Next Page

WMST-L logo

Million Dollar Baby: A Feminist Message?

This rather lengthy discussion of the film "Million Dollar Baby" took place 
on WMST-L in June and July, 2005.  Much of the discussion focused on the degree
to which the film contains a feminist message.  The file has been broken into
three parts.  For additional WMST-L files now available on the Web, see
the WMST-L File Collection.

Date: Thu, 23 Jun 2005 21:49:27 +0200
From: Shoshana <shoshana AT>
Subject: movie Million Dollar
I don't recall reading any feminist critique on the movie Million
Dollar Baby.  I'll appreciate directions to other sites as well in
this matter.  Thanks.

Shoshanna Mayer PhD
Fac. of Ed., 
Gender and Education,
The U of Haifa
Haifa, Israel
shoshana  AT
Date: Fri, 24 Jun 2005 07:13:33 -0700
From: Dina Giovanelli <dinagiovanelli AT SBCGLOBAL.NET>
Subject: Re: movie Million Dollar Baby
Shoshana (and others interested), The following is a link to an op-ed
piece by feminist scholar/activist Jackie Arsenuk.  You'll need to
register for the site to read the entire article.


Dina L. Giovanelli
Graduate Assistant
Department of Sociology
University of Connecticut
Date: Sun, 26 Jun 2005 15:42:38 +0200
From: Shoshana <shoshana AT RESEARCH.HAIFA.AC.IL>
Subject: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
¡ ¡¡ This is not about the stunning production of the film,
about the superb acting and the multilayered, heart wrenching
features in it.  My thoughts here focus solely on its feminist
aspects, praised as such by many.  This is where I beg to

We have Maggie, a woman with a dream she follows with
determination, strength, faith and unbelievably hard work.
thrills my heart and earns my profound admiration.

¡¡But would I arrange for a screening of the film for my
woman studies class?  For viewing the path of an
unconventional woman in an unconventional career, a quasi
role model?  I would not.
As I see it, Maggie makes good of transcending the narrow
female stereotype line, but a s a d i r e c t c o n s e q
u e n c e o f t h i s s u c c e s s s h e m u s t d i e .
She steps far out from the standard feminine role, but
gets the death penalty for it.  You can't dismiss this
lethal price when you follow Maggie's plight for

For when we propagate woman empowerment, we present it as
beneficial for growth, independence, strength, a life of
options, victory over suppression towards a life worth
living.  Of course, conquering formerly masculine bastions
in physical labor, politics and the professions is replete
with struggles and conflicts, pain and bitterness, but
because of it you and other women should have a life worth
living for it . It's a hard way but usually doesn't kill.
However, Maggie is clearly punished for her forceful
trespassing by the most severe sentence of them all.

Is this a feminist message? I wonder.  

Admittedly stretching it a bit, it feels more of a threat
like "stay where you belong, girlie - or else!"


            Shoshanna Mayer Ph.D.
            Fac. of Ed.
            University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel,
            shoshana  AT
Date: Sun, 26 Jun 2005 08:36:42 -1000
From: Dana-ws <dana-ws AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
Shoshana wrote about Million Dollar Baby, "As I see it, Maggie
makes good of transcending the narrow female stereotype line, but 
a s a d i r e c t c o n s e q u e n c e o f t h i s s u c c e s s s 
h e m u s t d i e."

I saw this movie because I like Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman -
frankly, Clint has always made me a bit nauseated.  I think it would
be a good film to show clips from in class.  In my Women in Popular
Culture class we were shown several films with the same message - if
you step too far out of bounds as a woman, something terrible will
happen to you.  And they were very helpful in opening eyes to see the
messages in popular culture.  The movie clips we were shown were
mostly older films from the 50s.  I think it makes a powerful and
pathetic statement that this message is still sent bigger than life on
big screen today.  The title of the film alone would make for a full
class discussion.  I mean really, if it were a story about a male of
the same age in the same circumstance would they refer to him as
"Baby?"  Swank's character might be young by some standards but her
courage and physical strength, her maturity in dealing with an
ignorant family, and the dignity with which she made her final
decision to die, deserves recognition far beyond "Baby."

