Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Responding to Million Dollar Baby: A Forum

Edited by
Jay Dolmage
Miami University
E-mail: JayDolmage@aol.com

William DeGenaro, Ph.D.
Miami University
E-mail: degenaw@muohio.edu

Note: Guest editors' commentary appears in italics before and after each article.

When Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (M$B) comes out on DVD in July, discussion of the film's depiction of a young woman who sustains a spinal injury in the boxing ring will likely heat up once again. For the past five months, controversy has surrounded the film. Debates have roiled in the mainstream press, online media, and talk radio over the supposed political subtexts of the rags-to-riches-narrative-cum-tragedy that is M$B. The film's December, 2004, release spurred the initial round (if we may use an appropriate boxing metaphor) of debate, with further–particularly intense–rounds taking place after the film's triumphant night at the Academy Awards and then during the final weeks of Terry Schiavo's life.

Following the divisive presidential election of November, M$B fell into the gap between polarized political views. The conservative press attacked the film for promoting euthanasia and accused Clint Eastwood of contributing to a culture of death. Rush Limbaugh memorably "spoiled" the film by revealing plot points (namely, the "mercy killing" of the protagonist) from the story's tragic third act. The political right suggested the film served as another example of elite, liberal Hollywood undermining traditional values. The left, on the other hand, cast euthanasia as a right-to-choice issue, and defended the artistic license of the film and its makers.

Meanwhile, the movie became a cultural happening in disability studies and disability activist communities. LISTSERV conversations exploded with criticism and debate. Groups like Not Dead Yet took to the streets and protested the film's implication that life for disabled people is not worth living. Public intellectuals seized the opportunity to write and to speak out about the film and its fallout. The film-as-cultural-moment served as a unifier for many in the disability community to take up a common cause and articulate their shared objectives.

Of course, questions about the film's cultural and political significance remain.

Last season's critique has become this season's heated argument, quiet reflection or dedicated action. The push and pull between polarized political positions has stretched and strained this movie into different shapes, dragged it into foreign arenas. Just as this movie re-circulated filmic conventions and social stereotypes, the discussion of the movie has offered opportunity to challenge meaning at every turn. And how we now view the media, cultural politics, personal agency, artistic integrity and, of course, the meanings of disability personally and collectively, has changed. Questions float up from the mat where Maggie fell.

What kind of social imagery do viewers find in M$B? What does the film teach us about popular perceptions of disability? What affective space do we occupy in response to the movie? What political or intellectual space? In what ways does this film allow multiple identity markers like gender, race, sexuality, disability, and class to intersect? Does any Hollywood film–a narrative, a work of fiction–have a political stance? What ethical obligation do popular culture artifacts have to offer realistic and/or positive representations of persons with disabilities? How ought we respond to problematic images of disability–protests, boycotts, public intellectualism, visibility initiatives?

This forum takes up questions such as these. We hope the voices represented here take stock of and synthesize what has been said so far about M$B and suggest future directions for research, conversation, and praxis.

We present these perspectives in no particular order, but (we hope) with some significantly dynamic and cumulative power. We will also try to comment unobtrusively throughout this forum, offering a modest voice-over that should help to raise further questions.

Social Imagery in the Film Million Dollar Baby:
An Analysis Based on Wolf Wolfensberger's Social Role Valorization

Karen Schwartz, LL.B.
University of Manitoba

Zana Marie Lutfiyya, Ph.D.
University of Manitoba
E-mail: lutfiyy@ms.umanitoba.ca

Nancy Hansen, Ph.D.
University of Manitoba
E-mail: hansenn@ms.umanitoba.ca

She lies on the hospital bed, breathing with help of a ventilator, hooked up to various monitors and intravenous tubes. Her hair is unkempt as she stares out of dark, sunken eyes. She has chapped lips and pasty white skin. She is Maggie Fitzgerald, the quadriplegic protagonist in this year's Academy Award winner, Million Dollar Baby. The image she evokes in the viewer is both powerful and deliberate. To the observer, she appears sick, near death, waiting to die.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the social imagery of disability in the film Million Dollar Baby, using Wolf Wolfensberger's framework in A Brief Introduction to Social Role Valorization (1998) and to present an analysis of how this imagery reinforces certain societal perceptions about the close link between disability and a life not worth living.

The description above paints a picture of an individual using a very specific set of images designed to equate disability with illness, disease and death. Wolfensberger (1998) defines images as "the mental pictures that others hold in their minds about an individual or group" (p. 63). Unfortunately, when these images portray and enforce negative stereotypes, they can become so ingrained in the minds of perceivers that they become unconsciously accepted as truth. For people with disabilities and those sensitive to disability issues, negative portrayals of disability can have chilling consequences, especially when these portrayals are so closely imaged with worthlessness and death.

Wolfensberger (1998) describes how images are created:

... The observer's previous expectations and experiences with such a person or group; how the observed person or group looks and acts... what the observer is told about the person or group, and consequently expects from the party; the language that is used to describe and refer to the person or group; and by the attachment of all sorts of symbols to a person or group... (p. 63).

He suggests that images, particularly those of people who are socially devalued[1], are conveyed in a number ways. Some of these include, a) the setting, b) people's activities, routines and rhythms, and c) the personal appearance projected. Each of these will be examined in light of the portrayal of Maggie Fitzgerald toward the end of the film, after she sustains the injury to her spine.

The Setting

After her final boxing match, Maggie is taken to the hospital and later moved into the "Serenity Glen Rehabilitation Center." It is her room at the rehabilitation center that provides the setting for the last and crucial part of the movie. As Wolfensberger (1998) says, "A setting can convey images about the people who use it" (p. 64). The name "Serenity Glen" itself provokes images of calmness and tranquility, a place to lie, waiting for death. This rehab center bears a striking resemblance to a hospital. The hallway leading to Maggie's room is often dark and foreboding, especially as the movie moves toward its conclusion. The only illumination comes from the nurses' station at one end and the exit at the other end of the hallway.

The room where Maggie spends all of her time is institutional-looking. She is attached to at least three monitors and two intravenous tubes. One of the screens, monitoring her heart, is prominently visible on her night table in numerous scenes toward the end of the movie — a highly medicalized reminder of her "fragility". She is also hooked up to a mechanical respirator, which is described by Scrap, as "always on, oxygen was pumped into her 24 hours a day." The room has a window, in front of which is often parked an empty wheelchair. The images that this room evokes are of illness, disease and sickness. It also speaks to a kind of impermanence, as it contains no touches of home or personal possessions. It is sterile and cold. Towards the end of the movie, Maggie says to Frankie, "I can't be like this, not after what I done — I seen the world". In keeping Maggie within the confines of these four walls, Eastwood makes it very clear that this room in the rehabilitation center is now Maggie's whole world.

