Everyone's a Winner, Baby, That's the Truth
I, Tonya ended up one of those second tier "must see" movies for me, where if I had to put off seeing it until a couple weeks into the new year, then so be it. 2017 ended up being a quality year for motion pictures, it stood to reason that a few would be at least momentarily overlooked. Finally checking it off my list last week, I wish I had it seen it sooner. Much like Colossal, released earlier in the year, it suffered rather a bit from poor marketing that portrayed it as a quirky comedy about an incorrigible young gal, when it actually touches upon toxic masculinity, and the jokes are tempered with startling scenes of physical abuse. Also like Colossal, it's stuck with me in an unexpected way.
I'm not here to debate whether the film was too kind in its portrayal of Tonya Harding, or if the filmmakers exploited her (though the fact that such wildly differing reads could be applied to it is certainly interesting). Considering that Harding actively participated in the creation of it, it's about as positive but still realistic a portrayal of her as one can expect, in which she's not terribly bright but tough as nails, and probably not quite the pathologically ambitious criminal mastermind she was painted as in the media. The events we're already familiar with going into it are the least interesting part of the movie, because if you remember when "the Incident" (as the characters refer to it) actually happened, you'll wince as soon as you hear the name "Gillooly." It remains one of the most moronic schemes ever concocted in the history of criminal justice, and the only mystery, which is never solved, is how a blithering idiot like Shawn Eckhardt was able to make it out of his house every morning, let alone plan a "hit."
What I found far more compelling is how many times, on the long and exhausting road to the Olympics, Tonya's technical prowess as an ice skater is minimized (if not discounted entirely) because she didn't have the "right look." Whether it's her frizzy, barely contained ponytail, her homemade costumes, or her tacky music selections, she's a most inappropriate face to represent the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and she consistently earns middling scores because of it. At one point, Tonya, frustrated at how often her considerable athletic ability is overlooked, confronts a judge after another mediocre finish. The judge looks both uncomfortable and annoyed to be in her presence, as if he smells something bad, and again gives her the spiel about how, talented or not, she simply doesn't fit the image of the USFSA. He doesn't have the decency to use the phrase "too poor," which might have saved Tonya a lot of time, effort, and grief.
Thanks to Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance's paean to bootstrappin', and the continuing debate over what part of the population was most responsible for electing Donald Trump into office, working class/poor white people are now the one sub-group it's okay to openly look down on, even if (or rather, especially if) you're an otherwise well-meaning, all-inclusive liberal. And why not? The opioid epidemic has impacted that population more than any other. More than 40% of SNAP recipients are white, as are 42% of non-senior citizen Medicaid recipients. The second poorest county in the country, Wheeler County, Georgia, is 63% white. Despite all that, many poor whites still have a considerable problem with racism, and that astonishing hypocrisy is what makes them fair game for mocking. Whether intentional or not, I, Tonya was released at just the right time. It's safe to say that much of the audience finds Tonya's dingy little house, her low budget VFW hall wedding, and the fact that her mother seems to have a cigarette surgically fused to her hand funny. Some of us, however, cringed in recognition.
A month after "the Incident," and just before Harding left to participate in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, Susan Orlean wrote an essay for the New Yorker about the misconception over Harding's roots. Though media accounts claimed that Harding was from Portland, Oregon, she actually grew up in Clackamas, a smaller town about fifty miles away. Orlean describes Clackamas as thus: "There are...grassy idle pastures, and balding hills now sprouting subdivisions, and ranchettes on lawns of chunky red mulch, and squat new apartment complexes with tan siding and shiny driveways, and featherweight trailers perched on rough concrete blocks...there are little strip malls and fast-food restaurants and glassy health clubs and tanning salons standing alone in enormous parking lots...and there are pockets of businesses having to do with toys and mufflers and furniture, but there really isn’t any town to speak of, or even a village to drive through. Unlike an old-fashioned town, which spreads out organically, Clackamas County’s settled areas look as if they had emerged abruptly, hacked out of the tangle of blackberry bushes and firs. Around the mall, new things are cropping up so fast that the place seems kinetic, as if everything had gone up, and could come down, in a day. Even where the county is overbuilt and busy, emptiness is the feeling it conveys."
Orlean then goes on to write that a sprawling nearby mall is the primary center of action in town. That all sounds very familiar to me. It sounds an awful lot like the southern New Jersey town where I graduated high school, right down to the mall. Like Tonya, I grew up in an unstable home, with parents who were constantly angry at the world because they didn't get the fair shake they thought they deserved, and who, in my mother's case, often took it out on me. Both of my parents were heavy smokers, though not as much as my grandmother, who would pause between bites of food to take a puff. I've attended my share of VFW hall weddings. Most importantly, I figured out good and early which things were allowed for me, and which weren't.
