I, Tonya Spits in the Face of Camp

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I, Tonya Spits in the Face of Camp

What is camp? An elusive sensibility, or a style? A lens through which to see the world? “Failed seriousness,” as Susan Sontag once conceptualized. Distilling her influential essay “Notes on Camp,” Dennis Lim claims that camp sees things in “quotation marks.” Scholar Moe Meyer argues that camp’s political utility critiques bourgeois notions of class and identity. Film critic Angelica Jade Bastien suggests that camp disregards and flattens the experience of women. Figure skating, too, is seen by some as camp, with its sequined gowns, kitschy choices of music and acting atop razor sharp blades on ice. How can it be that I, Tonya—a biopic from the director of Mr. Woodcock and Lars and the Real Girl about a sporting spectacle—manages to both embody and deconstruct all of these things at once?

At the core of I, Tonya is Tonya Harding, played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, framed as a faux-documentary with reenactments of interviews with the players in Harding’s life. The film roves around that life, from her childhood to her marriage to her career as a figure skater—one of the only women to attempt, and succeed, at a triple axel, mind you—and the much ballyhooed “incident,” wherein her supposed rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), had her knee bashed in at a critical moment before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Based on the title, the film’s agenda is to help Tonya with the authorship of her own story, even as it is complicated by the testimony of others in her life. In its subjectivity, rewriting, revising and upholding authenticity as much as honesty, the film is a complement to Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, whose framework involves a Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) speaking to the widow (Natalie Portman) after the assassination of JFK.

Early in the film, addressing the camera, Harding sneers, saying that the ideal look of a figure skater is reminiscent of “how ladies were supposed to look and act in the old times.” Frequently confronted with the reality of how the judges of her chosen career, and America too, see Harding’s place in the world because of her gender presentation and her class background, she folds and unfolds her arms during these faux-doc testimonials. It’s unclear whether she’s sneering at the audience or at herself. I, Tonya faces the danger of undermining and laughing off something that already has been milked of all of its jokes: notions of womanhood in sports and complex class discourse. Harding’s not as affluent as the other girls (and women) skating, and she refuses to feel ashamed about it.

Camp has long had an association with queerness and queer culture, regardless of who defines it and how, intrinsically linked to Others and their appreciation of aesthetic Otherness, where visual or emotional presentation somehow exists outside of conventional norms. A melange of cultural texts that are designated as camp objects are about women: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Showgirls, All About My Mother and All That Heaven Allows. The line of logic is that these films’ female characters’ emotionality is alienating to audiences within a conventional or normative society, an audience of straight men who have no interest in or reason to identify with the interior thoughts of women. Camp argues that those heightened emotions are worth praising and worth using as a mirror, a form of identification in which gay and queer men’s experiences are somewhat conflated with women’s.

The artifice of Harding’s life presents itself on screen in ways not dissimilar to the way it does in Jackie, in that there are elements of the film which fit high melodramatic molds (Tonya’s personal relationships and Jackie’s mourning) and drag (Tonya’s harsh costumes and Jackie’s wandering around drunkenly trying on gowns as the cast album of Camelot plays). Director Craig Gillespie, too, has Harding’s abusive and alcoholic mother LaVonna (Allison Janney) done up in interviews to resemble a cross between Iris Apfel and Big Edie Beale.

Mostly, one of the most notorious sporting incidents in the world is played for dark comedy. Harding’s alleged involvement in the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan placed the spotlight on female competition and how femininity was perceived in sports, highlighted in such works as Women On Ice: Feminist Responses to the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle, edited by Cynthia Baughman—similarly, the reaction to I, Tonya has been divisive. Writers like April Wolfe have championed the film, Wolfe writing, “Gillespie’s film makes me root for Tonya,” while Durga Chew-Bose wrote negatively of it, opining, “Gillespie’s choice to tell Harding’s story as a comedy is odd, and in a strange twist, begs the question of its complicity in her continued misrepresentation.” I’d argue that this biopic is not striking for its pure portrayal of the strain for gold. Rather, its fascination lies in it being a film about the contemporary camp lens.

Harding’s body is beyond detail in I, Tonya’s skating scenes, her sequins and stitching indiscernible from our perspective. We are, perhaps ironically, extremely close to her body (her waist), and yet it’s like we still can’t see her. Still, the feeling—Harding’s all consuming passion—is there, especially in terms of queer men’s access to it. Gillespie and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis film Harding’s skating intriguingly—captivatingly too, to be sure, in the way that they whip the camera and whirl it around with Harding’s body, a bit of a dizzying effect. But however in adoration they are of Harding’s body and movements, in their blurry imprecision and flashy expressionistic quality, they seem to actually be more in love with the idea of the movement, the idea of her waist and feet and legs: a broad adoration of the emotion inspired by the routine rather than an appreciation for the technical skill itself.

