What Writers Should Learn From Million Dollar Baby

What Writers Should Learn From Million Dollar Baby

Question: how do films use metaphors? And another question: what is a metaphor? For that let's take a look at 2004's Best Picture Winner, Million Dollar Baby. When I was in university, four score and twenty years ago, one of the best books I read was called Metaphors We Live By because it changed the way I thought about language. The book talks about how every culture has certain metaphors it assumes are true. For example, time is money. This is a metaphor that Western culture believes in. The phrase "I spent too much time on the internet" uses the time is money metaphor. Where it's normally used when talking about money like "spent" are used to talk about something entirely different. So, you can be living on borrowed time or that detour cost me an hour or I've invested a lot of time on this YouTube channel. Those are all examples of this, they're all metaphors. So, time is money is a metaphorical structure that organizes and informs a whole range of everyday phrases and, more importantly, it actually influences the way we think about these topics. So, yeah, when your fourth grade teacher told you the whole doesn't use like or as line. She was lying to you! The interesting thing about films though is that they can represent these kind of structural metaphors through visuals as well as through dialogue. With that in mind, it's clear that Million Dollar Baby employs a complex metaphorical structure that builds throughout the story. And that metaphor is that gender, class and obesity are a disability. So, our main character is Maggie Fitzgerald, an impoverished woman. That makes her disabled in two senses: by her gender and by her class. The beginning of the film the men of the Hit Pit Gym either ridicule her or completely ignore her. Only by repressing her gender or emasculating others can she earn respect.
"Look at her little, bitty titties! They're like mosquito bites! Man there's barely even a mouthful! Let me see." "Saw your last fight, Shawrelle. Spent so much time face down, I thought the canvas had titties." But doing so was a Catch-22 as the world outside of the gym that judges her for this. "Find a man. Marry him. Live proper." And in the gym even the most physically incapable man is prioritized above her. While Maggie has to pay a six-month advance to be allowed in the door, Danger gets in for free. And perhaps even more important than her gender disability is her class disability. A disability which is connected both visually and through dialogue to obesity. Yes, obesity, physical health, because in the world of Million Dollar Baby, poor people, specifically Maggie's mom, are lazy and obese. Successful people are independent and physically fit. When we meet Maggie, Morgan Freeman's silky smooth narration tells us this,
"She grew up knowing one thing, she was trash." And notice how the scene cuts to Maggie's day job cleaning a table of discarded food. The film implies that the kind of trash Maggie knows herself to be is in some way metaphorically connected to food. And later, Maggie outright associates poverty to eating unhealthily. As if the two are the same or that one leads to the other. "If I was thinking straight, I'd go back home, find a used trailer, buy a deep-fryer and some Oreos." And this is informed by her mother's obesity. "And my mama weighs 320 pounds"
Weight is the enemy for Maggie because of what it represents to her: poverty and dependence. "Trouble in my family comes by the pound."
And this happens in other subtle visual ways, too.
Like the scene when Maggie wipes sauce off her tip money. To get money, she has to reject food. When we meet Maggie's mother, we start to understand why Maggie sees poverty and obesity as a disability.
Her mother is a welfare cheat. We never learned the reason Maggie's mom is on welfare. There is vague reference to her medication but the exact reason is not stated, only her obesity is stated and the film implies that that is the source of her welfare condition. We are meant to once again infer that physical well-being is equatable to financial well-being. And that's a pretty clever idea in a boxing film. After all, Maggie's quest to become rich is dependent on her success in getting stronger. In this way, she is rejecting her mother's physical identity and what is important about this, the reason the film connects all of these concepts, is to reinforce the fact that Maggie is rejecting her mother's life philosophy of dependence, her philosophy of willful disability.
"I can't live without my welfare." Which helps to inform the ending of the film. Million Dollar Baby has probably one of the most surprising plot twists in film history. You think you're watching a female version of Rocky, with the disgruntled trainer, the idealistic fighter and the asshole of a relative, until Maggie is sucker punched and ends up a quadriplegic. Wow! When it was released in 2004, the film and its ending caused a lot of controversy, especially within the disabled community for portraying disability as a death sentence. But setting the ethics of the situation aside, the reason this plot point works in the story is because it fits thematically even while breaking the well-known story structure of a sports movie. You see, Maggie's quest from the very beginning has been the struggle against disability. So, fighting an actual physical disability is a natural extension of her story. Her story is about becoming rich, independent and physically fit and all of those goals are connected. Her mother is the antithesis of this as she is poor, obese, and relies on others. That's why Maggie's official break from her mother comes when her mom tries to mooch off of Maggie's fortune and steal her money. And take a look at what she calls her mother in this moment,
"So anytime I feel like it, I can sell that house from under your fat, lazy, hillbilly asses." When Maggie is put into a position in which you must now rely on other people, it is only natural for her character to say "No" and she begs for assisted suicide from Frankie. Again, this is not to endorse or criticize the character's decision but to show how the film foreshadows it. The disabled community, by and large, does not agree with the message of the film and what I'm arguing is that probably the reason for that is because the film isn't about properly representing the plight of those with disabilities. It's in exploring the effects of social disabilities and it does this by using disability as a metaphor. Million Dollar Baby demonstrates how films can successfully associate unrelated ideas: being lazy, overweight, poor, female and disabled are not inherently connected concepts. In the real world, they have no logical connection but in the logic of the film, that is the treatment of Maggie at the gym, the visual representation of wealth and food and the characterization of Maggie's mother, these ideas are connected in a way that informs the story. They create a metaphorical structure that the film operates within and the result is a film that is able to surprise the audience by having a shocking plot twist while still paying off on the thematic promises of the film. My name is Sage Hyden and you're watching the Best Pictures, a series on every single Best Picture winner. And if you made it this far make sure to subscribe for more videos like this one. New episodes every Wednesday at 12 noon Eastern but until next time I've got to get a few figure eights in before chow.

