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Making an Ice Queen

I, Tonya shows how a person is turned into a villainess

When I was on a reporting trip to Atlanta earlier this year, Terry Hall, who writes the Tonya Harding fan club newsletter, contacted me with a proposition. Was I willing to sneak onto the set of I, Tonya? It would be strictly legit, of course: I’d get cast as an extra while the movie was filming in Atlanta, and quietly relay my observations back to the club. Footage had recently leaked from the set of the Tonya character saying “Suck my dick!” to a judge—a scene that never took place in real life and suggested that the movie was playing fast and loose with reality. And people who have come out over the years as what Terry calls “pro-Tonya” are a little touchy about the public remembering the facts correctly.

Here’s a second story, one that might explain the first: I was working with an intern last summer, a twenty-year-old guy named Ben, who was born in 1995, a year after two amateur hitmen hired by Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, an old buddy of Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, carried out a plan to disqualify Nancy Kerrigan from the 1994 Olympics—well, sort of. Shane Stant, who committed the assault—and whose name almost no one remembers—tried to hit Nancy on the knee with a collapsible police baton, but only managed to hit her lower thigh. She suffered a contusion and needed physical therapy, but was still able to skate in the Winter Olympics six weeks later, where she claimed a silver medal. (Tonya placed eighth.)

I’m used to people saying, when they hear Tonya Harding’s name, “Oh yeah—the skater that beat up that other skater.” When we remember a story only vaguely, the violence, it seems, grows more and more severe. And when I mentioned Tonya to Ben, who had no actual memory of scandal at all, he said:

“Oh yeah, Tonya Harding—didn’t she murder someone?”

How, I thought, does the story keep getting worse?

But this is the daily struggle of the pro-Tonya partisan. Terry knows me, and sends me a Tonya Harding fan club Christmas card every year, because I wrote about Tonya a few years ago (and also was once photographed wearing this), and this alone was enough to make us lifelong allies. It has always been controversial to take the position that Tonya Harding is a person, and not a monster.

Tonya Harding became a famous Portlander at a time when Portland wasn’t really famous for much of anything, and people who lived there at the time still have a tendency to see her as someone who made us look bad. But I was six when what Craig Gillespie’s biopic I, Tonya calls “the incident” took place, and so I had to go looking for Tonya after I grew up, finding her mostly in old YouTube videos. I immediately loved her grit, her strut, her combination of vulnerability and bravado, and her unbelievable physical strength: she was (and don’t you ever forget it) the first American woman, and the second woman in the world, to complete a triple axel jump in competition. She was a fast spinner, and her jumps almost took her higher in the air than her height of 5’1”. My friend Matt used to play hockey in the rink where Tonya practiced—nearly everyone who lived in the Portland area in the eighties and nineties has a Tonya story of some kind—and he used to hate practicing after her, because her skates took deep divots out of the ice, her jumps were so strong and her skating so powerful.

“Oh yeah, Tonya Harding—didn’t she murder someone?”

Tonya Harding always skated not with carefully disguised power, as was the fashion for female figure skaters then and now, but in a way that made no secret of just how much force she carried, and just how much she could do. Judges hated her. She had to rip good scores out of their hands, and so she did, by landing a jump no other American skater could manage.

But at the same time, she was read as “white trash,” which often seemed to break down to two distinct traits: she had grown up struggling for every penny she had, and she was a tomboy. She hunted and fished and fixed cars and could beat anyone at arm-wrestling; she smoked and shot pool and sometimes hit back when she got hit. And when she went on the ice to perform an acceptable version of femininity—which she was being scored on just as much as her jumps and spins and footwork—she always seemed to be doing her best, but not, in some essential way, getting it.

She vamped to Santanawore rhinestone-bedazzled satins and shocking pinks, piled on makeup and chose long, red-lacquered manicures. This is it, right? you could almost hear her asking the judges. Isn’t this what you want?

What she didn’t understand was what every choreographer, every coach, every advertising executive, every skating official, and every judge didn’t dare tell her, and something I had to stare at her story for years, in the end, to finally see: more feminine meant weaker. They didn’t want her to put on more makeup or skate to classical music or wear more sparkles. They wanted her to look less strong.

Tonya’s story was where I learned how your wearing lots of blue eye shadow can eventually be used against you, by the public, as proof that you are a nasty, wicked, violent person; how not appearing “feminine” enough, in the way society tells you to appear, can later be taken as evidence of your role in a violent crime.

