|Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
By now, many readers of Disability Studies Quarterly know the plot of Clint Eastwood's 2004 film Million Dollar Baby but, to review, the film tells the story of Maggie (Hilary Swank), a young working-class woman who dreams of stardom in the boxing ring and convinces the wizened Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to become her trainer. Maggie conquers the boxing world until a spinal injury ends her career. Now a quadriplegic, Maggie spirals into depression, loses a leg as a result of bedsores, and convinces Frankie to euthanize her. The film, which won critical acclaim in the mainstream press and swept most of the major categories at this year's Academy Awards, garnered negative attention from conservative political pundits including Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved, who argued the film represented liberal Hollywood's attempt to advance a pro-euthanasia agenda. Meanwhile, the Disability Studies community critiqued the film for its representation of disability-as-death-sentence. Some disability activists called for boycotts. Some vented in various forums, notably the DS-HUM (Disability Studies in the Humanities) listserv, which exploded with discussions about the portrayal of Maggie. Some seized the opportunity to engage public audiences about issues of concern to the Disability Studies community.
The disability community's critiques of the film raised significant concerns about how the general public views bodies that resist normative imperatives. In particular, the film represented a moment to consider just how "other" the disabled body remains for an alarmingly large segment of the culture. In short, the film-as-cultural-moment provided a productive opportunity for disability activists and scholars to enter into civic arenas like the op-ed page. Due to the intensity of the debate, and the urgency of the disability community's critiques of the film, particularly when given limited space in the popular media, some facets of the Disability Studies critique of Maggie's representation had to be abbreviated. Here we hope to comment more expansively upon the film's complex and multi-faceted iconography of the body. Of course, before and after her injury, Maggie's body is more than just a "disabled" body. How her body is gendered and classed, for example, deeply effects the audience's perception of her, and these identity markers interact with her disability in rich and illuminating ways. This essay seeks to widen our understanding of Maggie's body. We hope to nudge the criticism and scholarship—as well as activist and public intellectual modes of talking about disabilities—in a direction that makes critical connections between multiple markers of identity. Specifically, we want to look at how Maggie's disability and her social class work together to articulate a symbolic vocabulary—a lexicon which connects ableism with classism and vice versa.
Eli Clare (1999) writes that "gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race...everything falls piling onto a single human body" (p. 123). Million Dollar Baby's vocabulary relies upon just this kind of tangling and piling. The filmic lexicon accents classism with ableism, ableism with sexism and so on via the bodies that parade through gyms, boxing rings, and strata of stigma. Million Dollar Baby has already been criticized for its stereotypical and singular view of disability and the violence it does by seemingly advocating that people with disabilities be euthanized. But this is also a film that reveals much about the way stigma relies upon reinforcement. Every devaluation references another, in each case further justifying a cinematic violence against difference, especially bodily differences. In this movie, bodies signify ability and class, often at the same time.
Maggie: Working-Class Hero, Working-Class Body
Eastwood presents an image of a working-class woman convinced that class is something to be overcome. Maggie lacks a critical class consciousness but she does have a general knowledge that she grew up poor. A "hillbilly." "White trash." She knows the world despises her by virtue of her Appalachian poverty and, indeed, she despises these hillbilly roots. Maggie comes off as sensible in part because she has bought into her own class mythology. She's got enough sense to know the limitations of her class—even while fighting to transcend those limits. Her determination to succeed in the world of boxing stems not only from her love of the sport but also from her desire to avoid a working-class life and a working-class body. Without boxing, Maggie explains, she can expect a life of "Oreos and a deep fryer." Therefore the vehicle for her mobility up and away from her roots is her body.
Even as the body is a vehicle, the body is something Maggie seems to run from. The denial, or making-unconscious, of the body is another major and connected movement of the movie, even as characters and audience alike are so highly conscious of the movie's bodies. Maggie denies her "girl-ness" and has to—she wants to work with Frankie and he says he "doesn't train girls." He constantly reminds her not to act like one. Maggie also denies her body through the sport itself, which is the most Cartesian of all sports in this cinematic conception. We learn that "boxing is an unnatural act." Everything is backwards: left is right, you have to step into the pain. Frankie helps her deny her body because it is his job to patch it up when it seems about to explode from the punishment it takes in the ring. His patching addresses the "leakiness" of the feminine, the vulnerable body. He has to be a "wizard" to do this, but this wizardry is absolutely necessary. When Maggie is finally injured, paralyzed, she can no longer escape her body, and Frankie can no longer patch her up. The solution to this "problem" according to the logic of the twist ending—and the logic of the entire narrative—is to end her life. In other words, Maggie's ascendance out of the trailer park and her denial of her gendered and classed body align with questions of ability and disability even before she is disabled in the movie's penultimate movement. In a sense, before being disabled by a spinal injury, she is already disabled by her gender and her class.
