December’s selection, I, Tonya, depicts a version of the real life story of Tonya Harding and “the incident” in which her husband and associates plotted to injure her skating competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. The story is shared documentary style giving us a bit more insight into what Tanya and those close to her were thinking and feeling.
Figure skating is one of the aesthetic sports which puts additional strain on body image; a risk factor for eating disorders. Women know they are judged in this sport on the appearance of their movements AND sometimes themselves. Beauty standards can reflect cultural biases. American women are diverse in how we look, the backgrounds we come from and how we use language to speak up for ourselves. What we learn in this story is the pressure Ms. Harding felt to fit the US figure skating’s standards on an off the ice.
Raised in a lower class family, her costumes were hand sewn first by her mother. She lacked some of the accessories other girls had off the ice. Her mother argued with her teacher that these were not things the family could afford but this, in figure skating, was not an excuse.
As Ms. Harding skills outpaced other girls her competition scores remained low. She complained that the judges marked her down for not acting like a more upper class, traditionally feminine girl. After confronting a judge her fears were confirmed, US Figure Skating did not want a rough and tough girl for their national image. This drove Ms. Harding to work even harder to excel until her skating skills could not be ignored. She was the first woman to perform the triple axel in competition.
Hers could have been the story of overcoming a restrictive expectation for female athletes. Stop for a second and think of all the stories of bad behavior we tolerate in men’s college football, for example. We still celebrate them. For most of her career Ms. Harding faced criticism for simply being rough in language and mannerism. And yet she persisted.
Most know the story of how her skating career ended. Maybe with the distance and this film we can examine some other facets of these events. Strong and talented women come from many different backgrounds. Isn’t that what makes for a great American sports story?