People's Activities, Routines and Rhythms

"People will also be imaged by the activities, schedules and other routines in which they are engaged" (Wolfensberger, 1998, p. 65). What is Maggie's life like after her accident? It is fascinating to watch the changes in Maggie's portrayal as she moves toward her decision to die and her ultimate death. At the beginning of her time at Serenity Glen, she is seen sitting up, even though, as Scrap says, "It took several hours every day to get her ready for the wheelchair", perhaps implying that it was not time well spent. She is dressed in casual clothing, her hair in a ponytail. However, from the time her family arrives until the end of the movie, she is always lying in her hospital bed. There is never any music or television on in the room. There are no books or magazines to read. Maggie seems to spend her time doing absolutely nothing, waiting to die. At one point, Frankie mentions a power chair and some university courses, but Maggie does not seem to hear him.

Although called a "rehabilitation center", there is no evidence that Maggie receives any type of physiotherapy or exercise to discourage atrophy. In fact, although Scrap says the center "took good care of Maggie", the bedsores she develops on her arms and the gangrene that eventually results in the loss of one of her legs, tells a markedly different story. To audience members who are familiar with issues facing people who are paralyzed, it looks like negligent care. However, audience members who are not familiar with these issues are led to believe that Maggie's post-accident condition is both unavoidable, even with good care and, worse, is somehow her fault. As Scrap tells us, "She developed skin ulcers because she couldn't change positions."

The message sent to the audience is that people with disabilities do not have a life worth living. They are condemned to misery and self-loathing. Their time on earth cannot possibly be productive, fulfilling or meaningful in any way. This supports the conclusion that the only sensible and indeed, merciful, path is death. By ensuring Maggie does not follow the everyday routines of everyday life, the perception is that, although she is alive, there is no point to her living.

The Personal Appearance Projected by a Party

Wolfensberger (1998) argues, "People's image is also affected by the personal appearance they project, or are enabled to project" (p. 68). Maggie's appearance is significantly altered after the accident. As her time at Serenity Glen wears on, she is shown with dark circles ringing her sunken eyes. Her skin looks pale and unhealthy. Her hair is messy and unkempt, in contrast with the beautiful braids she wears earlier in the film when she is boxing. She is also shown always wearing a hospital gown.

The first thing Scrap asks her when he comes to see her is, "Does it hurt much?" Frankie blames himself for training her in the first place and badly wants to "fix" her. Maggie says she is "gonna be frozen like this the rest of [her] life". She also tells Frankie at one point that "mama will be here soon to share some of the burden." These conversations also serve to reaffirm the images of disability as painful, unacceptable, without hope or future and as a tremendous burden to others. They also make it easier to accept the film's premise that Maggie is better off dead than living life with a disability. However, if she were up and about, dressed, spending time outside, simply going about the business of living, it would be far more difficult to accept her decision to die and to accept Frankie's decision to kill her. By playing up these images of disease, helplessness and hopelessness, Eastwood encourages the audience to link disability with end-of-life and to feel that Frankie, as Maggie's hero, has come through for her, and rescued her from a fate worse than death.

This review of the imagery in the latter part of the film, Million Dollar Baby highlights the dangers, both to people with disabilities and to society as a whole, of misrepresenting life with a disability. Maggie's social role changes dramatically from a lean, fit, muscular boxer to a sickly, "terminally ill" patient. Her competency has also shifted from a highly skilled fighter, a champion, a first-round knockout wonder, to one who is incapacitated and immobile, incapable of orchestrating even her own death without help.

Images are very powerful and can help create and affirm a certain reality in the minds of perceivers. Where Maggie Fitzgerald was once an admirable and admired fighter, she is now impaired, broken, unfixable. Not only do these images reaffirm existing stereotypes, the theme of disability as worse than death is never fully explored by the characters or Eastwood himself. In addition, the fact that many movie reviewers were reluctant to "spoil" the ending has also served to discourage rigorous dialogue about the negative way in which disability is portrayed in this film. It's time Hollywood did better.


The preparation of this article was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research New Emerging Team Grant on End of Life Care and Vulnerable Populations held by Dr. Harvey M. Chochinov, Dr. Deborah Stienstra, Dr. Joseph M. Kaufert, and Dr. Zana M. Lutfiyya.


1Such devaluation is the result of devalued/negative perceptions. People who are socially devalued are not inherently worthless as human beings. back


Wolfensberger, W. (1998). A brief introduction to Social Role Valorization: A high-order concept for addressing the plight of societally devalued people, and for structuring human services. Syracuse, NY: Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership & Change Agentry.

What should movies do? Further, what do our critical lenses do? Schwartz, Lutfiyya, and Hansen ascribe a great deal of agency to M$B's imagery, arguing that Maggie's story can potentially affect social perceptions of disability. John Caskey, in the following film review, articulates a dissenting point-of-view, and suggests the film has a less monolithic "ideological stance." Caskey pays greater attention to character development, seeing the film as a character study–and a character study of Frankie at that–more than an issues film. Caskey uses the language of film critique and reminds us that we need to consider the conventions of filmmaking when we assess the political import of M$B. These two interpretations, set alongside one another, ask us to take stock of our expectations for texts as well as our investments in modes of critical thought. How politicized are either? How do we ascribe politics to art? How do we remove politics from art?

Million Dollar Baby in Review

John Caskey
University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
E-mail: jdcaskey@utmb.edu

Million Dollar Baby is a big film disguised as a small one. On surface, it is the relatively simple story of the rise and fall of Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), an aspiring boxer who journeys to Los Angeles from Theodosia, Missouri, a town "somewhere between nowhere and goodbye." Her odyssey ends at The Hit Pit Gym, where she seeks the tutelage of proprietor Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), whom she reveres as the trainer who might make her a great boxer. There she also meets Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer and current Hit Pit custodian, who serves as the film's narrator.

The film's minimalist form reinforces the seeming simplicity of this supposedly traditional sports movie. Its score is subtle acoustic guitar, so effectively contrasted by the movie's violence that one forgets it's even there. The movie's cinematography is similarly unadorned, a tug-of-war between light and dark silhouettes set against the muted backdrop of the Hit Pit's drab color scheme. Only the metaphorical flourish of Scrap's voice-over narration, epitomized in his repeated characterization of boxing as an "unnatural act," hints at the tragic drama that the film intends to become. Baby is a beautiful film about much more than boxing: it is about religion and family, love and loss, life and death.

The film has been a critical and commercial success, even winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, it has also garnered significant controversy regarding its treatment of disability and euthanasia. Two-thirds of the way through the film, fighting for the championship, Maggie is blindsided by a cheap shot and left quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on her own. The final third of the film revolves around Maggie's new life, confined to her hospital bed and unable to accept her tragic fate.

