Social Imagery in the Film Million Dollar Baby

An Analysis Based on Wolf Wolfensberger's Social Role Valorization
Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Karen Schwartz, .!.
"ni#ersity o$ %anitoba
+ana %arie ut$iyya, ,h.D.
"ni#ersity o$ %anitoba
&'mail( lut$iyy*
Nancy -ansen, ,h.D.
"ni#ersity o$ %anitoba
&'mail( hansenn*
She lies on the hos.ital bed, breathin/ with hel. o$ a #entilator, hoo)ed u. to #arious monitors
and intra#enous tubes. -er hair is un)em.t as she stares out o$ dar), sun)en eyes. She has
cha..ed li.s and .asty white s)in. She is %a//ie 0itz/erald, the 1uadri.le/ic .rota/onist in this
year2s 3cademy 3ward winner, Million Dollar Baby. 4he ima/e she e#o)es in the #iewer is both
.ower$ul and deliberate. 4o the obser#er, she a..ears sic), near death, waitin/ to die.
4he .ur.ose o$ this is to e5.lore the social ima/ery o$ disability in the $ilm Million Dollar
Baby, usin/ 6ol$ 6ol$ensber/er2s $ramewor) in A Brief Introduction to Social Role Valorization
7899:; and to .resent an analysis o$ how this ima/ery rein$orces certain societal .erce.tions
about the close lin) between disability and a li$e not worth li#in/.
4he descri.tion abo#e .aints a .icture o$ an indi#idual usin/ a #ery s.eci$ic set o$ ima/es
desi/ned to e1uate disability with illness, disease and death. 6ol$ensber/er 7899:; de$ines
ima/es as <the mental .ictures that others hold in their minds about an indi#idual or /rou.< 7..
=3;. "n$ortunately, when these ima/es .ortray and en$orce ne/ati#e, they can
become so in/rained in the minds o$ .ercei#ers that they become unconsciously acce.ted as
truth. 0or .eo.le with disabilities and those sensiti#e to disability issues, ne/ati#e .ortrayals o$
disability can ha#e chillin/ conse1uences, es.ecially when these .ortrayals are so closely ima/ed
with worthlessness and death.
6ol$ensber/er 7899:; describes how ima/es are created(
> 4he obser#er2s .re#ious e5.ectations and e5.eriences with such a .erson or /rou.? how the
obser#ed .erson or /rou. loo)s and acts> what the obser#er is told about the .erson or /rou.,
and conse1uently e5.ects $rom the .arty? the lan/ua/e that is used to describe and re$er to the
.erson or /rou.? and by the attachment o$ all sorts o$ symbols to a .erson or /rou.> 7.. =3;.
-e su//ests that ima/es, .articularly those o$ .eo.le who are socially de#alued
, are con#eyed
in a number ways. Some o$ these include, a; the settin/, b; .eo.le2s acti#ities, routines and
rhythms, and c; the .ersonal a..earance .roBected. &ach o$ these will be e5amined in li/ht o$ the
.ortrayal o$ %a//ie 0itz/erald toward the end o$ the $ilm, a$ter she sustains the inBury to her
The Setting
3$ter her $inal bo5in/ match, %a//ie is ta)en to the hos.ital and later mo#ed into the <Serenity
Clen Dehabilitation Eenter.< Ft is her room at the rehabilitation center that .ro#ides the settin/ $or
the last and crucial .art o$ the mo#ie. 3s 6ol$ensber/er 7899:; says, <3 settin/ can con#ey
ima/es about the .eo.le who use it< 7.. =G;. 4he name <Serenity Clen< itsel$ .ro#o)es ima/es o$
calmness and tran1uility, a .lace to lie, waitin/ $or death. 4his rehab center bears a stri)in/
resemblance to a hos.ital. 4he hallway leadin/ to %a//ie2s room is o$ten dar) and $orebodin/,
es.ecially as the mo#ie mo#es toward its conclusion. 4he only illumination comes $rom the
nurses2 station at one end and the e5it at the other end o$ the hallway.
