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