Tonya Harding was my first anti-heroine. Tonya Harding was, if I’m being honest, the first time I was fully conscious of class.
In the run-up to the 1994 Olympics, my cousin and I rooted for Harding over fellow American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, an allegiance that only became stronger after the attack on Kerrigan and the firestorm of media coverage that ensued. I can’t explain how we came to that position, exactly, except that we had some raw sense that we were neither as polished and acceptable as Kerrigan nor as rebellious as Harding, but of the two, we were drawn to Harding’s complexity and failure to fit in to what we already recognized as figure skating’s constricting box. My affection for Harding is one of my ur-enthusiasms, an early taste that shaped, to some degree, everything that came after it, all the non-compliant, obnoxious, not entirely accountable or responsible fictional women I’ve loved since.
This is a long way of saying the Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya” is the movie released in the United States in 2017, and perhaps in several years, that I was most prepared to love. And the measure of how much I loved it is that Gillespie and his outstanding cast, including Margot Robbie as Harding, Sebastian Stan as Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, and Allison Janney as Harding’s caustic mother LaVona Golden, made me think about this old obsession of mine in new ways and see wrenching new ideas in Harding’s life story.
For the uninitiated (or merely non-obsessed), let’s back up to a basic outline of the story. Harding grew up in hardscrabble circumstances in Portland, Oregon, and began to rise in the American figure-skating scene in the late 1980s. Her skating was defined by her physical power — she was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition — her homemade costumes, her preference for pop music (she used the theme to “Jurassic Park” in some routines) and ultimately, a series of dramatic on-ice equipment and wardrobe malfunctions. As a result, she was often contrasted with the more classically elegant (Vera Wang designed her costumes) but less technically impressive Nancy Kerrigan. Early in 1994, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) attacked Kerrigan on directions from Harding’s ex-husband, Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). (Both “I, Tonya” and I tend to think that Harding wasn’t in on the initial plan but that she was probably guilty of hindering prosecution after the fact.) Both women competed at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and the media storm that surrounded them preceded the O.J. Simpson frenzy that would follow later that year. Harding finished eighth and Kerrigan finished second, after which Harding was banned from professional skating and descended into the twilight of notoriety.
Gillespie largely hews to this basic narrative, starting with young Tonya’s (Mckenna Grace) early adventures to the rink and her evolving relationship with her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Much of these early adventures are filtered through Golden’s perspective. Initially, Golden thinks that maybe her daughter’s emerging talent could pay off in a job with the Ice Capades, but as the magnitude of Harding’s gifts become clear, Golden’s ambitions harden, and so does the abusive level of pressure she applies to Harding. (“You skated like a graceless bull dyke. I was embarrassed for you,” Golden spits at her daughter after one routine.) That contributes to Harding’s growing attraction to Gillooly, who she marries in part to get out of Golden’s house and in part because he’s simply fun, providing her with a chance to blow off steam after years of rigorous training. But Golden and Gillooly have one important thing in common: “I figured my mom hit me, she loves me,” as Harding explains. “It was what I knew.”
Physical vigor and violence as a subset of it are at the heart of “I, Tonya,” and it’s to Gillespie’s credit that, while he does not stint to depict the delusion and absurdity of the men who planned the attack on Kerrigan, he never makes the violence that either woman experienced lightweight or ridiculous. He also captures the glory and power of Harding’s skating, particularly her triumphant first triple axel, in a way that I frankly wasn’t sure was possible; I saw a lot of action movies in 2017, and the skating scenes in “I, Tonya” were among the best action sequences in any of them.
The frisson between Harding’s on-ice strength and the vulnerability she experienced once she stepped off the rink, the beauty of her skating and the ugly, awkward violence that was committed in her name, informs one of the central insights of “I, Tonya.” The movie suggests that Harding turned to boxing once she was banned from the ice not merely because she needed another outlet for her physical power, but because she understood on some level that Americans wanted to see her get knocked around in an act of retribution. I’ve spent hours thinking about Harding since 1994, but that was an idea that had never occurred to me, and it left me a little breathless.
The movie is blunt about the extent to which, in figure skating, it seemed impossible for Harding to give people what they wanted.
“You’re representing our country, for f—‘s sake. They need to see a wholesome American family,” a figure-skating judge snaps at one point in the movie. Golden, with her multiple marriages, chain-smoking, pet birds and occasional tendency to throw kitchen knives, is not a staple American homemaker. Though Stan manages the nearly impossible feat of making me understand why Harding might have found Gillooly alluring, his hangdog mustache and white turtleneck, his penchant for beating Harding and his pathetic sense of himself as a mastermind prevent him from being an iconic American husband. And however much Harding tries, in “I, Tonya,” she’s always a little bit too much: Her tastes for cigarettes and muscle cars are a little too low class, her music choices are a little too mainstream, and in a quietly tragic scene where she applies too much blush, you can see that she’s overshooting even in that attempt to be pretty.
“Just like people either love America or they’re not a big fan, Tonya was totally American,” Rawlinson explains early in “I, Tonya.” Except that it turned out that judges don’t want to vote for and audiences don’t want to watch an actual, mainstream American woman when they tune into figure skating. They want to watch an idealized, domesticated, prettied-up version of an American woman, one who wanted to win but not so badly that her desire spurred the people around her to commit violent crimes in service of her ambition.
In the years since, it’s been infuriating to see pop culture lionize a series of fictional men who do far worse than Harding ever did, while giving the world far less beauty and grace than she ever had to offer. Harding may not be a hero, but she is an anti-heroine in the best possible sense. If “I, Tonya” is an uncomfortable viewing experience, it’s because the movie and Harding herself tell us something so damning about who we are that we’re tempted to look away.