Riding the current waves of ’90s nostalgia and feminist revisionism, I, Tonya reconsiders the career, and crises, of Olympian figure skater Tonya Harding. Starring Margot Robbie as the self-described “totally redneck” skater, Craig Gillespie’s darkly funny biopic follows several other reassessments of that decade’s female media targets: Anita Hill (Confirmation), Marcia Clark (The People v. O.J. Simpson), and Monica Lewinsky (American Crime Story’s planned fourth season). The hindsight afforded I, Tonya underscores the sexism and classism that Harding faced from the era’s skating judges and news commentators. But Gillespie’s film is most remarkable for reinterpreting the 1994 media frenzy around Harding as a callous and heart-rending misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse.
Until now, pop culture’s feminist re-evaluation of Harding has taken the form of critiquing the sexist structures that rejected the skater for the “trashy” femininity she represented. She and her rival Nancy Kerrigan both hailed from working-class families, but, as Harding ruefully notes in Nanette Burstein’s 30 for 30 documentary The Price of Gold, the media remade the polished, graceful Kerrigan into a “princess” and the brassy, unvarnished Harding into a “pile of crap.” The Price of Gold premiered just four years ago, but its ultimate obsession with Harding’s still-unsettled role in Kerrigan’s attack rendered it a rehash. I, Tonya, on the other hand, feels like it belongs to the current moment, exploring as it does hidden abuses of power, the links between various forms of toxic masculinity, and the messiness of victimhood.
Opening with a postmodern preamble explaining that this version of events is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (now Jeff Stone), the chatty, fourth wall–breaking black comedy—think The Big Short on ice—conveys much of its humor and humanity through fictionalized talking-head interviews with Tonya, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and her mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Frump-ified in Pringle-curve bangs and a series of tight, uncomfortable smiles, Robbie masterfully plays Tonya from her gawky wunderkind adolescence to the middle-aged ex-skater in the current day. Practically zippy at times, with brief, puckish scenes hopping between decades, I, Tonya rarely wallows in dolefulness, despite the many misfortunes that fall upon the Harding household. That refusal of sentimentality allows the film its greatest strength: the rare nuanced depiction of partner abuse. In contrast to many a Hollywood blockbuster, where humor is used to leaven the violence on screen, I, Tonya’s buoyant, bobbing tone accentuates the tragedy of life under the fist of Damocles.
I, Tonya toggles between its protagonist’s meteoric rise and her emotionally grueling home life, first with her mother, and then her husband. The 20-something Jeff picks up the teenage Tonya at the rink, and from the start, LaVona disapproves. But it’s clear that Mrs. Harding primes, then pushes, Tonya into an early marriage with a physically abusive partner. “Maybe he should hit you,” says LaVona one night at the dinner table after a minor disagreement. Tonya moves in with Jeff after her mother throws a knife at her daughter across the dining table, the handle sticking out of the skater’s upper arm, a violent tableau all the more jarring for its near inexorability.
Because physical aggression was what Tonya had always known, why would she expect anything different in her marriage? The abuse that Jeff visits upon his bride, motivated in large part by his jealousy over her success, is both spectacular and mundane: slaps in the car, punches at home, guns pulled on each other. The ironic distance derived from the film’s framing device and fourth wall–breaking helps emphasizes the drab ordinariness and the utter acceptability of such cruelty. In one uncomfortably funny scene, Tonya dryly notes that she’s being beaten once again as her husband slams her head into a picture on the wall, her head cracking the glass in the frame. It’s not just LaVona and Jeff, the two people she’s closest to, who seem at peace with the idea that Tonya’s body should be a punching bag as well as a record-setter and a moneymaker. After one of Jeff’s bullets grazes Tonya’s head, a cop pulls the couple over en route to the hospital. Tonya reveals the gore on the side of her face to the policeman, but after a friendly chat with her husband, the officer drives off.
What’s rare about Harding’s story, at least in pop-culture narratives, is the way she defies the archetype of the blameless female victim. Tonya is feisty and complicated. Having grown up socially isolated, without niceties, and training for hours on the ice every day, Tonya reacts to Jeff’s abuse the way one might expect: She slugs back. This pattern of violence—not to mention the expectation that the most egregious behavior will be forgiven—bleeds into her professional life. With explosive aggression such a normalized part of her existence, especially during her marriage to Jeff, Tonya doesn’t think twice before hurling a skate, the blade practically glinting, near her prim coach’s (Julianne Nicholson) head. Nor does the oft-stalked Tonya think much of following a terrified judge to his car after a competition gone bad, demanding answers about why she was scored so poorly. It’s a terrifying portrayal of normalized violence.
But I, Tonya’s smartest observation is that partner abuse doesn’t always take the form of punches and kicks—and that Jeff’s insecurity and aggression isn’t too different from the kind of delusional hypermasculinity that turns a plan to mail Nancy a threatening letter into a violent quasi-paramilitary mission. In Gillespie’s grimly comic universe, Jeff’s initial plan spirals out of control when his friend Shawn Eckhardt takes over, the latter’s two wannabe-militia acquaintances in tow. The trio is goofy but also prone to dangerous grandiosity. Shawn calls himself Tonya’s bodyguard, a self-aggrandizing and somewhat possessive title he gives himself without her permission; the line between patriarchal protection and patriarchal sabotage is blurred. What I, Tonya helps us understand, with two decades’ worth of historic distance and feminist analysis, is that the battering of Nancy’s knee was also an extension of the abuse that Tonya suffered. Nancy deserved sympathy for her extremely public pain, but so did Tonya for her private blows. “Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits,” Tonya complains ruefully at one point. “I got hit all the time.”
The Price of Gold left viewers with a strong suspicion that Harding had played a larger role in the assault on Kerrigan than the FBI could find evidence for. (Investigators concluded that the attack was planned by Gillooly and his friend Shawn Eckhardt and carried out by Shane Stant.) I, Tonya mostly takes Harding’s word that she was in the dark until after the fact. We’ll never know how much of the crime that Harding was eventually convicted of—conspiracy to hinder prosecution, i.e., helping to cover up the crime—was due to Gillooly’s silencing. That conviction led to Harding’s lifelong ban from professional skating.
In the film’s telling, Jeff’s overreaching eventually accomplishes what his fists could not: By taking skating away from Tonya, he strips her of her identity and her chance at a prosperous livelihood, and her guilt in the public eye finally drags her down to his level. By weaponizing public opinion, Jeff and the skating gatekeepers destroyed Tonya and turned their audience—us—into a willing cudgel. Instead of recognizing the connection between partner abuse and headline-making violence (a connection we’re seeing a lot more readily today), we were busy vilifying an unladylike woman in part because she didn’t “look” like a victim. “It was like being abused all over again,” the fictional Tonya says. Addressing the viewer, she adds, “You were my attackers too.” It’s the film’s boldest line, and it lands, hard.