Maggie's desire to die is her own and cannot be pinned upon any social pressure. She receives top-notch care from the hospital staff assigned to her, and Frankie even hopes that she might attend City College upon discharge from the hospital. Only Maggie cannot reconcile her new life with her self-conception as a fighter. The film's detractors may be right to assert that her seemingly quick decision to die represents a shallow treatment of disabled life, but this is rooted more in Maggie's character's underdevelopment than in Baby's concerted ideological stance. We don't know what brought Maggie to boxing, why she traveled to L.A., why she remained so determined to train under Frankie, or even why the film is entitled Million Dollar Baby. Even the scene in which Frankie disconnects Maggie's ventilator and administers a lethal injection of adrenaline seems cursorily unrealistic in its depiction of death. She seems placid throughout the experience, not exhibiting any of the physiological reactions one might expect during suffocation and/or an adrenaline overdose. Perhaps the fulfillment of her desire to die allows Maggie to persevere in this final fight against life, but the film's flawed treatment of this scene leaves its motives somewhat questionable.

However, none of this supports some critics' conceptions of the film as propaganda, depicting people with disabilities as unworthy of life and advocating mercy killing for their suffering souls. Maggie's trials and tribulations may be underdeveloped, and, subsequently, her choices may seem inconsistent or inappropriate, but Baby is not just Maggie's story. It also belongs to Frankie, a character who is thickly described and fully developed. Frankie suffers his own disability, albeit emotional, and the film achieves greatness in its depiction of his condition. Through boxing, we understand the violence that consumes Frankie's life: his enigmatic estrangement from his daughter Katie, his lapsed Catholicism, and his self-imposed isolation. Boxing is Frankie's way of coping with vulnerability. In life, he is defenseless, but in boxing, he is only exposed when he lets down his guard. When Frankie finally decides to train Maggie, "he did something he hated doing — he took a chance." Shortly thereafter, Frankie presents Maggie with a green silk robe with the name "Mo Cuishle" (Gaelic for "my darling, my blood") embroidered on the back. In Maggie, he finds his opportunity for redemption, as both a father and a living, feeling person.

With Maggie's injury, Frankie shifts effortlessly to the role of caretaker and gives up boxing. He commits himself fully to Maggie, even when she tells him that she wants him to help her die. Though an amazing cut-man, Frankie finds, in Maggie, a wound that even he cannot stanch. Frankie despairs over her request and, seeking moral guidance, even visits his priest, who admonishes him for even considering euthanasia: "You'll be lost. Some [pits] are so deep, you'll never find yourself again." Frankie takes this advice to heart, but ultimately goes on to fulfill his perceived obligation to Maggie. Nonetheless, when helping her die, Frankie looks Maggie fully in the face, appreciating the utter reality of his actions (in a stark reversal of the scene in Mr. Toole's story (O'Toole, 2000)--on which the movie is based--in which Frankie stands behind Maggie to avoid the full gravitas of his act). Then Frankie disappears, not returning to The Pit, and is last seen eating pie in a purgatorial diner "somewhere between nowhere and goodbye." Whether he is on his way to the idyllic cabin of the Yeats poem he reads to Maggie, having fulfilled his familial obligations and stopped his own bleeding, or on his way into a deeper pit of personal hell remains ambiguous. Like Frankie, Baby is not committed to a particular stance regarding the matters of disability and euthanasia. Through Frankie, it approaches these issues critically, openly, and reflectively.

It seems fitting that Caskey ends his article with an accent on the idea of "open-ness", particularly when Schwartz et al. (see above) also close by urging a re-opening of critical discussion. Certainly, debate over this film has opened up new issues, as well as highly charged contestations over these issues. But has meaning also been 'closed'? In what ways have disability activists and scholars had to try and close down some meanings and implications, and what are the repercussions? How do we recognize and respect the power both of open discussion and of closing in on discrimination?

In the following piece, Fleischer and Zames suggest that we open up our interpretation of the film to more fully consider the political climate as well as other pop culture representations of disability and euthanasia, and in so doing, contextualize our politicized responses.

Compassionate Killings

Doris Zames Fleischer, Ph.D.
New Jersey Institute of Technology
E-mail: ynnel@verizon.net

Frieda Zames, Ph.D.
Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York
E-mail: freidazames@erols.com

Clint Eastwood's well-crafted Academy Award-winning film, Million Dollar Baby, seems, on the surface, to be on the side of the marginalized–a washed-up African American boxer blinded in one eye (Morgan Freeman), a would-be boxer who is developmentally disabled (Jay Baruchel), and a thirtyish woman (Hilary Swank) with three strikes against her in her efforts to be a boxer: gender, age, and inexperience. Yet this film rests on an underlying assumption–that murder is an act of kindness to those who are disabled--a mindset dangerous to all of us mortals, susceptible to accident, illness, age, those vicissitudes that shape the human condition.

Lest the viewer not discern such an assumption, the film lays it on thick. As a result of an illegal blow by an opponent, the dogged and surprisingly successful female boxer becomes quadriplegic. As an act of paternal kindness, her trainer and symbolic father (played by Eastwood) kills her by means of a fatal injection when she dramatically demonstrates her desire to die. Just in case her quadriplegia is not enough to make murder an altruistic act, she must not only endure a leg amputation, but must also learn that her family, at a time when their support is essential, cares more for Disney World than for their supposed loved one. In fact, her mother, who seems to be hopefully awaiting her child's death, is interested in her offspring only as a source of financial gain. This last unkindest cut of all is enough to drive a non-disabled person to drink or drugs or severe neurosis or even suicide. That she desperately seeks to die should be no surprise. If she were not disabled, the response considered altruistic would be to treat the understandable depression, not kill the depressed person.

Why is this film so relevant to all of us in this nation's political climate where health care and health insurance are seen not as rights, as in other developed nations, but as privileges for those whom society treats as deserving because of economic status or productivity? The answer is that the film collapses a life cycle: the working toward a life goal, the vigorous energy in achieving that goal, and the ensuing decline leading to increasing vulnerability. And it is at this final stage that we may indeed be considered expendable. As Justin Dart, the disability rights activist known as "The father of the Americans with Disabilities Act," said, "I'm willing to die for my country, but not for my insurance company" (1997).

If a depressed person were not disabled, would an offer to help that person end his life be considered acceptable? Such assistance is offered in the far more artful and complex Spanish film, Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, a work peopled by characters whose varied approaches toward life and death are revealed with subtlety and nuance.  In his middle-of-the-night cry, the protagonist (Javier Bardem) seems to recognize that his most insidious disability is not his twenty-eight years of quadriplegia, resulting from a diving accident as a young adult. Rather, his ultimately fatal disability is his unrelenting suicidal urge stemming from his inability to make compromises with the life that has presented him with his gift as a recognized writer and the deep love of those surrounding him, who genuinely need him.

Perceiving the use of a wheelchair as an unacceptable concession to the reality of disability, he has spent most of his time since his accident in bed. Yet, at the same time, he has relationships with two women who love him romantically, with his family whose lives center around him, and with two close friends for whom his struggle for the right to die has become emblematic of this cause. The only intellectual argument put forth for the protagonist to make those compromises necessary for engaging in life is articulated by a quadriplegic priest whose reasoning, based solely on religious dogma, rings hollow when opposed by the protagonist's stronger voice. Although, in reality, the death of the writer whose life inspired the film (Ramón Sampedro) was encouraged by a group supporting assisted suicide, the problem for the main character as presented in the film is personal, not social.

