Crying in Public: The Cost of Gawking at Tonya and Tammy Faye
Let’s get one thing straight: Tonya Harding is not an appealing protagonist. In the movie I, Tonya, Tonya (played by Margot Robbie in an Oscar-nominated turn) does the audience a favor by acknowledging this point before we have a chance to. With an undertone of hostility, she speaks directly into the camera—her bleached hair pulled back from her face, revealing a fringe of bangs expertly curled into a single roll. This is present-day Tonya, the Tonya of a few extra pounds, clad in denim, sitting in her remarkably unglamorous kitchen. In the background, her counter is cluttered with dirty dishes. A cigarette hangs from her fingers as she addresses the audience.
Tonya narrates her life, telling us what’s happened to her—re-created in a series of pitch-perfect period scenes—in all the years leading up to 1994 (as well as all the years since). This period includes her all-too-brief salad days, in which she is the Best Female Ice Skater in the World, and is immediately followed by her wilderness years. Her time in the desert, in which no ice exists.
The script for I, Tonya is based on staged present-day interviews conducted with Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The script also takes into account all the footage that exists of others involved in Tonya’s life, too—the whole cast of characters surrounding the Incident (as it’s dubbed in the film). This Incident took place in 1994, as Tonya fought to scale professional heights in the weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics. In January of that same year, an unknown assailant kneecapped world-class ice skater Nancy Kerrigan at a practice session. It turns out that the person doing the kneecapping was connected to her rival—you guessed it—fellow world-class skater Tonya Harding.
I, Tonya never quite lands on the truth of what happened that day, objectively speaking: whether Tonya knew about the plot to attack Nancy—at the time considered her greatest competition for a shot at Olympic glory—or whether Jeff ordered the attack, or if he was circumvented by Tonya’s overzealous bodyguard. Instead, viewers are treated to Tonya’s version of the truth—or, variously, Jeff’s version—in a cinematic style that owes much to both Shakespeare and The Dukes of Hazzard.
The truth, however, of what happened in 1994 is not the point of I, Tonya. Seeing Tonya Harding as sympathetic, of finding a way to redeem her, is not the point either. Even when factoring in Tonya’s absent father and terrible mother, played by Allison Janney (also nominated for an Oscar)—a woman in a world-class category of her own when it came to abusive stage-mothering—Tonya Harding is still not entirely sympathetic. Instead, the film narrows its gaze and inverts its focus. Suddenly the attention is on us, the audience. Suddenly we’re aware of how much we love this stuff, of how much we love watching people who screw up. We love narratives with an easy arc, and no one provided an easier arc than Tonya Harding—a story that involved a rarified competitive sport, Olympic medals, class warfare, costumes, and senseless violence.
With the re-emergence of Tonya Harding, another scandalous, bleached blonde all-American woman comes to mind: Tammy Faye Bakker. Tammy Faye, herself a consummate professional in another sport—televangelism—never meant to hurt anyone either. And, like Tonya’s case, we will never know just how much, and when, Tammy Faye understood the crimes committed on her behalf.
Tammy Faye rose to prominence through her role on the PTL network as a co-host, singer, and all-around premier personality of Heritage USA—a Christian theme park dominated only by the Disney franchise in its ability to attract visitors to its wholesome resort facilities. Tammy Faye had her own Jeff Gillooly in Jim Bakker, a husband whose darker inclinations got the best of him in the pressure cooker of a ministry that garnered a budget of several million dollars a week. In 1987, the entire multi-million dollar, international ministry came crashing down in a bizarre turn of events involving the IRS, an affair with a church secretary, a payoff, and some strong-arming from Jerry Falwell and his gang of Southern Baptists. Tammy Faye’s husband may have been the one who made the biggest mistakes in the downfall of PTL, but Tammy Faye stayed on the hook. To everyone watching, she seemed complicit: she should have known what was going on, should have realized that the ministry was a house of cards.
As with Tonya, we loved Tammy Faye until we hated her, and then we laughed at her. After the scandal, each time Tammy Faye tried to make a living in front of us—the only way she knew how to make a living—we considered her moves a punchline, until she finally left the stage altogether in 2006.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a 2000 documentary on Tammy Faye Bakker’s life following her ministry’s collapse, is a weird, oddly heartbreaking piece of filmmaking. Released thirteen years after Tammy Faye’s fall from grace,The Eyes of Tammy Faye resonates in much the same way as I, Tonya, with both stories offering the perspective of events brought about by the passage of time. And while The Eyes of Tammy Faye operates as a fairly straightforward documentary—dispensing with recreated scenes and hired actors—both films are similar in the way they bring each story back to its leading lady.We are the audience, with our endless appetite for scandal, standing around the woman at the well (or in this case the two women at the well), ready to throw stones.
