maggie did, you can make it! It’s a matter of will; escaping poverty has nothing to do with the social structure. Mobility is an individual thing, a personal responsibility. Maggie’s mom and sister: they were just too lazy to get off their asses and work. Maggie could do it, why couldn’t they?

The problem with this, and with most movies, most media, and, well, most people in America, is that it ignores the social structure. I wish I could scream this at the top of my lungs and everyone could hear: from my friends, to my classmates, to my family, to talking heads, to policy makers. You can’t just blame everything on the individual and not take into account their social circumstances. Yet, this is what this movie (and this society) tells us to do.

MDB portrays the harshest and most inaccurate stereotypes. But they’re useful for certain groups in order to validate their agenda. If people who try hard enough can make it, and people on welfare are lazy, why have welfare at all? I’m sure many of you ask this all the time. If Social Security becomes, as is Bush’s new goal, a plan for poor people (he wants to make special protections for the benefits of low-income people, and while that sounds nice, it’s making SS into a welfare program rather than a general social right for everyone), then it becomes a target of these stereotypes. And there are people (not naming names) who have been hankering ever since the time of FDR to get rid of Social Security. This is their chance.

Pro-life groups have called this movie ''Hollywood's best political propaganda of the year,'' and I agree with them (though in a totally different sense, obviously). And yet I still can’t bring myself to say that it’s a bad movie. It’s a well-made movie. With a bad message.

So, not a fan of boxing? Me either. Not a fan of conservative ideology? Me either. But I still recommend that you see this movie.

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