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Content warning for domestic abuse. Very light spoiler warning for the film and the real-life events it depicts.
When I was ten (back in 1994, during the Lilihammer Winter Olympics), I staged a “theatrical” production in my living room about the incident that tore Tonya Harding’s life apart. Where her abusive husband and dipshit bodyguard conspired to take out her competition—Nancy Kerrigan, hailed in the press as the “princess” to Tonya’s “bad girl,” by assaulting her before competition. This production starred my stuffed Bert (from Sesame Street) as the bodyguard, Ernie as the husband, and… I’m really not sure who Tonya was. Oh! It was a Troll doll.
I’m only telling you this so you understand how fascinated I was by this case, long before I had the intellectual and emotional tools to process it. Tonya Harding was so well known, the film claims, that she was the second only to then-president President Bill Clinton in name recognition. She was so well known that doofus ten-year-olds enacted the drama in their living rooms with their toys.
The real story—as depicted in Neon Rated’s incredibly funny, bleak-as-hell depiction of a talented athlete and severely abused woman’s life—is a lot more complicated, and a lot more depressing.
Framed as a psuedo-documentary with “interviews” by Harding, her mother, her ex husband, and her former coach (all played by the actors), it shows all of the nasty details that make this story so simultaneously sad and grimly fascinating. Harding grew up poor, in a miserably abusive home. She was a talented athlete who used figure skating to escape a grim future, but, yeah, she never really escaped. Abuse continued throughout her life, alongside microagressions and all-out snubbing from officials in the sport she would come to headline, and the sexist, classist American media that would ridicule her every step of the way.
It's striking how disgusting and blatant the media was in its depiction of the Kerrigan/Harding rivalry. Instead of painting two talented athletes in competition, Kerrigan was heralded as near-royalty, where Harding’s talent and athleticism—and her poor background—made her fodder for gross comments.
“much would be made in both the press and in parody about Tonya’s thighs: they were huge! They were so fat! How could she pretend to be pretty, or even feminine? But they were, at the end of the day, nothing more or less than the thighs of an athlete. They were thick and powerful because she needed them to be that way to launch herself into the air. When Midori jumped, she seemed to float like a leaf borne on the wind. Tonya, Time magazine wrote during the scandal, “bullies gravity.” They meant it as a criticism of her skating, and, by extension, of her, but one wonders: did this have to be a bad thing?”
The movie is firmly in Tonya’s camp, though it certainly has some fun with some of her quirks. And it never shies away from her abusive past, in some of the hardest scenes to watch in a mainstream film in some time. It’s bleak, with some rays of hope: portraying a woman who has normalized her own mistreatment and determines to be successful despite it.
The acting is astounding, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney deserve every award they (hopefully) get nominated for for nailing the most toxic, earnest, unflinching mother-daughter sports relationship in cinematic history.
I have only a minor quibble, and that concerns Tonya’s late-career stint as a boxer. The brief fight scenes are portrayed as a chaotic, bloody flurry, juxtaposed with the majestic artistry of the figure-skating scenes that does neither the beauty of good boxing or the brutality of top-level figure skating justice. Figure skating—especially at the national and olympic level—takes an enormous toll on the body, and hey, this is a movie about the perils and shittiness of taking down women athletes for not being “girly” enough, so, c’mon.
That is 1/30th of this beautiful, brutal movie, though. I was squeezing my girlfriend’s hand and near tears throughout, especially in moments that speak directly to gender norms and women athletes. I laughed, especially at the ripper of a soundtrack, at Tonya’s own fuck-off sense of humor, at the fashion and hair of not just the late 80s and early 90s, but the figure skating fashion and hair of the period.
This is a movie that seeks, above all, to cut through bullshit by slapping the audience with a version of the truth that’d never go down easy. By subscribing to its subject’s fierce sense of humor, her matter-of-fact retelling of events and bruised ego, by believing her every step of the way. And that is a beautiful thing.
How about you, readers? Are you planning to see the movie, or have thoughts on the media’s portrayal of women in sports?