Million Dollar Baby: a film to love and hate

As part of the class I teach on theology and popular culture, we watched Clint Eastwood’s Oscar award-winning 2004 film Million Dollar Baby. Eastwood is a director whose films have gotten better as he aged, and Million Dollar Baby is no exception. Celebrity film critic, Roger Ebert, said of the movie:

Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true. It tells the story of an aging fight trainer and a hillbilly girl who thinks she can be a boxer. It is narrated by a former boxer who is the trainer’s best friend. But it’s not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.

If you haven’t seen it by now, you might consider watching it before reading on – although I knew the ending before seeing it, and, frankly, I’m glad I did. Sometimes it helps to know what’s coming.

As a movie, it’s certainly of the highest quality. Eastwood elicits mood by careful use of a dark pallet, contrasts in shadow and light, and a pared down soundtrack. It’s unhurried storytelling, but always compelling. As well as directing, Eastwood plays the lead role of Frankie, an ageing boxing coach, and although we’ve seen his ‘grumpy exterior/soft as butter interior’ old man act before, it remains a delight to experience his often-wordless communication; a glance, a raised eyebrow, a grunt, speaking volumes. Hillary Swank deserved her best actress Oscar for paying Maggie, an aspiring boxer fiercely determined to escape her trailer park background.

Boxing is used throughout as a metaphor for life:

“If there’s magic in boxing, it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys, and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”

“Some people claim to love boxing. They got no idea what it is. Boxing is about respect. Getting it for yourself… and taking it away from the other guy.”

“everything in boxing is backwards, sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back.”

“Anybody can lose one fight. You’ll come back from this. You’ll be champion of the world.”

So says than narrator, Morgan Freeman (who also took home an Oscar for best supporting actor), playing Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, a retired boxer working in Frankie’s gym as a cleaner.

Taken altogether, Million Dollar Baby is a Hollywood at its best. And at its worst.

I’ll get to my real gripe in a second (and you still have time to pull out if you’re worried about spoilers), but one of the themes the film highlights is the power of individual determination; “some people say the most important thing a fighter can have is heart.” Maggie has heart in spades, a fact that is highlighted by the contrast to her family, who are money grabbing, lazy, pension dependent, white trash. And it is this contrast that is my first problem with the film. While individual virtue is important, Eastwood’s portrayal exemplifies the ideology of Western individualism; Maggie’s lazy-arse family’s poverty is their own doing – they lack heart and so earn the degradations of their parasitic sloth. It is hard to imagine a more cartoonish depiction of welfare recipients. At one point, Maggie gifts her mother a house. Her mother’s response? To complain that the gift will impact her pension! It is Tea Party welfare bashing at its silliest.

The film also imagines itself as an affirmation of female power, but throughout it buys into white male authority and female submissiveness. On the one hand, Maggie is a determined barrier-breaking woman, making her way in the masculine sport of boxing. But that end is achieved by way of a stereotypical patriarchal relationship. When Frankie reluctantly agrees to train her, he says to Maggie, “If I take you on, you don’t question me and I’m going to try and forget that you’re a girl!” Of course, he never forgets, and this daddy/daughter submissive relationship is sustained throughout. More to the point, Maggie is given no meaningful relationship with other female characters. There is no female mentor. What we have is just another movie where a woman’s success comes from her submissive dependence on a strong man.

But you won’t be surprised that it was the film’s portrayal of disability that most annoyed me. And here is the spoiler. In the title fight to which the story arc of the film had been leading, Maggie receives a foul punch that breaks her neck and renders her a C1 ventilated quadriplegic. I find it hard to watch the aftermath of such injuries at the best of times, but Million Dollar Baby buys into all of the worst of Hollywood’s disability tropes. Maggie’s life as a quadriplegic is not worth living. But what most viewers won’t realise is that Eastwood makes her experience of quadriplegia unlivable by depicting her permanently trapped in hospital, decrepit, lonely, bored. She even gets pressure sores on her arms and legs that result in an amputation. No mention is made of the fact that half decent care would have prevented such injuries, nor that rehabilitation could have helped her to get out and about in her wheelchair and make something of her life. Instead, she remains so utterly dependent on Eastwood that she is not even able to kill herself. Her white male saviour thus makes the ultimate sacrifice (of his Catholic ideals) by performing the inevitable euthanasia. And so Million Dollar Baby ends up as just another cripple snuff film.

