The movie Million Dollar Baby [Warner Brothers, 2004] introduced American popular audiences to the phenomenon of women's prize-fighting (boxing), glamorizing the sport and lending legitimacy to what has long been regarded as a travesty.
Boxing, it may be said, has tended historically to be dominated by a shadowed underground of dirty money and unscrupulous exploitation, preying on the lowest levels of society, appealing to the basest instincts, and perpetuating destructive myths regarding manly strength and fortitude.
As a child growing up in the 1950's, I can remember clearly the regular telecasts of professional men's prize-fighting--the Saturday Night Fights, as they were then called, with familiar announcers, referees, and even sponsors (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Gillette razor blades)--which were very popular among the older men of my father's generation. Though few of them would have imagined themselves actually engaged in any kind of fisticuffs, the acting out of aggression and "strategy" among contestants nevertheless found a responsive predisposition in men of that era.
In the decades since, boxing has undergone a series of boom-and-bust swings, while the actual ground where it flourishes has largely disappeared. There are few "clubs" or "gyms" where boxing is practiced, or taught. This may well be an economic phenomenon, a reflection of the post-War prosperity, where a steadily-paying job was as attractive as the promise of glamorous escape from the ghetto through the ascendancy of prize-fighting. Ultimately, of course, a sport like prize-fighting, like any other, feeds off of money, and the amount of interest which can be generated in the media. Throughout the 1960's, '70's, '80's, boxing was largely off screen, occasionally available (in its larger bouts) through closed circuit venues. It was apparent, certainly, by 1990, that the sport was going to wither away completely, if it didn't somehow rejuvenate its image, and build new audiences.
Boxing, as a legitimate sport, has always been a little edgy. It has been generally acknowledged that boxing--that is, what is commonly referred to by ring-fighting, where the contestants wear large padded gloves, and certain rules apply, intended to prevent gratuitous injury, such as head-butting, low punches, "kidney" punches, and the use of breaks during standing-counts and partial knock-downs, etc.--is a very dangerous sport, in which serious injury is almost a given. In the last 25 years, it has been established that most "career" boxers will eventually suffer various forms of dementia or other neurological syndrome, some as early as middle-age, other kinds of "minor" permanent damage notwithstanding (such as permanent facial scarring, broken bones in the hands, face, ribs, and damaged eyesight). In a sport in which the object is to disable one's opponent by disrupting his vision, mental concentration and coordination, and ultimately to cause him to become unconscious through severe blows to the skull, it would come as no surprise that professional medical organizations have historically had official positions against its (regulated prize-fighting) legalization.
When Million Dollar Baby was first premiered, I think few people who saw the movie realized that women's prize-fighting actually existed. I certainly didn't. The notion that women would voluntarily enter into organized fisticuffs would have struck me as a peculiarly bizarre and improbable potential. Women's bodies are designed differently than men's. Aside from the usual vulnerabilities of the head and vital trunk organs, men's genitalia--especially the testicals--are extremely fragile. One of the clichés of self-defense is kicking a man in the crotch, known to temporarily incapacitate him, though more severe trauma there can render a man permanently impotent. But with women, there are the additional issues of breasts, the reproductive organs in the lower abdomen, and the generally softer tissue throughout the body. Since blows exchanged between contestants are specifically designed to inflict injury, any "regulation" designed to "protect" boxers from each others' deliberate or accidental punches to vulnerable body parts would seem ironically ineffectual.
In life and death combat, there can be no rules. If you are trying to survive in a circumstance of war, or in a criminal invasion or confrontation, a man (or woman) may be justified in using any advantage at one's disposal, up to and including using any available weapon at hand. There is a millenniums-long tradition of fighting techniques for hand to hand combat, which soldiers, policemen, and partisans/guerrillas are taught as a matter of course. These techniques may be "practiced" or "staged" as training devices, but they're obviously not intended to be pursued for their own sake, as a popular "sport."
So now that Million Dollar Baby has raised the flag of legitimacy about women's boxing, I went looking around for information about it. Not being a follower of men's boxing, I would certainly never have encountered this information about women's boxing as a fan. Women's boxing first appeared in the Olympic Games in 1902, but it was banned for most of the 20th Century in most nations of the world. In the late 1980's, it began to be revived in Europe and America, and it's been announced that it will be included in the 2012 Olympics in London. Today, women's boxing matches are held in over 100 countries worldwide. I am frankly shocked at this sudden explosion of interest in something I would have thought most people would find simply unacceptable. And I don't think I'm alone.
