I, Tonya: Image Culture on Ice

What do we think of Tonya Harding, and why? That’s the question at the center of I, Tonya, a mockup biopic that never quite decides if its central figure is sympathetic. Yes, that’s sort of the point. But the mystery of its sympathies comes just as much from its distracted script as its moral intentions. “There’s no such thing as truth,” Tonya (Margot Robbie) slurs in one of her fake retrospective interviews that bookend major events in the film. That premise would have made an interesting movie, but this isn’t quite it – its truth is less ambiguous than it is intermittent.

We’re never sure how culpable Tonya is in the scandal that ruined her career (her competitor Nancy Kerrigan had her knee broken by hitmen just before the 1994 Olympics). We’re also not sure how bad her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) really is, since the film presents the possibility that either or both of them are misrepresenting the other. When she’s portrayed as the villain, she looks to camera and says cheekily, “This never happened” (her husband doesn’t have this luxury – Tonya is Bugs Bunny in this universe and Jeff is the big palooka). But when Tonya tousles with her mom (Allison Janney), there’s no room for ambiguity. Her mom’s brutality is presented as truth and Janney sells it as a cruel form of love, our belief in which makes the movie’s thematic structure work. These segments are played straight and the movie works best when you believe in them – the film would be meaningless if these “could” be fake.

Truth is not a fluid force in I, Tonya, where nothing ever seems quite crazy enough to be true, or believable enough to be fake (Fargo mastered that dichotomy). When it would be inconvenient to do so, the film doesn’t offer any contingencies for Tonya’s idea of her reality. This means that at some points, Tonya is wrong – there is such a thing as truth. It’s just up to us in each situation to figure out if this is one of them.

The idea of it being a series of recollections from a half-dozen unreliable narrators is an all or nothing idea. Performing it selectively is what makes I, Tonya drift into atonement – not Tonya’s, but ours. Tonya herself is impenitent; she feels no shame for her part in her own life, which she insists was out of her control the whole time. When the film finally brings up the perfect princess Nancy’s (Caitlin Carver) run-in with the sleazy hitmen that Jeff hires to break her kneecaps (maybe), Tonya asks us to pity Tonya. Nancy got beaten once – Tonya’s been beaten every day.

That’s a perspective of the truth. Who “really” committed the hit, and for what reason? That’s another perspective. This confusion about what to care about in I, Tonya comes from two sources: Craig Gillespie’s direction and Steven Roger’s script. The director, known for hazy Disney sports biopics, searches for the “facts of the case.” This is how we get long stretches without Tonya or her mother in it at all, involving a hitman’s (Paul Walter Hauser) impeded drawl and Jeff’s worried face as his idea of masculine vengeance gets away from him. None of these scenes are interesting – they obstruct an otherwise surprisingly watchable movie. We don’t know what “really” happened, so these scenes are just dramatizations anyway, which is fine for Tonya’s emotional moments (which have their own “truth”) but not for these plot moments whose facts are still more or less unconfirmed. For lack of meticulousness, these scenes don’t ambiguate the idea of truth so much as obscure what the movie intends us to get from it.

Robbie meanwhile bears herself fearlessly at a role that requires her fearlessness – she not only needs to seem “like” Tonya but that doing so is not a sin (though it’s definitely a burden). She turns her into a cartoon but in the way that justifies animation – at its best, it allows characters to become physical evidence of their own inner natures. Guilt physically twists Robbie as much as praise. In one of the film’s last (and best) scenes, as she’s so overcome by the scandal that she messily, perhaps even subconsciously, tries to sabotage her final performance, Robbie martyrs herself to the possibility of Tonya regretting being Tonya Harding, for just this one moment. It’s a perfect climax to a movie that they almost made.

Tonya mentions that she’s been created and warped by media; someone calls her “100% American” and it’s meant to reflect how we create the personalities that we want to see. She strives to squeeze her hunky trailer-trash persona into a miniskirt and it bulges at the seams. The skating commission wants her to represent them a certain way; they want the full-package of what Americans hope to be, lithe princesses with porch-swings and doting husbands. Tonya is stuck being real.

This whole concept of image culture in sports media is the film’s most interesting thread and in terms of sports biopics the aspect most unique to Tonya Harding. It’s also where Roger’s script is most deficient. The concepts are mentioned without being demonstrated – there’s no strong poetic sense that examines Tonya more pointedly at the center of what Abigail Feder calls the “overdetermined femininity in Ladies’ Figure Skating.” What she means is that since being athletic and being feminine are contradictions in American media, skating culture has to prove its femininity in more ways than it needs to in order to compensate. Not just the clothes and makeup but the lives of the skaters themselves have to reflect an ideal unique to the American feminine, which Tonya can never live up to. The film doesn’t live up to it either.

