Dan Jacobson reflects on the media’s negative depiction of Tonya Harding
Tonya Harding’s legendary performance at the 1991 U. S. Championships is best known for her successful landing of a triple axel jump, consisting of 3 ½ mid-air rotations, making her the second woman in history to achieve this in-competition. What I always notice, though, is a brief stumble a couple of moves later, in which Harding is balancing her skates whilst striking a pose. At first glance this seems sloppy. However, it is easy to grossly underestimate the power required to complete these routines. It is pertinent that the greatest challenge of ice skating is not perfecting the motions, but making them look effortless.
This 1991 routine is also the music video for ‘Tonya Harding’, the new single by enigmatic indie troubadour Sufjan Stevens. One of 2017’s best songs, and released in two forms, one an orchestra-laden, self-consciously bombastic ballad in D major, the other an introverted, piano-driven lullaby in Eb major, the song is a gorgeous ode to two sides of a one-sided story. Anchored by events prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, this story has, for 23 years, branded Harding as a cheat, a sociopath, and, “white trash”. However, her story is now experiencing a retelling.
The early 90’s represented a unique time in American figure skating. The sport was dominated by three skaters; Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding, and Nancy Kerrigan, the latter two developing into an intense media rivalry. This arose less from the sport itself, but the outdated attitude it embodied. This could have been summarised as classist, as seen elsewhere, such as the 1980’s rivalry between middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.
Figure skating is one of the few remaining sports where grace and beauty are a requirement, and whilst Kerrigan and Harding both came from working class backgrounds, Kerrigan was a princess, with supportive parents who ensured the best for her. Contrastingly, Harding’s painfully rough upbringing, and history of abusive relationships, was reflected in her lack of perceived perfection required in the sport, with tacky dresses and ZZ Top as backing music, and this cost her valuable presentation marks. As said in Stevens’ essay, supporting his track’s release, “her rise to fame in the skating rink was seen, by some, as a blemish on a sport that favoured sophistication and style”.
Despite these setbacks, Harding fought on. This explains the significance of her triple axel: undeniable proof that, in a sport where odds were, by nature, stacked against her, she was a force to be reckoned with. She completed the move again later that year at the World Championships, though was edged out by Yamaguchi, described by Stevens as having “high rise and roses, and red-carpet poses”.
Despite revolutionising the sport, Harding is most famous for the ensuing 1994 scandal, occurring at that year’s National Championships, a month prior to the Olympic Games. Following a practice session, an assailant attacked Kerrigan with a collapsible baton just above the knee. The media immediately pounced. This was the story they had been waiting years for: the 20-year-old outcast and bad girl; her ugly side finally showing itself properly. It later amounted that the assailant was Shane Stant, hired by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. Kerrigan went on to stage a miraculous recovery, winning the silver medal in Lillehammer. However, Harding, having performed poorly at a problem-strewn Olympics, pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution, and was forced to resign from the US Figure Skating Association as a persona non grata.
Following a sex tape scandal later that year, and a brief boxing career, the public has been about as kind to Harding as expected: a serial public joke, mentioned in everything from Seinfeld to speeches by Barack Obama (her response: “Obviously he didn’t have enough people looking at him.”). Gradually, her name sank into the abyss of satirical commentary, to be periodically revived, with the mitigating circumstances lost and irrelevant. However, for Harding, whilst she has always protested her innocence, this has haunted her in every aspect of her life, from job searching to relationships.
The resurgence her story is experiencing is mostly due to the film I, Tonya, to be released in the UK in late February. Inspired by interviews with Harding and Gillooly conducted by screenwriter Steven Rogers, and featuring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, this film is unique in displaying Harding’s side of the story; one in which the media has displayed no discernible interest. This has led to an influx of feminist think pieces, revelling in their “progressive” attitude in claiming Harding’s victimhood. Harding herself has not been convinced by them. As reported in her recent op-ed by the New York Times, “23 years later, finally everybody can just eat crow”.
Tonya Harding now goes as Tonya Price, having taken her husband’s surname in 2010. The stigma associated with the ‘Harding’ name, however, has prevented her life from moving on. She believes that these think pieces have arrived too late, and she may be correct. For the future, especially in the social media age, perhaps an illumination on Harding’s point of view could encourage a rethink of how we treat individuals publicly, decreasing the media’s obsession with demonization.
Image credit: Wikimedia