There is a scene in the film I, Tonya where Tonya Harding, played by Margot Robbie, has just skated a stellar performance. It is clear she possesses more athleticism and raw talent than the skaters before her, yet she receives low marks across the board. She approaches the judge’s table in anger. Admitting to the strength of her routine, they then criticize her nail polish (blue) and her choice of music (Zeppelin). She is told her scores would improve if she worked harder to fit in. Her response? “Suck my dick.” She then fires the well-dressed coach who sided with the judges and advises her to “lose the nail polish.”
It’s a pivotal moment in Robbie’s interpretation of Harding as crass, brash, yet vulnerable and strangely charming. She is a young woman forged out of years of abuse: first from her mother, then her boyfriend-turned-husband, and always, always from the sport she dedicated her life to. From judges who refuse to recognize her talent to the well-meaning coach that insists she get a fur coat (her stepfather patches one together out of worn rabbit fur), Harding is beat down at nearly every turn, constantly reminded of her shortcomings and the fact that she will never fit in. The fact that she is refused validation even on the ice, where she clearly excels, is a further twist of the knife.
In the moment that she curses the judges and fires her coach, Harding seizes back control — if only for a moment — from those that refused to see her value. When she later goes on to complete a triple axel, becoming the first American woman ever to land the complicated and dangerous move, she basks in the glory of knowing that she is the best figure skater in the world, proven by her ability and on her own terms.
Tonya Harding, landing the first triple axel by an American skater, at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship.
I, Tonya is interesting as a meditation on being seen as an outsider and what that can drive people to do; it is also a fascinating study in how we assign value.: despite her natural athletic abilities and intense work ethic, Harding was never accepted in her sport due to things that were completely out of her control, such as poverty, her class and social status, and family life. She consistently received undeserved low marks and at one point flat out asked, “Why can’t it just be about skating?” while those seen as having more money, poise, class and/or grace were elevated above her. The attack on Nancy Kerrigan, wherein Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly has her competitor’s leg broken, almost seems like a natural conclusion to come to because no one else was playing by any fair rules.
In its own way, and similar to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, I, Tonya is about the outcasts, the misfits, the dredges of our society. It examines what happens to those outcasts when they decide to stop playing by the rules and take matters into their own hands. With such films we too are forced to examine the idea of what imbues a person with value, and again and again we see people struggling to get ahead while playing by rules the game of which cannot be won. It feels like an especially relevant undercurrent at the present moment in time, where fascists have bullied their way into power.
What draws us to the narrative of Harding, the redneck trash, versus Kerrigan, the princess of figure skating? At the time, the country vilified Tonya and Gillooly for the attack on Kerrigan, painting it as a classic tale of good versus evil. But the film, a factionalized account of the events leading up to it, is much more favorable to the pair. When you have nothing, come from nothing, and are told repeatedly that you’ll never amount to anything, regardless of your skill set, it becomes easy to believe that the only way to beat the odds is by playing dirty — after all, everyone else is.
Harding and Gillooly, however, are not let off the hook, and the moral center of the film actively serves as a lesson for not letting our baser moral instincts guide us. Even in the micro world of Harding’s, she landed the triple axel fair and square and was undeniably the best; it was only when they descended into the wretched plot to harm Kerrigan that everything was taken away. Systems might be put into place to conspire against those without privilege, but honesty, integrity, authenticity and perseverance are causal characteristics that lead those same systems toward collapse.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.