And the problematic portrayal of disability doesn’t end with Maggie. Danger (played by Jay Baruchel) has an intellectual disability, and is training with a singular purpose of defeating champion boxer Tommy Hearns. What he doesn’t know, and no one tells him, is that Hearns is long since retired. Eastwood tries to present Danger as the embodiment of the films main theme. He may not have the skills of a boxer, but he has limitless heart. But it’s hard to get past the absurdity of a wannabe boxer who never throws a punch. It seems to me that Danger is nothing more than the embodiment of foolish and pitiable disability, put on the big screen for cheap laughs.

There are other talking points in the film. Although we are not told why, Frankie attends his local Catholic church daily, but is clearly struggling in his faith. His priest is a caricatured shallow dogmatist, who gives Eastwood glib responses to his many questions. It’s a shame, because the theological issues at stake are significant; how might notions of forgiveness and grace help Frankie work through his guilt for past mistakes? And how do we understand the (in)action of God in the context of Maggie’s injury? Euthanasia itself is a theological issue that warrants deeper reflection than the priest’s simplistic, “If you do this thing, you’ll be lost.”

Having made these observations, I am still of the view that Million Dollar Baby is well worth seeing. Apart from it being a compelling film, its great strength is that it provides the opportunity to talk about vital issues, many of which remain at the forefront of public debate. Like all good films, its message is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. In an era of increasingly polarised opinion, films such as this can provide a common ground upon which alternate perspectives can be discussed. And to that end, I turned the conversation over to you.

Just say hi?

The brilliant and wonderfully grumpy Sam at gimpled has an insightful complaint against the “just say hi” campaign. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a video doing the rounds of social media that features a bunch of celebrities and a few token people with disabilities responding to the (ridiculous) question, “what do I say to a person with a disability?” As Homer Simpson would say, Doh!

I guess the ad is an attempt to normalise disability, but it has the opposite effect. Prior to having a disability, I could traverse the world invisibly. I could, for example, read on a train with very little fear of interruption. When I first got into a wheelchair I felt terribly self-conscious, as though everyone was staring at me. Before too long, though, I got over myself, only to discover that a lot of people must actually be staring at me. At least that’s what their friendly greetings seemed to indicate.

Sam hates strangers who “just say hi” to her. Check out her reason (here).

I’m not sure, though, whether I completely agree with her. Whether I like it or not, there is a good chance strangers are going to speak to me on a train and elsewhere. If I have my head in a really good book, it can be annoying. But often, I’m just reading the SMH or Facebook (or worse, some boring theologian/philosopher). If I go with the flow and take the opportunity to chat, it can make for a more interesting – and a more human – journey.

I guess the key is to follow the golden rule; do to others as you want them to do to you. The problem with the “just say I” campaign is that it targets disability. Perhaps it might have some relevance if directed more broadly; if it stood as an encouragement for a more friendly world. Then again, my introvert friends might want to punch me in the face for suggesting as much.

Pauline Hanson and the politics of demonising difference

Senator Pauline Hanson has once again used the strategy of demonising the different to further her political agenda. Over the years, she has demonised Asians, Muslims, and refugees. This time her target is disabled children, who she accuses of wasting teachers time in the classroom, and so holding back the education of “our children.”

In the face of the barrage of media criticism, she now claims she has been taken out of context. But the full speech is available on the Parliamentary Hansard record, and her meaning is plain. But so is not to do her an injustice, here is the relevant section of the speech in full:

There is another thing that we need to address, and I will go back to the classrooms again. I hear so many times from parents and teachers whose time is taken up with children—whether they have a disability or whether they are autistic—who are taking up the teacher’s time in the classroom. These kids have a right to an education, by all means, but, if there are a number of them, these children should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention. Because most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who is straining at the bit and wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education. That child is held back by those others, because the teachers spend time with them. I am not denying them. If it were one of my children I would love all the time given to them to give them those opportunities. But it is about the loss for our other kids. I think that we have more autistic children, yet we are not providing the special classrooms or the schools for these autistic children. When they are available, they are at a huge expense to parents. I think we need to take that into consideration. We need to look at this. It is no good saying that we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and that we do not want to upset them and make them feel hurt. I understand that, but we have to be realistic at times and consider the impact this is having on other children in the classroom.