Before returning to a discussion of Maggie and Frankie, it is useful to look at two other bodies and the values the audience ascribes to them, following the symbolic vocabulary of the film—this "tangling and piling" of class, ability and gender norms upon the body.
Maggie's Mother: Weight Class
Maggie is ashamed of being working class but, since she must be the film's hero, her shame cannot be imagined as a negative attribute. If the film is to travel its predictable trajectory (as heroic myth), Maggie must not be viewed as uppity, or as a traitor. So we see troubling glimpses of her roots, notably her monstrous mother who is a welfare cheat, ungrateful for the cash and the gifts that Maggie showers upon her. Her mother fears that the home Maggie buys for her will get her in trouble with social service agencies and prevent her from collecting her welfare check: "Couldn't you have just given me cash?" Her mother and her siblings, after traveling to California, delay their arrival at the hospital by visiting Disneyland, showing up in her hospital room with gaudy trinkets. They care less about her health and well-being than with their own ability to cash in on her injury. Viewers come to despise this family and, hence, to relate to Maggie's shame at her background. Of course she's ashamed to be Appalachian, the audience says, who wouldn't be ashamed of such a family?
The body that Maggie is actually denying when she expresses her distaste for her roots is the body of her mother. Her mother's body then becomes the ultimate target for disavowal, as a constellation of class, ability and sex stigmas. It has no ability, not just because the mother claims welfare due to a disability ("Medicaid gonna cut me off"), but especially because she seems to be "faking it." At least we are left to suppose she is lying—the movie speaks to society's desire to catch someone "cheating," and thus reveal disability for the "scam" it is. What her disability may be is not said—but here her obesity speaks for her, and the audience, in a contradictory but connected assumption, supposing that hers is a body incapable of labor. So a troubling stereotype about disability and class is relied upon: people with disabilities cheat the system for money because they won't work, while at the same time people with disabilities could never be capable of working. In this manner, hers is the ultimate working class body—it's not even working, at least insofar as she doesn't work. Fatness functions here as more of a signifier than a sign. It doesn't matter that the actress who portrays Maggie's mother is clearly not 312 pounds (though we objectify her by guessing), because those pounds are added up on a class calculator, factoring in her accent, her home, her Disney-loving values, and on and on. Here, her fatness, her disability and her poor class status are co-terminous; the audience is to assume they naturally connect.
Maggie's working-class mother fits into predictable and offensive class archetypes. She is a predictable caricature: the welfare cheat. She doesn't challenge the audience, but instead confirms a regressive and certainly familiar narrative. She embodies dominant cultural mythology about poverty. She asks for it. She is lazy, which prevents her from getting ahead or improving her lot in life. Individual flaw, not systemic injustice, is the cause of the mother character's poverty. The representation is also strikingly lowbrow. Maggie's family members are tacky, incapable of restraint at the tourist trap gift shops. They are kitsch without the ironic awareness that the audience possesses upon seeing their Mickey Mouse apparel when they (finally) show up at the hospital. They are not in on the joke—objectified for a lack of refinement even while being objectified for their lack of morality. Their fat bodies become yet another marker of this deficit, another demonstration of their lack of restraint, another reason to despise them, and another implication of their laziness. Recall Maggie's comments about the Oreos. She also comments that, in her family, "trouble comes by the pound." Little wonder sports is Maggie's way out; it's a chance to attain various markers of capital (including, obviously, money, but also a thin body—an embodiment of hard work).
It is curious to see, however, that the focus of the family on Maggie's money, and their lack of compassion for her "condition" as she lays in the hospital bed, is framed by the film-makers and read by the audience as evil, whereas Frankie's compassion when he ends her life is framed and read as heroic. Even euthanasia has a particular cultural capital. In a very memorable scene in her room at "Serenity Glen," Maggie is forced to choose between her family and Frankie. She chooses him. Using the mother's classed, obese body, and the family's one-dimensional depiction, the film sets Frankie up as an angel. He then makes euthanasia seem virtuous, aesthetically pleasing and, upper class.