In our time, the media continues to exert an enormous influence in how people think and act. If something like boxing continually shows up as a viable form of entertainment, there will be people who respond to it, just as there are people who respond to the nonsense of "professional wrestling" or to health gurus or to get-rich-quick-in-real-estate schemes or personal training or "green" automobiles. But that doesn't suggest that there may not be real social problems in promoting it, or that ultimately it's nothing but a crime-ridden arena in which real people are given permanent injury in the mistaken belief that they can achieve prosperity or fame though a violent display.
Our society is presently going through a period of self-examination regarding the meaning of various kinds of sanctioned violence. In the military, we now allow women to fight "alongside men" in battle, and in other areas as well, we're increasingly taking women "off the pedestal" and placing them in harm's way, in order to eliminate the "discrimination" that once prevented them from entering positions of power and participating equally across the spectrum of roles and duties once exclusively the province of men. But in our zeal to be consistent or uniform, we may be going too far. Is allowing women to "box" with each other really a sensible acknowledgement of the equality of the sexes? Is denying the physical structure of women's bodies an intelligent expression of our desire to be fair, democratic and disinterested?
Women are free to compete in almost all sports--at least to a limited degree--in our culture. They still don't play football, or professional hardball, or do much jockeying. But otherwise, they don't seem to be restricted from playing almost any kind of sport, competitively, they may wish. This is a good thing.
But encouraging people to take up an activity--designed to inflict mutual harm--which undoubtedly will cause them permanent physical injury--is really stupid.
I've never been a very great fan of Clint Eastwood. As an actor, he's always seemed one-dimensional to me, from his early days as a TV actor, to his days of "spaghetti Westerns" and the "Dirty Harry" roles, to his later days as a successful director and producer. The only film he's been involved (as director and producer) in that I thought admirable was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , a film I've reviewed on this blogsite. Goodness knows how he brought that off--I would have thought him incapable of that much subtlety and charm. As a private person, his reputation is certainly less than outstanding. High-handed and even brutal with women, condescending megalomaniac in his business dealings, cocky and contemptuous to those he disagrees with. Not someone you'd want to meet in a metaphorical "dark alley" of the entertainment world. Million Dollar Baby won Oscars for Morgan Freeman (supporting actor), Hillary Swank (in the title role), Eastwood (director), and best picture. Why? Because it portrayed the riveting ambition and tragic accidental fatal injury of an intensely motivated young woman, in very dramatic terms, managing (along the way) to glorify and amplify the reputation of a phony "sport" which is a perversion of the concept of sexual equality.
The old Hays Code was a notoriously hypocritical system designed to preserve standards of behavior and decency in cinema. It was particularly concerned with sexually suggestive scenes and dialogue, and it successfully prevented (tacitly, if not through direct censure) thousands of scenes and lines of dialogue over the years it existed (1930-1968). I'm generally in favor of less censorship, not more. And yet my feeling when I saw this movie, was that I was viewing something which could do a great deal of very real harm. Portraying violence among women as it was depicted in the movie, as if this were a valid expression of sexual equality and determined individual achievement--only incidentally qualified by the death of the central character--moved me to believe that as a piece of "entertainment" the film was as corrupt in its ultimate meaning and use, as any part of the world it showed. Certainly gangster movies, sex comedies, and "ethnic" entertainments perpetuate cruel violence, crude (and deviant) sex and racial stereotyping. And there are good reasons not to elevate them as vehicles for exploitation along those lines.
Rewarding Eastwood for this picture with best producer and director Oscars definitely sent the wrong message to women, especially poor women low down on the economic scale. The glamor of professional boxing as a route to celebrity and financial gain was clearly foregrounded. That was a bad thing. Would I advocate censorship in cases like this? Given my stance on free speech issues, obviously my official position would be no. But there should be a common understanding, that attempts to exploit women in this way should prevent otherwise officially recognized "legitimate" figures like Eastwood from using a fake excuse--such as the desire to present a "real raw life" naturalistic story--or as a vehicle for the showcasing of a "woman's right to choose" a life of violence and pain--to market crap like this as a first-run feature.
We can be moved by terrible scenes in movies. Pain and violence and ugliness for its own sake can be moving--especially when it's of real events. Newsreels and video reports are crucial mediums for the transmission of information about the world. But fictionalized, romanticized versions of the dirty, corrupt world of "professional womens' boxing" are unwelcome additions to the library of sludge. Mickey Rourke's portrayal of a professional wrestler in The Wrestler  was bad enough, though in his case, he'd actually lived the life of a professional boxer, and had the permanent scars to prove his cred. But Eastwood and Swank had no such convenient pretexts to fall back on. They made trash pay, and probably drew hundreds of misguided women into a nasty life-style that they'll regret having fallen for all their lives. What a travesty.