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Tonya Harding’s Redemption Still Has Strings Attached

Giving Tonya Harding visibility, just to force her to prove herself all over again, isn't redemption. It's self-serving spectatorship.

Posted on January 19, 2018, at 12:32 p.m. ET

Tonya Harding is dogged by media as she leaves her Portland apartment to meet with her lawyers on Feb. 6, 1994.
Jeff Vinnick / Reuters

Tonya Harding is dogged by media as she leaves her Portland apartment to meet with her lawyers on Feb. 6, 1994.

"Suck my dick! This is fuckin' rigged!" Tonya Harding spits at a panel of condescending figure skating judges in I, Tonya. Or, rather, Margot Robbie as Harding does. The real Harding (who now goes by Tonya Price, and whose presence in the media the past few months has received as much attention as the biopic itself) will tell you that’s not exactly how it happened. That she at least waited until getting back to the locker room to talk to the judges, and that she certainly didn’t cuss.

Or maybe that was how it happened. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. I, Tonya — which was loosely inspired by the 2014 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold — defies the conventions of its biopic genre by refusing to pick a clear “truth” for its narrative. It pieces together Harding's life up through an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, largely thought to be orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. But if The Price of Gold (which didn’t shy away from Harding’s contradictions and self-pity) inspired a reexamination of her story, the more stylized retelling of I, Tonya has now seemingly offered a justification for something beyond that — a long overdue chance at public vindication.

"Tonya Harding Would Like Her Apology Now," reads the headline of a recent profile of the disgraced former Olympian in the New York Times Magazine. This month, ABC’s 20/20, one the stalwarts of ‘90s TV news magazines, ran a largely sympathetic two-hour interview special about Harding; her mere presence at the Golden Globes was memeworthy.

At the Cut, Anna Silman argues that we’re seeing a larger "Redemption of the ’90s Tabloid ‘Villainess,’” drawing parallels between renewed interest in women like Monica Lewinsky and Harding, both victims of the decade’s sexism. And I, Tonya has arrived at the height of the #MeToo moment, as public conversations are finally shedding light on widespread sexism and abuse in news, entertainment, and every other industry. To many, Harding is the perfect public figure to be repositioned, as Amanda Marcotte at Salon put it, as a feminist “emblem for our era.”

The same sort of hindsight can be applied to the way class played a largely unacknowledged role in the original coverage of Harding's story. Since the 2016 presidential election, there's been endless coverage (and reaction to coverage) of the white working class in the United States. "Tonya Harding’s hardscrabble life epitomises the type of white working-class culture that has long been ignored," writes Gillian Tett for the Financial Times, directly linking the finger-wagging criticism the liberal media has received since the election to Harding's parable.

More than two decades after Harding was excommunicated by the US Figure Skating Association, the retelling of her story is perfectly timed to land right at this intersection of ongoing discussions of sexism and the white working class. It’s no wonder the media and Hollywood can’t get enough and that so many people have joined the campaign to launch Harding to feminist and working-class hero status.

But the problem with Tonya Harding's moment of redemption is that it's predicated on the idea that the same public and media that crucified her in the first place has gained some self-awareness, and that it's also a moment of redemption for them — a nice 121-minute chance at penitence and popcorn. And Harding's interaction with this narrative, her presence in her own redemption, has complicated that.

Just last week, according to her former agent and publicist, Harding insisted that she wants to fine reporters $25,000 if they dig too deep in their eagerness to understand her. And already, some are beginning to suggest she’s “biting the hands that fed her” and asking — again — how much sympathy she deserves.

The only thing standing between Harding and redemption, it seems, is that she's still “Trashy Tonya” Harding. And the system is still rigged against her.

Young Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in I, Tonya.
Courtesy of NEON

Young Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in I, Tonya.

There’s an appeal to sharing something with a famous person — a name, a birthday, an astrological sign. In that way, as a Tonya, I always felt robbed. I was born in 1993, just a year before the hit on Nancy Kerrigan ruined Tonya Harding’s life. Even though I was a baby when the scandal occurred, the infamy, and then punchline her name evoked through the late ‘90s, followed me. My famous person was a joke.