We should have seen the meticulous routines of the skaters getting ready for performances, in enough detail to drive home the impracticality of this forced image culture. Tatiana Riegel, whose editing is one of the film’s highlights, could have done wonders with the makeup routines, the laces, the costumes, the hair – that final release when Tonya sabotages herself would have been a great climax to that mounting struggle to conform to an impossible ideal. I could even see Robbie playing Nancy Kerrigan as well, to give it a sort of dreamy ideology similar to Black Swan – Nancy would become more than a random princess. She’d just be Tonya with a different life.

I think that would have been a great use for Robbie’s natural grace and implications of beautiful mania. It would have made her casting more strategic because in terms of the image on the screen, Robbie is far more elegant than Harding ever was. This presents thematic issues that go beyond “accuracy,” which is not the end-all for a biopic that intends to adapt the feeling of a person’s life more than the events of it (as it should). When Tonya dejectedly claims that she’s not pretty, by being beautiful Margot Robbie the implication is that she thinks so little of herself that she wouldn’t feel pretty as anyone, so long as she was still Tonya. This works because the real Harding being markedly less glamorous than Robbie doesn’t really matter since her impression of herself probably wouldn’t be different. What truly matters is her upbringing, not her appearance.

But when she’s being ostracized from skating culture for not conforming to an ideal, the film gives us the sense that it’s just her loud mouth and music choice that does it because compared to the real Harding, Robbie looks like a glamorous skater princess. This makes it difficult to fully understand the pressure of the image of what she was trying to achieve and the unfairness of the judgments against her based on her failure to conform to an ideal. The real Tonya seems to have failed in life by nature, by a consequence of her poor choice of ancestors; the film sometimes frustratingly makes it seem like she failed only by circumstance, or even by choice. Seeing Robbie on the ice doesn’t quite give us all the information.

If you’ve seen Monster (2003), you know what I’m talking about. Charlize Theron disappears behind Aileen Wuornos, with a performance rooted in a powerful critique of princesses and media images, turned into the cruel fate of her demeaning profession and a look that can’t get her a better one no matter how hard she tries. The desolation of these forced expectations is on every inch of the performance and would not be if she looked more like the real Theron; director Patty Jenkins even knew the perfect way to have her hold a cigarette to communicate how the expectation to look and act a certain way reduces us to children. Jenkins’ brave understanding was needed in I, Tonya to match Robbie’s panache.

Janney is powerful as the mother – the film’s biggest contribution to internet list culture will be Janney showing up on every Mother’s Day list of top 10 movie moms from now on. The film perfectly captures how her own ambition translates to a cruel form of love, where she pressures Tonya to hate herself “for her own good,” to convince her that everyone hates else hates her too in order to prove them wrong. She’s as enigmatic in the flashbacks as in the mock interviews, slugging wine and ordering a parrot around (“best husband I ever had”). She’s a woman tortured by liberation, doomed to an excessive rebellion against what’s expected of her without the means to make anything of it. And she’d be the perfect punchline to Tonya reliving that transition through skating culture, if the film could have seen the connection there.

Its mind is simpler than that. When Janney first appears on screen in flashback, the soundtrack plays “Devil Woman” – this is that kind of movie. The soundtrack choices in general tends towards blunt recollections of a decade’s feeling rather than creative mood-setting. The music seems to have been mixed by a trailer house to get the most likes on a video upload rather than tell the most compelling story.

I, Tonya asks us to recall a subject everyone was interested in but no one “cared” about. It asks us to find some caring. One of the secrets to Tonya’s life is that no one ever tells the Nancy Kerrigan Story because they love failure far more; one of the secrets of the film’s thematic underachievement is that Robbie and the film’s style of sympathy might have been more appropriate for it. There’s little truth in I, Tonya other than what we choose to believe of Harding (and probably ought to of Jeff). The real truth buried somewhere under biopic conventions is something we should have learned to believe of ourselves and the way we treat the people we pretend to admire. Image culture lives to fight another day.


Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Neon

Cast & Crew

Craig Gillespie

Steven Rogers

Tonya Harding Margot Robbie/Mckenna Grace/Maizie Smith
Jeff Gillooly Sebastian Stan
LaVona Golden Allison Janney
Diane Rawlinson Julianne Nicholson
Nancy Kerrigan Caitlin Carver
Shawn Eckardt Paul Walter Hauser


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