“What did you think of Ashley Wagner?”
The morning after the ladies’ free skate at this year’s U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, that question came at me from all sides, in response to Wagner’s statement that she was “furious” about the judging that had put her in fourth place at Nationals and cost her an Olympic spot.
Most of my questioners pay attention to skating only in an Olympic year, but they know I’m a regular viewer, which is why they wanted to know what I thought. Chiefly, I thought that it’s a great pity that so many people pay attention only every four years. Because when you’ve followed an athlete’s career for more than a decade, through victories and defeats, you have a much more complete picture of her, and a context in which to place a few disgruntled words spoken during a moment of crushing disappointment.
I also thought it was a shame that so many news outlets took advantage of the moment for headlines and clickbait. Of course, headlines and clickbait are how news outlets sustain themselves. And when it comes to skating, which most Americans are only intermittently interested in, anything that will garner attention is seized upon as a godsend. So Wagner’s words were played over and over, to an audience with little understanding of what sparked them. A predictably sensational narrative was created.We can at least try to break our destructive judgments of public figures by remembering they are real human beings with feelings, minds, and agency of their own, and by leaving them a little room to surprise us.
The thing is, most every-four-years viewers don’t know who Ashley Wagner is. Some remember, hazily, that she was placed on the Olympic team in 2014 after placing fourth at Nationals, over third-place Mirai Nagasu, because Wagner had a stronger body of work and better consistency. But that reasoning didn’t keep viewers back then from reacting with consternation to what looked on the surface like a simple story of cutting in line.
Karma! I saw some of these viewers shrieking on social media this time, when Nagasu placed second and made the team, and Wagner didn’t. The narratives had done their work.
How ironic that all this took place while a movie about one of the most sensational moments in skating history is in theaters. The whole point of I, Tonya is to question the narratives that were long fed to us about figure skater Tonya Harding, her career, and her involvement in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. In fact, by openly basing its story on conflicting accounts by Harding and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, the film seems to question whether any narratives can ever be trusted.
“The haters always say, ‘Tonya, tell the truth,’” scoffs Harding (Margot Robbie). “There’s no such thing as truth. . . . Everyone has their own truth.”
As if to reflect her statement, the film’s “mockumentary” format allows for the sort of playing with narratives that we wouldn’t see in a straightforward biopic. For instance, we see an angry Tonya shooting at her abusive husband (Sebastian Stan) while at the same time assuring the audience, “I NEVER did this.” So who or what are we supposed to believe? Or are we supposed to believe anyone at all?
Though it seems that we’re meant to question all narratives, in the end the film can’t help but set up its own, suggesting that it may be all but impossible to create a story without incorporating someone’s point of view. Given that Harding is the focus of the film and the filmmakers clearly felt some sympathy for her, it’s not surprising I, Tonya leaves the impression that, however faulty the various narratives, hers should be relied on more than anyone else’s.
The poverty Harding knew and the abuse she underwent at the hands of her mother and Gillooly—this part of the film is based on actual events—does tend to get us on her side. But when these events are followed by others—confrontations with judges or a courtroom breakdown—that never happened, and when this time we don’t get Tonya’s film avatar telling us “That NEVER happened,” the lines between her idea of reality and actual reality become hopelessly blurred.
And when she derides Kerrigan even while insisting she never knew a thing about the planned attack on her, this new narrative starts to feel like the same old, same old. We’re right back in the ’90s, being led to look down simultaneously on Tonya Harding’s redneck culture and tacky homemade costumes, and on the glitzy skating culture that elevated Nancy Kerrigan to the role of ice princess.
Perhaps the film’s spin on these events was inevitable. We humans are story-lovers, which is one reason that sports journalists are able to create and sell narratives in the first place. And the love of stories is not in itself a bad thing. I believe God gave us stories, not only to delight and entertain us, but to also help us make sense of the world around us. But like many good things, the passion for stories can have a dark side. It can lead us to oversimplify our fellow humans, to try to put them in boxes that fit our ideas of them.
