When my friend texted me that Tonya Harding was going to be speaking in Los Angeles, I interrupted my own show to buy a ticket. A screening of I, Tonya on a rooftop with the white trash athletic icon herself? Every friend who’s teased me for falling for the “poor abused white girl porn” in the past year knows I wouldn’t miss it.
So I get the ticket. I reschedule a first date to do so, because I don’t want anyone to see how I would act around Tonya Harding. I love her. Is that bad? It feels like it might be bad. But I go.
For years I’ve loved Tonya, or, as I suspect the more I see and learn about her, a version of her I’ve grown attached to. During my brief tenure as a MoviePass owner, I saw I, Tonya in theaters nine times, multiple times a week, usually alone, sometimes with a tiny bottle of wine I’d bring from the 7-Eleven nearby. Once on Valentine’s Day. When I was learning how to make cartoons, she was my first subject. One Christmas, a quiet coworker slipped a signed picture of her during her boxing years onto my desk because I talked about her that much. Arriving at the screening, I love Tonya. She’s scrappy. She’s seen some shit, and suffered some unfair things. She’s also caused some unfair things. She does what it takes to win. She is ‘unfiltered.’ She is brash and not politically correct.
I’d like to say the moral of this story is to never meet your heroes, but that’s an oversimplification. In an era where heroes are routinely being taken down from mythic proportions and revealed to be deeply flawed, sometimes criminal human beings, seeing your hero for who they really are feels necessary. Tonya Harding is the wronged victim of a 1990s media blitz, but she’s also a self-proclaimed Trump supporter using her platform to peddle empty nationalism just as much as she is to speak out against spousal abuse. It hurts to see your hero has not grown into the person you hoped, but it’s worth squirming through to keep your own dumb ass in check.
In case you have been checked out of pop culture for twenty-five years, these are the facts: Tonya Harding, former Olympic figure skater, may or may not have been aware of her husband Jeff Gillooly’s plan to whack her main rival in the leg ahead of the 1994 Olympics. The media had one of its early 24-hour news cycle field days examining her potential guilt from every angle: she had an abusive childhood, she was considered white trash, she cursed and spoke her mind in a way that ice princesses weren’t supposed to, and the court of public opinion ultimately found her guilty. She was banned from competing for life, a punishment far harsher than any male athlete before her had been given for a comparable offense.
But she’s gone on. She’s set racecar and archery records, she’s been a professional boxer, she’s done the obligatory stint on Dancing with the Stars, she’s remarried with a young son in her home state of Oregon, and 24 years later she’s still pleading her innocence on a rooftop to anyone with 30 dollars and the desire to listen.
“This year has been truly amazing,” Harding says upon coming out to a mostly-full crowd. Now in her late 40s, she looks incredible, wearing what looks to be a romper from the fancier portion of H&M during her talk before the screening. “A movie was released that shows the truth not only to America and the world but to my son, that I am not a cheater.” This remains her thesis statement after all these years.
The scrappy, easily agitated Harding we know from the sleep-deprived, terrified and angry young woman we recognize from one of the 24-hour news cycle’s earliest scandals is still present in her persona. When a sympathetic portrait of a redneck hero is released in this political climate, it makes a statement whether that’s the author’s intent or not. That was the focus of some of the initial criticism of the generally lauded film—is this really the time to be lifting up a figure who has grown into a Trump-supporter and who, fascinating life story aside, is a buoy for the white working class whose frustration ushered in an era of political violence? Harding is a proud redneck, and proud of the problematic views that are associated with them. As the movie portrays it, rednecks are poor, enjoy driving trucks, and struggle to afford the luxuries associated with the ice princess lifestyle. All true enough, but that willfully ignores the discomfort of the often racist and misogynist views that are associated with the same community.
The film’s marketing tried to navigate around this, emphasizing the story’s targeting of a woman in the media and the role of familial and spousal abuse (Harding was abused by both her mother and her first husband Gillooly) in shaping who a person becomes.
“The truth is there,” she says, “the truth is real, and it happens every day in America and in every country and it needs to stop. Men, women, children need to be respected for who they are, what they do, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do, what your religion is. It’s just…love yourself first.” It has nothing to do with the question that was asked, which is what her favorite scene in the movie is.
