Why do women have to be good all the time?
When I Google searched, “What did Tonya Harding do?” I came across a plethora of articles and biography sites dedicated to telling the highly publicized story of Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding. One article from The Washington Post detailed the extensiveness of the media coverage. Another from The New York Times attempted to unclench her name from synonyms for things like assault, disappointment and failure. It tried to paint her instead as plainly Tonya Harding. Not the woman who did or didn’t do it — the infamous 1994 physical attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, for which Tonya Harding has since been held accountable in the public eye.
The premise of who she is cannot be untied from what she has or has not done. However, despite the controversy surrounding her media persona, she is not synonymous with violence — far from it. The Tonya Harding portrayed in I, Tonya is instead the recipient of most of the movie’s violence. By condemning I, Tonya as a movie that celebrates violence and supports mischief and danger in sports, you are missing not only the whole point of the movie but also the blatant reality of the world of sports: it loves violence.
Critics fail to acknowledge why this type of story has survived a decade-and-a-half and warranted Oprah interviews, entertainment news specials and now an Oscar-nominated bio-pic. It is because the United States celebrates and epitomizes violence in sports. Moreover, Harding is a woman, and although she has been the victim of gendered violence throughout her life and in the film, it is typical for the United States to villainize violence possibly perpetrated by women.
I, Tonya is not sensationalizing the incident between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Instead, it is showing a multi-pronged depiction of a young girl’s life, career and fate, drawing from both credible sources and not-so-credible sources, influenced irrefutably by classism, conformity, competition and men (violent men, at that).
So why condemn a movie that illustrates this scenario? This film is about a woman who did not incite violence without the help of men, if at all. But most definitely it is about a woman who accepted and tolerated acts of violence from men, which calls into question an entirely different conversation about the tolerance of gendered violence in sports.
Harding is not the first public figure to gain a platform from the allegation of illegal activities, nor is she the first athlete to have assault charges. A simple Google search of athletes with domestic violence charges will bring up a list of almost entirely men, including Floyd Mayweather, who holds multiple boxing world titles. In 2010, Floyd pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge. Guilty for domestic violence. Tonya Harding pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution. Guess which athlete was barred from their sport. Hint: it is not the man.
O.J. Simpson, a former NFL player, gained notoriety from a homicide case in the early 1980s, which became one of the most referenced and pop culture infused incidents in the last two decades. Simpson was found not guilty despite the overwhelming evidence that he killed his former wife. His platform, however, was not critiqued for glorifying violence and his persona not condemned or shunned. Instead, he received extensive media coverage, a Netflix series and credit for a case that “changed the media landscape.”
And let’s not forget the 2014 true crime drama Foxcatcher, which shares many similarities with I, Tonya, including a plot based loosely on the events of a fallen sports star. John du Pont was a wrestling coach, USA Wrestling sponsor and convicted murderer. The film portrays his life and dramatizes events that led to the murder of Dave Schultz, resulting in du Pont’s 30 year sentence for murder in the third degree. Although the movies come from the same genre, the similarities end at a fault line, literally. Du Pont was convicted of murder and his character, portrayed by Steve Carell, was nominated for an Academy Award. So why is there social media outrage at Margot Robbie’s Best Actress nomination for portraying Harding? Harding never recovered from her conviction of something extremely far from third-degree murder. And yet, Harding’s reputation was irrefutably influenced by the media and subsequently damaged. According to Sara Weldon in an article for Entertainment, “[Harding] was villainized so much by the media that people actually remember the whole thing totally differently. And they remember it with absolute conviction.”
Ultimately, we see that — just as our sporting world has accepted time and time again — men will handle competition with violence. And it’s okay. Actually, it is the men in Tonya Harding’s life who plan, orchestrate, use and promote violence in the film. And more abstractly, it is men who are most violent — without repercussions — in areas surrounding sports and within the sporting world itself.
I, Tonya isn’t about her violence.
It’s about a woman’s obstacles in her sport and personal life encompassed by men’s violence.
So, what did Tonya Harding do? Did she do it? If you think the movie is about proving her innocence or guilt, you weren’t watching. The film is about Tonya Harding clawing for a spot as a top competitor against much refusal from a conservative organization, despite her talent. The film is about Tonya Harding trusting a man who may or may not have made a decision that led to physical assault in her name: a decision that cost Tonya Harding her career.
What Tonya Harding didn’t do is the majority of the physical, verbal, and mental abuse portrayed in the movie — that was done by men and her mother. Nancy and Tonya are both victims of this kind of abusive behavior.
What did Tonya Harding do? She landed a triple axel, one of the most difficult jumps in figure skating, and she was the first woman to do it too.
Jordan Szymanski is a first year Writing for Film, TV, and Emerging Media major who is sick of men’s hot takes on Tonya Harding.