We cannot afford to hold our kids back. We have the rest of the world and other kids in other countries who are going leaps and bounds ahead of us. Unless we keep up a decent educational standard in this country we will keep going further backwards and backwards, and our kids will not be the ones who are getting the good jobs in this country. They will be bringing in people from overseas and filling positions in this country that belong to our children. Our education is very important, and I feel that it needs to be handled correctly and we need to get rid of these people who want everyone to feel good about themselves. Let us get some common sense back into our classrooms and into what we do. Like I said, One Nation has spoken to many areas. Have we got it right? I hope we have got it right, because it is very important.

http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber%2Fhansards%2F1b7c6ef2-042a-473e-8860-145c2e88002f%2F&sid=0013

There are so many issues here that it’s hard to know where to start. Wedge politics works by playing on people’s fear of the other, and it almost always operates without any basis in fact. There is simply no empirical support for the fear that including people with disabilities harms other children. On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that, if done well, inclusive education benefits all children; that “together we learn better.” It is not only that diversity in the classroom helps to establish values of respect, generosity, and compassion, nor that it helps us to see that disabled people aren’t so different after all (although if this is all it did, it would be enough!) But the evidence has also found that focused and differentiated classroom instruction and management helps all students to do better. Indeed, Hanson imagines that she is harking back to a better day, when teachers were not “sidetracked” by the “burden” of disabled difference. In reality, the good old days weren’t so good. Not only did exclusive education have a detrimental impact on disabled children, it turns out that the old-fashioned educational model of “one size fits all” in the classroom actually fitted very few people.

As usual, Hanson isn’t one to let the evidence get in the way of her political agenda. If she was really concerned for “our children” – which includes those with disabilities – then she would be advocating for an increase in resources to enable inclusive education to work as it should. But her brand of wedge politics is not about the issue at hand, it’s about stoking the fire of fear that always attends to difference. It’s inevitable that we fear the person we know little about. And what’s more depressing than Hanson is that she doesn’t so much inform the values of a significant number of Australians, but reflects them. She is a mirror, a cipher, for so-called everyday Australians. And that makes me sad.

Except, in this case I hope she’s gone too far. I hope that in 2017, Australians don’t think of the disabled as carnival freaks, welfare cheats, classroom burdens, and a social virus that need to be sequestered from mainstream society, so that they don’t infect us with their abnormality. I hope that Australians will recognise that people with disabilities aren’t the fearful other, but are one of us; our mothers fathers brothers sisters and friends. I hope that the mere suggestion of excluding them from the classroom, or any other social space, makes us mad. So mad that no matter what our political persuasion, we tell Hanson that enough  is enough; that when it comes to disability, Australia will not be divided.

Bottoms Up

It’s not everyday that I put a picture of my bum online, so here is a special treat for you. It’s a close-up of a pressure sore that my carers discovered this morning. It doesn’t look like much, but unless I stay out of my chair and keep off it, it’ll grow in size and becomes the stuff of nightmares. Google images of spinal cord injury pressure sore if you feel like throwing up your breakfast.

I don’t know what caused it, but Elly blames my brother Kurt, who commented on the weekend that it’d been ages since I’ve had one. If anyone sees him this week, make sure you punch him for me.

I’m supposed to be teaching an intensive class this week, so I’ve decided to do it from bed. It’s a small Masters class, and the students are going to sit around my room while we talk about moltmann’s theology of hope, and feminism’s turn to embodinent, among other things. i guess that’s appropriate.

I started to get depressed but it was suggested that I save that till days 3 & 4, so that’s my plan.

“Yes I can,” Paralympics and the positivity myth

It has taken me some time to decide whether or not to comment on BBC4 “Superhuman – Yes I can” advertisement for the Paralympics, because I know that any critique I make will be misunderstood. But it’s airing on the Gruen transfer last night has tipped my hand.

So let me say upfront that it’s a brilliant advertisement, the Paralympics are much more interesting than the Olympics, and I do appreciate the value of disability getting the attention that it does in this advertisement. More often than not, disabled people are represented by able-bodied actors in film and television, so it’s great to see the real bodies of disabled people on the screen.