In truth, however, the problem is social, for in their efforts to die, does the support the protagonists in the two films receive from other characters , as well as from approving audiences, reflect an unacknowledged impulse in the words of The Disability Rag editor Mary Johnson (2000), to "make them [people with disabilities] go away"? Does the society seek to obliterate those who are perceived as emblematic of vulnerability and mortality--an inclination harkening back to the 1911 "Chicago Ugly Law" (not repealed until 1974) denying those deemed offensive-looking, because of their disabilities, the right to present themselves in public? What may be most disturbing is the way in which the suicidal compulsion of the protagonist of The Sea Inside is celebrated in advertisements as "dying with dignity," a phrase that says more about the accepted devaluation of the lives of people with disabilities than the film. By his question, world-traversing, wheelchair-using, journalist John Hockenberry (1998) offers a different perspective: "Why aren't people with disabilities a source of reassurance to the general public that although life is unpredictable and circumstances may be unfavorable, versatility and adaptation are possible; they're built into the coding of human beings?"

When President Woodrow Wilson, together with Justices of the U. S. Supreme Court, saw the first film to be shown in the White House, Birth of a Nation (a film in which African-Americans are portrayed as villains and the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of decency and justice), this distinguished group agreed that the only sad thing about this wonderful film was the validity of its message. Today, we are shocked at their distorted judgment. Will future generations be equally shocked at the current distorted view of these two recent films?


Dart, J., (1997, April 19). Speech at a meeting with New York City disability rights advocates in Uniondale, N.Y.

Hockenberry, J. (1998, March 18). Speech at the International Center for the Disabled in New York City.

Johnson, M. (2000). Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve & the Case Against Disability Rights. Louisville, Ky: The Advocado Press.

O'Toole, F. X. Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner. New York: Harper-Collins, 2000.

One of the useful contributions that Fleischer and Zames make is a consideration of Baby in the context of other cinematic representations, notably The Sea Inside. Many in the disability community emphasize visibility (particularly in the world of film and television) and welcome the day when a range of disabled characters might become a part of the pop culture landscape. Perhaps some critics of M$B would be less concerned with Maggie's story if mainstream viewers had other stories, stories of disabled persons making various choices and leading various lives.

The pages of this journal have seen interesting responses to the films of the Farrelly brothers, for example, and we ought to continue analyzing what irreverent representations like the Farrellys' There's Something About Mary and Stuck on You might signify about cultural sentiment about persons with disabilities. How does a laugh track contrast with a somber voice-over? How does a referential and ironic use of stereotypes differ from their invocation in a tragedy? A more recent film likely to spark debate is this summer's independent film Palindromes, a film that takes up representations of the body in a critical fashion. Following M$B, how will we respond?

Fleischer and Zames remind us of the importance of paying attention to our culture's defining stories. We could also call attention to the ways that these stories never exist autonomously, always operate relationally, and in relation to larger cultural discussions as well as unspoken assumptions and stereotypes.

Malesh and Morse, in the piece that follows, are also concerned with the broader context of the film. Their analysis considers how gender identity intersects with disability in both M$B as well as the high-profile "story" of Terry Schiavo's final weeks.

The Point of Contact: Identity and Disability in Million Dollar Baby

Patricia Malesh, Ph.D.
The University of Arizona
E-mail: malesh@email.arizona.edu

Tracy Ann Morse, Ph.D.
The University of Arizona
E-mail: tmorse@email.arizona.edu

Her final moments were painless. The man who has become her life has reluctantly just made the final decision to end it. He sits with her as she slowly, finally, fades into the grayness that surrounds her. Her biological family is not with her as she passes. Even with the help of a lawyer, they did not get what they wanted: a final say. We watch it all from our seats, moved by who she once was–images we cannot forget, disturbed by what she has become, and guilty because we sigh with relief when it is all over.

If this narrative recounts the final scene of Million Dollar Baby, when Hilary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald earns her Oscar, then this scene is a testament to Maggie's right to die as she lived, by her own rules. If this is a retelling of the last days of Terri Schiavo, then it is the picture of a highly contested case of a woman's right to live . . . and die. Without warning, both of these women joined the community of the disabled and became representations of the political, ethical, and social conceptions of disability as a component of identity. Like other categories such as gender, sexual preference, race, religion, and class, (dis)ability is a lens through which others view individuals and make judgments about them. As such, the intersections between disability and other aspects of identity is an important area of inquiry. Million Dollar Baby, and other marketed representations of people with disabilities, provides opportunities for such analysis, especially if these representations are studied in the classroom. The following is an illustration of one way to bring questions of disability and identity into the classroom. Here we consider what questions arise when we explore how disability intersects with other identifying signifiers, in this case gender, and ask what role popular culture has in defining these identities through representation.

One way to approach popular culture's representations of identity is by employing Mary Louise Pratt's idea of "contact zones." In "Arts of the Contact Zone," Pratt (2003) defines contact zones as "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power" (p. 251). Contact zones are also places where components of identity intersect to shape perceptions of who we are, especially when this is represented by the media and entertainment industries. In his work with identity, Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci (1994) suggests identity and cultural production are key areas of assimilation and resistance in a post-modern environment where "[d]imensions that were traditionally regarded as private (the body, sexuality, affective relations), or subjective (cognitive and emotional processes, motives, desires), or even biological (the structure of the brain, the genetic code, reproductive capacity) now undergo social control and manipulation" (p. 101). So, as educators who struggle to encourage students to understand the complexities of identity and representation, we can use the media storm surrounding Million Dollar Baby and real-life counterparts such as the battle represented by Terri Schiavo and the struggles of Christopher Reeves, to create points of contact between disability studies and other forms of identity politics.

By highlighting the intersection between disability and gender, students develop critical awareness of how identity is constructed and portrayed in order to challenge those tacit perceptions. Million Dollar Baby garnered widespread acclaim throughout the entertainment industry, but it also drew much criticism from disability advocates for its representation of quadriplegia as less desirable than death and for its misrepresentation of life as a quadriplegic. However, similar criticisms could be made of the way that the movie treats gender as a disability. Throughout the film, Maggie works to overcome the disability of femininity that is reinforced in several ways.

One way femininity is continuously represented as a disability is by the language and actions of her reluctant trainer, Frankie (Clint Eastwood). Throughout the film he repeatedly tells her that "girlie tough isn't enough" and that he "doesn't train girls." By referring to the 31-year-old Maggie as a girl, and by refusing to train her on that basis, he implies that she is somehow less equipped to be a boxer and, more importantly, a champion. When he does finally decide to train her, after his star male boxer leaves him for another trainer, he takes on a paternal role that he fosters by allowing her to call him "boss" and telling her not to ask questions, but just to listen. It is only after he claims that he "[is] gonna try and forget the fact that she is a girl" that he helps to transform her into a successful boxer. Frankie's language and actions affect how Maggie sees herself and her abilities. Because she respects him as a mentor, when Frankie equates femininity with weakness, Maggie learns to do the same.

