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.