‘I, Tonya’ acclaimed, handles domestic violence poorly

The film delves into the life of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, played by Margot Robbie, spotlighting both her achievements and the intense domestic abuse she endured./ Courtesy of Eilimedia Commons

There is something about scandals that people love. Whether the story is about Donald Trump, OJ Simpson or Kim Kardashian, both the media and the general public demand to hear all the details and want those details to be sensationalized to the max. Recently, Hollywood released a blockbuster about arguably one of the biggest scandals in sports history—the incident between Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan. The movie “I, Tonya,” starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney, traces the life of Harding from when she first started skating at four years of age to her eventual ban for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association. While the movie does focus on the scandal Harding is involved in, it primarily reveals themes that are much, much darker: the effect of domestic abuse and violence on a woman’s life and the ways in which women can be pitted against each other by manipulative men.

Harding is known for a host of different accomplishments and downfalls. She was the 1991 and 1994 U.S. figure skating champion and one of two women in the world to successfully land a triple axel, a highly difficult and complex ice-skating move. On the other hand, she is also known for attacking her rival Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics. Harding did not physically assault Kerrigan herself, but rather her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, orchestrated the attack by paying someone to slash Kerrigan’s knee.

I didn’t know much about Tonya Harding, but when I decided to watch “I, Tonya,” I expected to see just this history, her triumphs and tribulations, that the public has loved to sensationalize. However, what I saw instead deeply affected and saddened me to no end. “I, Tonya” unpacks Harding’s achievements and failures through her incredibly brutal and pressure-filled life. We see that Harding’s world is hostile from the beginning—her dad abandons her at the age of four, her mother abuses her, berates her for not performing well enough and throws knives at her, and her husband physically and sexually assaults her and then plans the assault on Kerrigan without her knowledge. Through it all, the movie reveals the twisted, awful reality of the life of an American idol. It does not play up the classic American dream storyline of how perseverance can get you places, but rather provides a gloomy tale of an astonishingly tortured life that ultimately ends in despair and heartbreak. Moreover, what I extracted from the film was that Harding had earned her competitive, cruel-hearted reputation not by her own volition, but by abusive people that aimed to control her life. More specifically, her entanglement in the Nancy Kerrigan scandal and her relationship with her berserk husband serve as glaring examples of male abuse and manipulation of women as well as the way in which the world loves to pit powerful women against one another.

In terms of cinematography and acting, the movie was well done. “I, Tonya” is composed of acted interviews with Harding, her mother, her ice-skating coach and her ex-husband interwoven with the characters acting out Harding’s memories. Because Harding’s life is so controversial, the movie uses this interview format to amplify the controversy and help the viewer understand disagreement between characters. Robbie does an impressive job as Harding, acting with an intensity that you would picture the real-life Harding possessing. Janney matches this intensity with an equally convincing cold-heartedness that is actually quite painful to watch.

While it is obvious that the movie presents tragic content, I was shocked to see it play with this content in a wholly insensitive way. There were parts in which the movie featured upbeat music or made Harding seem crazy and like an unreliable narrator in interviews. In fact, the movie is listed as a comedy, and while there may have been small comedic moments, the horrendous reality of Harding’s life, which the movie makes a huge point to show, is by no means comedic. In fact, there were even parts of the film in which the creators tried to bring comedy into Harding’s abuse. For instance, one scene that was supposed to depict an event that was only rumored to have happened in her real life showed Harding with a gun trying to shoot her husband. Harding then turned to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and said to the viewer, “That never happened,” in a comedic manner.

If “I, Tonya” is going to present the darknesses of Harding’s life, then it needs to be more serious in doing so. There were definitely moments where the viewer would sympathize with Harding, but I’m not sure if the final intent of the movie is to urge the viewer to stand behind the abused champion or to awaken audiences to the wickedness of abusive relationships. Instead, the viewer is left with this make-what-you-will-of-it feeling and overwhelming sadness. Personally, if a movie is going to so heavily discuss this theme of abuse, not take an overt stance against it and even make it seem light-hearted in some instances, I view that as a failure.

Overall, on account of the movie’s bizarre contradictory nature—its sad content that is presented in an insensitive way—I would not recommend it. One could even argue that while it does shed light on the reality of Harding’s life, “I, Tonya” is just another form of media exploiting Harding’s story, doing very little to make a statement about the importance of empowering the victims of domestic abuse. Don’t watch it!

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