The media frenzy that followed both Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in the wake of the assault on Nancy, and that lasted through both women’s competition in the 1994 Olympics, was played as a comedy at the time. There was talk of the International Olympic Committee banning Tonya from the Games after it was revealed that she had known about Jeff’s involvement in the plot after it was carried out, but hadn’t dared to come forward. “But,” as Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, explains in I, Tonya, “Do you think that CBS, who was showing the games, was going to let this ginormous ratings fucker not happen?”

I, Tonya’s screenplay is based on interviews with Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, and some of the story’s other principals, but it also prioritizes storytelling over historical fact, because, well, it’s a movie. It’s satisfying to think that Tonya looked back at her inclusion in the Games and could see through the networks’ cynicism clearly enough to say something like this; but did she? If she didn’t, then including a line like this isn’t inaccuracy, exactly—but it suggests a movie that might veer into a more satisfying story than the one the facts we have give it access to, and the pro-Tonyas are a hair-trigger bunch about this kind of thing. When people remember the name “Tonya Harding,” our experience tells us that they think of violent assault, and of Tonya as a shameless, violence-hungry mastermind who would do it all again if she had the chance: who basked in the spotlight, who loved being bad, and who we can’t pay attention to without tacitly endorsing her wicked ways.

There’s another speech in I, Tonya that I know to be pure invention, and one that I started wishing, as soon as I saw it, had actually taken place. It comes after the judge handing down her sentence for hindering prosecution arrives at the only punishment she can be given that will truly hurt: a lifetime ban from all U.S. Figure Skating association competitions and events.

“No,” Tonya says softly, in the movie, and what escapes her is more a breath than a noise, as if the wind has just been knocked out of her. “All I did was the hindering of prosecution,” she says, disbelieving. “They—you’re never—never gonna let me skate again? I can’t ever—I mean—I’d rather do the jail time. Please. They”—Eckardt and the others—“only got eighteen months. They got eighteen months. I’ll do that. You can’t—Your honor, I don’t have an education. All I know is skating. That’s all I know. And I’m no one if I can’t—if I can’t—”

There are lines that become remarkable not for the way an actor says them, but for the way they don’t say them. As Margot Robbie’s Tonya dissolves into devastation, she tries to utter the word  “skate,” but she can’t even do that anymore, and we know we are watching a woman staring, numbly, at her whole future escaping her, her whole life as she knew it collapsing, too; and here she stands, more alone than she has ever been, in a life that has always conspired, in one way or another, to turn the world against her.

It was Margot Robbie—an Australian actress previously best known to American audiences for her scene-stealing supporting roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad—who found Steven Rogers’ script for I, Tonya, fell in love with the part, and started hunting around for a director. And so it seems only fair that it’s Margot Robbie who makes the movie: when it does work, it works because of her.

Tonya was presented to American audiences as laughably ignorant, ineffectually violent, and unforgivably working class.

Twenty-six during filming, and standing 5’6”, Margot Robbie plays Tonya between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three for most of the movie. She’s both too old and too tall, and she’s perfect. If she can’t make her frame diminutive, she can capture the combination of intense toughness and fragility that Tonya always carried with her, like nerves wrapped around bone. If she can’t skate like Tonya she can still radiate both her sheer physical splendor and strength, and her heartbreaking disbelief that anyone would ever want to see her, know her, love her as she is—the way all of America seemed willing to love her, for as long as she kept winning.

“I was loved,” Tonya reflects, in I, Tonya, “for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline. It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”

She stares directly at the camera in this scene—her voice honed to a rasp, her face progressed, via makeup and prosthetics, to the middle-age of someone who life has ridden hard and put up wet—and the effect is chilling. She is looking at you, America, and where were you when she needed you? Where were you when the story of a woman who had been abused all her life was sold, for six weeks of ratings gold, as a comedy? Were you there? Did you pony up for a ticket? Did you laugh when you were told to?

I, Tonya makes the choice—and maybe it could make no other—to make the nineties media machine its own character. We have docu-style footage of the principals reflecting back on the story, and characters who, in the moment, address the camera directly, reminding us that they are all talking heads now, and that this story can never be definitive. We can only watch a reenactment of a story that, as it was still happening, fragmented into dozens of different versions, that chaos helped along by the fact that it suddenly became very lucrative to claim, or to come to believe, that you had seen things a certain way: that Tonya was the domineering one in the marriage; that she had always had it out for Nancy; that she was a cutthroat, sexually voracious, scheming criminal.