It's also worth noting that her success depended on a male's eventual
decision to condescend to help her both in her career and in her
death.  Perhaps this had to be so in relation to her male dominated
career, but couldn't the film makers have designated a compassionate
female doctor who could have at least played part in helping her to
end her life or at least played part in persuading Clint to do so?
How different might the movie have been if it were a female who had
previously battled her way through the career who trained Swank
instead of Clint?  We could have been enriched by the strong
female/female relationship.  We could have been touched by a female
who is usually associated with giving life demonstrate respect and
understanding of nature in allowing a life to end when it needs to -
instead of the more common role of a male ending life; a male who
could not even managed a relationship with his daughter, the life he
spent at least a few brief minutes in helping to create.  The surface
message of the film, the right to die, would have been far more
powerful if Swank had been assisted in death by someone who truly
respected life.

Also worthy of attention are other threads of society that run in this
film, such as it was the white man who played the leading male role
rather than the superior actor Morgan Freeman.

The way I see it, this movie presents many topics of rich discussion
for women's studies classes - examples of the controlling patriarchy
that still writes and directs movies as well as our lives.  I have not
read all the messages in this thread and apologize if I have repeated
what has already been stated.

Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 00:40:09 -0400
From: Gill Wright Miller <millerg AT DENISON.EDU>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
I can't help but respond to the "consequence of death" for Maggie's rising up
against all odds.

First, she wasn't competing in a man's arena (genders are not mixed in this
sport) so she wasn't challenging skilled men for the top position.
Second, she was warned (as a cardinal rule) to protect herself, always.  That
was the same rule the men were told to follow as well.
Third, she was taken down by a woman, not a man and not "society-at-large."  The
woman who broke her neck wasn't "playing fair."

So my take for the #1 message in the film would not be "death is the
consequence," but rather "watch out for other women."

Has this been mentioned?  Can we talk???

Gill Miller
millerg  AT
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 09:25:14 -0400
From: Leah Ulansey <leahu AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
I thought the world-view of this film was extremely patriarchal. The
mother-figure was portrayed as opportunistic, grasping and exploitative
vis-a-vis her daughter; the dead father figure was highly idealized, as were
his values (such as "shooting the dog");  the male-mentor or surrogate
father was portrayed as the female protagonist's last and only hope and only
source of empathy and understanding. As Gil points out, Maggie's relation to
other women-in-boxing is purely one of rivalry--not a good sign.

Maggie's mentor teaches her how to "cheat" in subtle ways (e.g. "stopping
the bleeding"--interesting metaphorical resonance there perhaps). Maggie's
nemesis takes her down by cheating more brazenly (she hits Maggie after the
bell has rung; she also looks pretty steroided-out). In this film, "playing
fair" (issues of honesty and safety for self and others) seems to be for
sissies or losers.

To me, the film seemed to idealize a girl's doomed effort to seek nurturance
and self-worth in a nihilistic, violent world, as though to do so is her
only option. She is portrayed as brave because she does not flee this
hopeless struggle, for which she sees no alternative. This does not seem to
be a disability-friendly worldview. I was reminded of Mary Daly's comments
about the love-affair of patriarchy with the "beauty" of apocalyptic death.

I think the film was (loosely?) based on events in the life of a real
person, but I think a different director could have brought a different
slant to the same material. For instance, I think it would be fascinating to
make a film exploring how and why a woman would come to see the world in
this way, instead of just accepting it as a given.

Leah Ulansey
Maryland Inst. C. of Art
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 09:40:24 -0400
From: Laurie Finke <finkel AT KENYON.EDU>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
For a boxing movie that covers many WS issues in the classroom and
which is, I think, a more interesting film than Million Dollar Baby, I
would recommend Karyn Kusama's Girlfight (made in the 90s on a budget
of 3  million--compare to Eastwood's 13 million).  It not only shows a
young woman as a serious (although only at the club level) boxer, but
she also doesn't die or have anything bad happen to her.  The film
troubles the heterosexual romance of the sports genre film in really
interesting ways, interrogates in complex ways the relationship between
women and violence, and provides a nice illustration of bell hooks'
notion of the "oppositional gaze" in its opening sequence. And its
director is a female independent filmmaker.  I recommend it if you
haven't seen it.