Danger!...In the Ring
When Maggie hits somebody, when she inflicts pain on another body, she is working against her own, just as she denies the pain others inflict on her. And a veritable parade of other bodies is brought out into ring to do battle with her for class mobility. These bodies are at least as much, if not more, other than hers (maybe this is why she can beat them). A Jamaican woman from England, a former black prostitute from East Berlin ("Scabby Kraut" Blue Bear). These stereotypes are the working class markers of their respective countries, just like her Appalachian accent and her dishwashing (as well as her fat, lazy mother) are to be markers of her class in America. And, in case the audience doesn't get how "other" they are, we see them in contrast with "desirable," well-disciplined bodies—the thin, properly feminine, bikini-clad women who get in the ring and hold up signs to signify the start of a new round of action.
Yet it is a body that refuses to get into the ring that perhaps offers the most vivid snapshot of the ways that norms of class, ability and gender expression govern the semiotic economy of the film. "Danger" is a young man who works out at Frankie's gym. In the beginning of the movie, he and Maggie are both teased because they don't fit: Maggie is a woman and Danger acts and dresses like one, wearing tights and refusing to spar with anyone. Yet he is constantly talking about his "shot at the title" and seems to have real, if naïve dreams of boxing stardom. His character is an important repository of stigma. His body is gendered, abled and class wrong. He is effeminate and won't deny his body enough to actually fight. His training serves as the opposite of Maggie's. Her gender transformation is the inverse of his, because he cannot deny his feminized body. Failing to do so makes him less of a man. Pummeling others and being pummeled, on the other hand, makes Maggie less of a woman. And Danger's accent and speech translate for the movie's purposes as making him both "retarded" and backwoods. In some ways, as pure stigma, there's not a lot of difference, and the cinematic construction of Danger highlights that fact. We aren't told whether he has a disability, but he sounds "funny," with a "hillbilly" accent like Maggie's. And the other men in the gym call him a "retard."
Of course, he is beaten to a pulp. His body then has the tension of many fronts focused upon it. The audience is to pity danger, but only a little bit. The discerning eye can't help but see his plight mirrored in that of Maggie. When either character, Maggie or Danger, fails to overcome their gendered or disabled body, they become the target of violence. Danger is beaten, Maggie is euthanized. She, too, is to be pitied once she becomes "irrevocably" disabled, but only a little bit. In the end, we are supposed to feel somewhat happy that she is killed.
Maggie & Her Working-Class Disability
It is interesting to see the ways that stereotypes of ability and of class rely upon twinned disavowals of dependency. Maggie is not part of a collective, not a member of a group united by common interests. Hers is a Horatio Alger, bootstraps myth because she works hard and because she does nothing to initiate or facilitate social change. Her working-class status is not a source of pride, in part because the version of "working class" the film imagines lacks attributes that could reasonably be sources of pride. Working class in Million Dollar Baby means laziness and an under-achievement that results from poor character— lack of moral and ethical goodness. It also entails a certain idea of the mind and the body: a lack of ethics, a low IQ, perhaps even retardation and/or an obese body. Even the Morgan Freeman character, a wise narrator, is a habitual gambler, damaged as much by his own sin as he is by the boxing injury that cut his career short. His race, the injury, the sin, and the disability work together, albeit to create a more likeable character than Danger, or Maggie's mother. Yet to be working-class always means having a fallible and deficient body. Maggie's body becomes the marker for her class status, the embodiment of her rags-to-riches life project. She must change her socio-economic status and as a means to that end, she must change her body. In order to control her financial situation, she must be in control of her body. She can't allow herself to become fat like her mother—clearly, the "natural" thing for her body to do. So she turns to boxing, an unnatural act, a way to beat the odds, a way to pick herself up by her bootstraps. Her body becomes a site of individuality. Her body is a personal achievement, a project. With hard work, she can control her body—until her injury at least. And when she no longer can control her body, there is only one solution.
So, for Maggie, class is something to be overcome, and something that she can overcome. But disability—also imagined in the film as a personal and corporeal failure—is something that Maggie cannot overcome. The difference lies in individuality. Maggie's victory over socio-economics is based on her own individual hard work. Yes, she relies on the Clint Eastwood character to train her, but she always "pulls her own weight," and never leeches off her trainer's good (if reluctant) will. Again, Maggie's family's transgressions lie in this brand of lechery, as signified by their collection of welfare money and benefits. They have failed as individuals and rely on a larger collective for their well-being—something Maggie never does (pre-injury anyway). Maggie's spinal injury changes things; now she relies on help, and this is what is most damning for her. The audience must pity her not only for her pain, but also for her reliance on the doctors, the nurses, the machines and medicines, and the Clint Eastwood character. The only thing more horrible, as far as the film is concerned, might be to find support from allies or from other people with disabilities. Interdependence is as impossible as a cure. When Frankie must pick up Maggie and set her in her wheelchair, the audience sighs an ableist sigh. Her formerly healthful body is a formerly independent body. She cannot stand this kind of reliance. Cannot stand being a leech on her friend, or on the "system." She says, "I cannot be like this Frankie...not after what I've done."
