Of champs and chumps

Spoilers ahead!

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 boy who has battled his 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 himself up physically to appear plausible as a boxer.  By the same token, his previous role in last year’s Nightcrawler involved a heavy weight loss so he would have a lean and hungry look.  Movie critics love these chameleon-like transformations in actors.  I guess it gives them something to talk about.

Billy Hope and his family are living large but his status is precarious.  Ending up punch-drunk is a real possibility, and a lingering eye injury could result in blindness.  While he earns the big bucks, his wife (Rachel McAdams), like every other suburban matron, spends the money.  Hard to believe, given her polished good looks, but she too is a product of Hell’s Kitchen and revels in the lifestyle her husband’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 wife is accidentally shot and killed by the boxer’s brother.

Predictably, his wife’s death devastates Southpaw.  In his next fight, he attacks the referee and gets suspended.  He turns to drugs and booze for solace with predictable results.  His house and all his worldly goods are re-possessed and, after he crashes his car while driving under the influence and is found with a loaded gun, his daughter (Oona Laurence) is removed from his custody by CPS.  Given the circumstances, this may be one time CPS got it right.

Having hit the ultimate mucky bottom, Billy picks himself off the canvas, metaphorically speaking, and starts out on the long road to redemption.  He visits a seedy gym run by an old boxer (Forest Whitaker) and convinces him to become his trainer.  After all, what’s a boxing movie without a canny, wizened trainer?

At the same time, Billy’s daughter has stonewalled him.  When he goes to visit her, she refuses to see him or spends very little time with him.  So he has not only lost his wife but his relationship with his daughter has been shattered.

Predictably, Billy regains his mojo, or most of it, and wonder of wonders, he manages to secure a match with his Colombian nemesis, who has supplanted him 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 his title back, he regains custody of his daughter, who has forgiven him his 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 man is based solely on his ability to make money – and he’s quite good at it.  The compound where he and his family live would do a Rockefeller proud, and it’s all based on his ability to duke it out with other men.

Even though he is in peak physical condition, his body takes terrible abuse.  His wife seems to love him, but one wonders if that would be the case if he were just a club fighter.  Same goes for his daughter.  Daddy’s boxing career has got her all the goodies a kid could want.  Once the goodies are taken away, she turns her back on daddy.  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 his daughter, yet she puts him in the doghouse because he is no longer manning up.  Sure, her mother/his wife is dead, but that’s no reason to go off the rails.  Get back in the ring, daddy.  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 man in society.  Like any social organization, each weight class is a different hierarchy.  There is one alpha male champion and a host of betas (scrupulously ranked by pundits) underneath him.  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 his family and his posse.  But if he loses…he’s on his own.  The individual boxer has no colleagues; his fellow boxers are his competitors – much like one’s “fellow” employees in a corporation.

At the same time, boxing is a metaphor for a man’s ability to dish it out as well as take it in the workplace.  Aggression and endurance are needed for him to tough it out and provide for his family.  But when a family tragedy happens, how does a man respond?  Does he go through the grieving process and go back to his old life, or does he go off in another direction?

Now I would never expect a guy like Billy Hope to hang up his gloves and start writing haiku.  He’s not the brightest guy in the arena and boxing is all he knows.  So he goes back to beating up other men and allowing himself to be beaten by other men.  Somehow, sitting atop the hierarchy blinds the champ from realizing that in the long run he is just as disposable as the foes he 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 his 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 men.  Get with the program!

So Billy does his mainstream thing.  He gets his life together, gets back in the ring, slugs his way to the top, and earns his daughter’s love again.  Yeah, that’s right, Billy, sad to say it, but your daughter’s love is contingent upon your ability to provide for her.  You have no intrinsic value.  As soon as the cash flow dries up, so does her love.  You can wear that belt with pride and you can buy your daughter’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 his 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 his own way.  In an independent or a European movie, maybe he would.  Not in a big budget American movie which wants to re-affirm men’s traditional disposability and package it as a manly ideal.

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