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I, Tonya: Power vs. Pretty

I am a clumsy person. I am in fact so clumsy, that last month as I was walking up to the stage at Quinn’s here in Beacon while performing, I tripped and sprained my knee, bruising the bone badly in the process. It was the second time I had fallen last year, and busted this same knee (the earlier culprit had been a patch of black ice in the train station parking lot on the morning of my 32nd birthday). A lot of people saw what happened. It was embarrassing. But I had friends there who helped me up off of the floor and got me home. And then, even though I couldn’t put any weight on the leg in question, I hauled myself up two flights of stairs to my apartment, using only my other leg, my arms and the bannister. When I reached the top, I was quietly pleased with myself for how physically strong I was for doing that. But nobody saw it. They just saw me fall an hour earlier.

It’s hard to be a woman who isn’t naturally graceful. It’s hard to be known as someone who doesn’t perform femininity in a way that makes people comfortable. I have strength, but I’ve been clumsy my whole life, and people often find that off-putting. For a while I worked in an office alongside a woman who couldn’t lift a box of samples that weighed more than ten pounds, but she was willowy, wore designer clothes, and moved in a delicate manner about the room. She spoke in a near whisper while I was criticized for talking too loudly on the phone with our vendors, (most of whom I had relationships with prior to joining this company). She was perceived as the perfect representative of our department, while I was relegated to carrying heavy boxes to the back storage room, and told by my awful boss that no one wanted to see a fat girl in a skirt.

As I watched I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie, starring Margot Robbie as fallen skating star Tonya Harding, at the AMC 25 in Manhattan last month, while wearing a knee brace (so I could actually walk around somewhat normally), I found myself remembering three skating performances from Tonya Harding in the 90’s. I was a figure skating superfan back in the day, and in retrospect, I realize that what I loved about figure skating when I was a child was how aspirational it was. I knew I would never be as fluid with my physicality as Kristi Yamaguchi, Katerina Witt, Midori Ito, or Oksana Baiul, but I was captivated by their performances and admired their ability to do what had always eluded me.

The first performance I recall of Harding’s of course, was the famous 1991 routine at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (see here), where she became the first American woman to land a triple axle in competition, qualifying for the Olympic team going to Albertville the next year and making history, a moment that was recreated for the film. I remember her as a tiny figure in a baby blue dress, light on her feet, and the joy on her face when she did it, the confidence it brought to the rest of the performance, and I remember the way the commentator, Dick Button, was so happy for her. I remember the way he remarked on her physical strength and power as a skater, and also I remember the way the other commentator – whose name I sadly can’t recall – remarked upon how Harding’s artistic sensibility and musicality had improved over the years. This is the paradox of figure skating as a sport – and especially women’s figure skating: it’s a sport, so it demands a level of elite athleticism and strength. But the culture of figure skating also demands that you be naturally graceful, with artful movements that convey an air of refinement on and off the ice.

This fundamental tension is the crux of what I thought the trajectory of I, Tonya would be. Tonya Harding was an exceptional athlete. Tonya Harding was criticized by the figure skating world for not performing femininity correctly. She scored high points for technical merit for her ability to execute complicated jumps well, and she was docked points for artistic merit because she was deemed trashy, with her big 90’s hair, her hand-sewn skating costumes, her lacquered-on makeup, her desire to skate routines to ZZ Top and Tone-Loc songs as opposed to more traditional, classical music choices, and her propensity towards cursing. She outskated most of her competitors when it came to strength, but could never seem to catch a break from the judges for the way she presented herself. Power vs. pretty. It’s a delicate balance in figure skating, and the way it often plays out is immensely frustrating.

There are two other skating performances I remember from Harding back in my die-hard skating fanatic days. The first was prior to the debacle of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan orchestrated by Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly; the 1993 Skate America competition, where she skated a routine to the theme from Jurassic Park. Two minutes into the program, she stopped and approached the judges. She claimed one of her skate blades was coming loose, and she was concerned that she would hurt herself attempting jumps with a wobbly blade. According to the rules of the sport, she could either: take two minutes to rectify the situation and then resume her routine from the point at which she stopped, or she could wait to skate until the very end and have to do the entire routine again from the beginning. She selected the former, and went backstage to have at her skate with a screwdriver. Then she resumed the routine. She had lost her rhythm. She fell during one jump. She doubled another jump that was supposed to be a triple. She had performed well enough earlier in the competition to qualify for the Olympics at Lillehammer, but she was obviously upset after that performance.