Likewise, the language that is used to describe Maggie affects how the audience views her. The first introduction to Maggie is the movie's title Million Dollar Baby (emphasis added). Although Frankie never uses the term "baby" to describe her, he does assign her a nickname with a similar meaning. When she begins her boxing career, he gives her the name "mo cuishle" (spelling used in the film. The correct spelling is mo chuisle.), which she then adopts without knowing its meaning. "Mo cuishle," the Gaelic word for "my darling," along with "baby," "girl," and "girlie," serve as examples of the diminutive language that is used to describe Maggie. This language reinforces the perception of femininity as a weakness and disability throughout the film. By asking students to analyze how language constructs identity in the film, educators can help students gain an understanding of the power of naming, especially in terms of disability.

Just as Maggie does, the audience learns to view femininity as a disability to be overcome. The film equates strength and success with an abandonment of womanhood. When Maggie is at her most feminine in the film, she is serving others as a waitress. The image of Maggie in a mini-skirt as she leans over to clear a table is used as a negative contrast to a muscular and forceful Maggie training side by side with men. When she is at the peak of her career, about to compete for the women's world boxing championship, Frankie tells her to "hit her [opponent] in the tits 'til they turn blue and fall off." The metaphorical significance of Frankie's directions suggests that the only way that Maggie will be a champion boxer is by beating the femininity out of her opponent, and by doing so, defeminizing herself as well.

Her opponent, Billie Bluebear, played by real-life boxing pro Lucia Rijker, is a significant representation of perceptions of identity. In many ways her sexuality is a part of her persona. As an ex-prostitute from Berlin, she assumes a strikingly feminine role outside of the ring and an equally striking masculine persona in the ring. As the current world champion, part of Billie's draw is her heartlessness and brutality that is evident in her dirty maneuvers. By asking students to examine the ways in which femininity is represented as a disability through the dialogue and images that construct Maggie's identity, we challenge them to look at how such representations affect larger social constructions of power versus empowerment. As students learn to deconstruct the meaning of representation, they are more equipped to challenge those representations.

Analyses of this sort arm students with the language and knowledge to respond to and interpret real-life intersections between disability and gender as well, such as the case of Terri Schiavo. Although Schiavo's case was different from Maggie's situation in Million Dollar Baby because Maggie was not mentally impaired by her disability while Schiavo had minimal brain activity, both women were physically silent–incapable of speaking–in the end. In Maggie's case, she asked Frankie to "free" her by disconnecting her breathing tube, but later bit off her tongue in protest when he fails to do it. In this case, Maggie's muteness appears to be of her own construct, whereby she yields her authority willingly to her trainer. Schiavo, on the other hand, was unable to express her wishes in any clear way, leaving her husband responsible for interpreting them.

In Maggie's case, Frankie had control over whether she lived or died. Although Maggie was able to express her wishes to him beforehand, it was ultimately Frankie's choice as to whether or not he acted on those wishes. In the case of Michael and Terri Schiavo, Michael was responsible for not only carrying out his wife's wishes, but interpreting those wishes as well. According to Michael Schiavo, his wife did not wish to be kept alive in a vegetative state. However, this claim was contested. Terri Schiavo did not have a living will, making verification of this wish difficult. Adding to the complexity of this situation were Terri Schiavo's parents who claimed that Michael had either misinterpreted or misrepresented her wishes. Ultimately, Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer was responsible for interpreting Terri Schiavo's wishes. In both Terri Schiavo's and Maggie's case, the final decision about whether each woman lived or died was in the hands of men. For teaching purposes, what bridges these two instances together is the role of the audience in evaluating the validity of each man's interpretation of these women's wishes. An effective evaluation of these situations in relation to one another includes an understanding of the contact zone of gender and disability. By examining this contact zone, students can begin to see that like Maggie, Terri Schiavo's identity as a woman affected her identity as disabled.

Like Million Dollar Baby, the gendering of disability is evidenced in the Terri Schiavo case through language use, specifically naming practices. As Terri Schiavo's case became a matter of political significance and media coverage began to swell, factions argued over how to address her. Advocates for keeping Terri Schiavo alive, those who sided with her biological family, tended to refer to her as Terri Schindler-Schiavo, while those who supported her right to die as well as the mainstream media most often referred to her by her married name, Terri Schiavo. At times, she was even referred to solely as "Terri," as was the case with "Terri's Law," passed by Governor Jeb Bush after her feeding tube was removed the second time. Each of these naming practices claims Terri Schiavo in one way or another. By referring to her as Terri Schindler-Schiavo, her parents established a connection between her identity and theirs, which in turn helped them argue that they knew her wishes. The same can be said for her husband, who referred to her as Terri Schiavo. When she was simply referred to as Terri, those who did so claimed familiarity with her. This shift in naming could not happen if Terri Schiavo was a man since it is not common for men to adopt their spouse's name. This rhetorical strategy, claiming Terri Schiavo through naming, illustrates the gendering of her disability.

In many ways, her condition as disabled may have been a result of her own perception of herself as a woman. According to Gary D. Fox (2005), lead trial lawyer for Terri and Michael Schiavo in their 1992 malpractice lawsuit, Terri suffered from bulimia. Her illness, Fox maintains, affected the jury's decision to reduce the monetary compensation they awarded the Schiavos on the basis that Terri's bulimia, as well as the medical malpractice, contributed to her persistent vegetative state. The connection between her disease and her condition provides an opportunity for teachers and students to enter into a discussion on identity, femininity, and image, especially in respect to self-inflicted disabilities, such as the consequences of eating disorders.

Another way in which the Terri Schiavo case was gendered was in the use of right to life rhetoric. In March 2005, Congress attempted to intervene in the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. In a public statement about Congress's actions, Governor Jeb Bush argued that "we in government have a duty to protect the weak, disabled, and vulnerable" ("Bush Signs"). However, partisan rhetoric, like that used by Bush, quickly created a contact zone between the conservative right to life movement and the Terri Schiavo case, so much so that those who opposed reinserting Terri Schiavo's feeding tube were linked to the democratic party who Steve Farrell (2005), an associate professor of political economy, referred to as "the party of death." In his article "Democratic Party Exposed by Schiavo Case," he links the Terri Schiavo controversy to the abortion controversy when he states, "[b]y and large it is the Democrats and their liberal allies who have blocked the path to prevent the death of this young lady by starvation, just as they have blocked the path to save millions of babes within the womb." By linking Schiavo's case with the right to life/right to choose controversy, Farrell, and the media storm that echoed this connection, highlights gender. In this case, the government attempts to exercise control over the fate of a woman's body. Whether this control is a matter of defining disability versus inability or the right to choice, studying the case of Terri Schiavo, just like the tale of Maggie Fitzgerald, helps students explore the blurred boundaries of identity, representation, and empowerment in terms of disability and gender.