In that sense, you could say The Eyes of Tammy Faye belongs exclusively to its protagonist’s face. Throughout the film, Tammy Faye is expressive still, despite being permanently tattooed with lip liner, eyeliner, and etched eyebrows. Her eyelashes are glued on in layers, painted with waterproof mascara in chunky black. However the process, they are no doubt designed to hold fast in a downpour—be it a torrent of rain or of tears.
Tammy Faye spent much of her time crying in public, as much a mark of her persona as her famous makeup. Watching Tammy Faye on PTL, I used to wonder whether her tears were real. Maybe this was not the question to ask. A better one might be to ask why she was crying. Tammy Faye genuinely seemed to feel the weight of her life, its enormity: performing, parenting, and pill-popping, all while asking donors for a million dollars every other day. She also seemed to feel the enormity of God’s grace and forgiveness in equal measure. To watch her sing, her diminutive form taking center stage against the background of PTL’s Heritage Singers, is to watch the raw and powerful performance of a professional, no less authentic for that. Tammy Faye practically shout-cries the song “Mercy Rewrote My Life” in footage that will hurt your heart, between the power of the lyrics, the disaster that ensued, and the painful irony that the words of the song were written by none other than Jimmy Swaggart (a man in need of mercy as much as anyone).
Mercy rewrote my life
Mercy rewrote my life
I could have fallen my soul cast down
But mercy rewrote my life
My mistakes would turned into miracles
Every tear was turned into joy
My sins, forgiven, a new name oh was written
When mercy rewrote my life
There’s a weird sort of sympathy that exists among outliers. In the case of Tammy Faye, this sympathy is demonstrated by the strange fact that The Eyes of Tammy Faye is narrated by the famous drag queen RuPaul, someone who was not, it is safe to say, the target audience of the PTL Club. In her latter years, Tammy Faye was also a cast member on The Surreal Life, along with the rapper Vanilla Ice and porn star Ron Jeremy.
Like Tammy Faye, her fellow celebrity penitent Tonya Harding too spent time crying in public: in press conferences, on the ice, all in front of the TV cameras. We would expect nothing less. She also spent time being pummeled, quite literally—her stint years later as a celebrity boxer bringing a special sort of humiliation that seemed only appropriate at the time.
Now she is back in the ring of sorts, making the press rounds to promote the wildly successful I, Tonya, along with the film’s stars. She is still surrounded by controversy: the latest being her split from her longtime manager, Michael Rosenberg, in the wake of the movie’s release. It seems that Tonya demanded that, before giving an interview, reporters must sign an affidavit that they will not ask her about her past. Violators will receive a fine of $25,000. Michael Rosenberg thought this was no way to handle the press, but Tonya was adamant about the terms, and the two parted ways.
Tonya Harding might be on to something. Maybe there should be a price to pay for all this gawking, not just for the person being gawked at—it already costs her plenty—but for the reporters eager to throw bits of chum into the water. And for us, the equally eager audience, always circling to the tune of John Williams’s Jaws score, always hungry for more. More Tonya Harding. More eyelashes from Tammy Faye. Maybe there is a price to pay for all this gawking. Not a $25,000 fine per nosy question, of course, but something that cuts far deeper. We are the audience, with our endless appetite for scandal, standing around the woman at the well (or in this case the two women at the well), ready to throw stones, until we are reminded by Jesus: The sinless one among you, go first. Throw the stone.
In a movie full of memorable scenes, one of the final moments of I, Tonya stands out as particularly unforgettable. In it, Margot Robbie, as Tonya, tells the audience what her life was like following the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. She looks directly into the camera, telling us what happened in those days, what it was like to be hounded by the press, sentenced to a lifetime without skating, vilified by the public.
“It was like being abused all over again,” She says, without a trace of self-pity, but the viewer cringes a little at her words, thinking of all the scenes that we have just witnessed: the beatings with the hairbrush, the punches to the face administered first by her mother, then her husband—on and on. “Only this time,” Tonya continues, still looking into the camera, “the abuser was you.” She takes another drag on her cigarette, and, watching her, I cannot deny it. I cannot deny it to her. I can’t deny it to Tammy Faye.
However unlikely it may seem, Tonya Harding is telling the truth.