It’s curious to witness the reassessment of figure skater Tonya Harding through the Oscar-nominated I, Tonya, and in the public’s general perception. At any point in the past, it would be Nancy Kerrigan getting the Hollywood treatment. Gorgeous, graceful Nancy rose above a violent assault to become an inspiring Olympic champion and America’s darling. Hers is the triumphant story of good over evil.
Instead we are treated to the humanization, if not vindication, of her fairy tale villainess. Like its subject, I, Tonya, paints a picture of an extraordinary complicated woman who, even after all these years, isn’t apologizing. However in this era of weaponized media, ruthless online shaming, and the blurring of truth and fiction, scrappy old Tonya Harding is ripe for a reckoning. She passes no purity test, but her story has real human layers and struggles that resonate with the queer experience. We outline the similarities below.
She refused—and still refuses—to conform. Technically, Harding was the better skater but she was a rebel tomboy who hunted and fixed cars, wore blue nail polish, went heavy on the Aqua Net, over-bedazzled her costumes, and skated to Tone Lōc in competition. The judges deducted points for Harding’s personal aesthetic because she was not the image of feminine grace, elegance, and charm they intended to project for the sport. On and off the ice, we are all expected to conform to gender norms and penalized when we don’t. From professional athletics to Wall Street, qualified but iconoclastic queers are often kept from scaling the same heights as those who fit the mold.
She is an outsider. Kerrigan got all the endorsement deals, photo spreads, and Vera Wang costumes. Both she and Harding were at the peak of their craft, but treated differently. Kerringan was queen and Harding the brash interloper challenging the status quo. Underdogs by nature don’t receive the same attention as those inside the mainstream, and must work harder to earn the same respect, remuneration, and acclaim as their more popular peers.
She isn’t defined by that one thing about her. Did she or didn’t she know about her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly’s plan to cap her competitor’s knees? The public can’t get past it. Is there anything else about her life or legend? Asked recently by The New York Times what it was like being the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, Harding teared up, “Nobody asks me about that anymore.” No matter what else you’ve got going, the focus can stay irrationally on that one thing—in the same way homophobes can’t get past the sex act.
She chose the wrong man. With that for a mother, who can blame Harding for falling for the first guy to compliment her? But Jeff Gillooly turned out to show his affection in the way she was accustomed to. Psychologically, violence can be perceived by abuse victims as what others do to you, and maybe even for you, when they truly care. Relationship patterns are planted early and children learn low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviors from judgmental parents who show them that love is conditional.
She is a survivor. Though she was the victim, Harding was uncompromisingly tough, and when abused or condemned she found the pluck to fend for herself. Forced to register as a felon and give up skating, Tonya scraped by as a welder and sales clerk and even rolled with the punches as a celebrity boxer. How many other demonized outsiders were forced to pick up and protect themselves at their most alone and vulnerable?
She let the haters hate. Harding now has a loving partner and a glamorous actress playing her on screen. Conflicted, conflicting, complicated and irony-filled as it is, her story is being told and not everybody has to understand it. As battle-tested queers can attest after they come out the other end, it gets better.
For all the fancy flair and sequins, figure skating remains a conservative sport. The system that Harding railed against was rigged in reverse for competitors like Johnny Weir, who can’t be masculinized. How exciting now to see the emergence of Adam Rippon, America’s first out Olympian in the sport. It remains to be seen whether his hard work and skills will be awarded purely on merit in Pyongchang, or if his outspoken authenticity will cloud the judging.
Taking up the baton from disruptor predecessors like Harding and Weir, Adam Rippon tells CNN, “I can’t tone it down. I’m being me and I’m being myself.”