For the longest time, Tonya Harding was the only other Tonya I knew, and I knew enough to know that our name wasn't a good thing. There was Tanya Tucker, I guess, but that was the name of my third cousin I was jealous of and a betrayal of the spelling I tried so hard to make the “right one.” As if I had not been stuck with enough bad things in life — a single mother, poverty, an unstable upbringing — I was also stuck with Tonya. I worked hard to not let it show that I was “white trash,” something I was able to primarily achieve by being smart and caring a lot about the one thing I did have — school. I did not need “Trashy” Tonya Harding to betray the very thing I was trying to hide.

As I got older, Harding slipped further into obscurity, and the jokes about bashing kneecaps (which had misled me to believe, like many, that Tonya herself committed the act) became more infrequent. I cared less and less. But the victory was short-lived.

When I first saw that Margot Robbie would be playing Harding in an upcoming biopic, I was beyond furious. Now people my age who barely knew who she was would suddenly associate me with her once again! Some Hollywood starlet thirsty for an award would ruin the peace I had found for myself. When people asked me if I would go see the movie, I responded with disdain. Why couldn’t Hollywood leave her in the ‘90s, where she and scrunchies belonged, I thought, not bothering to rectify the fact that I really knew nothing about her.

I saw I, Tonya in theaters the week it opened in Washington, DC, the “big city” that I had aspired to live in when I was growing up in rural Maryland, and now do. I rationalized that at least I could finally put the matter to rest and, well, my sister had won free tickets. But by the scene when Tonya’s mother LaVona throws a knife at her, hitting her square in the arm, I started to cry. All the similarities between me and Tonya that I had never known before washed over me like cold water. I felt ashamed that for so long I had resented someone who I now, suddenly, felt like I knew so well — someone with whom I realized I shared much more than just a name.

As Tonya pulled the knife out of her arm and slammed it on the table, the men beside me had a different reaction. They laughed.

The scene ended, but I found that I was still crying; not for the Tonya I saw onscreen, but for the Tonya I knew those men were actually laughing at. For both of us. My friend told me before I saw the movie that he thought it was “cruel,” an adjective I didn’t quite understand until that moment. Tonya wasn't being redeemed. She was being made a spectacle for a brand new audience.

LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) in I, Tonya.
Courtesy of NEON

LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) in I, Tonya.

There are things that I, Tonya gets right — if emotionally rather than factually — especially when it comes to the demands that are put on the poor in a world that scorns them. Tonya’s mother LaVona (played with acute cruelty by Allison Janney, who has already won a Golden Globe for the role) is a master study in the relationship between cycles of poverty and abuse. Scenes of LaVona forcing Tonya to skate in her own urine and smacking her with a hairbrush are cut with scenes of struggle — LaVona working at a diner for minimum wage to pay for lessons, sewing Tonya’s costumes by hand, including what is implied to be a homemade fur coat (one of the film's details that Harding has noted as misleading — her coat was in fact store-bought).

The LaVona of the movie is undoubtedly cruel, but her logic is unwavering. When Tonya confronts her mother over the abuse as an adult, without hesitation, LaVona snaps back, “I made you a champion! Knowing you'd hate me for it. That's the sacrifice a mother makes.” It’s the kind of bargain only someone who has known the worst is willing to make.

Even as Tonya begins to move through the world outside of her family, class anxiety seems to follow her. Despite being by all accounts a loser, her own husband lords social capital over her. There’s a sense that, as their marriage begins to fall apart, he resents her role in his not attending college. Even Shawn Eckardt, who is ultimately responsible for the attack on Kerrigan, lives at home with his tea-serving parents, who have a picture of Reagan prominent on their living room wall. Who in the movie doesn't have it better than Tonya? Then, of course, there’s the Kerrigan rivalry — something that Tonya can’t help but simultaneously dismiss and still blame as yet another chip stacked against her.

In reality, Kerrigan also came from a working-class background, but her loving parents and Vera Wang costumes allowed her to escape the same scrutiny Harding endured. She had the "wholesome American family” that one judge in the movie tells Tonya she lacks. Where Tonya was loud and brash, with heavy metal and blue nail polish, Kerrigan was quiet and demure, with the chignon and “tooth fairy” costumes the skating world expected of her. As someone who has spent nearly 25 years passing between classes, I can assure you that the best way to fit in with the rich is to never remind them that you are poor, something Harding failed at miserably.