The last performance I recall was her 1994 Olympics performance, which occurred after the attack on Kerrigan. It was the same Jurassic Park routine. There was high drama before she got out on the ice: the audience was getting impatient. Her skate lace had broken during the warm-up, and her team was struggling to get a considerably shorter replacement lace tight enough to support her ankle. She barely made it onto the ice in time before being disqualified, and then again, shortly after beginning the program, she approached the judges to ask that she stop and replace her lace so as not to hurt herself. At this point, commentator Scott Hamilton couldn’t contain his snark, saying that equipment malfunctions are every skater’s worst nightmare, and it also almost never happens… but it keeps happening to her. This time, Harding elected to fix her lace and skate the full program again after all of the other skaters, and the next competitor, Josee Choinard, was called to the ice, again causing Hamilton to comment on how unfair this was for Choinard, whose prep time was cut short. When Harding finally skated at the end of the night, she was met by several boos from the audience and she performed inconsistently, not falling but again doubling some intended triple jumps. She came in 8th. Kerrigan won a silver medal. At the time, as I was watching this play out, I felt Harding deserved it, like it was karmic retribution.

I don’t know if I feel the same way now after having seen I, Tonya. The film tells the story in mockumentary style, with lots of fourth-wall breaking, and talking head type interviews. We see clearly that Harding grew up in a poor family, with an abusive mother (Allison Janney in a scene-stealing performance) and an absent father, who, like many women from abusive homes, ended up married to an abusive man – Gillooly, who was the first and maybe only person to tell her that he thought she was pretty. He beat her, and she tried to leave, and he apologized, and she came back and he beat her again, over and over and over. These scenes of cyclic domestic violence are very hard to watch, and yet the overall tone of the film skews wacky, (how else to explain the crew of bumbling idiots Gillooly hired to take Harding’s competitor Kerrigan down?), which I think downplays the heartbreaking reality that Harding was somehow able to be the exceptional athlete she was in spite of a chaotic and frightening home life. I found myself wishing that the film had spent more time exploring this issue – how someone who was forced to work several pink collar jobs at a time to support herself, someone who had to spend hours hand-making her own skating costumes because she couldn’t afford or didn’t have the cash to commission designer ones the way her competitors did, someone who was always living in constant fear of her life due to the abuse from her husband – was still able to train long and hard enough to qualify for the Olympics. Twice. That takes some major gumption, and I was disappointed that the film only slightly grazed that topic, instead spending more time portraying her as the unwitting victim of her husband’s stupid idea to mess with Kerrigan.

Yes, I think the movie goes too easy on Harding when it comes to the Kerrigan issue. It’s clear that Gillespie and Robbie (who also produced the film) are very sympathetic to Harding, and only barely suggest that she knew more about the attack on Kerrigan than she claimed. Harding herself in real life loves the movie. That’s fine; I don’t need to agree with all movies, and I also have no way of knowing how involved Harding was in the planning of the attack. But I think by spending so much time reveling in the stupidity of Gillooly and his accomplices, trying to downplay whatever involvement Harding had in this plan, the movie elides the more interesting aspects of the Harding vs. Kerrigan conflict. Kerrigan herself was working class, like Harding, but she came from a more stable home life and was able to carry herself in the way that the figure skating association wanted to see. She was not as strong a skater as Harding, but she performed femininity correctly. When you pull that apart, you see why Kerrigan was obviously seen as an easy target by Gillooly, but also why she may have loomed large in Harding’s mind as a threat. Harding and Kerrigan came from similar backgrounds (and were in fact friends for a time), but Kerrigan was getting the artistic points that were always out of Harding’s grasp. Kerrigan had figured out how to do it right. Kerrigan has found the perfect balance of power vs. pretty.

This, of course, is all my own hypothesis. The movie doesn’t delve into this at all. But I wish it did, because the end of the story, in the film and in real life, is Harding’s eventual ban from figure skating competition forever by the United States Figure Skating Association, for her perceived involvement in the Kerrigan attack. She was ousted from the very sport she had sacrificed her education for and devoted her life to, the sport that gave her painful existence meaning, the sport she loved. But the real tragedy in this is that the sport itself did not love her back, never did, and never would, unless she somehow magically turned herself into a different person. She was shunned by a culture that was constantly rejecting her anyway for being who she was.