Laurie Finke
Kenyon College

On Jun 26, 2005, at 2:36 PM, Dana-ws wrote:

> Shoshana wrote about Million Dollar Baby, "As I see it, Maggie makes
> good of transcending the narrow female stereotype  line, but   a s   a
>  d i r e c t   c  o n s e q u e n c e  o f  t h i s    s u c c e s s
> s h e  m u s t  d i e."
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 09:58:35 -0400
From: Ellen Friedman <friedman AT TCNJ.EDU>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
I second Laurie's recommendation. Million Dollar Baby, like many of
Eastwood's films, is calculated to exploit a popular controversy:
pedophilic priests in his last movie, assisted suicide in this movie.
The whole lead up to the assisted suicide is an engaging vehicle that in
addition, plays with the culture's malaise with feminism. Killing her
off in the end is a very conventional choice for a writer/director to
make when having created a strong woman character once she has served
her purpose--in this case, to provide CE's character with a second
chance at parenting a daughter. Girlfight, on the other hand, is
everything that Laurie describes and more.

Ellen G. Friedman
Director,Women's and Gender Studies Program
The College of New Jersey
P.O. Box 7718 Ewing, NJ 0828-0718
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 10:18:09 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow AT BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
I agree with what you are saying, but I have to quibble with a point,
and then I want to add a couple of points to this discussion.
My quibble: although you are absolutely correct that Maggie isn't
competing against men in her matches, the film makes it clear that
she is competing in a masculinized arena--the use of gendered
terminology to put down the boxers and the emphasis on traits that
are culturally associated with masculinity in her training are just
two examples of how boxing in this film is "gendered" masculine.

Also, I agree with Leah that the overall patriarchal world-view of
the film is probably the kernel of the "watch out for other women"

The other things I been thinking about in terms of this discussion:
in many ways, the desperation that Maggie is trying to escape is the
desperation of poverty. In this sense the movie seemed to me to have
more in common with Joyce Carol Oates' examination of boxing (from
the early '90s, if I remember correctly) than with a feminist
examination of women's roles in boxing;

also, in terms of disability and the body, Betsey Brada writes, "In
fact, while I haven't researched in thoroughly, I've seen nothing
that explicitly brought a feminist outlook to the quesions of quality
of life raised by disability activists." I agree with Brada that
there is a lot to be done in this area; I strongly suspect that the
co-optation of disability rights discourse by "right-to-life"
organizations is one source for this. Still, there are some wonderful
resources out there--people working at the intersections of feminism
and disability studies have been discussing these questions for a
long time (for instance, a quick GenderWatch search turned up 62
recent scholarly journal articles and many more activist writings).

One newer source for this outlook is Judith Butler's new book,
*Undoing Gender*, which includes a nuanced and intelligent
examination of the overlaps and gaps between feminist activist
discourses and discourses around disability. Butler suggests that we
think/talk about the "viability" of life as defined by a complex web
of autonomy and social and technological relationships that make
autonomy possible. Butler is writing within the context of an
examination of "gender identity disorder," but it seems to me that
her ideas translate well to a discussion of the film (as well as to
abortion rights). She writes, "The point is .  .  . to understand how
the 'viability' of a woman's life depends upon an exercise of bodily
autonomy and on social conditions that enable that autonomy" (12). In
other words, and as many pro-choice theorists have often written,
"life" is relational as well as autonomous.

If we look at the film through this lens, then it seems to me that
one of the failures of the narrative (and I haven't read the short
story on which it is written, so I don't know whether this failure is
just the film's or also the story's) is a failure to critique
Maggie's lack of access to the social conditions that would make her
life viable to her. She's given this terrible family and a closed
male mentor and little else in terms of social and emotional support
(seems to me Freeman's character is a mirror to Maggie--no family, no
emotional support, and no sense of "viability" in terms of his body
and the ways he used to be able to use it). There is no indication in
the film that this is a common situation for many women and men who
are disabled, very poor, estranged from families due to homophobia
and/or transphobia, etc.  So, at the end, her "choice" to die becomes
not a choice at all, but an almost-logical extension of the social
conditions of a patriarchal, individualistic, hypercapitalistic

This has been a great discussion--you all always make me think. I
might not show the film to students as an example of a woman's
empowerment, but I would certainly show it as an example of cultural
disempowerment for the reasons I note, above.

Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 07:53:47 -0700
From: D'Lane Compton <dlane_compton AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: Re: Girlfight
I would also like to add that in Girlfight, there is no cinderella
scene where the character at some point gets a make over...although I
think she may get a little fixed up for a date at one pt.  That really
stuck with me when I first saw it.  In most every movie about female
athletes or where girls are portrayed as tomboys, there is always that
moment when she becomes a "girl/woman" (as if she was not quite one
before) via a make over usually involving a formal or at the very
least a dress.

just my two cents,
--D'Lane Compton
Texas A&M University
Sociology Dept.
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 10:42:01 -0700
From: Susan Seizer <sseizer AT SCRIPPSCOLLEGE.EDU>
Subject: Re: Million Dollar Baby - a feminist message?
Dear Janell,

Touche'! As a person with a disability I appreciated your post. There
has been a lot of interesting conversation in the disability community
about the film, not all of it critical (see the issue of New Mobility
from Winter 2005), but tying the race, class, nation and feminist
issues in with the disability issues as you do makes for a pretty
soundly condemnatory critique. I saw the trailer for the movie and knew
I wouldn't like it, even before it came out. Girlfight, as mentioned by
another poster, was on the other hand quite a good film.


Susan Seizer, Associate Professor
Anthropology and Gender & Women's Studies
Scripps College
1030 Columbia Ave.
Claremont, CA 91711
email: sseizer  AT
Date: Mon, 27 Jun 2005 17:04:47 -0400
From: Liat Ben Moshe <lbenmosh AT MAXWELL.SYR.EDU>
Subject: Re: film representations
Hello all

I want to tie in together the two threads on the lists- the one on MDB
an on reproductive technologies, in which the movie 'Gattaca' was
suggested as a resource. i think it is important to stress the
obvious- movies aren't objects on their own but are made by people
with particular worldviews and if successful, neutralize potentially
contested discourses.

Gill Miller writes: "First, she wasn't competing in a man's arena
(genders are not mixed in this sport) so she wasn't challenging
skilled men for the top position.  Second, she was warned (as a
cardinal rule) to protect herself, always.  That was the same rule the
men were told to follow as well.  Third, she was taken down by a
woman, not a man and not "society-at-large."  The woman who broke her
neck wasn't "playing fair."

'she' wasn't doing anything, 'she' isn't real nor has any
autonomy. Estwood does. As disability critics have commented about the
movie, it was made at a time when Clint itself was attacking the ADA
(Americans with disabilities act) while being sued by a plaintiff with
a disability under the ADA. i think it is an important context under
which the movie's disphobia can be better explored with students.

Even if one follows more poststructural tradition who see texts as
'orphans' one must acknowledge that they rise out of potentially
oppressive discourses. As pointed out about the class and
anti-feminist angle of MDB. Gattaca, for example, is a movie that
attempts to discuss issues of normalcy and shift the center. the movie
asks - in a world where most are genetically engineered, what are the
boundaries of normalcy, and how can they be transgressed?. These are
questions that are great to be addressed with students. But again, we
must also take account of the abelist fear out of which these question
arise. the boundaries of normalcy are maintained in the movie by the
physically disabled character who burns himself at the end of the
movie in an infirmary (yes, indeed, the Nazis couldn't have done a
better job here), after giving his identity to the character who was
not genetically engineered to perfection at birth.

So, most movies are like that, have interesting angles but horrible
depictions of particular themes (MDB and Gattaca, for instance, have
really problematic portrayals of what could appear as
euthanasia). However, I believe that the problematic movies are the
ones we need to address with students. They help uncover some of the
underlying cultural assumptions and help students see the oppressive
structures that lay beneath. This helps students develop critical
thinking as oppose to finding 'good/bad' representations. this is my
thought of the matter, and I am actually planning to screen both
Gattaca and MDB in my course this fall, so i can report back and tell
you if my thinking had become a reality...


