Careful Balance

February 26, 2008
By Andrea McWhirter, Mason, OH

The only similarity between freedom, individuality, and money is that they define the American Dream. Other than that, the terms are contradictory of each other. It is difficult to achieve one without looking past or sabotaging another. How does one make money without depending on others? The American Dream is a precise balance, and the irony in its definition parallels boxing and the ironies Maggie and Frankie face in Million Dollar Baby.

Maggie’s family aids in her training to be a boxer, but at the same time stands in her way. After showing her mom the house Maggie bought for her, her mom looks past it and asks if Frankie is hitting her, yet turns around and hypocritically slaps the crying infant across the face. She also orders Maggie to, “find a man. . .live proper”, yet is cheating welfare, living with her daughter and grandchild and her son is in jail. Maggie tries to fight for her family, but learns all she can do is fight for herself. Maggie realizes she does not want to live the life her mother lives and strives to make the most of her own. Maggie, without the support of her family, is “risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but [her].” Maggie’s detached relationship with her family prepares her for the independent aspect of boxing.

Boxing is not only a self-determining sport, but also an unnatural sport. “Everything in boxing is backwards.” As Scrap says, “You wanna move to the left, you don’t step left, you push on the right toe” and, “instead of running from the pain like a sane person would do, you step into it,” yet the first rule is to protect oneself. If Maggie can find that physical balance and then learn to balance the passion and knowledge she has for boxing, she will also have the skills to find the balance of the American Dream. The components of both boxing and the American Dream are ironic, making boxing a perfect gateway to achieving the American Dream.

The irony in Maggie’s life is reflected in other character’s lives as well. The narrator, Scrap, is an old man, blind in one eye, yet he is the wisest man in the film. He sees all, and only through one eye. He completely understands the balance of heart, physical strength, and knowledge needed to be successful in boxing. He was able to defeat a young fighter while wearing one glove. One of Scrap’s admirers is Danger, an all heart no skill want-to-be boxer. Even after losing a match, Danger returns to the gym because of Scraps advice to him, “anybody can lose one fight. . . you’ll come back from this you’ll be champion of the world”. Frankie, however, a skilled trainer, does not have the heart to return to the gym after Maggie’s paralyzing loss.

Frankie, unlike Scraps, is cautious and protective because of the loss he has experienced throughout his life, especially the loss of his daughter. Before training Maggie, Frankie underestimated the importance of heart in a boxer and overvalued strength and knowledge. He would say, “show me a fighter who's nothing but heart, and I'll show you a man waiting for a beating”. Maggie’s ambition and love for boxing helps turn Frankie around. He attends mass regularly, but his conversations with the priest ironically end in the priest cussing at Frankie, and instructing him to skip the next mass. Before training Maggie, Frankie does not see the balance of boxing as clearly as Scraps.

Maggie succeeds in achieving the perfect balance, but is unable to sustain it. Maggie lives out her dream of being an accomplished boxer and finds someone she can look up to as a father figure. When Maggie reaches her peak, she is no longer wearing her old, casual clothes, but instead a uniform to work and a silk robe for boxing. In addition, more people are dinning at her restaurant. These changes are symbolic of her success in boxing. During this time in the film, Maggie masters the perfect balance. Scrap says, “Sometimes the best way to deliver punches is step back. . . But step back too far, you ain’t fighting at home”. Maggie knows how far to step back; she fights for her dream, but in the end does not protect herself. From that moment on, her life and the memories of her dream begin to dwindle away.

With Maggie’s life dwindling away, Frankie looks to his priest for advice, yet knows in his heart that he is committing a sin by keeping Maggie alive. Maggie eats away all the heart Frankie has left in him; the heart he gained or learned to acknowledge by training Maggie. Just as Maggie learned with her family, Frankie realizes he cannot fight for Maggie and her life. Throughout the film, the audience looks through Frankie’s eyes out the window of his office into the gym of boxers because we watch Frankie grow and succeed through those boxers. In the last scene of the film, we look through a window at Frankie as if he is now detached and isolated from the world and the American Dream.

Maggie works hard to reach her dream. She is an individual fighting for herself in the rink with the freedom to live on her own and the money to support herself and attempt to help her family. She achieves the American Dream by balancing the heart, strength, and knowledge needed to be a boxer; however, ironically she tips the balanced scale by reaching for too much freedom and not following the foremost rule of boxing.

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