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Million Dollar Bigotry

Let February 27, 2005 be remembered as a key moment in the culture wars. It was on that glittery night that “liberal” Hollywood bestowed its most hallowed Oscar to “Million Dollar Baby,” one of the most reactionary films since Ned Beatty squealed like a pig in “Deliverance.”

The film is about a plucky female boxer named Maggie (Hillary Swank) who through hard work and sheer spunkiness leaps from trailer-park rags to Las Vegas boxing ring riches. Her meteoric rise to success is due in large part to the strict fatherly guidance of her tough-as-nails (but softie-on-the-inside) trainer, Frankie (Clint Eastwood). Relationships ensue. The final third of the film takes a tragic turn ­ and here’s the part where I give away the ending, so avert your eyes if you hate that–as Maggie suffers a paralyzing spinal cord injury and asks Frankie to kill her, which he does.

Directed by Eastwood, the film has been a critics’ darling since its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four of them, including Best Picture. Before that the film received scads of other critical awards, including top honors from the National Society of Film Critics. Robert Ebert called it a “masterpiece,” and the New York Times’ A.O. Scott flat out proclaimed it “the best movie released by a major Hollywood studio” last year.

Not bad for a flick that apparently took its title from an old Alice Cooper song.

But like most things in America these days, “Million Dollar Baby” wasn’t immune to conservative criticism, and it quickly became controversial. Family values guru Michael Medved immediately assailed the film for what he called its “sympathetic treatment of assisted suicide,” and Rush Limbaugh dittoed the point on his radio program. Debbie Schlussel accurately predicted an Oscar night win for the film, not because she thought it was good, but “because it’s Hollywood’s best political propaganda of the year.” That is, “it supports killing the handicapped.”

Ironically, conservatives found some rare support in the otherwise liberal disability rights community. In a public statement, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) condemned the film for the way it advanced “the offensive and dangerous message that death is preferable to life with a disability,” a message echoed by the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and other groups.

Conservatives and disability rights people weren’t united for long, however. Both were criticizing Hollywood but toward different ends. For the disabilities rights folks, critiques of the film led to considerations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which Eastwood actively lobbed against before Congress in 2000). For the conservatives, the movie bled a trail straight to Roe v. Wade. In every other way, the film accords perfectly with conservative political agendas, so conservatives backed off.

I think the disability rights folks are right to talk about stereotypes. “Death before disability” is a strange message for Hollywood to send the same year Christopher Reeve passed away.

Futher, the stereotypes were built on pure fiction. The film is riddled with medical inaccuracies. Why was Maggie in a nursing home instead of a medical rehab center? Why were those ulcers allowed to form on her limbs, leading to amputation–were the physical therapists on strike? How was Frankie able to walk right in to her room at night, do the deed, then walk away unscathed? Don’t institutions have supervisors anymore, not to mention machine malfunction alarms?

The film also distorts legal reality. Under existing law it would have been perfectly legal for Maggie to request a withdrawal of her ventilator, which when combined with proper drug administration would have been a humane way to die. Medically speaking, what Frankie did to Maggie in the movie would be excruciatingly painful. And legally speaking it would have been murder. But at film’s end Frankie just rides off into the sunset to eat his lemon pie. Where’s the police investigation?

Reality is unnecessary because stereotype is the film’s point. For DREDF, “death before disability” is nothing less than “the most central stereotype fueling disability prejudice.” No other social group has to endure stereotypes to quite the same extent as people with disabilities. The public has cultivated certain sensitivities toward negative images of race, gender, and sexual orientation. But give moviegoers a suicidal quadriplegic, and they’ll respond with a tearful standing ovation. And an Oscar. But probably not more wheelchair ramps.

That’s not the only harmful stereotype in the film, however. There’s another group kicked around in “Million Dollar Baby” that I haven’t seen anyone rush to defend: namely, the stereotype of the white trash welfare queen and her Jerry Springer brood.

Maggie’s southern family consists of an overweight and overbearing mama, a “loose” looking younger sister in tight pants with a dirty baby on her hip, and a greasy-haired redneck covered with frightening tattoos. Guess what? They sure do love their welfare.

When Maggie buys a house for her mother, Mama’s initial response is to nag that her welfare might be cut. Later, when the family comes to visit Maggie at the nursing home, they don’t care that she might never walk again, because they’re too busy trying to hoodwink her out of her boxing earnings. Get it? Just like welfare fraud.

These two scenes ­ the only in the movie featuring Maggie’s family–bolster cruel images of poor southern whites, society’s last remaining ethnic group who can be belittled with impunity. The message here is two-fold. First, white southern trailer-trash types are worthless human beings. And second, given the chance they will rob you blind. Probably best to cut their welfare.

To drive that point home, in a moment of cinematic rapture Maggie finally stands up to Mama: “You never signed those papers like you were supposed to because you were worried about losing your welfare. I can still sell that house right out from under you. And if you show your fat, lazy hillbilly ass around here, that’s just what I’ll do.”

Fat, lazy hillbillies: what a convenient argument against welfare during an age of insurgent conservativism.

If “Million Dollar Baby” is “Hollywood’s best political propaganda of the year,” it’s certainly not the liberal sort we always hear so much about. Far from it, with its flagrant stereotypes of the poor and the disabled ­ and its euthanizing “solutions” for both ­ it reflects a worldview that is darker and more dehumanizing than anything we’ve seen for some time. Naturally, in today’s political climate it gets Best Picture.

SCOTT RICHARD LYONS is Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where he also teaches Native American Studies. He can be reached at: srlyons@syr.edu