Human beings are not narratives. We’re complex, messy creatures, and no sooner do we think we understand each other than something happens to throw us all off. Besides, as Christians, we realize that truth does exist. Whether or not we can discern the truth of a particular situation, we know that there is an omniscient Creator who can. That knowledge reminds us not to rush to judgment or to think we can know everything there is to know about another person, because the truth is too big for us to comprehend.
In this case, the truth is that most of the Harding-Kerrigan myths can be debunked by actual research. Nancy Kerrigan was no princess; she came from a working-class family with problems of its own. Tonya Harding was not the only woman in the world doing a triple axel (some skating fans were miffed that Midori Ito, the first woman to achieve the feat, was barely mentioned in this film). Harding’s homemade costumes, which in the movie held her back from success, weren’t that different from a lot of other skating costumes in the 1980s and ‘90s. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
And in fact, Harding was not held back from success; she was a national champion, a world silver medalist, and a two-time Olympian, things that very, very few skaters ever get to be. Judges don’t just hand out those national titles and world medals like Oprah handing out cars.
The press and the fans were often unkind to Harding; I’m not discounting that. But the judges were clearly willing to reward her for her hard work . . . if only she had gone on working hard. It may very well have been the abuse she suffered that led her to sabotage herself, which is tragic and pitiable, but self-sabotage she did, slacking off from her training and quite possibly deciding to rely on an attack against her rival. (Though the film carefully makes the case that Harding thought only death threats were planned against Kerrigan, the reality is we still have reason to doubt that.) She was a great talent who—as the film character admits during a vulnerable moment—let it all slip away.
Ultimately, the narrative that damaged Tonya Harding most may have been the one in her own head, the one that insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that no one was ever going to give her a fair shake. But she wasn’t the only one hurt by a narrative; Nancy Kerrigan was too. I remember seeing her first built up and then torn down by reporters that year, both before and after she lost Olympic gold to Oksana Baiul. It was my first experience of seeing this done to a public figure, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
So one thing Harding says in the film does ring true: “America—they want someone to love, and someone to hate. And they want it easy.” It seems we’re always looking to cast the roles of “victim and villainess,” whether it’s Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding (or, for some, vice versa!), or Oksana Baiul and Nancy Kerrigan, or Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner.
A factor that should not be overlooked in all this is our expectations of who women should be and how they should behave. As Nancy Kerrigan’s mother once observed, things would have been different for Nancy “if she had been a man.” It’s women who keep getting cast in these “victim and villainess” roles. (Did you happen to hear what Wagner’s training mate Adam Rippon said about why he deserved to be on the Olympic team, after he too finished fourth at Nationals this year? I didn’t think so.)
I’ve seen this play out again and again: Audiences enjoy watching a polished female skater execute her program with poise and grace, but when a gutsy, gritty lady takes the ice to a rock song or a pop anthem, we suddenly decide that all the other women are nothing but dull “pretty princess” types. Yet as both Harding and Wagner have reason to know, the gritty female skaters often get their own share of derision over their artistic choices. Similarly, when a female skater gives carefully worded answers to journalists’ questions, she’s boring; when she speaks her mind, she’s bratty. It’s almost as if a girl can’t win, no matter which path she chooses and which narrative gets imposed on her.
So what do we do about it? Our options are fairly limited, as it’s not easy to know much about public figures apart from the narratives spun about them. But we can at least try to break free from these destructive patterns by remembering that those public figures are real human beings with feelings, minds, and agency of their own, and by leaving them a little room to surprise us. That’s why, when I think back now on this year’s Nationals, the moment I remember best is the moment at the end of the ladies’ competition, when Ashley Wagner went to Mirai Nagasu and gave her a long congratulatory hug.
That moment, contrasted with the way Tonya Harding acted toward her rival so many years before, helps remind me that the choice we have isn’t either to judge people according to established narratives, or to refuse to exercise any judgment at all because “everyone has their own truth.” We have another, better choice: to look for moments of humanity and grace, and to let them help shape our vision of each other, to be more like the vision that God has of each one of us.