Like many women who grew up in the 1990s, I lived for figure skating.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were the glory days of the sport. Figure skaters were my rock stars before I discovered actual rock stars. I didn’t have any particular allegiences. Oksana Baiul, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan — I loved them all. To me, they were the epitome of glamour and beauty in their sparkles and tulle, but also of power and athleticism: watching them effortlessly go through their routines, I could feel the momentum and excitement. That’s what flying must feel like, I’d marvel. I’d anxiously anticipate a fall, and breathe an audible sigh of relief when they stuck the landing. (I was... very invested.)
The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, took place a month before my ninth birthday and, like everyone else, I was captivated by the scandal that had erupted in the weeks leading up to those games: the husband and bodyguard of bad-girl Tonya Harding had allegedly hired a guy to bash in the leg of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan — and Harding was accused of being in on the plot.
It’s a story that’s had, um, legs. And little wonder: it’s a fascinating story featuring a fascinating woman.
The latest telling of Harding’s story comes via I, Tonya, the Craig Gillespie-directed biopic starring Margot Robbie. The film, which opens today, offers a sympathetic look at the disgraced skater who went from being a record-setting champion to being America’s punchline, and shows exactly just how complex this story really is — a confluence of classism, sexism and the effects of a nascent 24-hour news cycle. (The O.J. Simpson trial would follow a few months later.) Like Alias Grace, last year’s adaptation of another true-crime story, I, Tonya gets the viewer thinking about how our biases influence who we choose to believe, and why.
Harding should have been an easy hero. Here was a high school dropout who grew up poor and abused — first at the hands of her mother, then at the hands of her husband — and somehow emerged a champion. But for as much America loves a good bootstrapping narrative, Harding was not their sweetheart. Her garishly made-up face was not the one America wanted representing it on the world’s stage. Harding confirmed too many of America’s insecurities. She was trashy and vulgar, and she made America look trashy and vulgar.
Instead of seeing a young woman beating incredible odds stacked against her, her critics saw her homemade outfits, her too-bright blush, and her fondness for four-letter words. Harding may have been able to deliver technical near-perfection on the ice, but she was never really granted entry into the rarefied world of Olympic figure skating. Not like, say, Nancy Kerrigan, a poised, polished, pure vision in Vera Wang. It’s no accident Kerrigan’s most memorable skating outfit was bridal white.
While I, Tonya, delves into the classism Harding experienced, it also offers an incisive look at how media in the Hard Copy era shaped how we, the public, felt not just about Harding herself but what, exactly, happened on that day in Detroit. In the film, Hard Copy reporter Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) talks about how many people somehow have memories of Harding herself standing over a frightened Kerrigan and actually doing the clubbing. The Incident was treated as a girl-on-girl crime fuelled by jealousy, even though it was actually engineered and carried out by men. (Those men served time but, as Harding says in the movie, she got a life sentence.) Ours is a culture that loves to pit women against each other.
Even at eight, I internalized the tabloid narrative about Harding vs. Kerrigan. I understood that Tonya was a Bad Girl and Nancy was Good Girl — a simplistic, black-and-white story that I, a child, could easily re-enact with my Ice Capades Barbies. (In my play, Barbie Tonya was also the one who did the clubbing.) Because in addition to being my rock stars, figure skaters were also my princesses and my dolls. In other words, they weren’t real people with flaws.
Watching I, Tonya, and re-engaging with the story as an adult, I found myself rooting for Harding. Even if she isn’t exactly likable, I delighted in her rebellious spirit — especially compared to that prissy Miss Perfect, Nancy Kerrigan...
Huh. As it turns out, the urge to pit women against each other is tough to resist.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.