Overwhelmingly, the more lucrative story was the one that made Tonya the villain—and so that was the story the networks sold, the story witnesses found a way to conform their memories to, and the story we learned. In 1994, everyone in Tonya Harding’s life—and Tonya herself most of all—was presented to American audiences as laughably ignorant, ineffectually violent, and unforgivably working class: “the gang,” as one sportswriter put it, “that couldn’t whack straight.” But in director Craig Gillespie’s vision—and with just over twenty years of hindsight working in his favor—the most cartoonish figure, by far, is Martin Maddox, a composite character based on TV reporters of the time.

“Look, this was the first time there was a twenty-four-hour news cycle to fill,” the spray-tanned Martin says, after reminiscing about having Tonya’s truck towed so she could be lured on camera. “We all needed that story.”

The fictional Martin works for the real Hard Copy, a nineties tabloid TV show that, along with Court TV (now TruTV), proved that American audiences were willing to follow a trial or scandal for twenty-four hours a day, as long as the media could keep up with their desire. The OJ Simpson trial, broadcast gavel-to-gavel on Court TV the following year, helped solidify executives’ and producers’ awareness that If you broadcast it, they will watch.

But something strange happened when the desire-slaking machine got too big for its own good: it wasn’t steered by Americans’ desires and fears so much as it began to steer them, because a machine that big can never run only on the stories that are actually happening. To watch I, Tonya, and the nineties media landscape it looks back on with both anger and nostalgia, is to see the gestation of the media landscape we live in today: the early years of the twenty-four-hour news cycle that would, eventually, give us our first twenty-four-hour-news-cycle president. American television made Tonya Harding a villain and made Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world, and maybe it’s only now that the latter has happened before our eyes that we can realize just how utterly arbitrary this first transformation was.

I didn’t sneak on set while I, Tonya was filming—I missed the one call for extras I could have gone to, for a scene set in a low-rent strip club, because I was busy with a far less important journalistic task—but the gray weather that clung to Atlanta that February seemed specially conjured for a movie set in the mist-shrouded Pacific Northwest. You can see it in some scenes, and in moments that depict the grim, muddy, grinding poverty of so much of Tonya’s young life: hunting rabbits with her father in the woods; working on a car in Jeff’s driveway. They’re scenes that make you understand not just how dreary and claustrophobic Tonya’s life was during all her years of training as an Olympic athlete, but also what it takes to drive a young woman to marry a man who already abuses her. Depending on the life you knew before, it doesn’t have to take much. Over a montage of Jeff and Tonya’s wedding, Tonya tells us:

It made sense at the time OK? I mean, I could have insurance. Good benefits all around. I mean, he had a car. Plus, I was doing six hours a day of practice and competitions while I worked at a hardware store—and I ran a forklift, and a drill press, and I did welding. But now—now I could just skate. Like all the other girls.

Sometimes, Margot Robbie’s Oregon accent—an accent that’s difficult to do simply because its distinguishing feature is its lack of distinguishing features—slides, if not completely into New York, then at least as far as the New Jersey Turnpike. Her tough-girl core wobbles into the tristate area, then back into the forest. But in every case, this seems oddly appropriate, if only because the Tonya we’re seeing is oddly reminiscent of one of Martin Scorsese’s nineties protagonists, like Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas: a broad who maintains a hard-bitten dignity even as she falls apart, and who we can never quite fear for.

American television made Tonya Harding a villain and made Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world.

There is, in fact, something Scorsese-like about I, Tonya as a whole. Bleak as some of its early moments are, the movie is also vibrant and action-filled, with difficult emotional scenes often compressed to cutting exchanges, and a camera that whips and pans around without ever becoming shaky or unstable. I, Tonya is also as jammed with pop music as Goodfellas or Casino, and it provides the same kind of Top-40 Greek chorus: “Devil Woman” to introduce Tonya’s abusive and overbearing mother; “Can’t You See” as Jeff and Tonya shack up; and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” in a searing, Layla-like montage, as the press start hounding Tonya, and her world starts falling apart.

