Axels of violence: the portrayal of abuse in I, Tonya

If the Tonya media spectacle was big in 1994, it is potentially even bigger now with the release of I, Tonya (2017, dir. Gillespie) during a year which also saw the 23rd Winter Olympics. The film has already been praised for its consciously subjective and nuanced portrayal of abuse and violence; and although she didn’t win, the role of Tonya has been widely acknowledged as the final proof that Margot Robbie is both the comedic and dramatic powerhouse that she was suspected to be.
However not everyone is raving about it. After the Oscars, Cosmopolitan published an article written by Ali Drucker about the repeated use of Tonya Harding-jokes during the awards ceremony. Drucker argues that the story of Harding and Kerrigan becomes flattened to be about violence, and violence alone. The trauma that both women went through in their lives becomes a shorthand for aggression and competition among women, and nothing else.
The film explicitly addresses how the cycle of violence continued through the media, in the sequence where Tonya turns to the camera and says that:

“I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”

Drucker makes an interesting point, and one that has occupied feminist filmmakers and film theorists for decades: how can we address violence without perpetuating it? How do we balance the line between showing violence in order to criticize it, and showing violence in order to be voyeurs?
In the case of I, Tonya we might be the voyeurs of the voyeurs of the voyeurs. A spectacle that is viewed through the lens of a film, based on interviews enacted by an incredible cast, viewed in cinemas by an audience that formerly (or still is) part of the media spectacle “Nancy and Tonya”, watched by people who have already picked either “Team Nancy” or “Team Tonya”. To interpret the film as simply wanting to bring Tonya Harding back to an international consciousness and fix her reputation into a stagnant, objective point in time (which is the unfortunate subtext of this award season’s many Tonya jokes), is to miss out on exactly some of the interesting commentary that the film offers.
It is not a binary story where you have to pick between the goodie and the baddie, the film rather tries to address the culture and reality in which Harding grew up. It shows way more than just the Kerrigan-incident, and most importantly, never tries to be just that. If anything, the incident is merely a footnote, a horrible real-life case of dramatic irony, in what is essentially a story about a girl being dragged from one abusive relationship to another: It is the relationship with her mother, as well as with competitive sports, with expectations of hyper-femininity that are only accessible to wealthy people. More layers of abuse are added showing the constant struggle with her husband, media spectacles and condemnation, and eventually competitive boxing.
Whilst the hyper-femininity of figure skating always shines through as the main spectacle of the film, it is often undermined or ironically criticized by being immediately juxtaposed to how Tonya is constantly enraged. Rage is what drives her to be her best self but also ensures that she fails to assimilate to what the figure skating judges expect from her. This is particularly significant in the last scene, where the intercutting of her skating and boxing allows us to see kinetic, cinematic, and social parallels between her career as a skater and as a boxer: the high point of her career, the triple axel, the moment where she says she became aware that “I was the best skater in the world”, was partially brought about by Tonya’s mother paying a man to verbally abuse her beforehand. We are asked how different the two situations are, and if we cheer for one, why not the other? If we pity one, why not the other?
The film is ultimately all about the line between care and abuse, acclaim and criticism. It is about Tonya Harding, the redneck, whose mum is an abusive alcoholic but still spends all her money on her daughter’s talent. It is about Tonya, the tomboyish girl surrounded by hyper-feminine figure skaters, someone who is taught that only rage will push her to her very best. Simultaneously she gets criticised for being just that: an enraged figure skater, unfit to join the status quo of fragile, feminine, restrained skaters. I, Tonya shows to how competitiveness, media spectacle and class issues are both the cause and the result of a fixed system that controls who is able to succeed and who is not.
However, while some audiences might consider it important to show this abusive life because of the film’s aforementioned socio-political engagement when it comes to class and gender norms, I, Tonya has also been criticised for portraying overtly cruelty and blatantly exchanging violence for laughs. In a piece for the Muse, Madeleine Davies points to who and what we are laughing at: “Scenes of physical abuse are seen in glib montages set to an anachronistic soundtrack of rollicking ’70s rock songs—played for laughs rather than for pathos”. She concludes that firstly, the real Tonya Harding has so far failed to acknowledge her past bad choices and behaviour and secondly, does neither deserve the novel limelight nor to have her privacy be the source of ridicule.
Whilst Davies makes an interesting point here especially in regard to how abuse is too easily laughed about, the scenes that walk that fine line between comedy and uneasiness, show how abuse and violence were a big part – if not the only part – in Tonya Harding’s life up to adulthood. Many women cope with abuse through humour, and the frequent breaking of the fourth wall by the characters, especially during scenes of abuse, signals to us that we shouldn’t take these images as objective, but rather as a retrospective look back on a very difficult life. In that sense, we are not told that this story of abuse is comical, but just that it can be told in a comical way.
We are shown that Tonya Harding grew up learning to immediately slap back, being beaten up by her mum was the every-day. Moreover, she had no one to teach her that violence should not be omnipresent as the people showing her initial kindness left (her dad) or had their own interests in mind (her coaches). To depict the many forms of abuse she encounters somewhat ‘normalised’ is what works so well here: We laugh at the absurdity of someone growing up like this, because we are transported into the mindset of someone for whom this is all so normal, that the only thing we can do is try and find the humour. Tonya herself realises in only a very few scenes that the way her surroundings interact with her is not normal.
Furthermore, we must not forget that again, it is a reality for many people that abusive behaviour comes hand in hand with (the image of) care – the most poignant scenes (and the ones in which the film is most obviously flaunting the talent of its cast) are the ones where we are shown, through the filmic Tonya’s eyes, slapstick violence enacted against her from either her mother or her husband. Then, suddenly, the tone of the film changes, perhaps a silence falls, and the audience as well as Tonya herself, realise that this is not funny, this is abuse. The juxtaposition of lightheartedness, the expectation of care, and this grotesque violence which initially contributes to it being perceived as comical, is exactly one that is emphasized as being a source of tragedy.
Hence, if all depictions of violence are seen as voyeuristic, then we must accept that it is unethical to depict violence altogether. And while it is certainly possible to make a case for that (as indeed some critics, especially feminist critics, have done very well), it is also possible to make the case for an alternative depiction of violence. One that does not simply exploit the cinematic subject but challenges the audience to see where we draw the line between indulgence and repulsion, between the spectacular and the grotesque. I, Tonya definitely sets a high standard for this depiction, and hopefully signals a change in the way that violence is portrayed on screen.


I, Tonya (2017, dir. Gillespie)

This Article was co-written by Pippa Sterk and Johanna Sprenger.

Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.

Johanna Sprenger is a London-based writer from Berlin. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths University as well as two BAs in Communication and English Studies from Leipzig University, Germany. Usually she has opinions and writes about them on her only recently launched blog too many tall men where she discusses situations of the every day, politics and music from a feminist perspective.