To whatever extent a female figure skater like Harding, or Michelle Kwan, or Nancy Kerrigan can be famous, admiration of their (undoubtedly spectacular) technique can morph into something else. Spins and curls are dreamily adored increasingly less for their technical achievement and more for how they relate to how audiences—and in this argument, queer men—see women in the spotlight: Our senses are hooked on the heightened feeling, wherein women’s bodies are suddenly put into quotation marks with exclamations bookending each bend, curl, and double and triple axel. It’s about the spectacle of femininity, its seriousness seen as negligible. Director Craig Gillespie then challenges this by including slow motion, CGI reenactments of Harding’s triple axel jumps in an ironic double take, a wink at the queer audience. Her triple axel is no longer broadly amazing, but honed into the specificity of its achievement. It’s no longer just spectacle.

The precision of Harding’s technique is finally visible to the untrained eye and the queer eye both, but it’s beset by computer-generated artifice: the unreal is made real then once again made unreal. When we, the audience, can finally see the all of the details of Harding’s accomplishment, Gillespie makes those details as fake and shiny as his audience (queer men?) wants them to be. It’s a reversal of sorts—a trick, like a triple axel, the near impossible achievement of being camp and then immediately critiquing it.

That is perhaps the biggest flaw of the camp lens: When viewing women or femme characters through it, we notice the complexity of their feelings matter less than queer men’s access to them. Writing about films like All About Eve and Sunset Blvd, Lim notes, “The camp appreciation of these films points to the sensibility’s latent edge of cruelty and misogyny, but those grand dames have always inspired a complex mix of horror, awe, affection, and even, for a queer constituency, a kind of identification.” Armond White ironically cues in on the issue while reinforcing it in his piece “Camp on Ice: I, Tonya is Desperately in Need of some Gay Sensibility”: “This saga conforms to the ways that female celebrities become iconographic figures when gays can empathize with the female striver’s hard-knock life and understand the necessity of laughing at yourself before others do as a way of survival.”

I, Tonya’s self-awareness fluctuates, and it can gloriously (and questionably) get lost in itself. In those ecstatic sequences of Harding skating is an amalgam of qualities both masculine and feminine, the very thing with which Tonya Harding seemed to struggle. Her “white trash” background is at odds, both presentationally and in terms of accessibility, with the kind of “old timey woman” that everyone else wanted on the ice. Her fur coat was more like a pelt, and her unapologetic ability to chop wood and disinclination to play the role of a housewife or princess, aesthetically or otherwise, meant something different to her than what they meant to the figure skating world. She’s not overtly masculine, but she doesn’t relegate herself into a image of “wholesome womanliness” that is easily branded as nice, palatable or deferential, one that the skating judges expect of her. Gillespie sometimes even offers aesthetic insight into the musculature of Harding’s body, and the strength that she built, throughout her training, arguing that athletic female bodies seemed queer to straight audiences because of those bodies’ uneasy relationship with traditional femininity.

After getting a low score in one performance, Tonya, wearing a ribbony pink outfit that looks like a tutu, skates up to the judge and asks her, “How do I get a fair shot?” The judge pretentiously retorts, “We also grade on presentation.” Tonya snarls back: “Suck my dick!” Robbie says the line with such defiance, as if to spit in the audience’s face. It’s this that may have shaken the world, that someone who asserted a kind of dominant masculine power with vulgarity on the ice would ever challenge the very conventions and gendered norms that often cost her great scores.

The ending of the film is the final takedown of camp’s irony. After she’s banned from figure skating, a scene that concocts an alchemical mixture of irony and earnestness, Harding describes what follows: a little bit of boxing. Gillespie then illustrates, somewhat glibly, her uncomfortable and unhealthy relationship to violence as a way of manifesting her fury and anger into a middle finger to the audience: Gillespie cross cuts between Harding falling from a punch, doing her iconic skating move and an audience cheering—all in slow motion. Gillespie challenges the audience to rethink what scenes of extreme emotion and tragedy might mean in different class contexts, and certainly within the context of American celebrity culture.

Harding’s story, after all, falls too easily into camp: “crazy,” misunderstood and difficult female characters fighting, a sport that queer men may clamor for because of its mix of flamboyance and skill. Bastien says, “Until Hollywood and critics are able to see stories about complex, highly emotional women as more than camp spectacle, the industry will never be able to combat the sexism that hobbles its creativity.” Harding mentions that she became a punchline for years; I, Tonya weaponizes the comedy, daring you to laugh at her “complicated life.

The ending of I, Tonya feels as visceral as the punch Harding takes. Why is the audience cheering? Harding knows, a look into the camera revealing her awareness as she falls: The audience just wants a story. She gets up off the ground after spewing blood at us, leaving a little bit of herself on the floor. We look at the mess we’ve made.

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