But…

Like almost every other public mention of disability nowadays, the add buys in to the positivity myth. I’ve written on this topic a number of times before (here), but in sum, the positivity myth insists that a positive attitude will enable a person to overcome every barrier they face in life. While it might be a motivating sentiment, it’s just not true.

Indeed, the great insight of disability advocates has been that disability is not primarily a medical or psychological problem – it’s not about individual capacity or attitude. On the contrary, disability is a social problem. People are disabled when the built environment keeps them out of public and private spaces, when transport systems prevent them from being able to travel, when cultural attitudes such as disgust and paternalism result in social alienation and exclusion.

“Okay,” you might ask, “what’s that got to do with BBC4’s ‘yes I can’?”

The problem is that people think the advertisement is about disability, but it’s not. The vast majority of disabled people cannot do the things shown in this advertisement. Of course we celebrate all of the achievements represented on screen, but the statement “gee I’m afraid to go on has turned into yes I can” is downright insulting; and gets to the heart of the problem of the positivity myth. I’ve never met a disabled person who is afraid to go on, but I’ve met some who can’t go on because in one way or another the world in which they live in has said “we want nothing to do with you.” And no positive attitude can solve this.

The advertisement is entitled “the Superhumans,” which is an advance on being called “freaks.” But the truth is, that disabled people aren’t superhuman. On the contrary, disability is about what it is to be human, at one and the same time strong and weak, confident and fearful, successful and failing – occasionally triumphing, but most of the time wanting the same thing as everybody else; to be treated neither as freakish or superhuman, but as a family member, friend, and colleague.

Having said this, I still like the advertisement. I’m glad it was made, and I’m glad it’s being circulated, because disability is normally a marginal topic that is now given prominence, and people with a wide range of disabilities are being celebrated rather than pitied. Further, I don’t think it falls into the trap of inspiration porn, because it’s not saying to nondisabled people “if this cripple can do this, what’s your excuse?” Rather, it’s celebrating the hard work and the achievements of people who warrant our applause – not because they are disabled, but because their accomplishments are impressive.

Perhaps I be happier if the video had a different title and a different set of lyrics. I look forward to seeing what they do in four years time.

pain

pain

I woke up last night at about 3 AM in pain. Well, in more pain than normal. It’s been almost 6 years now that I have lived with permanent pain, a span of time I remembered this week when I spoke to a fellow quadriplegic who said he’s also been in pain since his injury, forty-three years ago (but still, he insists, he has had a great life). It seems an awfully long time. To greater or lesser degrees, it’s a problem for many people with a spinal-cord injury, and it sometimes worse for people whose damage is incomplete (as is mine). And I know we’re not alone.

Nerve pain is hard to describe. Imagine a sheet of finally grained sandpaper, which is rubbing lightly over your skin, pushing a little harder on your hands, feet, bottom, and groin. It burns, although it’s not excruciating. But it continues without pause for minutes, hours, days, years. It moves in waves, gentler in the morning, but increasing in intensity as the day wears on. If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection, nerve pain in the bladder is like that desperate feeling that you need to urinate, but there is no relief and no antibiotic that will bring it to an end. In addition to nerve pain, some of us are also rewarded with stabbing aches (whether real or phantom, they feel concrete); imagine the ache of arthritis in your hip or back, but you can’t easily move to relieve it.

To write about pain is fraught. It is open to narcissism and overstatement – “look at me, look at my courage and resilience.” But there is nothing inspiring about dealing with pain. Mostly, we just do our best to ignore it – to pay attention to other things. And when it ratchets up, I’ve learned to curse; a grumbled sheet, folk (my voice recognition software is protecting your eyes and ears), which doesn’t really accomplish much, but sometimes you just need to let it out. It’s not spiritual, or courageous. It is a fact of life, but not the whole of it.

Pain is meant as a warning mechanism, but there is no warning in nerve pain. But it turned out that I should have listened to my body last night. The pump on my pressure mattress had switched off, I didn’t realise it, and my bed had gone flat. When my carers arrived in the morning, we discovered a pressure mark. Nothing substantial (I hope), but enough to keep me in bed. And that really gets my goat.