[csaa-forum] disability critique of million-dollar baby

Gerard Goggin g.goggin at uq.edu.au
Fri Feb 11 11:04:12 CST 2005

This critique of the film 'Million-Dollar' baby 
may be of interest (by Lennard Davis, important 
US disability & literary studies scholar) ...

Why 'Million Dollar Baby' infuriates the disabled

By Lennard J. Davis.
Lennard J. Davis teaches English at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. He is also professor of Disability and Human Development
at UIC's School of Applied Health Sciences and Disability

Published February 2, 2005
Chicago Tribune

Although Clint Eastwood's film "Million Dollar Baby" continues to
garner praise and awards -- a Director's Guild Award for Eastwood,
seven Oscar nominations, as well as best actress and director for
the Golden Globes -- a mounting furor around the film accompanies
these kudos.

In Chicago last week, Not Dead Yet, a group of people with
disabilities, assembled at night to protest what they say is the
anti-disability stance of the film. A demonstration also was held
in Berkeley, Calif., and more are planned in other cities. How can
there be such a wide gap between the critics and the disability
activists' point of view?

(Note to readers: This story reveals a key plot twist in "Million
Dollar Baby.")

The film tells us the story of a poor but feisty young woman,
Maggie (Hilary Swank), who wants Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to train
her to be a boxer. Initially he refuses, but when he gives in, she
becomes an unbeatable opponent in the ring -- un! til she breaks
her neck and becomes a quadriplegic. At that point, the film throws
a left hook and switches from a Rocky-themed plot to a disability
tragedy. When Maggie loses a leg to bedsores, she gives up her wish
to live and begs to be euthanized by Frankie. And with a little
soul searching, he agrees.

Many people with disabilities, including the National Spinal Cord
Injury Association, a national advocacy group with 13,000 members,
see the film as one that uncritically advocates euthanasia for
quadriplegics. There are no scenes in which anyone at the hospital
tries to deal with Maggie's depression or offers her counseling or
at the least an anti-depressant. And the feisty girl who would stop
at nothing to fight in the ring, who after the accident musters the
energy to tell her hillbilly family to bugger off, strangely
changes character and becomes someone who gives up her ghost rather
quickly -- even refusing Eastwood's offer of sending her to college
(his one attempt t! o affect her despair).

Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that, "The characters in
movies do not always do what we would do. That is their right. It
is our right to disagree with them." He added, "What kind of movies
would there be if everyone in them had to do what we thought they
should do?" Ebert's right that freedom of _expression and creative
license are valuable things and every right-minded person should
fight to preserve this right. But he's wrong if he thinks that
films don't have a powerful influence on how we think about
ourselves and the world.

Not an impartial artist

In this story, it is important to know that Eastwood isn't just any
impartial artist in the area of disability. In fact, he has
actively testified before the House Judiciary Committee against the
provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eastwood is the
owner of the Mission Ranch Inn in Carmel, Calif. A patron with
disabilities had sued under the ADA claiming that the h! otel
restrooms were inaccessible and the only accessible guest room was
more than double the price of other rooms in the hotel. Eastwood
was cited for some of these violations, although the major claims
in the case were dismissed.

Angered by the ruling, Eastwood went to Congress to lobby for a
bill that would have substantially weakened the ADA by requiring a
90-day notification of violations. At that time, Eastwood said that
the ADA amounted to "a form of extortion."

Although Eastwood didn't write the script, he did select it, act in
it, direct and co-produce it. Is it surprising that "Million Dollar
Baby" isn't particularly sympathetic to the views of people with
disabilities? If a film were obviously anti-gay, or anti-women or
anti-abortion -- would all the film critics rally around it and
tell us what a great film it was?

So why do so many critics like this film? Could it be because they
actually have very little knowledge or contact with people with
disabilities, deaf people, blind people, quadriplegics -- except
through the media? Many people, critics included, know very little
about them or their issues. 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.

