Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Hillary Swank as boxer Maggie in Million Dollar Baby

Click to view trailer: Hilary Swank as boxer Maggie in Million Dollar Baby

It took home the Oscar for Best Picture, alongside another three for director Clint Eastwood, supporting actor Morgan Freeman and star Hilary Swank, but is Million Dollar Baby a knock out or down and out when it comes to representing women?

Plot

Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a thirty-one-year-old waitress determined to leave her low-class past behind and become a boxing champion with the help of reluctant trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and ex-boxer Scrap (Morgan Freeman). Despite his initial resistance to the idea of training a woman, Frankie sees Maggie’s fighting spirit through her inexperience, and together they plan to take her to the title fight.

Leading ladies

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank), Earline Fitzgerald (Margo Martindale), Mardell Fitzgerald (Riki Lindhome)

Bechdel Test

Passes, thanks to a few brief but integral exchanges between Maggie and her mother and sister.

How are women represented?

Although the vast majority of the characters are men, for once this feels like a genuine concession to the nature of the sport. In spite of the lack of female characters, Million Dollar Baby is a compelling portrayal of a woman fighting for approval in a man’s world, who refuses to rise to sexist taunts cast at her by her peers, relying on her cutting tongue and resilience to silence her doubters.

The tough female boxers are portrayed in stark contrast to the girls parading the ring in their underwear, emphasising that women are not just silent sex objects, but are capable of battling hard, both physically and mentally, to achieve a goal. Speaking of which, those delicate souls who find women fighting each other distasteful might want to avoid this film: Baby pulls no punches when it comes to the boxing scenes between the women.

Eastwood’s Frankie and Morgan’s Scraps are both flawed and compelling, but Maggie is the most developed and engaging character, thanks in part to a powerful, astute performance from Swank. Maggie resists gender stereotypes, working as a warm, loyal and witty soul, who can light up the screen with an expertly-timed grin, but also as a resilient, determined and courageous fighter not afraid to roll with the punches and fight the odds stacked against her.

Refreshingly, Maggie never becomes a sex object or develops a romantic attachment, allowing the focus of her character and the story to be her aim of taking the title. Despite the initial struggles she faces against sexism, ultimately her gender becomes unimportant as we are engrossed in her against-the-odds rise to stardom. Baby proves that a female character can carry a story arc based on individualistic goals, and doesn’t need to be involved in a romance to be sympathetic or valid.

Verdict

Four

By sidestepping the romance plot, Million Dollar Baby provides a rare portrayal of a resilient and courageous female character, whose aim does not adhere to the expected female agenda of love and maybe marriage, but is instead to triumph in a violent sport for her own glory. Although she is supported by Frankie, this partnership is built on mutual respect and loyalty, and is touching without being condescending or creepy. Overall, this is one of the most thoughtful and inspiring representations of women that I’ve witnessed in a while, thanks to the absolute assertion that women can struggle for a non-traditional goal, and also to the multifaceted nature of Maggie.

What do you think? Did you see Maggie as a strong protagonist, or did you feel that Eastwood’s troubled trainer dominated the story? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Million Dollar Baby (2004)

  1. Amy

    Hey, just wanted to say that this blog is really interesting – im looking forward to more posts. Also i think this discussion is fair and accurate – i completely agree with what you say about the choice to leave out a romantic interest. Its so refreshing so see a female protagonist with a strong goal that doesnt need or want a supporting romantic development to try and tug on an audience’s heartstrings. Sorry to spoil here but i wonder what you think about the ending? My biggest problem with Million Dollar Baby is the ‘matter over mind’ conclusion. I know this issue is more about representations of disabled or handicapped characters but when dealing with the body a discussion about sex or gender is never far away. I personally find it infuriating that Maggie asks to die rather than live a life in a disabled state, despite being of sound mind. It kind of turns an inspirational story on its head. Is the body really more significant than the mind? In the end, does the choice make her a stronger woman for taking control of her body or does it make her a coward who values brawn over brain? Would love to hear your thoughts and i look forward to the next entry. X

    • tashalavender

      Hi Amy,
      Thanks for your thoughtful feedback, it’s much appreciated. Your point about the ending is fascinating, it’s not one I really considered when I watched the film.

      I personally saw Maggie’s decision as being very in character, because she prided herself on being independent, and I think the intention was to show her absolute determination to control her own destiny, and to emphasise that her chance to choose the release of death over a life she found unbearably limiting is empowering in itself. While another film could have shown how her resilient spirit allowed her to fight through her disability (coincidentally, Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken offers a great example of this), I think this form of empowerment fitted better with the themes of this particular film.

      I also don’t think her choice to die was based purely on picking brawn over brains, but on recognising the devastating impact her disability would have on both. She would be losing not just physical strength, but also the chance to use and develop the agile mind set she had cultivated as a boxer. If anything, her intelligence makes her more aware of what she’s missing out on.

      Having said this, I agree that this is a very one-sided and disturbingly grim portrayal of disability, and although I felt Maggie’s decision was in keeping with the themes of the film, there is certainly a whole debate to be had about how disabled characters and disability is represented in film.

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