Jan 22, 2018
I, Tonya may seem to be dredging up the bizarre 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, a tawdry subject worthy only for tabloids. In fact, it raises many issues about the role of social class in sports.
Tonya Harding is from a hardscrabble, working class family. Her mother married four times – her fourth husband was Tonya’s father. Tonya’s father took her hunting and fishing. He taught her how to fix cars. He ends up leaving the family – he leaves Tonya. This leaves Tonya alone with her abusive mother, who views Tonya as a cash cow and a way out. When she saw Tonya skate, she saw dollar signs. “Maybe she can make it big in the Ice Capades,” announces her mother.
Tonya’s mother abuses Tonya in the hopes of making her a better skater. This is not tough love. It is more like torture. At one point she goes so far as to throw a kitchen knife into Tonya’s arm. In another she bribes a spectator at one of Tonya’s competitions to heckle the young athlete, believing that her daughter will skate better if she is under pressure. In an extreme example of this torture, a very young Tonya is forced to urinate on the ice after her mother won’t let her take a bathroom break. “Skate wet,” her mother tells her, coldly.
Tonya, herself, views her skating as an escape from her working class life. This is no different than basketball or football with working class men. Ironically, Tonya marries Jeff Gillooly to escape her mother. But Gillooly is just as, if not more, controlling and abusive. He also sees Tonya as a way out, with commercials and sponsors. She does all the work, and he does nothing, except plan to take out Harding’s competition.
Another related aspect of the film is women’s figure skating itself and the American Figure Skating Association. Before Harding turned it into pop culture, figure skating was a genteel sport. And an expensive one. The lessons, practice time on the ice, the coach, the costumes, costume designer, choreographer – all cost big money. Tonya did not wear designer costumes – she couldn’t afford them. She sewed her own when she was old enough, and before that her mother sewed them.
Figure skating was not just a sport, it was propaganda. The skating association was promoting an image. Harding didn’t fit that image, and she did not even try to fit the image they were promoting. She was a rebellious and powerful skater – the first American woman to perform a triple axel in competition.
Nancy Kerrigan, on the other hand, came across as a beautiful, pristine, ice princess, exactly the image being promoted. Kerrigan was from a working class background as well, but her family was stable, with a stable income. Her father and mother were together; her father was a welder, and her mother a homemaker. Nancy didn’t go hunting and fishing and chop firewood and fix the car. Kerrigan was happy to fit into the mold. But Tonya did out-skate Nancy technically in 1991.
The film shows the judges scoring Tonya low precisely because she was not polished. At one point Tonya yells, “This is rigged.” And she was right.
In the end, it was the media that made money off of Tonya.
This is an interesting and engaging movie, that shows the role social class played in the making of Tonya Harding.