In advance of its Dec. 8 nationwide opening, the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya recently held a red carpet premiere in Los Angeles. Photos of the premiere quickly hit the Internet, but it wasn’t the gold Versace dress on star Margot Robbie that set Twitter fingers flying. It was that the film’s namesake, Tonya Harding herself, made an appearance on the step and repeat with Robbie (in a floor-length black dress accented with orange camo details, no less).
For as many people who cheered Harding’s moment in the spotlight, Twitter was full of harsher takes at her inclusion in the premiere. As you might expect from such a controversial figure, reactions ranged from bewilderment to anger. Many were based in half-remembered versions of the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, when a hired hitman clubbed Kerrigan’s knee after a practice in Detroit.
For those of you wondering why many are cheering Harding’s return to the spotlight, allow me to take off my “Tonya Harding innocent” T-shirt for a moment and do a little explaining.
For many people, Harding’s story transcends the specifics of what happened in 1994 and has entered the canon of American legend. She’s a woman who was born poor, triumphed over personal adversity, clawed her way up the mountain of fame and, at age 23, plummeted headlong into the seventh circle of infamy.
During the trial concerning the attack on Kerrigan, Harding maintained no prior knowledge of the attack. The testimony against her came from her abusive husband and his friends. In the end, she was convicted of hindering the prosecution.
The exact degree to which she was complicit in her own downfall might never be known; the case is literally closed. What do we know for sure? Her mother abused her, her husband abused her and the general public wasn’t kind to her, either. With her unapologetically brash, hardscrabble styling, Harding bucked hard against the norms in a sport that held aloft a certain kind of genteel, refined, white womanhood. And for all the ways she fell hard, Harding also hit great heights. For people who identify with parts of her story, it’s hard not to root for her.
We root for Harding because whether by hard labor or hard-to-watch spectacle, she’s stayed in the public eye and made a living. We root for her because she was reality TV before reality TV stars knew how to monetize that for themselves.
We root for Harding because many people feel they’ve been given carte blanche to use her as a punchline. We root for her because the tabloids have mercilessly mocked her looks for decades. We root for her because she made her own costumes, practiced in a mall skating rink, skated to Tone Loc and brought grit to a sport that’s mostly sequins.
We root for Harding because she “escaped” an abusive mother only to marry an abusive man and endure the abuse of an antagonistic press and public for most of her adult life. We root for her because her tenacity speaks to people who are also working through the trauma of abuse. We root for her because she made mistakes, and so do we.
If you’ve only ever assumed Harding is a villain, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe, just maybe, there didn’t need to be a “good girl” and a “bad girl” in this narrative? That in demonizing Harding, you’re just parroting the story handed down by the tabloids, the U.S. Skating Association and every hack comedian from the ‘90s? That maybe there’s a movie about her life because there’s more to the story than something you sort of remember from a National Enquirer cover? Is your Harding joke more about righteous anger for her “crimes” or about the way we see certain populations as disposable?
For people who identify with Harding’s story, our feelings aren’t about Harding versus Kerrigan; they’re about Harding versus the world.
I have to imagine I, Tonya is marketed as a comedy because frankly, a healthy chunk of Americans are more eager to laugh at her than empathize with her real life’s pitch-black plot. I hope those people head to the theater and learn a thing or two by accident. When they’re done, I also hope they rent the 2014 ESPN documentary on Tonya Harding, The Price of Gold.
I didn’t bat an eyelash when I saw Tonya Harding posing for pictures at the premiere of her own biopic. My only thought was, “God, I hope they cut her a big check.”