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Film / Tonya Harding

I, Tonya Changes Nothing

On January 6, 1994, Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan exited the ice at Cobo Arena in Detroit, and, in a narrow corridor, was struck with a ASP telescopic baton three inches above the knee. Cameras swarmed around Nancy Kerrigan as she cradled her bruised knee, sobbing “why, why, why.” Less than a month later, Jeff Gillooy, the ex-husband of Tonya Harding, Kerrigan’s rival, pled guilty to the FBI. He and Harding’s self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, confessed that they had attempted to remove Kerrigan from the ice, in order to allow Harding to secure Olympic victory.

Of all Olympic scandals, this particular one seems to have a special staying power, and the reasons are multifold. Harding and Kerrigan were already widely known celebrities, the crime was gritty and violent, made especially so when contrasted with the refined realm of ice-skating, and everything took place on the world stage, with stakes of no less than Olympic gold. The late 80s and early 90s lent a special type of glitz, glamour, and (maybe misguided) fashion to the event. And, what’s more, the event was baffling, even slightly comedic, albeit in the darkest of ways. Shawn Eckhardt, the orchestrator of the altercation, professed, on multiple occasions, to work for international espionage agencies. The story seems tailor-made from drama, almost stranger than fiction, like something a group of soap writers cooked up, and made only a bit too unrealistic.

Another, and perhaps more important, factor in the story’s enduring relevance is how much people loved, and still love, the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan drama. In the thirty years since The Incident, it has been adapted and re-adapted in various forms, with varying degrees of reverence. In Tonya v. Nancy: The Rock Opera, actresses with perms throw punches in a boxing ring while strobe lights play off bedazzled ice skating outfits. In Tonya Harding: The Musical, a comedic retelling of Harding’s life that premiered in 2014, a mustachioed Jeff Gillooly reclines, double fisting Pabst Blue Ribbon. Harding and Kerrigan walk around in only sparkly white socks. Sample lyrics include: “Skating’s all about the dress, dress, dress/And how it punctuates your chest, chest, chest.” Or, if musicals aren’t your thing, you can buy a card, priced at five dollars, that features a stylized Tonya Harding and the caption, “Break A Leg!”

And, most recently, I, Tonya, the 2017 biopic starring Margot Robbie was added to the pantheon. This retelling of Tonya Harding’s life, set to upbeat 80s tunes, is, in many ways, a good one. The acting leaves nothing to be desired: Robbie and her costar, Sebastian Stan, shine. The dialogue is sharp, the skating scenes are immaculately choreographed and the fight scenes sizzle with a realistic intensity. Some critics lauded the depiction of a class-conscious America and Harding’s portrayal as a class warrior whose raw athleticism and merit could not unseat prejudice. The film received nearly universal critical acclaim and was nominated for, and won, Oscars and Emmys. For real life Tonya Harding, however, the movie presented a way for her to reclaim her story, her voice, and her role as a victim within events that were much bigger and badder than her.

“I was a liar to everybody,” Harding said in a New York Times article directly before the release of the movie, “but still, 23 years later, finally everybody can just eat crow. That’s what I have to say.” Harding, who once gleefully attended Tonya v Nancy: The Rock Opera, was involved in every step of the movie, from its writing, to its production process. And, for Harding, the movie was a success. “I’m actually getting respect. I haven’t had that for a very long time,” she said in an interview with InTouch magazine as she described her upcoming stint on Dancing With the Stars, Athlete Edition.

However, it is not, as she suggests, all for the good. The movie itself, has a few flaws. Many critics have rightfully pointed out that the film’s depiction of Harding’s working-class  upbringing was not exactly the most delicate. And, indeed, her family’s poverty does, sometimes, seem to be trotted out for laughs. Like, for example, when Harding’s father skins rabbits to make a coat for his daughter. “What sort of fur coat is that?” another young skater quips. Little Tonya’s response is a little middle finger.

Perhaps, more importantly to Harding, the movie seems to have not been able to completely, or even mostly, vindicate her from her role in the assault. Harding has once again been catapulted into the public eye. And, within the movie, she is depicted as a domestic abuse survivor, class warrior, and unfairly treated athlete. Robbie’s performance when Harding is told by the judge that she has been banned from ice-skating is touching; the scene where she cries before the 1994 Olympics both eerie and heart-breaking. However, by thrusting her back into the spotlight, there was renewed focused on the crime, and in a special called “Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story” on ABC, Harding admitted that she might have, maybe, perhaps, knew about the plot against Nancy Kerrigan, although she did not orchestrate it. And, one must wonder how much respect Harding is really getting. Knee breaking jokes follow her like a shadow. She was a guest at the Oscars, yes, but, as Robbie’s role was lauded, Kimmel added, “Whose kneecaps did Tonya Harding have to break to get this dream casting?” When Jodie Foster, who appeared on crutches, was asked about her injury, she replied, “[Meryl Streep] I, Tonya-ed me.” She got a standing ovation on Dancing with the Stars last weekend, and cried a few times, but, was, once again, subjected to competitors making more knee breaking jokes.

Additionally, the movie’s hyper-focus on the ins and outs’ of Tonya Harding’s life, and the movie’s obvious desire to elicit sympathy from its viewers detracts from Nancy Kerrigan. “It’s not really part of my life,” was Kerrigan’s slightly discombobulated response to the movie, “as you say, I was the victim. Like, that’s my role in this whole thing. That’s it. It is weird, that’s for sure. A bizarre thing. The whole thing was crazy, being that it’s a story.’” And, what about Nancy Kerrigan’s story? She, too, came from a working class family that struggled to support her Olympic dreams. We see little of her. In nearly the only scene in which the two skaters appear with each other, they shotgun beer and wolf down pizza while on tour together (something that, actually, probably did not happen, although the two were sometimes bunkmates). I, Tonya, after all, is a biopic of Tonya Harding’s life, not Nancy Kerrigan’s. And, to explore Nancy Kerrigan’s story would be to veer so far away from Tonya’s narrative as to effectively restrict the directors or writers from doing justice to either story within a two hour run-time.

However, by missing out on Kerrigan’s story, the drama further divides Team Nancy and Team Tonya. Granted, this was not an invention of the 21st century. “Team Nancy” and “Team Tonya” were already affiliations in the 80s, and into the 90s after the two were trotted out to face each other down in a TV special. However, the movie seems to have solidified these two artificial distinctions between women. And, by continuing to present these women as tooth and nail rivals, the movie fails to recognize that the two women’s abuse existed on the same continuum, and was perpetrated by the same man.   Johnny Weir, two time Olympian, took to Twitter to defend Nancy Kerrigan. “I am so over the glamorization of a villain simply because [Tonya Harding] was born on the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’” he wrote. “While her upbringing may have been tragic, athletes come from all walks of life and succeed based on merit, not assault. I won’t applaud her and I stand for Nancy.”

The biopic—whether or not you agree with its angle and portrayal of Harding—presents the sequence of events with unprecedented nuance. Still, however, she seems to be far away from the athlete that she was in her lifetime, before and after The Incident. It seems Nancy Kerrigan will be associated more with Olympic victory and less with “Why Why Why,” while Tonya Harding will be, seemingly always and forever, a colorful and eccentric character in one of the biggest scandals in Olympic history. Nobody, unfortunately, is eating crow; Harding is still, for many, a liar. The real winner, it seems, is not Harding (and certainly not Kerrigan), but rather the filmmakers, executives of Dancing with the Stars, card-makers, comics, and anyone else who can continue to profit off that one time an ice skater was hit in the knees.