Complicating identity in this way encourages students to grapple with their own perceptions of themselves and others. By examining intersections of disability and gender in Million Dollar Baby, students are better prepared to explore this intersection when it occurs in real life situations such as the case with Terri Schiavo. Such discussions also challenge them to re-examine similar situations through this same lens, such as the contrasts between public perceptions of Million Dollar Baby with that of Christopher Reeve. While Reeve was applauded for his bravery to live, why was Maggie revered for her tenacity to die? Even in his disability, Reeve continued to be aligned with his screen persona, Superman, who exemplified masculinity as physically strong, morally just, and heroic. However, disabled Maggie shows little resemblance to her former self. Whereas Maggie never underwent physical therapy in Million Dollar Baby, news clips often featured Reeve's physical progress as a result of such therapy. As a strong advocate for stem cell research, he remained active in public forums, unlike Maggie who disappears from the boxing world after she becomes disabled. By examining the contrasts in the representations of Maggie and Reeve's situations, students can gain a more thorough understanding of the role that gender plays in the representations of disabilities in general.

Gendered disability can be complicated even further when we challenge the premise that disability is in some way less adequate. The argument that femininity is represented as a disability in Million Dollar Baby assumes that disability is a weakness to be overcome, as represented in other successful films such as Ray, My Left Foot, forrest gump, and this year's Academy Award winner for best foreign film The Sea Inside. Each of these films handles disabilities in different ways and presents contact zones that students can examine.

Asking students to examine how these films represent disability and how this attribute of identity intersects with others, such as gender, race, religion, and class, helps to deepen conversations about disability and identity in the classroom. However, we must encourage students to look at these films critically on many levels. While these films bring attention to various disabilities, they also fail the disabled community. By neglecting to use disabled actors, by seeking reactions of pity, and by defining success as being freed from or overcoming disability, these films limit the ways in which disability is represented and perceived.

In this piece, we have illuminated the potential of treating aspects of identity as contact zones in the classroom by examining how gender and disability are represented in the film Million Dollar Baby. This intersection is only one of many represented in the film's contact zones. Intersections between race and disability are represented by the character Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris (Morgan Freeman), race and gender by Billie Bluebear, class and disability by Maggie and Danger (Jay Baruchel), faith and faithlessness by Frankie, and age and ability by many characters in the film. All of these intersections can be complicated even further when we consider them as intertwining aspects of each character's complete identity. When we focus on identity in the classroom, it becomes a point of contact where students learn to deconstruct representations of identity in order to come to a fuller understanding of the inconsistencies between who they are and how they are represented so that they are better prepared to assume agency for who they want to become.


Bush signs Schiavo legislation. (2005, March 21). Retrieved April 22, 2005, from MSNBC Website: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/7212079/.

Farrell, S. (2005, March 25). Democratic party exposed by Schiavo case. Retrieved April 22, 2005, from NewsMax Web site: http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/3/24/200539.shtml.

Fox, G. (2005, May 20). The lost lesson of Terri Schiavo. Retrieved on May 20, 2005 from St. Petersburg Times Website: www.sptimes.com

Larana, E., Johnston, H., & Gusfield, J.(Eds). (1994). New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 101-30.

Melucci, A. (1994). A Strange Kind of Newness: What's New in New Social Movements? New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity in E. Larana, H.

Johnston, J. R. Gusfield (eds). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, pp. 101-30.

Pratt, M.L. (2003). Arts of the Contact Zone. Beyond Borders: A Cultural Reader Ed. Randall Bass and Joy Young. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 249-62.

Next we come to Stephen Drake, whose work as a disability advocate many readers of this journal know well. Drake discusses his organization's protests of M$B and explains why the film provided a moment crying out for response from the disability community. His argument calls into question what we ought to do when moments like this present themselves. Drake will no doubt continue to be one of the figures shaping our response(s) to popular representations of disability. His piece below generously calls for dialogue in the disability community about what we are doing and what we should be doing in terms of public action and activism.

Following the submission of Stephen's first draft, we entered into a lively dialogue with him, and we challenged him to expand on several of his more contentious points. In the spirit of exchange that we hope this forum captures and promotes, we will represent this dialogue at the end of Stephen's essay.

Million Dollar Baby and Not Dead Yet

Stephen Drake
Not Dead Yet
E-mail: Sndrake@aol.com

We started it. Really. Not Dead Yet (NDY) and others in the disability community really kicked off the controversy surrounding Million Dollar Baby. Baby opened in late December of 2004 in a limited release, qualifying for the 2004 Oscar nominations. As a result of this marketing strategy, Baby was deemed a "masterpiece" and Oscar-bound before the majority of Americans were able to see the movie.

Chicago was one of the cities slated for the limited release.  We received two calls from disability activists. One had merely heard about the euthanasia theme of the movie. Another had gone to see it and wanted NDY to know about it.

As research analyst for NDY, the job of seeing the movie fell to me.  Sometime during the first week of January, I went to see Baby at a packed matinee showing. Within a few days, I had drafted a critique and call to action that was published on January 11th at www.raggededgemagazine.com. In the article, I hit many points that would be repeated by other disability activists, scholars and advocates:
1. The movie was deceptively marketed.
2. The portrayal of rehabilitation and consequences of spinal cord injury were unrealistic
3. Highlighted Eastwood's history of anti-ADA activism.
4. The fact that Maggie had the right to have her vent turned off was ignored. The right to refuse treatment didn't exist in this movie.
5. Called for others to see the movie, make their judgments, and protest, if they saw the same movie I saw. (Note: the fact we did not call for a boycott really threw opponents for a loop, at least for awhile, since it would have made us easier to attack.)

These points and others would be expanded upon and added to by many others in the disability community in the following weeks.

The next thing that followed was a direct action.  The Chicago Film Critics Association was hosting an event on January 19th.  What better target for a protest than a group of critics who had unanimously praised the film and hidden the "surprise ending" from viewers?  A group of disability activists, scholars and advocates all braved the cold to leaflet and picket the event.  There were photographers, reporters and camera crews who came just to report on us - a result of the advance press work. Part of the draw was the just-released press release from the National Spinal Cord Injury Association blasting the movie and Clint Eastwood.

As a result, disability advocates received some unprecedented airing in the print media - the objections to the movie and to Eastwood were covered in the NY Times, London Telegraph, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and a nationally-disseminated Associated Press story.

Roger Ebert, arguably the most widely-read and watched movie critic in the U.S., was one of the attendees at the Chicago event.  Some signs were even targeted at him (Ebert says: "thumbs up to killing cripples.")  Ebert also likes to think of himself as having knowledge and sensitivity about disability issues, and has done some fundraising work for a disability advocacy organization in Chicago.

Ebert ignored any approaches from disability advocates here in Chicago before or immediately after the protest at the Chicago Film Critics Association.  The impetus for his response was undoubtedly the knowledge that Chicago columnist Michael Miner was composing a column about Million Dollar Baby and the disability protests.

