There are numerous things about Tonya Harding‘s story that I find incredible, but unfortunately for her, she got involved with the wrong people and made some terrible choices. While things did not end in a marvelous fashion for her, I still think she’s worth talking about. Also, I finally watched I, Tonya last weekend and I have some feelings.
Figure skating is my favorite sport in the Winter Olympics, and Tonya Harding was one of my favorite skaters as a kid. I most enjoy watching female skaters who are powerful and have big jumps. I respect the elegant and dreamy skaters, but I prefer the powerhouses. For that reason I loved Tonya, Katarina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Surya Bonaly.
I especially liked Tonya because I felt like she could be from my hometown. She seemed like a normal girl who was doing something special. It wasn’t until much later in life that I understood the true class dynamics at play and how hard she was fighting against an industry and system where she was absolutely not welcomed or wanted. Her whole life up until that point had been a truly miserable uphill battle to just be someone and escape her hellish life. She was a survivor, and I respect that about her.
My favorite quote I’ve read about Tonya and Nancy is this: “Both skaters are more complex than the story that disdains them; both skaters are more complex than the story that admires them. And what’s truly shocking is that the media and athletic institutions that are far more powerful than either of them largely escaped scrutiny after essentially devouring them both.” (source)
I feel for Tonya because her mom was awful, her husband was extra awful, and the media around her was a nightmare. Nancy had a family, resources, and a community that rallied around her to protect her, but even she faced backlash after a while. Both women were used and abused for ratings. There was no way around it. And Tonya had no one and nothing.
Despite my empathy, her inability to accept any responsibility remains a source of frustration for me. Despite painting a sympathetic picture of Tonya, the movie does emphasize her consistent inability to accept the reality of her choices. I believe that Tonya was complicit in terms of knowing that something was going to be done to try and derail Nancy. Regardless of how I feel about Tonya, Nancy was assaulted and she is absolutely a victim here.
I liked the movie, and it brings to life a lot of things that I don’t think a lot of people know about Tonya such as the extent abuse and the effort that Jeff went to in order to control her. I didn’t know that the USFSA told her to go back to Jeff after she left him in order to look like she had a “stable life.” UNREAL. It is unbelievable to me how involved the USFSA is in these young women’s lives. And sure enough, she went back to him, he kept beating her, then he and his idiot friends assaulted Nancy. If anything, the movie is a deep dive into the pure stupidity and delusion of the men in Tonya’s life. Bless Paul Walter Hauser because he was a PERFECT Shawn Eckhardt, Doofus esq.
Further reading and watching:
“Tonya Harding Thought Skating Would Make Her Rich. It Never Would Have” by Amanda Hess for Slate.
“Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and The Spectacles of Female Power and Pain” by Sarah Marshall.
“Figures in a Mall” by Susan Orlean for The New Yorker
“Revisiting Tonya Harding” on the Stuff Mom Never Told You Podcast.
I also highly recommend the 30 for 30 episode, The Price of Gold, if you haven’t seen it.