When I was eight years old, I wanted to be Tonya Harding. Well, at least momentarily. Playing outside on a particularly frozen day in 1994, I pretended to be figure skaters with a friend. Did I want to be Nancy Kerrigan with her perfect brunette ponytail, Vera Wang-designed white costumes and sophisticated poise?
Hell no. I coveted Tonya Harding’s crunchy-looking blond hair, excessive bangs, over-the-top homemade costumes, uncanny knack for never taking responsibility for her actions (remember the broken laces?) and her inescapable whiff of white trash. I, too, wanted to skate to the Jurassic Park theme song and maybe take out my opponents. Sure, Tonya was potentially morally dubious but that’s what made her even more attractive like a dangerous Hollywood diva.
About 24 years later, not much has changed. I still not-so-secretly want to be Tonya. Why, I’ve constructed an entire career based on theorizing the kind of trash behavior Tonya brought to rink. Her story reads as if it could have been penned by the Pope of Trash himself–John Waters.
Tonya’s tale is the perfect American fable to revisit in this particular moment–a female anti-hero for the Trump age that attempted to free herself from her poor white trash upbringing only to be dragged back in by a group of men straight from a Coen Brothers film. Which is why I, Tonya, a film directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Margot Robbie as the notorious figure skater, could not have come at a better time.
“Generally people either love Tonya or are not big fans. Like people love America or are not big fans. Tonya was totally American,” Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawinson, Tonya’s skating coach, states blankly to the camera. Set up documentary style with voice-overs and mock interviews with the characters, commenting on their past experiences, the film is, as introduced in the title credits, “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” With characters frequently breaking the fourth wall and refuting each other’s accounts, the film takes us on a wild ride, from Tonya’s early days beating older girls at skating when she was only four years old to her frequent experiences with abuse from her mother and ex-husband to her quick stint as the best figure skater in the world to “the incident,” as the characters in the film describe it.
Interestingly, even though Nancy Kerrigan is the rival we most associate with Tonya’s story, she takes a backseat in the film–with little dialogue except her now legendary cries of “WHY WHY?!” after getting whacked on the knee. This is a refreshing choice from the filmmakers since during the 1990s, the tabloids set up an epic battle of the ice queens with Tonya versus Nancy. The film, instead, asserts that this wasn’t a battle of the divas, but an entirely different story–one that speaks to the American impulse to pluck a talented yet tragically flawed girl from obscurity only to delight in her downfall. As Michael Gerson wrote in “I, Tonya and You Too” for The Washington Post, “The country had created a drama with a villain and a victim. There was no room for humanizing complexity. It is possible, it turns out, for a story to have two victims.”
While through the film, we end up empathizing with Tonya, I, Tonya doesn’t shy away from casting doubt on Tonya’s version of the truth. In fact, truth, as seen through I, Tonya, is malleable and mutable–a, well, truth that we’ve learned the hard way in the past year of the Trump presidency. “The haters always say, Tonya just tell the truth. But there’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit,” says Tonya at the end of the film, “Everyone has their own truth. And life just does whatever the fuck it wants.” I, Tonya still doesn’t provide an answer about what or if Tonya knew about Nancy Kerrigan’s whacking. We may never know. At the very least, I, Tonya complicates and humanizes her story.
One of the main critiques of the film, though, seems to be related to its balance of tragedy and comedy that some critics have found distasteful particularly in dealing with abuse and domestic violence that Tonya endures at the hands of both her mother LaVona, played brilliantly by Allison Janney, and her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan). But, I can’t think of another way to portray Tonya and her experiences–it is, at the heart of it, a messy, melodramatic and downright trashy tragicomedy.
And in this balance, the film seems as if it was made for a queer audience–or at least one with an expert understanding of camp and its potential power. In David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, he investigates gay male culture’s history of “laughing at situations that to others are horrifying or tragic” (140). Camp often transforms a mainstream object to the delight of queer viewership. But, I, Tonya comes pre-campified. Many of the characters could be read as over-the-top queer archetypes like Lavona who comes across as a Joan Crawford character from the backwoods. When she first appears, she growls to the camera, gesturing to the bird on her shoulder, “This is my little man. You my little man? That’s my 6th husband right there. The best of them!” Even the film’s soundtrack seems keyed toward a queer audience with snippets of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” blasted in a car of the bumbling hit men as they canvas Nancy’s practice arena.
Admittedly, this campy tone isn’t for everyone. In her drag queen ethnography Mother Camp, Esther Newton expresses horror and confusion at queens’ “tendency to laugh at situations that to me were horrifying or tragic.” Similarly, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody reads I, Tonya as “condescending,” but the New Yorker wouldn’t know camp if it slapped them across the face, screaming about wire hangers. As Brody writes, the movie perpetuates the very condescension that it purports to condemn: it treats Tonya’s background, her tastes, her habits, her way of talking, as a joke. It may think it’s laughing with her, but Tonya’s not laughing. For that matter, Tonya’s not doing much of anything except skating.”
