Tonya Harding Hasn’t Changed But Her Audience Has
I was rooting for the orphan. Like any good story, the 1994 figure skating competition at the Olympics had a truly memorable cast of characters. Oksana Baiul was a joy to watch on the ice, and with every triple toe loop, triple lutz, and difficult combination that she attempted, you found yourself holding your breath, and cheering her on. She was the hero of the story.
Then there was Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, whose backstory eclipsed the Lillehammer Winter Games itself. Nancy Kerrigan was “America’s sweetheart.” And as I watched this characterization, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at this predictable storyline. Nancy was beautiful, elegant, and graceful — all the traits our culture linked with being “feminine” or the right kind of woman at the time. I couldn’t relate to her perfect makeup and Vera Wang dresses and toothy smiles. She seemed to be the embodiment of privilege. When the controversy between her and Tonya unfolded, Nancy was the innocent victim of the story.
In contrast, Tonya, was unwilling to play the role of the victim. Instead, she became the villain. But as any good storyteller will tell you, many of us see ourselves in the villain — because we know that we’ve been judged the same way. She was mocked for her terrible hair and her ugly dresses. But when you saw her on the ice, Tonya didn’t shy away from being powerful. She owned it. And that a woman could own her power made her even more despised.
Fast forward to I, Tonya’s big wins at the Golden Globes, the release of the New York Times interview of Tonya Harding, and last night’s two-hour special on ABC. How we view Tonya’s story has changed even though the cast of characters remains the same.
One of the truths of storytelling is that we all share different comprehension and understanding of stories based on our own perceptions and prejudices. Oftentimes, we are unaware of how our own perceptions change how we view a story. That’s what I find so fascinating from a story perspective about Tonya Harding.
We still have the rough-around-the-edges Tonya who refuses to apologize and looks like she has just finished a rough shift at the hardware store. Nancy Kerrigan still looks like American royalty. But in our new #metoo era, it’s our perceptions of women that have evolved. Today, the tough talking, reviler of convention is revered for her grit and unconventionality. It is our new perception of women in a post-Weinstein world that make Tonya more of a hero and less of a villain.
Now we can see that Tonya wasn’t the villain. Neither was Oksana the hero or Nancy the victim. These were the roles available to women at the time.
Tonya was never willing to be painted as a victim, and she never saw herself as one. Think about it: Tonya was a jumper. She didn’t care if jumping made the public think of her as athletic or masculine. Tonya was the first American woman to nail the triple axel, and it’s what made her a World Champion.
If you watch Tonya’s 1991 performance, what you’ll see is a woman who was fearless. Within the first twenty seconds of her program, she nails her triple axel, and from there, she keeps landing every difficult combination. She is smiling the whole time. Tonya lived for skating. By winning gold, she was able to lift her terrible label of “trailer trash.” However, the label returned with a vengeance, once she was stripped of all of her titles and banned for life from competitive figure skating.
I think for storytellers today, it’s critical to keep in mind that what we say will be filtered through a lense of collective prejudice and perception. What our audience thinks and believes is so fundamental to our story.
With the Tonya Harding story back in the spotlight because of I, Tonya, we are looking at Tonya’s story differently. Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson of the Tonya Harding: her story hasn’t changed, but our prejudices and perceptions have.