41 thoughts on “What Writers Should Learn From Million Dollar Baby

  1. Wow. Never really thought about how on brand it was for Clint Eastwood to direct a movie where the antagonist is a welfare cheat.
    Was really moved by this movie when it came out, but I never really went back to it. As I pulled up this video I thought about re-watching the film, but now I've realized why I never actually wanted to watch it again after I saw it in theaters: It was emotionally effective for all of the reasons mentioned in this video (i.e. the twist is unexpected due to subverted sports movie expectations, yet the themes are still brought to fruition in a way that feels satisfying), but, the main characters arc–and by extension one of the movies primary moral lesson–is hard to read as anything other than a conservative political message that I vehemently disagree with.
    3:48–4:20 The analysis in that section is spot-on, and is the exact political message I refer to above. Maggie and her mother are two characters struggling against the disabilities associated with poverty. Maggie is a hero because she works hard to pull herself out of poverty, and her mother is a villain for needing assistance which is portrayed as "willful disability." The video also notes that we don't actually know the details of the mother's life except that she needs some kind of medication, which feels intentional–explicit details about why the mother can't work and needs welfare and medicaid would humanize her and detract from the political message of "government dependence is bad and people take advantage of the system."
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHXhSzF_2Ec This is a posted video of the scene where Maggie buys her Mom a house – just look at the comments. "You can live without your welfare. It's called a job." Looks like the movie did a good job selling that political message. In fact, in that scene, if you just assume that the Mom ACTUALLY NEEDS THE WELFARE, sure, she's still being mean to her daughter, but she's still 100% right – a big house means more expenses and having a rich daughter who provides the appearance of familial wealth might actually affect the Mom's government assistance. Maggie says she'll send more money, but unless she's promising to now pay for every single expense for the rest of her mother's life, that won't matter.
    Additionally, within Maggie's promise to support her mother lies the problematic nature of this conservative message: they claim that dependence is an issue–it makes people lazy–but the mother's dependence on MAGGIE is not framed as a problem, only her dependence on the GOVERNMENT is framed as a problem. So, the ACTUAL ISSUE is that people don't want their money being taken from them in taxes and used to support people in poverty, and it's much easier to feel morally ok with that desire if you believe that poor people could support themselves if they only tried a little harder like Maggie does. Within that context, Maggie's decision to die rather than be dependent, while logically consistent with her characterization, is a horrific political message: a life of dependency is no life at all, or, to be more explicit – it is an honorable decision to die rather than depend on others.

    To be clear, I'm pro-assisted suicide if that's what someone wants, and the conversation about whether or not Maggie's choice that she can't personally handle life as a quadriplegic is harmful as a representation of people with disabilities is not a conversation I feel informed enough to have – I'm arguing that the movies metaphorical connection between the Mom's dependence on welfare and medicaid and Maggie's dependence on medical help to live with her disability makes Maggie's decision to die intensely problematic.

  2. You did great job breaking down one of my favourite movies. So smart, so cool, amazing! You pulled no punches.

  3. I heard that there was no subtext or symbolism and Eastwood has gone on record as saying, 'Let's just do some sad shit.'

  4. It is a great movie, deep thoughts, strong ideas, and it is very sad to transfer all these excitings into tragedy..

  5. The main idea is the modern women life in their lives, they should fight for their rights, may they will find a brave man to guide them in their journey but the real reason for their failed is shown when they are fighting other ladies that's why women needs to love and understand eachother .. for every brave lady in this world is actually a bold fighter also ..

  6. Omg!! I love this film and it touched me so much because I could relate to it immensely. While disability is a strong word, I would say that class, gender, and obesity makes things harder for a lot of people due to outside biases. Obesity is seen as lacking in intelligence, poor people often have less resources and opportunities, and women are still judged differently than men in many ways. This makes things so much more difficult, but not insurmountable.