4he room where %a//ie s.ends all o$ her time is institutional'loo)in/. She is attached to at least
three monitors and two intra#enous tubes. Hne o$ the screens, monitorin/ her heart, is
.rominently #isible on her ni/ht table in numerous scenes toward the end o$ the mo#ie I a hi/hly
medicalized reminder o$ her <$ra/ility<. She is also hoo)ed u. to a mechanical res.irator, which is
described by Scra., as <always on, o5y/en was .um.ed into her 2G hours a day.< 4he room has
a window, in $ront o$ which is o$ten .ar)ed an em.ty wheelchair. 4he ima/es that this room
e#o)es are o$ illness, disease and sic)ness. Ft also s.ea)s to a )ind o$ im.ermanence, as it
contains no touches o$ home or .ersonal .ossessions. Ft is sterile and cold. 4owards the end o$
the mo#ie, %a//ie says to 0ran)ie, <F can2t be li)e this, not a$ter what F done I F seen the world<.
Fn ) %a//ie within the con$ines o$ these $our walls, &astwood ma)es it #ery clear that this
room in the rehabilitation center is now %a//ie2s whole world.
People's Activities, o!tines and hythms
<,eo.le will also be ima/ed by the acti#ities, schedules and other routines in which they are
en/a/ed< 76ol$ensber/er, 899:, .. =5;. 6hat is %a//ie2s li$e li)e a$ter her accidentJ Ft is
$ascinatin/ to watch the chan/es in %a//ie2s .ortrayal as she mo#es toward her decision to die
and her ultimate death. 3t the be/innin/ o$ her time at Serenity Clen, she is seen sittin/ u., e#en
thou/h, as Scra. says, <Ft too) se#eral hours e#ery day to /et her ready $or the wheelchair<,
.erha.s im.lyin/ that it was not time well s.ent. She is dressed in casual clothin/, her hair in a
.onytail. -owe#er, $rom the time her $amily arri#es until the end o$ the mo#ie, she is always lyin/
in her hos.ital bed. 4here is ne#er any music or tele#ision on in the room. 4here are no boo)s or
ma/azines to read. %a//ie seems to s.end her time doin/ absolutely nothin/, waitin/ to die. 3t
one .oint, 0ran)ie mentions a .ower chair and some uni#ersity courses, but %a//ie does not
seem to hear him.
3lthou/h called a <rehabilitation center<, there is no e#idence that %a//ie recei#es any ty.e o$
.hysiothera.y or e5ercise to discoura/e atro.hy. Fn $act, althou/h Scra. says the center <too)
/ood care o$ %a//ie<, the bedsores she de#elo.s on her arms and the /an/rene that e#entually
results in the loss o$ one o$ her le/s, tells a mar)edly di$$erent story. 4o audience members who
are $amiliar with issues $acin/ .eo.le who are .aralyzed, it loo)s li)e ne/li/ent care. -owe#er,
audience members who are not $amiliar with these issues are led to belie#e that %a//ie2s .ost'
accident condition is both una#oidable, e#en with /ood care and, worse, is somehow her $ault. 3s
Scra. tells us, <She de#elo.ed s)in ulcers because she couldn2t chan/e .ositions.<
4he messa/e sent to the audience is that .eo.le with disabilities do not ha#e a li$e worth li#in/.
4hey are condemned to misery and sel$'loathin/. 4heir time on earth cannot .ossibly be
.roducti#e, $ul$illin/ or meanin/$ul in any way. 4his su..orts the conclusion that the only sensible
and indeed, merci$ul, .ath is death. !y ensurin/ %a//ie does not $ollow the e#eryday routines o$
e#eryday li$e, the .erce.tion is that, althou/h she is ali#e, there is no .oint to her li#in/.