This is not a new accusation directed at camp, which, as Halperin explains, “particularly delights in and systematically exploits the most abject, exaggerated and undignified versions of femininity that a misogynistic culture can devise” (191). But, I don’t agree. I, Tonya seems to be bent on giving Tonya her due. One just has to watch the dramatic and carefully shot scenes of the skater landing her victorious triple axel and her subsequent infectious joy to see the care the film aims to give its subject.
Likewise, OUT Magazine’s Armond White says the film is in desperate need of a gay sensibility (though I don’t see anything but), noting, the movie chooses “to ridicule Harding and the people around her as white trash. The film’s sarcasm insists on Harding’s tragedy, encouraging viewers to laugh at her rather than feel for her….” In contrast to White’s observation, the film depicts Tonya as white trash because she was white trash. She even says so. In the beginning of the film, she states to the camera, “What’s people’s impression of me? That I’m a real person. That I didn’t ever apologize for growing up poor or being a redneck which is what I am. In a sport where the frigging judges want you to be this old-timey version of what a woman’s supposed to be.”
Rather than mocking her, Tonya, through the film, emerges as someone who was, because of her trash identity, always too-much, too excessive. This is typical of the trash aesthetic. In her book White Trash, Nancy Isenberg describes Tammy Faye Bakker’s aesthetic as “the rejection of everything Pat Loud (of An American Family) and middle class propriety stood for: emotional restraint, proper diction, subdued dress, and obvious refinement. Nor was she rustic, or the embodiment of old-fashioned yeoman simplicity. She embraced her garish self from head to toe. Her tawdry excess made her beloved among the poor white fans and unredeemable in the eyes of Middle America” (289).
In many ways, this describes Tonya too. Her costumes were too gaudy, too ramshackle and homemade. Her look was too rumpled and tacky. Her makeup was too harsh and heavily applied. Her attitude was too tough. She wore a rabbit fur coat, chopped wood in the morning, teased her hair, smoked, drank and loved doing donuts in a muddy truck. In one scene, she approaches a judge on her low scores in comparison to her technique. The judge replies, “We also judge on presentation.” Tonya’s response? “Suck my dick! This is fuckin’ rigged!” What a role model.
While the film trades in campiness, it, in turn, makes us almost impossibly feel for her. In an emotional moment before her Olympics performance, we see Tonya heavily applying her makeup in a mirror, sobbing before giving a grimacing and heartbreaking smile. The show must go on. As Halperin recognizes, “Whereas camp makes fun of things not from a position of moral or aesthetic superiority, but from a position internal to the deplorable condition of having no serious moral or aesthetic standards–a condition that it lovingly elaborates and extends, generously or aggressively, so as to include everybody. Camp doesn’t preach; it demeans. But it doesn’t demean some people at other people’s expense. It takes everyone down with it together” (190-91).
I, Tonya does this exceptionally. Rather than making fun of Tonya, it shows how Tonya became a punch line for all of us. We are all culpable. At one moment, Tonya says, “I thought being famous would be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punch line. It was like being abused all over again.” She turns to the camera, “Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.” It is delivered as a chilling indictment of the viewers. We were allowed to move on, but Tonya wasn’t, forced to resign from the US Figure Skating Association and banned for life with a ruined career and diminished future.
While the men who physically planned and carried out the attack on Nancy got a modest amount of jail time, the ability to change their names and create new lives, Tonya didn’t–she became inexorably linked to “the incident,” turning to boxing realizing America’s need to see her beaten over and over. Halperin writes, “Camp undoes the solemnity with which heterosexual society regards tragedy, but camp doesn’t evade the reality of the suffering that gives rise to tragedy. If anything, camp is a tribute to its intensity. Camp returns to the scene of trauma and replays that trauma on a ludicrously amplified scale–so as to drain it of its pain and, in so doing, to transform it. Without having to resort to piety, camp can register the enduring reality of hurt and make it culturally productive, thereby recognizing it without conceding to it the power to crush those whom it afflicts” (200).
And Tonya, as presented in the film, refused and continues to refuse to be crushed. As Viviana Olen and Matt Harkins of the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Museum (THNK1994 Museum) write New York Magazine’s “The Cult of Tonya Harding.”: “She’s like this glittering, spinning supermagnet for all the terrible things we project on women. She was a goddamn great athlete — against more odds than others — and we laughed at her, called her ugly, and blamed her for being preyed on by douchey morons (I firmly believe that those boneheads concocted the plan to take Nancy out as a way to take THEMSELVES out of their shitty going-nowhere lives in Shittytown, USA. They were hitching themselves, shittily, to her star. They had no reason to tell her they were doing it. She had no reason to want or need them to. If our default cultural impulse was to trust women, rather than the opposite, that would have been the narrative from day one). Nevertheless, she persisted. She sometimes lashed out, but she never backed down. She still hasn’t.”