It’s difficult to fault a movie for having too much Scorsese DNA, and yet, if I, Tonya has a single fatal flaw, it’s this: it tries too hard make the story go down too painlessly—and it does the job too well. Goodfellas is a counterintuitively easy movie to watch in a way that can hardly escape the viewer’s notice: you witness whacking after whacking (and this gang could whack straight) until it’s hard to view murder as anything but a kind of slapstick, as its protagonists generally do. I, Tonya is also, for all its violence, an easy movie to watch; the question is whether this keeps it from telling its story.

The primary violence I, Tonya concerns itself with is the domestic abuse Tonya says she experienced at Jeff Gillooly’s hands. Tonya says it happened, Jeff says it didn’t. (Police reports and witness accounts corroborate many of her claims.) In 1994, Jeff’s word was good enough for the American public: if it hadn’t been, the name “Tonya Harding” would make people think of Tonya, at least occasionally, as a victim of violence, no matter what violence they may remain convinced she had a role in planning. But it was impossible to see Tonya as a victim, or even as a villain who had been victimized, in 1994. The switches on the media machine only had two positions: BAD or GOOD. America chose BAD. Jeff’s story supported it, and this was enough to make the public believe him.

Confronted with these differing accounts, I, Tonya splits the difference: it tells us what Tonya said, tells us what Jeff said, and then shows us the violence Tonya says she experienced—some of it, anyway. Most of the stories Tonya tells in her unfinished biography The Tonya Tapes—Jeff having two friends rape her at gunpoint to keep her from telling the authorities what she knew of the assault on Nancy (“I wished they had pulled the trigger” she later said); Jeff in a car, chasing Tonya down a dark road as she tried to escape on foot—don’t appear in I, Tonya. This isn’t a version of events we are even given the chance to believe or disbelieve. Instead, we see Jeff slapping Tonya and Tonya slapping him back, Jeff shoving Tonya into a wall and Tonya handily elbowing him away. We see her subjected to violence, but always having enough violent force of her own to keep herself safe. We are never given the chance to feel afraid for her, or with her. By claiming to give us both versions of the story, I, Tonya gives us no version at all.

But none of these problems will keep I, Tonya out of the pro-Tonya canon. We have waited for so long for some depiction of Tonya that doesn’t make her into either a conniving villain or a pathetic cartoon character. (The closest we came before was Comedy Central’s “Spunk,” and Showtimes’s “Tonya: The Battle of Wounded Knee,” both of which did depict Tonya as a cartoon character, but at least an occasionally lovable one.) We have been waiting, basically, for twenty-three years, for someone to depict Tonya as a human being. And if that seems like a long time, imagine what it has been like for Tonya Harding.

Tonya was thrust into the national spotlight twenty years too early for #believewomen and #metoo. If her story unfolded today, would our response be the same? Would we feel quite so determined to force her into the role of villainess? Would she have more of a chance to talk back to us, and tell her side of the story? And if she did, would we listen?

We can never answer these questions now. I, Tonya’s tabloid palette and pop orchestration are a result of Gillespie’s choices, but they are also reflective of the fact that a story, once told, can never really be retold. Tonya’s story will always be shaped by its first telling, and there will always be Americans who hear the name “Tonya Harding” and think white trash, or criminal mastermind, or Didn’t she murder someone?

I, Tonya’s tabloid palette and pop orchestration reflect the fact that a story, once told, can never really be retold.

About that, at least, perhaps I, Tonya can set the record straight. And at a time when Americans see more clearly than ever—which is to say at all—that we have to listen to women when they describe the abuse and violence they have suffered, perhaps the best way we can hone this tool is by returning to the stories we thought we knew, and asking what they had to tell us all along.

As for Terry, the Tonya Harding fan club founder and newsletter author, he’s so thrilled with how the movie came out that this year’s Christmas card “is the first one that doesn’t actually feature a photo of Tonya anywhere on it (can you guess why)!”

The photo, instead, is of our newest heroine, Margot Robbie, and the card is sitting proudly on my mantel as we speak. It may be the only one I get for a while: “I have to confess,” Terry wrote to me, “that I don’t know how long it’s going to be viable to continue to send them out in dead-tree format given the ludicrous cost of postage in this country now. Next year’s may have to be just a PDF that people can print out at their end (except for Tonya, of course, who will always get a real one).” Of course.