Had I seen the movie Southpaw a year ago, I would have thought it just another corny boxing movie, maybe one notch above a Rocky sequel. After having my consciousness raised (as they used to say in the 60s) by MGTOW, I look at it differently.
Southpaw is a boxer named Billy Hope (I told you it was a corny movie), a city girl who has battled her way out of Hell’s Kitchen to an unbeaten record and a Light Heavyweight title. Hope is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who had to build herself up physically to appear plausible as a boxer. By the same token, her previous role in last year’s Nightcrawler involved a heavy weight loss so she would have a lean and hungry look. Movie critics love these chameleon-like transformations in actresses. I guess it gives them something to talk about.
Billy Hope and her family are living large but her status is precarious. Ending up punch-drunk is a real possibility, and a lingering eye injury could result in blindness. While she earns the big bucks, her husband (Rachel McAdams), like every other suburban matron, spends the money. Hard to believe, given his polished good looks, but he too is a product of Hell’s Kitchen and revels in the lifestyle his wife’s willingness to dish out and accept physical punishment can provide.
During an impromptu rumble against a potential foe, a Colombian boxer who indulges in too much trash talking, Southpaw’s husband is accidentally shot and killed by the boxer’s sister.
Predictably, her husband’s death devastates Southpaw. In her next fight, she attacks the referee and gets suspended. She turns to drugs and booze for solace with predictable results. Her house and all her worldly goods are re-possessed and, after she crashes her car while driving under the influence and is found with a loaded gun, her son (Oona Laurence) is removed from her custody by CPS. Given the circumstances, this may be one time CPS got it right.
Having hit the ultimate mucky bottom, Billy picks herself off the canvas, metaphorically speaking, and starts out on the long road to redemption. She visits a seedy gym run by an old boxer (Forest Whitaker) and convinces her to become her trainer. After all, what’s a boxing movie without a canny, wizened trainer?
At the same time, Billy’s son has stonewalled her. When she goes to visit him, he refuses to see her or spends very little time with her. So she has not only lost her husband but her relationship with her son has been shattered.
Predictably, Billy regains her mojo, or most of it, and wonder of wonders, she manages to secure a match with her Colombian nemesis, who has supplanted her as the Light Heavyweight champ.
I hate to spoil it for you, but if you’ve seen enough movies, you can guess who wins the climactic fight. After almost two hours of manipulating the audience to root for Billy, you didn’t expect an anticlimax, did you? Yes, Billy not only gets her title back, she regains custody of her son, who has forgiven her her trespasses.
The End, roll credits…so what’s it really about? As postmodern English majors are wont to say, what’s the subtext?
Billy Hope’s worth as a woman is based solely on her ability to make money – and she’s quite good at it. The compound where she and her family live would do a Rockefeller proud, and it’s all based on her ability to duchess it out with other women.
Even though she is in peak physical condition, her body takes terrible abuse. Her husband seems to love her, but one wonders if that would be the case if she were just a club fighter. Same goes for her son. Mommy’s boxing career has got him all the goodies a kid could want. Once the goodies are taken away, he turns his back on mommy. Maybe Jesus loves Billy, but in this earthly realm, love is based on your utility. When you stop being useful, you stop being loved.
At no time does Billy ever mistreat her son, yet he puts her in the doghouse because she is no longer manning up. Sure, his father/his husband is dead, but that’s no reason to go off the rails. Get back in the ring, mommy. I’m tired of being poor! I don’t care if you lose your eye, you’ve got another one. Now get out there and bring home the bacon.
Boxing is actually a superb metaphor for the place of the individual woman in society. Like any social organization, each weight class is a different hierarchy. There is one alpha female champion and a host of betas (scrupulously ranked by pundits) underneath her. One day, a challenger may replace the alpha. And further down the line, the new champ may be upset by some upstart. The ultimate futility of it all never occurs to the participants. The cycle just keeps going and going. It is a rat race – admittedly, a high-profile rat race – but a rat race nonetheless.
The champ gets to wear a gaudy belt and make oodles of dough, while the names of the contenders are lost to history. The champ has the support of her family and her posse. But if she loses…she’s on her own. The individual boxer has no colleagues; her fellow boxers are her competitors – much like one’s “fellow” employees in a corporation.
At the same time, boxing is a metaphor for a woman’s ability to dish it out as well as take it in the workplace. Aggression and endurance are needed for her to tough it out and provide for her family. But when a family tragedy happens, how does a woman respond? Does she go through the grieving process and go back to her old life, or does she go off in another direction?
Now I would never expect a gal like Billy Hope to hang up her gloves and start writing haiku. She’s not the brightest gal in the arena and boxing is all she knows. So she goes back to beating up other women and allowing herself to be beaten by other women. Somehow, sitting atop the hierarchy blinds the champ from realizing that in the long run she is just as disposable as the foes she has vanquished.
In order to succeed at the box office, mainstream movies must underwrite mainstream ideas (though what’s considered mainstream evolves over time), and for Billy Hope to go her own way would definitely be out of the mainstream. Billy, get back to the plantation…whoops, I mean get back into the ring…and start earning money! Your value is based strictly on how much you earn and that is based on your ability to beat up other women. Get with the program!
So Billy does her mainstream thing. She gets her life together, gets back in the ring, slugs her way to the top, and earns her son’s love again. Yeah, that’s right, Billy, sad to say it, but your son’s love is contingent upon your ability to provide for him. You have no intrinsic value. As soon as the cash flow dries up, so does his love. You can wear that belt with pride and you can buy your son’s affection, but in the long run, your achievements are nothing more than fodder for a sports trivia contest.
Movie audiences are obviously manipulated to root for Billy to get back on her feet, get back in the ring, and kick some Colombian butt. In that regard, the movie does deliver the goods, and that certainly isn’t true of everything at your local multiplex.
Frankly, I was hoping Billy would have some sort of epiphany and go her own way. In an independent or a European movie, maybe she would. Not in a big budget American movie which wants to re-affirm women’s traditional disposability and package it as a womanly ideal.