I’ve spent over ten years not watching “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t like Clint Eastwood - his persona, his politics, or his movies - and I don’t like boxing. But I really didn’t want to see it because I knew how it ended. As a literal illustration of ableism, however, you probably can’t do better. So I gave in.
Here’s the plot with loads of spoilers:
- A cranky guy owns a boxing gym; his janitor and sidekick is the narrator.
- A woman who wants to learn to be a champion boxer comes in; he tells her she’s too old and he doesn’t “train girls.”
Side note - We find out the boxer’s name at this point, but I couldn’t remember it until half way through the movie; her mean mom calls her by a different name, and cranky guy gives her another name, in Gaelic, and refuses to tell her what it means.
- She’s plucky and persistent and he agrees to train he. She becomes an awesome boxer; he gets less cranky.
- They start to get close and she tells him she misses her daddy, who was a great guy, and then tells a sweet story about how he shot his beloved dog who couldn’t walk right anymore (subtle foreshadowing?).
- He protects her from fights she’s not ready for, but then lets her go for the title with the world champ who is renowned for being a vicious, dirty fighter (and who happens to be both German and a person of color which is not a thing that happens all that often) who doesn’t care how much she hurts people (subtle foreshadowing?).
- They fight, the woman with the name we’re not sure of does really well, is winning, and after the bell rings to end the round, the vicious, dirty fighter smacks her and she winds up paralyzed. There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the fact that this is so not fair.
- In rehab, after some sweet scenes with cranky guy, and some nasty scenes with mean mom, Maggie (that’s what she calls herself) decides she wants cranky guy to do to her what her daddy did to his dog. (That’s actually how she frames it.)
- He’s really sad that he says he can’t do it. Then he takes a walk, and talks to his priest, who tells him (seriously, this is what he tells him) to forget heaven and hell; the real problem is that cranky guy will feel lost if he kills her.
- Then he goes and talks to his sidekick and he tells him that he killed her. (I thought I fell asleep, because I didn’t remember that part.) But it turns out he means that letting her fight and become paralyzed is the same as having killed her. And sidekick/narrator says it’s not true (meaning he shouldn't feel bad about it - not that she's not “dead”) because he gave her her shot, and what more could she want. And we know we’re supposed to believe him because he's Morgan Freeman and he plays God in movies and also narrated “March of the Penguins.”
- So he goes back to rehab and they both get weepy and then he kills her.
- And it turns out that the name he gave her means, “my darling,” and the whole movie was a letter Morgan Freeman was writing to cranky guy’s estranged daughter explaining what a great guy her dad really is. And it also turns out that it was less than 2 days in between the time Maggie said she wanted to die and she did.
The biggest surprise to me (other than it’s not a very good movie), is that it’s not Maggie’s story; it’s Frankie’s, the trainer. Her character is more of a plot device, moving the trainer through a series of situations so he can resolve his issues. The reason that’s so important - and so telling in such an ableist movie - is that it makes it “OK” that no one ever considers what Maggie’s options might be, no one ever considers that Maggie has been through a trauma and needs something more than the cranky guy from the gym to figure out how to transition into this next phase of her life, and - most upsetting - no one considers for a minute that she still has a life that’s worth living. She’s not really the one we’re supposed to care about; he is.
Maggie is defined completely in relation to her trainer. She calls him “boss,” which confers power to him; he’s the authority. He calls her, “girlie,” and then a secret name he won’t explain until right before he murders her. That name, which means, “My Darling,” positions her again in relation to him. She’s his, his darling. She serves a purpose for him. She made him care again, or feel successful again or - worst option of all - ultimately enabled him to repent for his sins by doing her the "kindness" of killing her.
Maggie is an object of pity from the start. She doesn’t seem to have any friends, her family is awful and her nice daddy is dead. She’s an uneducated waitress (the classicism, sexism and racism in this movie can be discussed some other time); she takes home leftovers from her restaurant and lies that it’s for her dog (another comparison with a pet). And then she becomes paralyzed and says she wants Frankie to help her die.
While Frankie is deciding what to do about Maggie's request, he says to his priest, “But now she wants to die and I just want to keep her with me. But keeping her alive, I’m killing her.” It would have been selfish, he thinks, to “keep her alive.” In the logic of the movie, then, the selfless act, the admirable act, is actually to kill her. She never had much to live for anyway, and now that she’s paralyzed, she apparently has nothing.
The million dollar baby, Maggie, is really just another poster child, like one of “Jerry’s kids” (Haller, p. 149), who’s a vehicle for pity. Her purpose is to open up our hearts so we'll give - critical praise, movie tickets and rentals, or an Oscar. She is portrayed as dependent and powerless. She has nothing and no one except a dream that only Frankie can make true. Jerry Lewis reached out to the audience to help “cure” the MDA poster children. Clint Eastwood expects his audience to sympathize with the idea that the only way Maggie can be “fixed,” is to remove her breathing tube. Her dream is gone, so in the logic of the movie, she’s “better off dead” (Haller, p. 67).
It’s hard to tell exactly, but it seems that it’s only a day or a day and a half before Frankie makes the decision to kill Maggie. We do not see any professionals brought in to speak to her; we hear nothing about any plan for her to go home. Frankie does briefly mention that she could get a special wheelchair and finish school, but when she responds that she wants to die, that conversation is finished. Haller talks about the double standard in assisted suicide (p. 77); had Maggie not been disabled - let’s say she’d just lost the title - the movie would have ended quite differently. It is only because she is paralyzed that there is complete agreement among every character in the film that Maggie is as good as dead.
The movie ends with ableism crystallized; we hear Morgan Freeman’s voice reading the letter he’s writing to Frankie’s daughter: “I thought you should know what kind of man your father really was.” I’m thinking, he’s a bigoted murderer. The character, speaking for the film, means he’s a great guy, maybe even a heroic guy, just like Maggie’s father, because he was willing to kill the pet he loved to put it out of its misery.