Liat Ben-Moshe
Sociology & Disability Studies
302 Maxwell Hall
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244
lbenmosh  AT

Beyond Compliance (BCCC)
Date: Tue, 28 Jun 2005 07:10:23 -0400
From: Irene Weiser <iweiser AT TWCNY.RR.COM>
Subject: The real person behind MDB
Yes, Leah-
Million Dollar Baby was loosely based on the real life story of Katie
Dallam- you can read about her here
Katie, now an artist, is still alive, living with permanent head injuries as
a result of the fight.  She is cared for by her sister, Stephanie Dallam RN,
MS - who works for the Leadership Council
where she works to expose the myths, and tell the truth about child sexual

Here's an excerpt about Katie, written by Stephanie.

Born May 1, 1959, Katie has always been a fighter.

She fought to survive a difficult childhood and troubled adolescence. She
was an alcoholic by age 14.

She served in the Air Force. After 4 years of service in the military, Katie
overcame her alcoholism and went on to get a Master's Degree as an
Educational and Counseling Psychologist. She graduated with a 4.0 grade
average. She worked for the State of Missouri as a substance abuse

Katie turned to exercise to deal with the stress of working with the
chronically ill and often homeless population she served. She did long
distance running until she sustained back injuries after being hit by a run
away city bus. She also painted. Her impressionistic watercolors were shown
in small cafes around Columbia, Missouri where Katie lived.

Looking to strengthen herself and gain the release that she had achieved by
running, Katie took up kick boxing. She later practiced boxing at a local
gym. She liked the feeling of strength that boxing gave her. For the first
time in her life, she felt like she could protect herself. When running, she
would train for half-marathons. In boxing, she looked for a similar goal to
motivate her workouts in the gym.

In fall of 1996, Katie heard of a manager who would work with women boxers
in Kansas City. She went to see him. He was an older man who appeared to be
in his late-60s or so. He trained her for 6 weeks on the weekends and then
told her that she was ready to fight professionally. He told her that he had
found her an easy fight with a woman that didn't know how to box right.
There was no risk and no one gets hurt, he promised. Katie was offered $300.

Her job with the State of Missouri didn't pay well and Katie was glad for
the offer. She asked me, her sister Stephanie, to attend and take pictures.
I was apprehensive, but wouldn't let my sister travel alone to a city where
she was a stranger to fight alone. I met her trainer Joe. He assured me that
no one would be hurt.

It turns out the other woman was experienced and had never been beaten. She
was over 10 years younger than Katie and very fast. Moreover, the woman's
manager also turned out to be the promoter who put on the fight. Right
before the fight, he took Katie's gloves away from her. He insisted that
Katie wear a pair of very heavy gloves with extra padding. Katie was forced
to wear a pair of gloves that were sweaty from a prior fight.

As soon as the bell sounded, Anani rushed at Katie with her arms moving in a
windmill type motion. She threw continuous roundhouse type punches. All
Katie remembers seeing Anani rush at her swinging with her arms wildly. She
had never seen anything like it. The last thing Katie remembers is wondering
how to protect herself from this type of fighting.

It is unclear which the 140 some blows ruptured the main blood vessel in
Katie's brain.

All I can say is that what I saw sickened and terrified me. I remember blow
after blow raining down on her -- some hitting the top of her head. The
referee didn't intervene except to break them up if they got locked up.
Katie's nose was broken and bloody by the first round. The doctor never
checked her. The fight continued despite the fact that Katie was bleeding
hard enough to smear blood on the other fighter and couldn't breath through
her nose.

Before the women's bout, two men had fought. One of the men recieved a
slight cut on his cheek. The fight was immediately stopped and the doctor
got up to check on the guy. The bleeding was stopped before the fight was
continued. This had put me a bit more at ease, as it suggested that the
officials cared about the fighters.

Unfortunately, different rules seemed to apply for the women's fight. The
crowd was eager for blood and roared their approval when Katie was hurt. Men
yelled "Kill her" as Katie was repeatedly hit in the head by Anani -- who
calls herself the "Jamaican Sensation". The crowd was clearly for Anani --
Katie's name wasn't even on the play bill. What was she to them? Just the
warm body drummed up for "their" girl to beat.


Irene Weiser
Stop Family Violence
331 W. 57th St #518
New York, NY 10019
iw  AT
the people's voice for family peace

For information about WMST-L

WMST-L File Collection

Top Of PageNext Page