This is the thing about Tonya. Like any figure of questionable moral standing, there’s always going to be a valid point of entry that feels more comfortable. The rhetoric around being “unapologetic,” if the past two-odd years has been any indication, is very often a way of excusing thinly veiled hate speech. There are parts of her very public redemption that make me feel seen and validated, a white trash kid whose young adult life was marked by physically abusive relationships, and others that make me queasy. I’m paying to see a card-carrying Trump supporter speak, one who could not vote for him only because she is a felon. And I am certainly not alone in that discomfort.
The crowd that comes out for Tonya is a less ravenous version of the same freak show that landed her on an LA rooftop in the first place. Couples whisper to each other about their recollection of her as children, look around fervently, speculate on how she outed herself as a Trump supporter in an interview late last year. For the most part, they’re people like me—young white people who have a ferocious attachment to Tonya and the sympathetic Oscar-nominated narrative that brought her back into the limelight. I see them, and I see myself; I acknowledge the animal part of myself that wants to see the freak show play out, and it doesn’t feel good.
Talks like this, besides providing income, are Harding’s opportunity to use her reclaimed platform for good. There are moments she comes close, speaking on spousal and elder abuse, and how she feels its depiction in I, Tonya is necessary in pop culture for such a common crime. There are the expected rehearsed speech tropes, a ‘life is a rollercoaster’ metaphor, a reference to squeezing into skinny jeans one pant leg at a time like the rest of us. Most of her talk reinforces who Harding was then and, it would appear, remains today—a competitor who is out for herself first, whether people like it or not.
Then there’s the conservative rhetoric that sneaks into her answers. It’s clear she’s been advised or decided not to state her views specifically in such a liberal city, but goddamn it if it didn’t silence the giggling seven-dollar-tall-boy crowd.
“Realize that life is precious,” she continues. “Stop the hate, come on. We’re all fighting for the same thing, we all believe in a higher power, we all believe in our country, we all believe that things can get better. Stop fighting, and say thank you.”
The audience is uncomfortable. I, Tonya is still a movie I love, but there’s a gratuity to its poor white girl porn I bought into that stands in stark contrast to the real-life redneck woman speaking conservative values in front of a bunch of disposable income hipsters that I need to be honest enough with myself to count myself a part of. There are layers to who she is that I didn’t want to see, because I only wanted to see the part of her that made me feel validated. In a media landscape like this, that kind of selective sight is a slippery fucking slope.
I’ve come here with a preconceived notion of who Tonya Harding has become. She is a conservative who has had a difficult life and is using her platform to defend who she was 24 years ago. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of this, she hasn’t pretended to be doing anything else. I feel queasy because I wanted her to display the growth of a Monica Lewinsky, who used her platform to combat cyberbullying and advocate for the #MeToo movement and for mental health.
By the end of the talk, I don’t want a picture with her anymore. I feel stupid for ever having wanted one. I also still love her, and it makes me feel queasy again. To me, Tonya Harding was fun, funny, one whose story and voice I lifted because of the shades of my own life I saw within it. I didn’t see what I didn’t want to—the nationalistic undertones, the consequences of not receiving an education or exposure to other points of view, the result of a life spent on the offensive and combatting abuse.
There is the part of me that watches her sip on a cup of something as Sebastian Stan punches Margot Robbie in the face, a depiction of one of the most traumatic parts of her life, and seem at peace. I’d be lying if that bizarre image wasn’t appealing—who wouldn’t want to be able to move on from abuse to the point where they can see it and be completely nonplussed? When she lands the triple axel, I am still wired to start crying—who doesn’t want to see a woman do what everyone said she couldn’t, have a secret superpower willed from her own talent and drive?
But then there’s everything else. And when Tonya Harding is sitting in front of you peddling some problematic nationalism, everything else matters.
Before the movie starts, Harding speaks about watching her story play out onscreen and how she’s spoken to very few who were portrayed in the film, particularly her mother. “They’re acting, they’re fakin’ it,” she says of the actors. “I fake it all the time. We all fake it.”
We certainly do.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.