Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya

I, Tonya Is The Olympic Season Gut Punch We Deserve

My first thought upon hearing about this year’s release of I, Tonya? “Nope.” As a lifelong figure skating fan, I am, quite frankly, sick of the Tonya Harding story. I’m sick of feeling like a sport that I love only exists once every four years, when “the insane true story” — as the I, Tonya trailer calls it — gets dragged up for rubber-necking fodder.

At least, that’s what I thought before I was lucky enough to see an advance screening of the film. I, Tonya is exactly the strange, sensationalized dark comedy that, with the movie’s first trailer, caused me to roll my eyes. But somehow, that created the Olympic season gut punch that we all deserve. All of us, from the skating fans that wish people would see our sport the way we do — not solely as tabloid fodder — the folks who eat this shit up, and even the people who might think they flat out don’t care one way or another.

It is, after all, quality entertainment.

There has been enough tabloid drama surrounding the events leading up to the 1994 Olympics to last a lifetime. Case in point: It’s been over two decades, and we’re still talking about it. Plenty of people who could tell you all about Tonya and Nancy probably barely recognize that the 2018 Olympic games are just around the corner, complete with an already in-progress (and finished for some) figure skating season that’s had its own share of drama.

(I mean, really. That Grand Prix season was just a bad dream, right? Right? Oh, wait. Most of you reading this probably didn’t know the Grand Prix season existed. You’re just hear for the latest Tonya tea.)

Enter I, Tonya, a film that’s simultaneously an unnecessary resurfacing of that 1994 pain and easily one of the best films of the year.

Let’s buck tradition and deliver the good news before the bad news.

Let’s get this out of the way once and for all: Every bit of praise you’ve heard about Margot Robbie and Allison Janney’s performances in this film is well-deserved. It’s also just not enough. That’s to say nothing of McKenna Grace’s soul-crushing turn as a young Tonya Harding. Without giving the moment away, you’ll definitely know why this kid seems to be popping up in a lot of places the second you see that scene. From there, you have a laundry list of otherwise award-worthy acting…But hey, we’ll probably pass these people over for another post-sexual-assault-settlement redemption tour.

I, Tonya is an amazing film that, despite my initial reservations, manages to bring a uniquely humorous dosage of melodrama to its subject matter without actually making the “incident” the true butt of the joke. In some strange way, the irony and humor make the whole story more appealing. It’s what the public wants in today’s 24-hour news cycle — the ridiculous Hard Copy narrative that (I think I’m paraphrasing here) real journalists once frowned upon but then became — and is that trainwreck that we can’t look away from, even ever twenty years later. I mean, if anything, the joke’s on us.

…but because of all of this, seeing the very real abuse that Tonya Harding suffered long before she may or may not have been involved in the plan to take out Nancy Kerrigan is that much more harrowing. We’re all having a very good time, laughing at “Tonya’s” behavior, right up until we remember that this was a real person who lived a life of trauma before she ever stepped out on the ice.

Harding’s life wasn’t devoid of trauma even on the ice, either: She had a (hilarious, right? Just like on Dance Moms! We love trashy tv!) pushy, demanding stage mother behind the scenes; and even when she did her best, right up there with the other athletes, Tony never seemed to get the scores that she felt she deserved. Not until she shocked the world with a triple axel, at least.

The problem, of course, is that Tonya Harding isn’t remembered for her triple axel, and Nancy Kerrigan isn’t remembered for her Olympic silver medal. They’re legends because of what happened on January 6, 1994 at Nationals, and we’re all still riding the wave of their respective pain. 

I, Tonya, for all it does well, still does exactly that: turn the destruction of young women’s dreams into entertainment and profit.

Every time we bring this back up, Nancy Kerrigan, who has long since moved on with her life, has to be reminded of the moment when her very ability to be healthy enough to compete in Lillehammer was in question. Whether she actually takes the calls or not, Kerrigan almost certainly gets prodded for a quote about the incident every time the Olympics draws near. And while there’s no way of knowing whether Oksana Baiul would still have won the gold had there not been so much physically and mentally exhausting drama surrounding Kerrigan’s bid for the Games, I find it difficult to believe that Nancy hasn’t spent at least some part of all of these years wondering “what if.”

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Oksana Baiul? How many people obsessed with the Nancy and Tonya story even remember who she, the 1994 Olympic champion, even was? What about her story? Oh, right. Not enough of a spectacle, despite the Cinderella magic of it all. Got it.

Back to business.

No one who spends a lifetime training for their big Olympic moment should have to life a life of what-ifs; but since the public insists on being so eternally obsessed with their situation, that’s a fact of life for both Kerrigan and Harding — moreso than for anyone else who failed to reach that top spot on the podium.

Tonya Harding just wanted her shot, and she wanted to be judged fairly, not viewed as the outcast because she wasn’t the “image” that the then USFSA wanted. While Kerrigan was completely innocent and blameless in this situation and Harding was…maybe, maybe not, Tonya remains another young woman whose dream died on that infamous January day. And we’ve made her relive all of it, we’ve dredged up the abuse she suffered to get there, and we’ve turned her into a joke.

I, Tonya makes its heroine (villain?) sympathetic enough, to be sure, but the public will still always see Tonya’s tears over a broken lace as just more melodrama. Her hard work will never be taken seriously, and the casual Olympics viewer will always just see her as that girl who may or may not have tried to permanently injure the ice princess who was destined to be “better” than her.

But Tonya Harding doesn’t need the public’s demonization. She already suffered the worst punishment for her: She was banned from skating. It was all she had known since she was a child, probably the only positive thing she had in her life of abuse and poverty — and that’s saying something, given how training as an elite athlete is always rife with pain and sacrifice — and because of all of this, she lost it. Tonya Harding was punished to the full extent of the law, and the punishment has stood the test of time.

Tonya and Nancy will always be known as those two women from that big skating scandal in ’94, and Tonya never had a chance to redeem herself as a skater. Perhaps that was warranted, perhaps not. It depends, at least partially, on how much we believe Tonya knew before the attack on Nancy. And it depends on how much Tonya’s history made her someone more worthy of pity than hatred. I, Tonya never quite answers that particular question; although, one of the film’s most gut-punching moments features “Tonya” telling viewers that we, too, are her abusers.

And we are. We’re also Nancy’s. And Oksana’s. And every other skater’s, from Lu Chen (did y’all uncultured swine even retain that she was the bronze medalist?) right on down to 27th-place finisher Irena Zemanova, whose Olympic story — however short since she didn’t even qualify for the free skate — was overshadowed by the drama.

It just seems pretty odd to me that the film industry, of all things, would continue to beat this very dead horse and, in so doing, continue to victimize both the victim and the maybe-maybe-not perpetrator. Tonya Harding was punished severely for what she did — she lost her whole world — but in Hollywood, consequences have not exactly been a fully-enforced thing. Just ask “family-friendly” Mel Gibson, Casey Affleck, Johnny Depp (we’re all so “happy” he’s making millions with J.K. Rowling!)…Or any number of the people currently getting publicly dragged for what they’ve done.

Maybe if those guys had done something like plotting to send threatening letters, or possibly knowing all along that their competitors were going to be physically attacked, they’d stop getting their second chances, just like Tonya. Maybe if their crimes had been more entertaining for the reality-tv-obsessed masses, featuring tons of tears, a pretty girl screaming “WHY” over and over again through her pain, and a web of mistruths and mysteries — bigger ratings grabs for the nightly news, as it were — someone might actually hit them where it hurts.

Maybe they’d even get amazing, if troubling, films made about them like I, Tonya, too.

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