Youth recreational activities, particularly those involving sports, require an incredible amount of money and time, both of which are in short supply for most working parents, particularly when they're the sole breadwinner. Like designer sneakers, it has long been, and remains, a pretty accurate way to gauge the local haves and have-nots. Tonya's mother, Lavona (played almost too effectively by Allison Janney), pays for her skating lessons by working long hours at a restaurant, and never, ever lets her forget about the sacrifices she's made in order for Tonya to become a champion. My mother did not have such lofty goals for me, but I understood one thing to be true--a lot of things my classmates got to do were out of my reach. I took dancing lessons, but only for as long as my grandparents were willing to pay for them. I participated in the Girl Scouts, but never earned enough money to go on any of the trips. Joining the school band was turned down flat. By the time I was an adolescent, my parents had split up, and there was rarely anyone around to drive me to the activities I would have liked to have joined, let alone afford the attendant costs. But that was okay, because I had learned to stop asking anyway.
Though it's not certain how much of the movie accurately depicts Tonya's life before she became a tabloid figure, I do recall that much really was made of the physical differences between Tonya and Nancy Kerrigan, her strongest competitor on the U.S. team. Whereas Nancy was willowy and poised to the point of resembling a Disney Princess, the shorter, more muscular Tonya looked almost dumpy in comparison. Nancy glided onto the ice as if bearing invisible fairy wings, Tonya charged as if bearing an invisible pike. Nancy looked like an ice skater. Tonya looked like, well, someone you'd see waiting tables at the local Friendly's. The fact that she was the first woman to successfully complete a triple axel meant little if she didn't have the "right look," and as anyone who's ever been a young woman (or an old woman, or any kind of woman) knows, the bar for the "right look" is inconsistent, always moved, always held out of reach.
Tonya seems baffled that merely being an excellent skater isn't sufficient. Meanwhile, Lavona not only accepts that she's not welcome among the skate moms who have far more money and time to devote to their children, she doesn't want to be a part of them anyway. As awful as Lavona is, she also understands how things work. She discourages Tonya from befriending other skaters, but one wonders if it's because she wants Tonya to think that she's better than them, or because she knows they'll think they're better than her, and will use every opportunity to remind her of that. I'm reminded of a passage in Stephen King's On Writing, in which he reflects on a high school classmate who ultimately inspired Carrie White. The classmate was so desperately poor that she wore the same outfit to school every day for months, until her parents ran into a brief bit of good fortune. The classmate came to school with a new, more fashionable outfit, and a flattering haircut, only to find that the same bullies who picked on her for her threadbare outfit before piled it on even more, not because of what she was wearing, but because she had the audacity to attempt to rise out of her station. For all of our talk of America being a place where we can be whatever we want with enough pluck and gumption, we sure do like reminding each other of who we really are, and where we belong.
As for me, I "got out," though I can hardly say that I've made it. I have an average job, I don't have any remarkable accomplishments to note in the ol' high school alumni newsletter. I have many of the benchmarks of a white trash background--no formal education beyond high school, a relative who's spent the better part of the past twenty years on methadone, another relative who died of chronic alcoholism, several stepfathers and attendant half-siblings. Some things I can't hide--I have terrible teeth, not because of crystal meth, that other scourge of poor whites, but because of bad genes, poor nutrition as a child, and developing an eating disorder after living with a mother whom, working down a checklist of the best ways to dig into a teenage girl's insecurities, made constant, unkind comments about my weight and appearance. My teeth mark me as an "other," particularly living in New York City, where you see someone whose beauty or handsomeness takes your breath away every day. I've let opportunities go because I don't want anyone to see them. I've learned to cover my mouth when I laugh, like a geisha. I've learned to be ashamed, because I've been made to believe that I should be.
Unlike me, Tonya Harding (or at least, the Tonya in the movie) isn't ashamed of who she is. For all of her flaws, Tonya is very much her own person, and continuously gives a giant middle finger to the suggestion that she should try to be like someone else, even if that's exactly what she needs to do in order to win. Tonya is defiant not just because she chooses to be, but because she has to be. There are only so many hours in a day that you can break your back working a minimum wage job with no benefits, in order to afford to meet someone else's demands as to how you should look and behave. It's exhausting, and even then, as in Tonya's case, trying wasn't enough. No matter what, people recognized something in her that they didn't like, something they felt better than, and they never, ever let her forget it.