The Personal Appearance Pro"ected by a Party
6ol$ensber/er 7899:; ar/ues, <,eo.le2s ima/e is also a$$ected by the .ersonal a..earance they
.roBect, or are enabled to .roBect< 7.. =:;. %a//ie2s a..earance is si/ni$icantly altered a$ter the
accident. 3s her time at Serenity Clen wears on, she is shown with dar) circles rin/in/ her
sun)en eyes. -er s)in loo)s .ale and unhealthy. -er hair is messy and un)em.t, in contrast with
the beauti$ul braids she wears earlier in the $ilm when she is bo5in/. She is also shown always
wearin/ a hos.ital /own.
4he $irst thin/ Scra. as)s her when he comes to see her is, <Does it hurt muchJ< 0ran)ie blames
himsel$ $or trainin/ her in the $irst .lace and badly wants to <$i5< her. %a//ie says she is </onna
be $rozen li)e this the rest o$ @herA li$e<. She also tells 0ran)ie at one .oint that <mama will be here
soon to share some o$ the burden.< 4hese con#ersations also ser#e to rea$$irm the ima/es o$
disability as .ain$ul, unacce.table, without ho.e or $uture and as a tremendous burden to others.
4hey also ma)e it easier to acce.t the $ilm2s .remise that %a//ie is better o$$ dead than li#in/ li$e
with a disability. -owe#er, i$ she were u. and about, dressed, s.endin/ time outside, /oin/
about the business o$ li#in/, it would be $ar more di$$icult to acce.t her decision to die and to
acce.t 0ran)ie2s decision to )ill her. !y .layin/ u. these ima/es o$ disease, hel.lessness and
ho.elessness, &astwood encoura/es the audience to lin) disability with end'o$'li$e and to $eel
that 0ran)ie, as %a//ie2s hero, has come throu/h $or her, and rescued her $rom a $ate worse than
4his re#iew o$ the ima/ery in the latter .art o$ the $ilm, Million Dollar Baby hi/hli/hts the dan/ers,
both to .eo.le with disabilities and to society as a whole, o$ misre.resentin/ li$e with a disability.
%a//ie2s social role chan/es dramatically $rom a lean, $it, muscular bo5er to a sic)ly, <terminally
ill< .atient. -er com.etency has also shi$ted $rom a hi/hly s)illed $i/hter, a cham.ion, a $irst'round
)noc)out wonder, to one who is inca.acitated and immobile, o$ orchestratin/ e#en her
own death without hel..
Fma/es are #ery .ower$ul and can hel. create and a$$irm a certain reality in the minds o$
.ercei#ers. 6here %a//ie 0itz/erald was once an admirable and admired $i/hter, she is now
im.aired, bro)en, un$i5able. Not only do these ima/es rea$$irm e5istin/, the theme o$
disability as worse than death is ne#er $ully e5.lored by the characters or &astwood himsel$. Fn
addition, the $act that many mo#ie re#iewers were reluctant to <s.oil< the endin/ has also ser#ed
to discoura/e ri/orous dialo/ue about the ne/ati#e way in which disability is .ortrayed in this $ilm.
Ft2s time -ollywood did better.
4he .re.aration o$ this article was su..orted by the Eanadian Fnstitutes o$ -ealth Desearch New
&mer/in/ 4eam Crant on &nd o$ i$e Eare and Vulnerable ,o.ulations held by Dr. -ar#ey %.
Ehochino#, Dr. Deborah Stienstra, Dr. Kose.h %. Kau$ert, and Dr. +ana %. ut$iyya.
Such de#aluation is the result o$ de#aluedLne/ati#e .erce.tions. ,eo.le who are socially
de#alued are not inherently worthless as human bein/s. bac)
6ol$ensber/er, 6. 7899:;. A brief introduction to Social Role Valorization: A high-order concept
for addressing the plight of societally devalued people and for structuring hu!an services"
Syracuse, NM( 4rainin/ Fnstitute $or -uman Ser#ice ,lannin/, eadershi. N Ehan/e 3/entry.

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