    I didn’t hear about the controversy when the film came out. I understand the desire for people to want to stop the image of seeing quadriplegia as being a death sentence. I think in this case, Maggie’s decisions were true to her character.

    Great video. 👏👏👏👏👏 10⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  7. Stumbled upon this channel, didn't think I'd be interested in writing/film analysis but to my surprise I was instantly hooked. Your videos are wonderful. I learnt so much from this one. Thank you!

  8. Get angry at me, but to hell with those disabled idiots that shit on this movie! They can't even appreciate this masterpiece of a movie. And no, I'm not generalizing.

  9. Remember how Frankie said “Now I can die and go to heaven” after eating that lemon meringue pie?
    Remember how the last shot of the movie is Frankie eating that pie again?

  10. The only thing I guffawed at here was that her wiping sauce off of her tip money was a metaphor of her rejecting food. Bit of a reach, my man. But otherwise, interesting analysis.

  11. This movie was so bad, so boring and so incredibly unbelievable. So over hyped to the point that I expected the best movie EVER! Yet I got a bad knockoff of Rocky. Rocky did it all so much better and actually built empathy with the characters. This movies ending was not a good twist but rather a story that lost the plot. Was this a wrestling movie? That doesn't happen in boxing, on TV, with referees, with people in each corner or with people in the audience. Sure Mike Tyson got hungry, hungry hippo in a match. But this was insane. Sham on this movie!!! This was just god worshiping of Eastwood, not actually judging a movie on its own merits… "To bad she's dead. Guess I'll go eat some pie now."

  12. "Like" and "as" are used in similes, not metaphors. That's nitpicky. Otherwise, the presentation is excellent.

  13. Several people have brought up that the movie is being told from Maggie's point of view. Gender, wealth, and weight as disabilities are the view of the character not necessarily the film makers. They are telling a story about a character that holds these views, whether those views are true or not.

  14. Starting on your channel late, but so far I'm a fan.
    I think what you might miss on here, and perhaps so many viewers also (especially the disabled community that you refer to as disliking the film), and forgive me because I haven't actually seen this movie yet, is that perhaps the film is not meant to illustrate how disability should be characterized but rather how disability is characterized in our society.

    The metaphors you refer to, the associations between health and wealth and time and money etc. are not just thematic elements of the film but are deeply ingrained cultural biases within our society and the film is intended as a commentary on those biases.

    For example, you discuss how the film sets up the relationship between work ethic and success, a relationship assumed by the overwhelming majority of western culture – if you work hard you'll be successful. And then describe how the film breaks this relationship by introducing a random uncontrollable event that ends the success of a hardworking person – thus aligning the two characters the film had previously contrasted. tl;dr I think what the film is trying to say is that how we view disability and how we associate ability with success is morally wrong by showing the negative consequences of it.

  15. This film is what you call subversion of expectations, not the shit that Rian Johnson put out for star wars.

  16. Pardon my nitpicking: Although I understand non-English speaking countries are not part of your target audience, you're not the first youtuber I see lately assume that what holds true for western English speaking countries also holds true for Western culture as a whole, but that isn't necessarily the case. The language examples you provided do not apply to latin based languages at all for instance, so I would say it's possibly more of a WASP thing than a Western one.

  17. Do you think the last scene of Clint Eastwood enjoying a slice of lemon pie has something to do with the theme of food and money you presented?

  18. 0:23 I know I'm going off topic here, but… is that the university library in Lund, Sweden?! Are you swedish?!

  19. This movie was too sad for me. The only other times I have been so emotionally distraught watching a film was when I was viewing movies like "ROOTS", "Mississippi Burning", "A Time To Kill", and "Higher Learning" as a kid.

  20. Sweet jaysus. Million Dollar Baby was AWFUL. Probably rare for using the two-act structure but, boy, did that ever NOT save it from melodrama. Bad, bad melodrama.

  21. People who are disabled being upset by this or Me Before You, but they're also about quality of life. This woman led a physical life, and Me Before You had a guy in constant pain. The choice was right for those characters, not a blanket statement about saying disabled people should be executed against their will.

  22. wow. what a stupid film. the only thing that was lazy was the writing. anytime one employs stereotypes thats lazy. and usually, its fat people who are rich and poor people who are skinny. what i have learned from this video is how much i hate conservatives for always simplifying and vilifying poor people. completely dubious rubbish.

  23. You have done a great job. Thanks for the subtitle, it helps me a lot to understand you with my poor English level.

  24. What makes u say being female is a handicap?
    Furthermore I assumed that Maggie identified as a man.
    I thought that was obvious.
    Yet u misgender her as female.
    Why would u do that?
    She’s clearly a male!
    Please read this again and think about it.
    She identifies as male.
    Why would u keep calling her a she?

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