Ebert's "response" - published on January 29 in the Chicago Sun-Times --  was a classic example of a response from a white male under attack by a minority group. His essay contained the following elements:
1. Ebert assured us that some of his best friends were disabled.
2. Ebert assured us that he had promoted other quality films about disability.
3. Ebert informed us that a friend of his was a disabled film critic who also loved Million Dollar Baby.
4. Ebert told us he saw a great documentary on quad rugby at the Sundance Festival (Murderball) and that everyone should see that movie.

Ebert wasn't done, though.  By the end of the article, he misinformed his readers about the nature and scope of the disability protests.  Ignoring the fact that disability advocates, activists, and scholars were reaching out to mainstream media, he informed readers that we were alerting our own "constituency" about something that might be harmful to emotionally vulnerable, newly injured people with disabilities. 

Ebert mostly wanted to talk about the wrongness of "spoiling" - revealing the plot of a movie- and to rant against the religious right.  In doing so, he singled out Michael Medved as someone who had "spoiled" the movie to advance an agenda.  One silver lining of Ebert's "response" was that its lopsided nature no doubt aided the acceptance and publication of an essay by myself and journalist Mary Johnson.

Ebert's theme and marginalization of disability was quickly picked up by nationally syndicated columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, along with other columnists.  (It should be noted that the disability voice was absent from the beginning in conservative media, with a few token mentions in the Washington Times.)  The list of conservative critics being blasted for "spoiling" the movie got longer.

In the lists of "spoilers," there was always one name conspicuously absent, though.  David Edelstein, a film critic on National Public Radio and Slate, blasted and "spoiled" Million Dollar Baby in both forums.  But Edelstein is a liberal, writing and speaking in very non-conservative media outlets.  Including his name to the list of "spoilers" would have wrecked the ideological purity of the lists being promoted.

In short, Ebert's "response" triggered a steamroller that pushed the voice of disability advocates out of the coverage of Million Dollar Baby.  It started with marginalization and by the end, our presence was eliminated and the controversy about the movie redefined.

What this amounted to was an all-too-familiar collaboration between conservative, mainstream and progressive media.  This "collaboration" erased disability from the landscape of the story, to be replaced by a story about a volley in the "culture wars."  Since neither the left or right sees us as part of their respective cultures, we ended up as collateral damage.  By the time the Oscars rolled around, the story had been completely morphed and we were virtual "road-kill."

This set the stage for a repeat performance of cooperation in the wave of press coverage in the final weeks of Terri Schiavo's life.  The effort to keep the story within a "culture war" framework was so extreme that Senator Tom Harkin's passionate efforts to save Terri Schiavo's life were ignored by the media, along with national disability groups that had been involved in the efforts for over two years.

The best predictor of future performance is past performance.  That being said, we can know in advance how the media - *all* the media - will respond to disability advocates' involvement in anything smacking of "right to die" issues. 

Let's be honest - no one besides ourselves has a vested interest in giving us our proper place in public discourse about "right to die" issues or just about any issue.  Journalists and editors are used to thinking of disability from a "human interest" angle - stories of inspiration, overcoming, or longing for cure.  Bioethicists don't want us invading their "turf," which in this case, happens to be policies aimed at people with disabilities.  The left doesn't want to acknowledge disagreement with us on some "better dead than disabled" topics.  The right doesn't want to acknowledge us since the term "disability rights" is despised in conservative circles.

None of this is going to change anytime soon.  And it won't change at all if we don't help the process along. What we can change is our own performance.  The only way we get into the public discourse is by inserting ourselves there.  Judging from what was accomplished over the past few months, it seems obvious what that will take.  We should not shy away from peaceful protests, especially at atypical venues (I doubt the Chicago Film Critics Association had ever been picketed before) that will grab attention.  Street protest isn't enough, obviously, we have to be primed and ready to respond with our press releases, op-eds, letters to the editors, etc. In short, speak out louder, longer and more forcefully.  A hint from traditional activism - angering someone makes it hard for them to ignore you.  That's true for Roger Ebert, Maureen Dowd and Bill O'Reilly.  Sure, they'll diss us - but they'll have to acknowledge us before dissing us.  Being openly attacked is preferable to being systematically ignored.

We followed up with Drake and asked him to clarify several points. What follows is his response.

Stephen, commonly, we see the culture wars as being 'fought' over polarizing issues like abortion, and it is pretty clear where the two sides stand. In the Schiavo case and in the Million Dollar Baby response, these sides weren't so clearly divided, and there was confusion about what was the 'progressive' and what was the 'conservative' side of things.  Though you refer to conservatives and liberals in your piece, they aren't so easily separated when looking at their response to the movie. Is there something to be gained from the deconstruction of the polarity, from the dissolution of distinctions between camps?

Drake: Well, the players certainly looked pretty diverse at the beginning of the Million Dollar Baby controversy.  Eastwood is a conservative Republican with an anti-ADA background.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' official review of the film labeled it "offensive" but came up ambivalent about the treatment of euthanasia.  Initially, only a couple of conservative commentators blasted the film, but they gave the impression Eastwood was some new film pioneer of the left.

That left an ideal opportunity for the disability community to be heard, since the "usual suspects" were unusually quiet initially.  There was this void, just waiting to be filled, in the ongoing media blitz over this "masterpiece" that almost no one but critics had actually seen.

Disability activists, advocates and scholars became central figures in the controversy - briefly.  The fact that we played a central role served as a tool of deconstruction over the false right/left dichotomy over assisted suicide.  I suspect that one of the reasons we met such strong resistance after initial success was due to our role as agents of deconstruction.  Deconstruction serves our interests as a community, since the current paradigm doesn't allow for our part in the debates over assisted suicide and euthanasia at all - unless it's an individual disabled person asking to be killed.

What do you think the word collaboration should mean?  You talk about collaboration as an overlap of concerns.  But you hint that this collaboration might be more actively undertaken, particularly in order to silence the disability community.  Alternatively, what collaboration would you like to see amongst the media and/or in the disability community?

Drake: If I implied any sort of conspiracy or planning between, say, Fox News and MSNBC, then I communicated badly.  I put scare quotes around the word "collaboration" because it was the closest I could come to the phenomenon as it played out.  In fact, it was probably closer to a herd mentality when it comes to the media.  Almost any divisive issue gets portrayed as an aspect of the "culture wars," and that is just as true for The National Review as it is for The New York Times.

You don't need active collaboration or a conspiracy to get certain types of behavior patterns that lead to oppression or exclusion.  Sexism and racism aren't conspiracies, but the prevalence of sexist and racist attitudes can lead to patterns of discrimination from a wide array of players.

Can you share some of the goals you had for the protest of the film?  Can you share goals for future protest, and for the future stance of Not Dead Yet towards the media, particularly on issues such as those raised by Million Dollar Baby?