There is an excellent episode of Radiolab about the French figure skater Surya Bonaly, who received similar criticism in her skating career as Harding, (in fact, Harding is asked for commentary on the story). Bonaly was an anomaly in the figure skating world, not just because of her athleticism, but also because of her race. Black figure skaters were few and far between, especially when she was still competing. Her manager leaked a number of completely untrue and totally whack stories about Bonaly’s childhood, basically because he thought “all publicity was good publicity,” even if it perpetuated some seriously fucked up stereotypes of black people in the process. In listening to this episode, you get a sense of how racist figure skating culture is, but it also even further throws into relief the emphasis on femininity that the sport demands, and the almost homophobic sensibility underneath that. I listened to this episode again after watching I, Tonya and was reminded of the scene when Harding’s mother tells her after a performance that she “skated like a graceless bull dyke.”

Bonaly is an immensely powerful skater who was always docked for artistic merit. Time and time again she would outskate her competitors technically, only to be punished for not being graceful. Commentators would declare that she couldn’t actually skate; she only could jump. This culminated in two hugely controversial moments in her career: the first being her refusal to accept a silver medal during a competition, due to her belief that she had performed better than the gold medalist, and the second, being her choice during another routine, after the medal incident, to execute – flawlessly – a backflip (while doing a split mid-air) and landing on one foot. Backflips are banned in figure skating competition due to their being deemed too dangerous. If you ask Bonaly, she did the flip because she was experiencing a flare up from an ankle injury that was causing her not to execute jumps properly during the routine, and she wanted to make up some technical marks. But there is also a hint in the reporting that she did the flip as a solid fuck you to the figure skating judging establishment, who did not find her athleticism worthy of praise because they felt it came at the expense of artistry. Again, we see that tension, that elusive balance of power vs. pretty, and I keep wondering what the point of a sport is if you can be penalized for being too sporty.

Tonya Harding’s life is a parable of the way patriarchy damages women. Prior to I, Tonya, I am certain that almost nobody remembered that Harding was once thought of as the best skater in the country due to landing that triple axel. People instead, remembered the messy separation and reconciliation between her and Gillooly, and the attack on Kerrigan, and how her performances started to slip later in her career. People assumed that Harding likely requested the attack on Kerrigan because she herself wasn’t performing well; whereas I think Harding’s performances slipped because she was married to an abuser, and she spent so much time managing that dynamic that she had less time to train. The Kerrigan attack was the regrettable outcome of being married to an abuser. I wish the movie dealt with this more; I wish they shaded Harding a bit differently, I wish the filmmakers weren’t so devoted to portraying Harding as a sympathetic figure when it came to what was done to Kerrigan. Having been a figure skating fan during these years, I was always so certain that Harding was a villain, full stop. But I, Tonya, swung the pendulum a bit too far in the opposite direction. She wasn’t a hero, either. I think a more interesting film would force us to be comfortable living in ambivalence about Harding, to be able to simultaneously accept that she might have purposefully injured a competitor whom she called a friend, and that she had a tremendous gift as a skater when she was in her prime. The movie doesn’t allow us to spend enough time reveling in her strength, before it gets bogged down in the distastefully comic portrayal of her abusive marriage. We just see her fall. And then we are asked to forgive her.

I don’t want to forgive her. But during the moment in the film when Harding is criticized harshly for her trashy hand-sewn costumes and her unwholesome image by a judge, I experienced a full body cringe, remembering my awful boss who told me that no one wanted to see a fat girl in a skirt. When the movie ended, I limped my way out of the theater with my knee brace, and hauled myself down four flights of stairs because the elevator was broken. No one in the theater helped me get down those stairs, but they all could clearly see that I was hurt. Maybe if I had feigned difficulty in walking down, someone would have jumped in to help poor little fragile me, but I don’t want to be rewarded for fragility. I think I deserve credit for being strong. I’m no Tonya Harding, but I think she deserved credit for being strong too – not just physically strong, but strong enough to power through a childhood in poverty and a lifetime of abuse to get to the Olympics, twice. I think that’s admirable, and not really as funny as I, Tonya wanted me to find it. I think Robbie deserves the acclaim she has received for her portrayal of Harding, (and I certainly hope Janney cleans up in this awards season), but in a weird way, I think I want to accord Robbie that acclaim for the movie that I, Tonya wasn’t. I firmly believe that I, Tonya would have been more powerful as an indictment of the way our culture defines femininity, as opposed to a comedic hagiography of a complicated woman. I’m happy this film was made. But I also fear that it missed the point.


Reeya Banerjee

A program manager / Girl Friday / jack-of-all-trades at Beacon Music Factory and a hospitality food & beverage cost accountant with a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can usually be seen singing and playing the bass guitar at various BMF shows, or drinking IPAs at Dogwood in Beacon, NY.




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