I, Tonya: High Marks for Artistic and Technical Merit

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What is there to say about Tonya Harding that hasn’t already been committed to print and screen? Nanette Burstein’s superlative 2014 documentary The Price of Gold, coupled with a stunning essay by Sarah Marshall published by The Believer the same year, ushered in a critical reexamination of Harding’s achievements and vilification. The media portrayals of Harding that permeated my childhood—of monstrous white trash, too ambitious and masculine to behave by the rules of proper society, let alone of figure skating—had been replaced by more complicated depictions. Harding was no longer a graceless hulking scrub, but an extraordinary skater trapped between the physical trauma she endured from her family and the psychological torment inflicted by a society that didn’t (and still often doesn’t) know what to make of an effortful athletic woman.

Still, as someone whose queer identity is assuredly based in part on watching clips of Tonya’s best skates, and whose Twitter persona is premised on the claim that Harding is my cosmic mother, I looked forward to watching I, Tonya, the new biopic starring and produced by Margot Robbie. I was not disappointed. While not perfect, the movie understands that the public is itself a criminal in media scandals, that scandal is perhaps our clearest example of the politics of fact and memory, and that the lives of the scandalous are often as darkly humorous as they are bone-chillingly tragic. Above all, the movie wonders: What does society make of a woman who lands a triple axel and won’t let you forget it?

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I suspect what will turn off most viewers from I, Tonya is that it doesn’t have the tone one might expect from a movie about a figure skater best known for having some connection to the kneecapping of another figure skater. Those who expect from the trailer a purely campy, dizzying caramel chew of a romp are bound to be disappointed. To be sure, the characters are all drawn with bold features—Allison Janney spends the better part of two hours acting through More cigarettes, a shoulder-bound parrot, and variations on the word “fuck”—but these portrayals are barely a stretch from the source material, a point the movie underlines with photo footage during the end credits. LaVona Golden actually sported that fur coat and neither-pageboy-nor-shag during the 1990s. Tonya really did follow up her triple axel during her 1991 US National Championships long program with a sequence set to Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” It takes little work to make these people seem fictional.

The movie undercuts its parade of fluffy hairdos and handmade sequined dresses with a torrent of poverty and abuse. This doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t funny at parts, nor that these events are played for outright laughs. But it does make clear that Tonya Harding clawed herself out of hardscrabble circumstances filled with scummy people, and that escaping abuse is neither easy nor linear. People sometimes return to their abusers, give them second or third chances, and Tonya was no exception. The number of scenes with barely-covered black eyes and bruises—and outright physical violence—underscores this tragic fact. (It may also ultimately and understandably make the film a no-go for some people.)

Abusers, as I, Tonya so clearly illustrates, are not always hulking menaces. They are the Jeff Gilloolys, dweeby and wiry and absurdly mustached. They are the LaVona Goldens, boozy and bespectacled and clad in polyester waitress uniforms. Such people are both menacing and pathetic, tragic self-loathing creatures and constant sources of terror.

To this end, the movie poses its sharpest argument: the American public was Tonya’s abuser, too. For years, Tonya Harding was the butt of jokes, late-night one-liners premised on nothing more than the idea of a low-class woman gone berserk. That it took an entire twenty years for a critical reappraisal of Harding’s skills and resuscitation of her reputation says a lot about the enduring misogynist tenor of American popular culture.

NEON and 30WEST Present the Los Angeles Premiere of "I, Tonya" Supported By Svedka
Harding and Robbie

Indeed, I, Tonya refuses you the opportunity to treat Harding’s life as a long-stale sports history footnote. In the best moment of the movie, Robbie—channeling Harding at her most exasperated and righteous—stares at the camera and says “You’re all my attackers, too.” You, the audience watching I, Tonya and expecting a delicious heady mess of a story about a woman too trashy and too ambitious to know what she was actually doing: all of you are complicit, still.

The entire film toys, sometimes flatfootedly, with the relationship between personal and public memory. Screenwriter Steven Rogers actually interviewed both Harding and Gillooly to create the film’s script, creating a tale in which the audience’s preconceived ideas about Harding’s life and Nancy Kerrigan’s assault—built from tabloids and parodies, made murky through two decades of obscurity—are constantly questioned. Characters routinely address the audience, sometimes in interviews, other times by breaking the fourth wall.

But these stories never provide a clean tale. For every event verified by a character (Tonya really did run through the woods with buckets of water to train for Lillehammer!), another is refuted (Tonya never took a shotgun to her husband!), while Gillooly and Golden rarely have the same account of events as Harding. While sometimes played for comedic effect, this narrative mismatch ultimately—and effectively—compels the audience to consider how people make sense of themselves after the public has become convinced it knows everything about them, yet cannot recall most of the details.

If I, Tonya is clear about who hurt Tonya, it’s less clear about Tonya’s role in hurting Kerrigan. Unlike in The Price of Gold, in which Kerrigan emerges through considerable archival footage, here Harding’s rival is a deliberate cipher meant to make clear what the idea of Nancy meant to Tonya. That the real Nancy Kerrigan was a blue-collar girl, and not the ice princess persona hoisted upon her by sponsors and journalists, seemed to matter little to Tonya. This image of Nancy, however false, allowed Tonya to construct herself. Tonya: truck-driving redneck who practiced in a mall and was proud of it; Tonya: never a sore loser, never sulking over a silver; Tonya: never had support or help from anyone. Harding’s self-conception, built over years in reaction to a classist and sexist society, ultimately became fodder for the media’s funhouse mirror portrayal of both her and Kerrigan during the scandal.

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Did Tonya have anything to do with Nancy Kerrigan’s assault? The movie only suggests that Tonya truly believes what she says. Whether that belief comes from being a victim of brutal circumstance or through a fantastic imagination is, in many ways, irrelevant. Tonya Harding believed (in) herself because, frankly, she’s all she’s got. (Indeed, Tonya’s not yet done retelling her story to the public. ABC is set to air Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story on January 11th, seemingly complete with all-new interviews where Harding makes the same old exculpatory claims.)

Where I, Tonya ultimately fails, however, is in showing her goddamn triple axel. The film is riddled with competitive skating scenes, showing late-80s and early-90s choreography from electrifying new perspectives that old sports cinematography simply couldn’t capture. Robbie committed to doing as much skating as possible in the film, embodying Harding’s distinct form. But the film’s depiction of Harding’s axel—built through visual effects because no available stunt double could actually make such a jump—fails to clear the uncanny valley. It seems too effortless, particularly for an athlete whose skating style made clear how difficult it truly is to cleanly land on the back outside edge of a thin metal blade after launching oneself in the air and rotating three-and-a-half times. But that’s kind of the magic: there are still some things, even after this movie, that still belong only to Tonya.

She landed that triple axel. And she’ll never let you forget that. It’s still, even now, one of the most incredible skating moments to watch. Long live Tonya Harding.

KJ Shepherd is a historian based in Austin, Texas. They cannot ice skate.

For more of ToM’s voluminous film coverage, click here.  You can also find Alex Cummings and Dan Lam’s picks for the best of 2017 — both of whom sheepishly admit that they hadn’t seen I, Tonya at the time of writing their reviews.

Author: KJ Shepherd

Historian - Researcher - Organizer

2 thoughts

  1. I love wordpress! I found that article so interesting, even though I barely recalled her name. I watched the Youtube clip as well, that was so incredible and emotional! Thank you!

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