Problematics of the Disability Response
So we have a woman whose social class is itself a disability. Her shame at her Appalachian roots informs her response to her spinal injury, because she has already internalized normative values. She already knows she must deny her working-class body, so it isn't much of a stretch for her to know that her quadriplegic body must also be denied. Million Dollar Baby is a gathering of societal values and cultural constructions, an array of attitudes towards the body, towards a hierarchy of bodies and their dangerous, necessary transformations. This array or hierarchy is "marked" top to bottom by class, ability, sex/gender and race norms.
But the response to the movie has been surprisingly void of layered interpretations. Perhaps why scholars and activists from the disability community have been so worried about being allied with "the zealots" (Limbaugh et al) is because we recognize the need to be reactionary, even while this makes us uncomfortable. This movie has made people mad, and we need ways to express what is wrong about the movie, and to claim a correct interpretation of it, of the filmmakers, and of society's reactions. Yet we also need ways to promote Disability Studies as a critical lens, a rich and expanding field, not as a corrective frame. It is uncomfortable to say, but it seems as though disability activists and public intellectuals from the movement have uncritically re-invoked class stereotypes in their critique of disability stereotypes.
There seems to be some algebra of disavowal, of downward comparison at work. Is it okay that the mainstream press uncritically used derogatory terms like "hillbilly" and "white trash" to describe Maggie's background, at the same time that they were ignoring the film's implications for persons with disabilities? Probably not. Is it okay that disability critics, in their deconstructions of the film's values about disability, reinvoked those same stereotypes? And, without a sense of irony (without even sets of scare quotes) used terms like "hillbilly"? Definitely not. It behooves us intellectually and ethically to follow Eli Clare's lead and connect disability to race, class, and gender. Lennard Davis has been one of the most active public intellectuals to respond to the film's controversy, and he has largely done an outstanding job reaching toward the mainstream. Yet even Davis (2005) seems to fall into this trap, somewhat ironically calling Maggie "poor but feisty," for example. How would Davis respond to characterizing a person in a wheelchair with a similar, paternalistic phrase?
In the same editorial, Davis (2005) suggests that society has dealt adequately with other identity politics—all except for disability. He writes, "While it is rare to find a college student who isn't well versed in race, class, gender, and sexuality —few if any know about their fellow Americans with disabilities" (online). It is true that college courses more frequently focus on, say, gender issues than on disability issues. But it is dangerous to argue the legitimacy of one set of "problems" by implying that the culture has solved other "problems." The disability community should avoid playing this one-upping game. We have solved the problems of racism, sexism, and classism...now we must deal with ableism. That is not productive—and has dangerous implications. This school of thought, taken to its logical extreme, dictates a top-down flow of knowledge and correctness. Our job becomes telling the rest of the world how to talk and how to think. The disability community is rooted (and should remain rooted) in reciprocal and multivalent flows of knowledge. Disability is more than just another realm where scholars need to teach the rest of society a particular discourse and a particular value system. This model is elitist and denies non-academic sources of knowledge construction.
If it is possible to dismiss Maggie's mother as a "hillbilly," it becomes possible to position ourselves as sitting in a superior position, a position of power, a position of cultural capital. The disability community has used Million Dollar Baby as an occasion to point out that textual (e.g., cinematic) representations matter, that textual representations inform cultural values. Then let us also acknowledge how our own textual representations inform values and ideologies. We need to embrace multiple readings of cultural phenomena—readings that critically examine how multiple forces work together to delineate norms, construct what we mean when we talk about "the body" and finally perpetrate violence on the body. We can't afford to isolate disability from—or use it to trump—gender, race, and class, or Disability Studies becomes a hoarding of cultural capital and a pile-up of corrective interpretations. As Lennard Davis (2002) himself has written, "what is universal in life, if there are universals, is the experience of the limitations of the body" (p. 32). Yet in films like Million Dollar Baby, and seemingly in every other ideological corner, we confront what Davis (2002) calls a "fantasy...of the perfection of the body and its activities" (p. 32). We cannot step into this ring alone.
Clare, E. (1999). Exile and pride: disability, queerness and liberation. Cambridge, Ma: South End Press.
Davis, L. (2002). Bending over backwards. New York: New York University Press.
Davis, L. (2005, February 2). Why "Million Dollar Baby" infuriates the disabled. Retrieved March 30, 2005, from Chicago Tribune Website: http://metromix.chicagotribune.com/movies/mmx-0502020017feb02,1,3379919.story.
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)