Recently there has been much buzz over the controversial story line of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, prompting me to rush to the theater before this issue hit the presses. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know elements of the plot, dog-ear this page and come back after you’ve seen the film..
Million Dollar Baby has everything one could want in a great drama-passionate characters, fantastic acting. riveting fight scenes and a tight script that gives viewers just enough to keep them eager for more. Still, it’s hard for a doctor to watch a boxing movie, given medical knowledge of what happens during a knockout-the image of the brain slamming into the inside of the skull. the internal swelling, the healing through scar tissue, the cumulative cognitive effects of multiple brain traumas over time. It’s hard to dismiss all of this for two and a half hours.
Some within the disability community have been equally uncomfortable with the movie’s portrayal of life after a spinal cord injury. Million Dollar Baby plays on our darkest fears about disability as Hillary Swank’s Maggie experiences the worst of every side effect. Graphic images of bedsores and gangrenous wounds reinforce the public’s pre-existing horror about the chances for meaning or comfort after severe injury. For disability advocates, Maggie’s recounting of her father’s putting his beloved dog out of its misery when it could no longer use its legs warns early on that Million Dollar Baby is going to be one of those movies. One of the ler’s do the kind thing and put you out of your suffering now that you’re not whole movies. No wonder it has ruffled a few feathers.
To be fair, the movie offers some evidence that in the wake of Christopher Reeve’s powerful post-accident cinematic and political presence, images of an accept able quality of life after spinal cord injury have at last seeped into the Hollywood culture. When Clint East wood’s character brings a catalog from the local college and suggests to Maggie that she get a motorized wheel chair controlled by breathing, the allusion to Reeve’s life is inescapable.
Is Maggie’s inability to cope with her disability a statement about spinal cord injury? Or is it about the universal dilemma of finding an identity after losing an athletic career? Million Dollar Baby is not the first artistic work to flirt with the idea that it’s better to go out while the laurel is still green. The theme of dying in the glory of triumph and battle has been a constant since the beginning of storytelling. The following excerpt from A.E. Houseman’s 1896 poem “To An Athlete Dying Young” captures this ubiquitous fear of the fade-out:
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut.
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out.
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Psychiatry has sometimes described this sentiment ** narcissistic depression of aging, a pathological inflation of the relative importance of previous achievements, an inability to move on and a rigidity of character that keeps people living in the past and prevents them from exploring new options. The theme’s omnipresence across art forms attests to the depth of its penetration in our culture as a relevant issue. It certainly wasn’t introduced with Million Dollar Baby.
Yes, the movie’s script leaves out important elements concerning the assistance people need in coping with loss. Morgan Freeman’s character gives Maggie early advice that “Every boxer has a certain number of fights in him, and no one tells you what that number is.” Yet once Maggie’s accident happens, he fails to follow through in helping her see that she is in some ways to different from any other athlete all have to struggle to find purpose after the body fails. Is this omission more palatable to audiences because Maggie’s disability is so severe? Probably.
In the end, however, the movie is about autonomy. In a world where the personal freedom to refuse life-sustaining treatment is unfortunately still more clear on paper than it sometimes is in practice, autonomy is not an irrelevant issue. In the disability community we may strongly disagree with the Maggie character’s sentiment that it is not worth trying to find other purposes or other contributions. But personal freedom over life-and-death choices is the ultimate equality. The mechanism may have been contrived (in reality, there are legitimate legal processes for allowing a person to turn off his or her ventilator without the need for Still, many would say that in focusing on Maggie’s own freedom to decide, the movie did get something right.
Gillian Friedman, MD Managing Health Editor
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