Tonya Harding, the champion skater best known for her association with an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, is finally having her moment. The villainess is being recast as victim: of class, abuse and misogyny.
The edgy new biopic “I, Tonya,” which won a Critics’ Choice Award for Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harding, mostly takes her side. (Harding has said she loved the film.) Harding headlined a two-hour “20/20” special that aired last week. She was photographed attending the Golden Globes in a #TimesUp-appropriate black gown and has been the subject of many recent profiles and feminist write-ups. “We, Tonya: Disgraced skater finds redemption as symbol of 2017 feminism,” declared a Salon headline. Comic Rhea Butcher tweeted that she should be redeemed alongside disgraced powerful women like Anita Hill and Marcia Clark.
But the celebration and reappraisal of Harding is ignoring someone else. Kerrigan occupies mere minutes of screentime in “I, Tonya,” but during the ’90s she was savaged as badly as Harding — and not only because of the famous clubbing that made Harding infamous.
Kerrigan embodied the ice-princess stereotype of ladies’ figure skating, and in so doing had much further to fall than Harding, whose rough edges earned her the nickname “little barracuda” on the professional skating circuit. Kerrigan appeared to come from wealth, despite being thoroughly working class, and was likened to “a music box figurine come to life” by journalist Steve Hummer. She wore costumes that approximated wedding dresses, sipped milk from a champagne flute on national television and was often compared to Jackie O and Snow White.
Immediately after she was attacked on Jan. 6, 1994, before the United States Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Kerrigan’s screams of “Help me” and “Why?” were caught on tape and broadcast nationwide. Her anguish and emotion pierced the stuffy world of ice skating and shocked the public. There was pity, of course, but her words were quickly mocked, especially in the press. They were edited to become “Why Me?” on the cover of Newsweek. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked if anyone had noticed “what a crybaby she is?” “The Olympic princess became just another crime statistic,” observed the Denver Post in a piece titled “Kerrigan’s Real World Cold as Ice.” Schadenfreude quickly crept in, and Kerrigan was shamed and blamed for her victimhood.
The attack, and the revelation that Harding might have been involved, dominated news coverage in the weeks before the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. Kerrigan overcame her injury to earn a silver medal, but media commentators focused on her losing the gold. Skating insiders later speculated in the ESPN documentary “The Price of Gold” that international judges withheld gold from Kerrigan because of the ignominy she’d brought to the games by being attacked.
For Kerrigan, things quickly went from bad to worse . Before the medal ceremony, she was caught on a hot mic dissing the gold medalist, Oksana Baiul. She opted not to march in the closing ceremonies and reportedly acted snippily in news conferences. When Kerrigan went to Disney World to promote a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal, she was overheard complaining, “This is so corny, this is so dumb,” while she waved beside Mickey Mouse.
The media narrative quickly shifted, and the ice-skating princess was transformed into an ice queen. Clearly, Kerrigan possessed “a broad streak of bitchiness,” Rolling Stone explained. Instead of royalty and heiress comparisons, Kerrigan was described as having “cat’s eyes and chiclet teeth.” A Boston Globe columnist suggested that she was no better than a fast-food worker, calling her “a semi-celebrity who, if she couldn’t skate, probably would have been saying, ‘That’s $11.50, please. Pull up to the window for your burgers and fries.’” The Washington Post asked, bluntly, “Is Nancy a bitch?”
To be sure, Harding deserves a reconsideration. But so does the 1994 story in its entirety, and the decade at large. Even before the advent of social media, the stories remained in the news for weeks, months and even years, destroying lives and shaping history. We are only just beginning to revisit this history — to analyze, interrogate and correct it.
Two world-class athletes were reduced to villainess and victim, encouraged to publicly catfight and punished by the media — because they were women. Attack victim Kerrigan was quickly disavowed as a bitch after absorbing the blow. Kerrigan’s parents were quoted in Sports Illustrated lamenting that the vitriolic response to their daughter would never have occurred had she been a man. They were right. The catfight trope of pitting women against one another is so powerful that it shaped the media narrative around Harding and Kerrigan for more than two decades. As “I, Tonya” makes clear, the narrative is hardly a full accounting.
One day, perhaps, Kerrigan’s side of the story will be reexamined on the big screen. Until then, it’s worth remembering that both women’s lives were upended, and both deserve reconsideration. More to the point: All women have a story to tell, and it’s rarely the one the media has forced upon us.
Allison Yarrow is a journalist and TED resident.
The Washington Post