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The Moral Bankruptcy of "Million Dollar Baby" | Mary Jane Owen

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The following column analyses from the perspective of a disabled Catholic the movie "Million Dollar Baby." In doing so, the column discusses the conclusion of the film.

Why are people in wheelchairs picketing the likely winner of more Oscars than can fit on a Hollywood mantel? Unfortunately, media responses to these attempts by disabled people to grab public attention and educate audiences about the dangers we see in "Million Dollar Baby" are puny in comparison to the fuming rage directed by the film’s advocates against the so-called "right-wing zealots."

Those opponents of "Baby" attack the neat and fictional "snuff" ending in Clint Eastwood’s film. Our concerns are more complex. We fear the impact this movie’s vivid and fabricated choices will have on our continuing struggle to normalize the ways we have found to live our lives and fulfill our God-given potential.

Unfortunately, each of us in our everyday lives are reminded of the negative stereotypes that guide the public’s view of our value. We understand that an increasingly utilitarian view of human life calls for some to be the throw-away people.

There is little hint in the first hour and a half of "Million Dollar Baby" of the message that comes during its closing minutes. The hesitant struggle of two emotionally isolated and flawed individuals who find mutual healing captivates the audience in what otherwise might seem a rather predictable, feel-good fight film.

The growing affection of Frankie, a hapless trainer and owner of a grungy gym, for Maggie, who thinks her only escape from trailer-park poverty is by way of professional boxing, warms our hearts. Their lives are forever changed by mid-film. We watch the redemption orchestrated with gentle concern by an old one-eyed ex-boxer named Eddie. We need such tender images in our contemporary movies.

But then comes the sucker punch.

If there were greater knowledge and public support of options and opportunities for those of us with severe disabilities we could join in the view expressed by Roger Ebert when he mused: "A movie is not good or bad because of its content, but because of how it handles its content. ‘Million Dollar Baby’ is classical in the clean, clear, strong lines of its story and characters, and had an enormous emotional impact."

That review would make sense to us if we were sure audiences would recognize that the power and motivations in those final scenes are played for theatrical effect. They include too many inaccuracies and negative stereotypes to reflect our realities. That "enormous emotional impact" can, in the knowledge vacuum of too many of our contemporaries, result in agreement with the frightening words, "Better dead than disabled."

The fallacious factors used to justify Frankie’s decision to kill Maggie are disturbing and reinforce the ideals of the culture of death. It is true in today’s culture that the cheapest, most efficient way to cure disabilities is to eliminate those of us who have succumbed to the vulnerability God built into our human bodies. The dreary visual images that end this prize-winning film reinforce our shared fears and can encourage those concerned about social justice to dismiss us and return to more traditional populations.

Not everyone who is spinal-injured will choose to struggle through rehabilitation to find the victories, joy and lessons to be learned on the other side of initial depression. But at the very least, the public needs to know the challenges of human vulnerability do not necessarily call for assisted suicide and death.

The fiction of Maggie’s life post-injury is heartbreaking. I pray that those who view this film will remember this is a dramatic fabrication and seek mutual discussions and explorations with people with disabilities.

If not, then the culture of death awaits us.

This column first appeared in the Friday, February 18, 2005 edition of Pittsburgh Catholic.

Mary Jane Owen is founder and national director of Disabled Catholics in Action. She is a partially hearing wheelchair user who recently regained her sight after thirty years of blindness.

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