Drake: As a community, we have been unable to establish ourselves as the experts on issues affecting our lives.  This isn't limited to the issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia.  Time after time, news related to disability is dominated by surrogates - bioethicists, service providers, medical professionals, etc.  We don't get to be our own experts.

One hope with the "Million Dollar Baby" protests was that we could raise our overall presence in the media, and hopefully raise our visibility in future media coverage.  To a certain extent, there's been some tangible success.  Right now, news stories over the assisted suicide battle in California almost always reference disability advocates as part of the opposition coalition, and often quote disability advocates.  Several major stories about the infanticide proposals in the Netherlands have featured comments by representatives of Not Dead Yet and spina bifida-related organizations.

The media is entrenched in dealing with disability from a "human interest" or totally medicalized perspective.  With few exceptions, the media also favors framing all political controversy as an aspect of the "culture wars."  The only way we're going to break through that is to take the ground ourselves.  We must look for our opportunities, whether it's a local homicide being called a "mercy killing" or the newest scandal regarding mistreatment in nursing homes.   In situations like these, we have as much expertise and as much at stake as others who jump to be heard in the media - whether it's the latest incarnation of the Hemlock Society or the local nursing home lobby.  They're not shy about being opportunistic - we should learn from that.  We can either sit and wait for our world to change to our liking or do what we can to change it.  We can stake our claim by asserting "nothing about us without us."

Finally, Michelle Rudowicz and Heather Stuart focus on a key discursive site for Disability Studies scholars–the DS-HUM LISTSERV. The authors inventory the ways the movie was discussed online, and how such discussions were shaped by the venue, but also have changed the way the venue is seen and used. Following Stephen Drake's call to 'take the ground ourselves', this piece gives us a perspective on the ways contentious issues, like this movie, have been addressed within our community, how this community shapes and responds to collective and individual efforts to enter the broader cultural discussion, and where we might go from here, knowing where we've been. This piece, we hope, inspires us to recognise the complexities of 'taking the ground', and shows us the ways Disability Studies scholars have been at times careful and reflective, at other times even a little bit combative in our efforts to spread the word and to take back some control over the means of representation.

Insight, Incitement, and the In-Box
Discourse on MDB on the DS-HUM LISTSERV

Heather Stuart
Miami University
E-mail: stuarthn@muohio.edu

Michelle Rudowicz
Miami University
E-mail: rudowiml@muohio.edu

The Disability Studies in the Humanities LISTSERV is an E-mail discussion group maintained by the University of Maryland. Archives for the list are available back to 1999, and the list has been moderated by a series of volunteers in the 6 years of its existence in this form. More generally, this list serves as a central point of reference for scholars and activists in Disability Studies. Joining the list seems to be an initiation rite for academics, young and old, who are 'coming to' Disability Studies. Actual subscription numbers are unknown, and though many individuals have posted to the list and do so often, it can be assumed that many others simply read the discussion. Indeed, for many, posting to the list is an intimidating proposition–and this speaks to the influence of the list within the field. As a generalization, it might be said that the list is posted to mainly by the 'key' scholars in DS. In this way, it acts as an authoritative text, even in its informality and sometimes irreverence, while it also acts as an ongoing forum. Though the list is used to circulate information–such as calls for papers and conferences, or building bibliographies–it is also used as a lively site for debate, and this short paper will focus on this second facet. We hope that by charting one particular debate on the LISTSERV, we can reveal something about the movie discussed–Million Dollar Baby–but also that we can illustrate how this discussion, and this venue, shape Disability Studies as a discipline.

The extensive discussion of the film Million Dollar Baby began on the Disability Studies and the Humanities LISTSERV with a call to question the critics' overwhelmingly praising response to the film. Contributors were quick to point to the various ways in which the media commentary edited and omitted a Disability Studies perspective from their discussions. Many contributors made somber predictions about the likely success of the film and its actors at the Academy Awards. While MDB was the focus as a film ostensibly presenting a 'better dead than disabled' plot line, various other films were referenced for presenting similarly offensive representations of disability. Alternately, contributors offered insights which focused less specifically on the relationship between euthanasia and disability in the film, and more upon issues of class discrimination, gender anxiety, misogyny, and embodiment and athleticism.

LISTSERV contributors commented upon Clint Eastwood's own possible motives for making the film and selecting a particular artistic interpretation over others. This led to debate over the dramatic elements which coded the film (e.g. the narrative over-dubbing of Morgan Freeman, the costuming) and the effects of generic conventions upon reception. Entailed in discussions of the film's production were both speculative and more definitive statements about Eastwood's own political affiliations and possible personal investments in the film. Contributors commented upon the brutal treatment of people with disabilities in many of the country and western films the actor's career was built upon. Eastwood's alleged history of discrimination against people with disabilities was also traced back to his attitude (of resistance) towards making his own resort establishment compliant with accessibility standards set out in the American with Disabilities Act.

The Million Dollar Baby discussion surfaced variously textured conversations about euthanasia both in the film and more generally. Contributors placed the film's representation of assisted suicide amidst an on-going, historically contested debate concerning the rights of people with disabilities to exert control over their lives and deaths, and also placed this history within emerging contestation around the Terri Schiavo case: the Million Dollar Baby discussions on the LISTSERV, which represented an almost unprecedented efflorescence of discussion, led nearly seamlessly into discussion of the Schiavo case. The issues around this case, particularly in response to their politicization, became even larger and more contentious than MDB was on the LISTSERV.

From speculating about Clint Eastwood's political motives for making euthanasia heroic, to speculating about the Bush brothers' motives for championing Ms. Schiavo, the DS-Hum LISTSERV tackled the issue of euthanasia in a highly politicized and deeply emotional way. These discussions, it could be said, have changed the list and its reception for all of those involved. On a meta-LISTSERV level, these discussions led to a self-reflexive examination of the way that political positions inform and have historically played a role in many of the DS-HUM LISTSERV discussions of issues. The discussion of euthanasia and related topics served as an entry point into broader examinations of the power of ideological leanings to set the discursive terms of issues on the LISTSERV and, arguably, within the wider community. The politics of film makers, reviewers, and viewers of the movie were subject to question, but so were the politics of the LISTSERV contributors, and of the LISTSERV itself as a cultural artifact and cultural space.

Finally, the MDB discussion serves as an excellent example of the way the LISTSERV is both a public and private space. Contributors used the LISTSERV as a sounding board for ideas and projects, praised colleagues for successful protests and public endeavors, and urged one another to become and stay active in public discourse. The space both lends its members a sense of solidarity and turns upon itself to bring forth the tensions inherent in any community housing people with different, at times opposing, viewpoints. The richness of the MDB conversation was created and maintained via a critical awareness of who was speaking, from what perspective, using what language, to what effect–both inside and outside of the LISTSERV community.

What we learn from the movie Million Dollar Baby extends from what we sensed on-screen in the movie, to what we witnessed on screen and page in the media, into and through these important discussions we had online, and then informs what we do and say together as we move onwards.

Copyright (c) 2005 The Editors

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)