I never thought I would have so much compassion for Tonya Harding, but that's clearly what the film I Tonya sets out to accomplish…and that is exactly what it does. It provides us with a compassionate portrayal of a young woman who, according to the film, experienced a very troubling childhood, setting her on a life course filled with some unavoidable challenges.
This film untangles the clearly over-simplified media circus that surrounded Harding in the 90's, taking us through her early life. Through a much more complex sociological lens, we see her economic background, we see her psychological background, and we see her gender…and all the expectations that come with being a female figure skater. We see it all and we feel horrible, because we judged. I judged her, I deemed her an evil anomaly that deserved to be thrown to the wolves. Oops. She's like the kid in middle school that you used to bully and still owe an apology to.
I actually was in middle school at the time, and I can remember the story of the Nancy Kerrigan attack as a very simplified, clear-cut act of evil. Kerrigan was a "good girl" who fell victim to a "bad girl," Tonya Harding. This is what I (and seemingly the entire world) knew to be true. However, as the film I Tonya shows us…the entire world saw this incident just as simplified as a middle-schooler and even if the film took some factual liberties, in hindsight, it's easy for all of us to acknowledge that the truth is rarely that simple. Facts and details aside, it's much more likely that we got it wrong. So now that I have seen the film and done the palm slap to the forehead, I have to ask, 'what we can learn from this film'?
Bully or Victim?
Well for one, how often do we see one woman getting pinned against another woman? How often do we see a high achieving, powerful woman become demonized as an aggressive psychopath who has to be managed? Clearly I am putting aside the "facts" of this particular skating incident. I am not trying to prove Harding had no role or is completely without fault. I am no longer interested in the "details" of this famous debacle or Tonya's personal immunity. What I am interested in is how we can learn from it, how can we avoid partaking in such useless slander, particularly to women.
The Tonya Harding - Nancy Kerrigan tale had all the signs that it would be riviting. An upper class, well-dressed, cooperative girl, pinned against the money-less, rough, un-manicured, uncooperative girl. It was like a perfect little gift to the media, and simultaneously a cautionary tale to women all around.
It took about 24 hours to turn Harding into a monster as her entire life easily supported that narrative. She was uncouth, un-perfected, and came from near poverty. "Poor" in our country still translates as lazy, dirty, and worthless…even if you have Olympic-level talent. We still don't acknowledge that we live in a caste system. America loves to reference the rest of the world's "third-world" countries but we have one of the largest class wage gaps of any "developed" country on the planet.
Why do I care about this wage gap? I write a lot about racism, and sexism, but classism is just as pervasive and sometimes much harder to identify. In fact, I bet many of you reading this article can think of friends that are different ethnicities and religions than you are. I bet you have Jewish friends, black friends, white friends, atheist friends, Christian friends, Mexican friends, Asian, etc… but how many of us (self included) reading this article have close friends that use food stamps and have never attended a college or university?
This is class segregation. We live separate lives from people with different financial backgrounds, because once you are born into a class, you usually are funneled along, able to avoid "the others" who can't afford to navigate in your world. It's not a blame thing…it's a reality thing (though there are things we can do about class segregation).
So, what does this have to do with Tonya? Well if it looks like a rat, smells like a rat, and runs like a rat… no not Tonya… it's classism and sexism. So many times we are presented with sizzling "celebrity news" and fail to identify the mechanisms the media relies on (ubiquitous cultural 'isms' of all kinds, race, class, gender, etc.)… and don't call them out. We barely recognized the role sexism played in our country's failure to elect a clearly superior leader as president, who happened to be a female…the sexism in that case was the rat.
As we now attempt to dismantle a government that's replicating fascism, let us not get distracted by the failure to call out the divisive systems still at play. If our society were less segregated by class, there is no way we would have the president we have. I can't help but think that if middle and upper class people truly knew the entirely different life that poor people in this country led, the crappy public transportation they take to work, the cheap food they can afford to buy, and the rent increases that make moving twice a year a guarantee, perhaps there would be less anger and less delusions about a Bernie Sanders presidency (not that I personally would mind that). Perhaps there would be more grey areas, less all-evil or all-savior political systems; perhaps we could complicate our understanding of basic humanity.
In the meantime, Tonya…I'm sorry, I wish I could give you a do-over.
By Rachel Hall, Rachel has a Masters in Cultural Gender Studies, and a BA in Communication & Culture, and works with all kinds of people to improve their ability to work with all kinds of people. She can often be found hiding in her laundry room from her two children. More about her on her website.
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