The film doesn't reach that same level of understanding in its attempts to portray violence against women. Most of the abuse in the film is directed in a way that invites the viewer to laugh, only to chastise us later for being “attackers,” too. Instead of being asked to sit with Tonya's feelings, the ones that would explain why she would fight back and stay in an abusive relationship, the audience is ushered through a cycle of making up and fights where Tonya cocking a gun or telling Gillooly that he should kill himself is met with laughter rather the horror it deserves. One could argue that this might simply be a strategy to make the abuse — which is visceral and important to Harding's story — bearable to watch. But the flippant tone in scene after scene, perhaps meant to reflect Tonya's internalized beliefs that the abuse is her fault and normal, didn't seem to track with critics or with some viewers.

In addition, the movie’s Goodfellas on Ice” approach to the violence against Kerrigan seems a bizarre way to elevate a plot that was the tragic result of a vicious sporting world and the media pitting the two women against one another. In this way, I, Tonya fails in telling the story of someone who was not just a poor athlete, but a poor female one. And that failure suggests to me that the movie isn’t — and isn’t necessarily intended to be — the vehicle for real-life redemption that many have anointed it as.

Tonya Harding arrives at the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills on Jan. 7.
Valerie Macon / AFP / Getty Images

Tonya Harding arrives at the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills on Jan. 7.

"A biopic (or bio-miniseries) supplants messy media coverage and reimagines it through a new and brighter lens — in this case, a feminist one," writes Anna Silman in her analysis of the redemption of the ‘90s villainess. But what this fails to consider is that in Harding's case, "messy media coverage" is still a crucial and complicating factor in her public image. Unlike Lewinsky, who actively fits the idea of a modern feminist icon and has benefitted from interacting with the media's renewed interest in her, Harding's presence in her own redemption narrative has already started to unravel it.

For instance, in her New York Times profile of Harding, Taffy Brodesser-Akner asks her what she makes of all our guilt. While many have taken to the framing that, like Hill and Lewinsky, Harding is owed something the ‘90s stole from her, Harding isn't so convinced:

“Monica Lewinsky?” she asked, incredulous, using a modified version of the same obscene phrase involving male anatomy that she had just said she would never use. “In the Oval Office! You don’t think that there’s something wrong with that? She disrespected the country.”

But you were both so young, I said. And the press was so hard on you before they’d heard the full —

Stop it, she said. Don’t compare her to Monica Lewinsky. She is nothing like Monica Lewinsky, she said. Tonya wasn’t making mistakes like a privileged person who gets an internship at the White House. Tonya was surviving. (Whereas Ms. Lewinsky wasn’t involved in a violent crime, so.)

This seems like a fairly rational response, albeit not a very "likeable" one. While also put through hell, women like Lewinsky and Hill had educations to fall back on. They were able to pursue careers as educators and activists, while Harding continued to endure economic hardship and made ends meet doing various forms of cheap celebrity appearances or hard labor. Yet her response quickly became evidence against her. "Ignorant stays ignorant," one Twitter user sniped; others speculated that she must be a Trump supporter.

An alternative explanation might be that Harding has simply internalized some of the sexist attitudes she dealt with for decades. In fact, Harding had been crying out about sexism long before anyone found it convenient to listen. "I’m a '90s woman," Harding said to a reporter at the height of her career. "I speak my mind. I don't let anyone else tell me what I should or should not do ... The women in the middle class and up are, like, 'You are a lady and a figure skater. You should act like a lady.' I'm not prissy.” Even years after her fall from grace, she opined to the Washington Post on the gendered double standard she endured in the figure skating world, while men like Darryl Strawberry and Mike Tyson got off with slaps on the wrist and continued fame.

As for her working class background, it also seems as if Harding, now Price, fails to impress as much as her origin story does. "Tonya Harding's comeback tour just took a nightstick to the knee over her own greed and denial," quipped the New York Post about her publicist quitting over her demand to fine journalists. Hers is the kind of "greed" and hubris that apparently still isn't welcome when it’s coming from the working class; monetizing forgiveness is considered unbecoming, even when it's the lack of it that effectively stripped her of the chance at an "honest" career to begin with.

Nancy Kerrigan (right) and Harding pass by each other during a morning practice session at the Lillehammer Olympics on Feb. 2, 1994.
Ulli Michel / Reuters

Nancy Kerrigan (right) and Harding pass by each other during a morning practice session at the Lillehammer Olympics on Feb. 2, 1994.

