Directed by Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby (2005) tells us the story of 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who was born in Missouri. She only saw utter poverty her whole life. The movie begins at the point where she is tired of working at a restaurant and cleaning dishes. All her life has been a fight, as she puts it, “I was born two pounds, one-and-a-half ounces. Daddy used to tell me, I’d fight my way into this world, and I’d fight my way out”.
Maggie was poor and leading an insignificant life, but she was determined to make her mark in the world of boxing. Following her dream, to become the best boxer in the world, she showed up at Hit Pit, a downtown gym, to be trained by the best coach Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). Maggie was dismissed by Dunn. Frankie refused to teach women and girls how to box and also discriminated on the basis of age. Frankie says, “You wouldn’t start training to be a ballerina at 31, would you”?
Maggie didn’t back down. She kept going and showed up at the gym every day. Maggie represented determination and self-respect. Despite the stereotype of an over-aged woman in boxing, she doesn’t give up. Maggie, out of desperation, steals leftover food from the restaurant to eat, to help her survive. Meanwhile, Frankie has a strained relationship with his daughter, who sends back his letters unopened. Frankie visits church so often out of guilt that even his priest is fed up of him. His priest says, “The only person who comes to church that much is the kind who can’t forgive himself for something”.
Finally moved by Maggie’s determination, Frankie finally gives in. But, Maggie makes herself very clear from the beginning that she wants a trainer, not charity. Maggie tells her coach that she has never felt good doing anything else other than boxing, and if she is too old for this, she has got nothing. Taking Maggie under his wing, a journey to become the best player in the world begins. Maggie earns a reputation of a world-class champion, known to beat her opponent in the first round. Maggie and Frankie also establish a very pure loving bond.
Maggie wanting to fight was a genuine and normalised aspiration, and so was Maggie’s subsequent conquest of the boxing world.
At the surface, the film is every cliched boxing movie ever (I’m looking at you here Rocky) – a cranky old trainer with a heavy past, a lost and drifting protagonist down on their luck and their entire life boils down to the results of what goes down in the arena. But dig a little deeper and one can drown in its layers.
What flipped the film from its usual course of fighter movie stereotypes is that the protagonist and fighter is a woman. Fighter films have always been a man’s domain and Million Dollar Baby disrupted that hypermasculine pattern. The fact that Maggie is a woman boxer is not a made into a big deal that is accompanied by a thousand stereotypes – and a brownie point to Clint Eastwood for that. Maggie wanting to fight was a genuine and normalised aspiration, and so was Maggie’s subsequent conquest of the boxing world.
The film deviates from the recipe of happy endings too. Maggie meets a horrible accident in the ring and dies a physically broken woman and Frankie, after finally having established a loving and paternal relationship with someone is left alone again. But the ending wasn’t tragic. After the accident and left paralysed from the neck below, Maggie chooses to die on her own terms after acknowledging that she’s lived a good life and after getting rid of her abusive and opportunist biological family.
Watching Maggie throw punches is just therapeutic. Maggie embodied emotional and mental strength, besides being a physical badass, and her spirit and resilience could fill several books. Even while completely paralysed or reduced to the point of having to steal food in desperation – Maggie still called the shots and decided her own agency. Here’s my takeaway from Million Dollar Baby – Maggie Fitzgerald shows us that, whatever society expects from you, to be a certain someone at a certain age, especially when you are a woman – none of it matters when you have big dreams and enough courage to pursue them.
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Featured image used for representative purpose only. Image source: Empire