I, Tonya shows the role of power in achievements

By Martin Vogel

triple axel

Before Christmas, I wrote a blog post with the title Effort more than talent is the key to achievement. True enough. But how could I have forgotten to mention another critical determinant: power?

Craig Gillespie’s film I, Tonya – starring Margot Robbie as the American figure skater, Tonya Harding – shows us how power, or the lack of it, can frustrate even the most promising blend of effort and talent.

Tonya Harding had both in spades. She was famously the first American woman to achieve the phenomenally difficult triple axel jump in competition (and only the second in the world). Her skating career came to an end after she was implicated in an attack on her fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan. But, as portrayed in the film, this incident arose out of a wider nexus of class and gender relations that had held her back from the outset.

The film’s story is that of a girl who, against the odds, defies a life of poverty and abuse (first by her mother and then by her husband) to achieve the impossible on the national stage. Undereducated and lacking refinement, she annoyed the skating judges by sticking resolutely to her own terms. Sometimes, this was out of necessity: she performed in home-made clothes because she couldn’t afford the prissy fairy costumes traditionally worn by female skaters. Sometimes it was just that her taste was out of sync: she skated to the music of ZZ Top when the judges would have preferred Mozart. Despite her technical and physical talent, she would be marked down because of her presentation.

You can’t help thinking, as you watch, that it’s a testament to Harding’s grit and dedication that she got as far as she did. Not just that she faced class prejudice from the judges, but also that she managed to screen out the noise of constant beatings and disparagement that she experienced at home. In Harding’s mother, the film portrays a poor model of motivation: a woman who went so far as to pay a heckler to remind Harding, as she went onto the ice, that she was no good. Her husband, Jeff Gillooly was overshadowed by Harding’s success and there are graphic portrayals of him attacking her.

All of this is mediated through a collection of unreliable narrators: Tonya Harding herself, her mother, her coach, and her ex-husband – all of whom were interviewed for the movie. The events are disputed by the characters. But the film’s sympathies lean to Harding’s version and much of its power derives from the unflinching portrayal of abuse: the shadow side of the idealised and infantilised feminity, complete with forced grins, presented on the skating rinks. Harding herself has told the New York Times that she loves the film:

“People don’t understand that what you guys see in the movie is nothing. That was the smallest little bits and pieces. I mean, my face was bruised. My face was put through a mirror, not just broken onto it. Through it. I was shot. That was true.”

Then comes “the incident”, as she refers to it. And this brings an abrupt end to the American-dream narrative of the poor girl making good. It’s not exactly clear what part, if any, Harding played in the attack on Kerrigan. The film implies it was negligible (she was convicted of hindering the investigation). But she is treated as guilty by association with the characters around her – her husband and his friend, Harding’s presumed bodyguard – who should be bit-part fantasists in Harding’s drama but who end up overwhelming her story. They plan the attack, hiring an assailant, as Harding is shown focussing on her preparations for the Lillehammer Olympics. Effort and talent are not enough. Harding experiences the vengeful ostracism of the establishment – the skating hierarchy, the media and the criminal justice system – which seems happy to bring down the bad-ass girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her career is over at 23. She finds she cannot escape her circumstances after all.

The multiple unreliable narratives create an impression of different realities colliding and this helps give the film its resonance. Harding is playing the mindset game, dedicated to perfecting her performance. Her coach exhorts her to indulge the prejudices of the judges. But if Harding’s background makes her blinkered to the impression she is making, her lack of financial resources make her powerless to rectify it. Meanwhile, her trajectory is being detonated by people with little capability or social capital, asserting themselves beyond her field of vision. Even though both Harding and Kerrigan make it to the Lillehammer Olympics, the Olympians seem irritated that their story has made a sideshow of the competition. Kerrigan has to settle for silver when there is a suspicion she should have taken gold. For Harding, the pressure of it all finally cracks her and she ends up in eighth place.

It all adds up to a highly textured portrayal of the systemic dynamics around an individual and how, try as you might, you cannot always be author of your own story.

Bonus material

Watch this video on the making of the triple axel scene in I, Tonya.