Million Dollar Baby Built on Prejudice about People with Disabilities
The Oscar-nominated movie Million Dollar Baby advances the offensive and dangerous message that death is preferable to life with a disability. Million Dollar Baby finds itself enmeshed in controversy because of its ending, in which Frankie, a boxing trainer, accedes to the request of his protégé, Maggie, who has become quadriplegic in a ring incident, to end her life. The failure of mainstream movie critics to see serious flaws in the concluding scenes of the story, is representative of the ignorance that leads to prejudice about the lives of people with disabilities.
Perhaps the most central stereotype fueling disability prejudice is the mistaken assumption inherent in the message of the movie that the quality of life of individuals with disabilities is unquestionably not worth living. This stereotype is contradicted by the personal experience of many thousands of people with significant disabilities in this country and around the world who view our own lives as ordinary and normal. It is further contradicted by plenty of hard data. Research overwhelmingly shows that people with disabilities find satisfaction in our lives to the same degree, or greater, than does the general public.
We must state clearly that this portrayal of our lives as not worth living is deeply offensive. The same message about any other group in society, whether the group is classified by race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other category, would equally offend. And wouldn’t a movie with such a message about any other group receive more public outcry? As disability studies scholar Lennard Davis has remarked, disability prejudice is where anti-Semitism was when Charles Dickens created the character of Fagin in Oliver Twist.
Million Dollar Baby ’s depiction of Maggie’s experience upon becoming disabled is laced with many inaccuracies about spinal cord injury, medical care, rehabilitation, and reintegration into society. Why is Maggie in a nursing home rather than receiving effective rehabilitation? Why isn’t the appalling care she is receiving, which allows extreme pressure sores leading to amputation, not more accurately blamed for her suicidal feelings? As the National Spinal Cord Injury Association pointed out, why does it go unmentioned that discrimination, poverty, and an inaccessible society are what can lead newly disabled people to abandon hope and choose death?
Most crucially, the climactic moment in this film is based on a significant legal distortion. In fact, Maggie would not have required assistance to end her life. It would be perfectly legal for her to request withdrawal of the life-sustaining treatment, the ventilator, and a sedative would be administered first to ensure her comfort. In addition, and of grave concern should any viewers be tempted to “copycat” this act, Frankie’s technique for killing Maggie would cause an agonizing death, not the peaceful exit the film depicts. Million Dollar Baby also implies that one can terminate the life of a person with a disability with little or no legal accountability. Frankie commits murder and then simply walks away. A filmmaker is free to tell any story he wishes, but it is more than disturbing when a widely viewed movie gets so many critical facts wrong.
Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside , another Oscar-nominated movie, are unmistakably linked to the issue of assisted suicide, about which much can be said (see http://dredf.org/assisted_suicide/assistedsuicide.html), but one issue we must single out is the unquestioning linkage of assisted suicide with disability. Efforts to legalize assisted suicide today, which are very real as we at DREDF work to defeat AB 654, just introduced in the California legislature, always purport to include provisions that fully protect people with disabilities from any harm. But can such protection be trusted in the context of a culture as rife with disability prejudice as ours? Earlier this year, a similar message was sent by the movie “United States of Leland,” in which the stabbing death of a teen with autism was portrayed as a kind act.
As John Hockenberry, currently an NBC news correspondent, pointed out, is this the message we want to send to the thousand or so severely disabled soldiers from Iraq who are now at the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland? Do we offer their families assistance by suggesting that they pull the plug?
And as Diane Coleman, President of Not Dead Yet, stated, “The biggest problem with Million Dollar Baby is that some of the audience will be newly disabled people, their family members and friends, swept along in the critically acclaimed emotion that the kindest response to someone struggling with the life changes brought on by a severe injury is, after all, to kill them.”
Lennard Davis, “Why Disability Studies Matters,” Inside Higher Ed: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/why_disability_studies_matters
Steve Drake and Mary Johnson in the Chicago Sun-Times, February 12, 2005, http://www.suntimes.com/output/otherviews/cst-edt-ref12.html
John Hockenberry, http://www.milliondollarbigot.org/loser.html
Bob Kafka, Letter to the New York Times, February 13, 2005
National Spinal Cord Injury Association, http://www.spinalcord.org/news.php?dep=1&page=0&list=281
Not Dead Yet, http://www.notdeadyet.org/flyers/millionbigotflyer.html