Portrayed by actual champion boxer Lucia Rijker, Billie the Blue Bear is a boxer and the primary antagonist of the 2004 movie Million Dollar Baby. Fighting with complete disregard for rules, decorum, honor and safety, she is a pure representation and enactment of all the contingencies underlying the sport of boxing. She exists solely to utterly destroy the body and the fighter that the main character, Maggie, has studiously developed throughout the course of the film. More than just Maggie’s foil, Blue Bear is the physical manifestation of all the danger that has lurked in each of Maggie’s previous fights. Blue Bear is the imminent destruction of the boxer’s body and spirit.
Blue Bear interests me because after she brutally and unfairly maims Maggie in their climactic fight, she never makes another appearance in the film. After their fight, the film solely focuses on how Maggie and her trainer never recover from this fight and respond to the impossibility of recovery. There is never a scene where Blue Bear is fined by the World Boxing Association or publicly scorned on ESPN or even approached by a muckraking journalist. Blue Bear directly ruins Maggie’s life and there are no consequences at all.
This is precisely how oppression works. In one brief moment, the forces that imminently threaten the fortified selves we build and maintain come at us from behind, sneaking into our moments of glory, pain, relaxation and just plain existence, and flooring us without warning or mercy. Most of us get up from these experiences, brushing off the dirt and staggering on, but I think Million Dollar Baby shows what’s at stake every time this happens. These aren’t just inconveniences or bad days. These blindsides threaten one’s very ability to exist, to regularly convince oneself that getting out of bed isn’t a dangerous existential decision.
Blue Bear disappears once her cinematic duty is done, but her brief appearance reminds us that there’s a reason why experiences of oppression can be so easily recalled. When these large and tiny tears in the social fabric materialize in the midst of our lives, we’re spectacularly (and sometimes mundanely) reminded of that fabric’s horrifying fragility. In other words, each of Maggie’s fights had Blue Bear in the ring. And while it’s easy to abstract Blue Bear as just a symbol of mortality and unfairness, I think it’s more interesting to also view her as the sheer, brutal reality of oppression: the blitz is coming whether the ball was snapped or not and justice will probably never occur in any form – neither judicial, nor social, nor poetic. This is a hideous reality, but knowing its contours is the first step toward imagining and later enacting different strategies in real time: punching back, dodging, dancing around the ring.
Above all, I think Blue Bear calls attention to the limits of strategies of preparation and risk management. Too often the response to experiences of oppression is, “Don’t go there” or “Don’t talk to that person anymore” or “Don’t shop there,” as if avoiding oppression is simply a matter of making better decisions, as if one actually decides to be cheated, robbed, maimed, disrespected and violated. All Maggie did was train. Her body was prepared specifically to endure unbearable stresses, whether hypothetical or immediate. But what she wasn’t prepared for was those unthinkable stresses, those things that can’t be anticipated. The unthinkable can only be endured, never prepared for. And though strategies of endurance aren’t foolproof because endurance is an inherently intensified experience, meaning that every moment of endurance is felt at heightened levels (Maggie actually abandons her strategy of endurance via assisted suicide because she can’t continue to endure), these strategies fundamentally understand that fighting doesn’t occur on a plane of pre-coordinated abstraction. Endurance requires recurring reflexive improvisation, constant readjustment and response to Blue Bear’s brutal right.
This isn’t something we can train for or something we can endure for very long, especially when we encounter it in the form of Blue Bear, the crushing spectacle of violence, but when we have the luxury of being outside of the spectacle (this is always a fleeting position, of course), we have time to think about what enables this spectacle. For instance, as the provided clip shows, Blue Bear is allowed to wreak havoc despite her reputation because the fans love her, suggesting that the WBA values money over fighters. This is the world we live in.
Valuations are made and reified in the form of privileges, preferences, prejudices, accessibilities, and institutions, but we encounter these valuations as manifested in the surfaces of the world: people, media, events, discourses, imaginations, histories. It’s incredibly difficult to tussle with these surfaces, so we should celebrate when we win, but there’s levels to this shit* and Blue Bear is like the bottom floors in Game of Death. All the floors are dangerous, but if we linger on those bottom floors for too long, we’ll never get to the top and throw the boss from the roof. As Maggie’s experience shows, getting to the top isn’t necessarily about having an iron will or strength or determination. Sometimes terrible things happen without reason. But for those of us who’ve been lucky or privileged enough to be spared – for now – I hope it’s clear what’s at stake.
*I sincerely apologize for linking you to a Meek Mill song.