Even if you weren't alive in 1994 or didn't watch the Olympic games that took place in Lillehammer, Norway that winter, you're probably familiar with the scandalous story of what transpired between figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. It's been over 20 years since the incident, but a new darkly comedic biopic I, Tonya, opening Dec. 8, puts a new spin on the story. Despite years of Harding being viewed as the "country white trash" equivalent of Kerrigan's "affluent elite" of the women's figure skating world, the new film aims to make Harding a more sympathetic figure. But in addition to giving us another view of Harding, the film expertly details just how systemic failures led to her downfall and how much toxic masculinity had to do with the destruction of her dream.
As the history goes, just before the National Championships that would decide America's Olympic ice skating team, a masked assailant struck Kerrigan in the leg with a metal baton as she left the ice. Her injury, recovery, and Harding's possible involvement in the attack became a nightly news sensation and instigated a media frenzy. Yet as the movie details, and as Harding herself still asserts to this day, she only became aware of the plot to attack Kerrigan after the incident occurred. Still, she pled guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers, and was given three years of probation and banned from U.S. Figure Skating permanently.
Harding's reputation never recovered, but even before the incident, as I, Tonya goes into, she was somewhat of an outsider in the figure skating world. Shorter than other skaters at 5'1", with a bold attitude and explosive energy, Harding was different from the other skaters, who were tall, graceful, and elegant. That she was judged on femininity back then and that, even years later, it's been difficult for her to detach herself from the scandal, sadly shows just how negatively ambition and demeanor like hers are viewed by the public. The goal of I, Tonya, though, is to see past all of that generalizing and make Harding more relatable, more understanding, and not the dastardly villain that she's been painted as for the past few decades.
A sympathetic eye for Harding hits early in the film as it dives right into the physical and mental abuse the character receives from her mother, LaVona (who's denied the alleged violence in real life), played here by a hilariously dark Allison Janney. Though we're meant to laugh at LaVona's biting insults and utter disregard for her child's well-being, it comes as no surprise that Harding's tragic experiences as an un-loved child affected her adult life. The film shows how violent abuse allegedly continued at the hands of her husband, Jeff Gillooly (who has denied some specific incidents of abuse, calling them "utterly ridiculous."), which Harding accepts as a normal part of life because abuse is all she's known. "My mom hits me," she says in the film. "I thought it was my fault."
Harding's experience of an oppressive environment ingrained the idea in her brain that the abuse was warranted because she "deserved it." This history of domestic violence, and the fact that Harding returned to Gillooly time and time again even after their divorce, contributed to her reputation as "white trash," which lessened the chance that her side of the story would be believed after the Kerrigan incident took place. Harding's abuse, writes The Believer, which was "corroborated by her friends and by police reports available to the press at the time of the scandal," ended up being "generally utilized only as proof of Tonya’s trashiness." This label directly contributed to skepticism of her innocence on the part of the FBI, U.S. Figure Skating, and the public in general.
Harding's on again, off again relationship and marriage with Gillooly was, I, Tonya reveals, also ripe with numerous failures on the part of the systems designed to protect women from domestic abuse. Though Harding had taken out multiple restraining orders against Gillooly, a number of unfortunate incidents continually brought the two back together. In particular, as the movie explains, it was her coaches and the skating powers that be that suggested that Harding would be seen as more likeable and all-American if her marriage to Gillooly was more prominently displayed and celebrated. Only an antiquated, sexist view of women such as this would require one to return to her dangerous husband in order to appear more wholesome, but that was allegedly the case for Harding.
Later in the film, when Gillooly practically kidnaps her at gunpoint, the police officer who pulls them over doesn't even inquire into Harding's bloodied face, a point at which Robbie turns to the camera and remarks about how "f*cked up" the entire encounter is. It's yet another massive breakdown by the authorities women are forced to rely on in dangerous situations.
As the movie depicts, Harding allegedly survived years of mistreatment from her mother and husband only to be kicked down once more by the massive, delusional ego of another man: Shawn Eckhardt. I, Tonya recounts how Gillooly and Harding wanted to send some threatening letters to Kerrigan to freak her out before competition, but it was Eckhardt who took it too far by plotting the actual, physical attack on Kerrigan without Harding's knowledge. I, Tonya makes light of Eckhardt's sinisterness, framing him as a joke of a character who is constantly eating and still lives with his parents. But like many misogynists, Eckhardt clearly retains delusions that he's some kind of "Alpha male," claiming that he "works around the world for espionage agencies" and describing himself as an "international counterterrorism expert."
When interviewing him later on, Diane Sawyer described Eckhardt as "power mad" and said his resume of global intelligence "reads like fiction." That both Kerrigan's injury and the demise of Harding's dream were caused by a man who thought too highly of himself is a sad story, indeed, and makes you wonder just how often such a scenario replays itself in the lives of women who don't achieve all they desire because of a man.
Of course, Harding isn't 100 percent innocent. As she admits in the film, she found out about Gillooly and Eckhardt's plot on Kerrigan after the attack had already happened, and considered going to the FBI with what she knew, yet didn't. But, she's claimed in the years since, Gillooly threatened her life, and allegedly had her gang raped at gun point, to prevent her from telling anyone ("her saying that I gang raped her is ridiculous," Gillooly said in a statement to Today).
So I, Tonya makes a compelling case for why Harding is also a tragic victim, even if not an entire innocent. As an alleged sufferer of child abuse, domestic violence, and classism, it comes as no surprise that Harding struggled to outgrow her image, or that she became associated with criminal behavior. The systems that society has set up to prevent women like Harding from falling into these traps most certainly failed her, and the toxic masculinity of the world contributed to the fact that she will likely go down in history as a scandalous snake rather than one of the world's best figure skaters.