Everyone seems to have slightly different expectations of Harding, and feminists may object for different reasons than tabloid or sports reporters. But what is so striking about the new backlash Harding is facing is how quick it has been to deem her a disappointment again, using much of the same language she endured in the ‘90s. If Harding is “up to her old tricks," as USA Today columnist Christine Brennan said on Twitter, then so are her critics.

Tonya Harding can't even escape being compared to Nancy Kerrigan in the midst of her redemption! The same week Harding was painted as "greedy" and questioned for her carousing at the Golden Globes, Nancy Kerrigan's comment that she had nothing to say about the movie and hadn't even seen it got picked up widely. The interviewer (after congratulating her on raising her three children), paints a cozy picture of a nonchalant Kerrigan at home with her family after a week at the national figure skating competition. The fact that even her phone number hasn't changed in 20 years hints at a kind of stability that we know Tonya, who bounced between different states and jobs throughout the ‘90s, never had.

It's hard not to notice how easily the two fall back into the same roles as foils for each other that the media defaulted to in the first place. There's an implied grace and dignity in Kerrigan's indifference to her own abuses, a stern reminder that she's the "victim." Harding, on the other hand, is questioned for her motives in appearing at an event highlighting female survivors of abuse, after inspiring a movie where her likeness is seen being repeatedly beaten.

There's an irony in simultaneously saying that Tonya Harding is redeemed, yet rejecting the woman she's turned into. But it's not surprising. It's easier to dismiss the idea of fining journalists as absurd, borderline Trumpian, rather than examine why a woman who felt so brutalized by the media might attempt to out-rig a system she perceived to be rigged to begin with. It's easier to wag a finger at her for seeming to enjoy the Golden Globes than to address the complex possibility that Harding could be both an abuser and a victim. It's easier to do all of this than just, as Brodesser-Akner proposes after describing some of Harding’s endless contradictions, “understand that there might be no other way to go with the material.”

It is possible that when Harding does something like show up in the New York Times wearing a cross and using the word “patriot,” she is intentionally leaning into the kind of working-class identity that the media seems to want these days — the Trump-country kind. That she's a master manipulator, as some allege. But it could also just be that that is just who Harding, a woman who grew up hunting rabbits and driving pickup trucks, is. Despite an expressed desire to understand the complexity of working-class white women, and a desire to understand Harding, the media's treatment of her is a shining example of how easily that aspiration is traded in for stereotypes.

Harding has no comment for the media at her practice on March 9, 1994.
STR New / Reuters

Harding has no comment for the media at her practice on March 9, 1994.

At one point in I, Tonya, before Tonya is trying to prepare for the Lillehammer Olympics, with the media mobbing her front lawn, the camera cuts to modern-day Tonya, sitting at her kitchen table. "I thought being famous would be fun,” she says to the audience. “I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You're all my attackers too.”

It was a line I rolled my eyes at when I saw the film — a heavy-handed way of making a point. But now it makes me wonder. As the real-life Harding effuses about the film, expressing her love for it despite its inaccuracies, has anything really changed? She's still loved, she's still hated, and there are still people attacking her.

Aside from our backgrounds, Harding and I don’t have much in common, yet her ongoing situation still feels personal to me — the desire to be recognized for your struggle, but not defined by it. There’s an anger that comes with poverty and abuse that can’t be absolved by visibility alone. Because, like Tonya, you will always be left asking, “why wasn’t I protected when it mattered?” Too often that visibility comes after potential is lost, dreams are crushed, or abuses leave irreversible scarring. What’s left is strength from adversity, which makes for a nice story, but doesn’t feel quite as nice as having never endured it at all. And when the visibility fades, you’re left with nothing but that combination of strength and trauma you never asked for in the first place.

That’s why the spectacle of the working class fades so quickly, despite its constant resummoning into our popular culture. Once the layer of sympathy is eroded, there’s not much left except our own complicity in the symptoms of the problem. Giving Tonya Harding visibility, just to force her to prove herself all over again, isn't redemption. It's self-serving spectatorship.

I cried at the end of I, Tonya when the written epilogue says she wants people to know she’s a good mother — not because that’s one of the “redeeming” characteristics of Tonya Price, the Tonya of the media cycle, but because it gave me hope. Tonya redeemed herself, and that was the only way it was ever going to be. She made it out of a rigged system doing it her own way, by playing by her own rules. Her redemption was never ours to give. ●


Tonya Riley is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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