Ironically, one of the ways that many people do actually know about
this group is through movies. Think of all the films that have been
made about people with disabilities: "The Miracle Worker," "Johnny
Belinda," "My Left Foot," "Children of a Lesser God," "Rain Man,"
"Elephant Man," "A Beautiful Mind" and many more. And this year's
crop are close to garnering awards -- "Ray," "Aviator," "The Sea
Inside" and "Million Dollar Baby." Come to think of it, if you want
to be nominated for an award, you might just want to do a
disability movie.

These films generally show us people with disabilities triumphing
over their "handicap" or living the! tragedy of the disease. Great
themes for an uplifting feel-good film or a tearjerker. These
films, for the most part, are made by abled people who are using
the issue of disability to rally the forces of hope and pity.
People with disabilities in film tend to be lionized or thrown to
the lions. But they almost never are made or written by people with
disabilities -- so the actual life experience of people who have
walked the walk, tapped the cane, or wheeled the chair, isn't
really reflected in many of these works.

F.X. Toole, who wrote the story on which "Million Dollar Baby" was
based, had a heart condition throughout his life, his son said, and
"had strong feelings about not wanting to live in a reduced state."
Like most people, Toole had a vision and a fear of life with a
disability, but he didn't have direct experience.

So-called normal people are fascinated and haunted by the person
with a disability, probably because, unlike any other identity, one
can go from ! being a normal to a quadriplegic in a matter of
seconds. Most white people aren't going to become black in their
lifetimes, and most men (with a few exceptions) aren't going to
become women in the near future -- but the shaky and uncertain
position of being normal can easily convert by a simple medical
report into a state of being disabled overnight. That's why most
film viewers are so quick to either idolize or pity the disabled
person (almost always played by a normal actor), and are so quick
to acknowledge euthanasia as a quick fix to the as-yet unfixable
condition of quadriplegia.

Inaccuracies portrayed

One of the areas of distress to people with disabilities is that
"Million Dollar Baby" is so inaccurate and unnuanced about life
with quadriplegia, unlike the Spanish-language film "The Sea
Inside," also nominated for an Academy Award and also about

For example, since 1990 there are laws that allow patients to
refuse treatment. A quadriplegic on a respirator could simply ask
to be disconnected from the device. Doctors would have done so and
administered a sedative so the person could die peacefully. Instead
of allowing that rather benign solution, screenwriter Eastwood went
with the more outre plot device of having the character illegally
enter the hospital, disconnect the device and inject her with
adrenalin, a far more jolting ending than most hospitals would have

And if he had bothered to talk with anyone who had a disability, he
would have found out that the kind of bed sores that require
amputations would not have arisen in an upscale nursing home, and
certainly not that early in her stay. But Eastwood wasn't
interested in reality, like other normal filmmakers who make movies
about the disabled, they are dealing in the grand myths and legends
that surround the idea of disability rather than the reality of
living with a disability.

It is true that "Million Dollar Baby" is only a film, but ! when it
comes time for many people to make health decisions about
themselves or a loved one's future, what experience or knowledge
will they fall back on? Few people have personal experience with
severe disabilities, and few will take the time to find out about
what life is like living with deafness, blindness or disability.
No, most people will fall back on what they know -- which is what
they have garnered from novels, plays, films and television shows.
So, it's only when such art forms begin to reflect the real lives
of people with disabilities, will most folks get a better
understanding of the 15 to 20 percent of Americans who live and
cope daily with disabilities.

Copyright © 2005, <http://www.chicagotribune.com/>Chicago Tribune

Dr Gerard Goggin
ARC Australian Research Fellow
Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies
University of Queensland, Brisbane 4072 Qld Australia
e: g.goggin at uq.edu.au   m: 0428 66 88 24
www.gerardgoggin.net// www.cccs.uq.edu.au
research blog: http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/~blogs/gerardgoggin/

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