Monkey See
9:55 am
Thu January 16, 2014

Complicating The Tonya And Nancy Narratives, 20 Years Later

Originally published on Thu January 16, 2014 1:40 pm

There have always been two Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan narratives. Always.

The first one — the sparkly, easy, TV-coverage one — is that Nancy Kerrigan was a beautiful, elegant, classy skater and Tonya Harding was trash. In this one, Tonya had a thug husband who arranged for a vicious attack on poor, beautiful Nancy, who then had to rally to win a silver medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics.

But the other one has always been there, too. In this one, Tonya was a tough little scrapper, athletic and constantly underappreciated. The little underdog, helpless against a skating establishment that would never appreciate her. Nancy was a stuck-up pretty girl who felt sorry for herself over what was really nothing and revealed herself to be an ungrateful, snooty, spoiled crybaby. Tonya was The People's Skater; Nancy was The Establishment.

Said in shorter, less elegant terminology: The first one says Tonya is a bitch. The second one says that Nancy is a bitch. The new documentary The Price Of Gold, premiering tonight as part of the ESPN "30 for 30" series, has a different theory: Competitive skating as a sport and a media spectacle is a bitch, and both of these theories are too simplistic to capture either of these women. Both skaters are more complex than the story that disdains them; both skaters are more complex than the story that admires them. And what's truly shocking is that the media and athletic institutions that are far more powerful than either of them largely escaped scrutiny after essentially devouring them both.

Directed by Nanette Burstein, who made (among other projects) the fascinating and empathetic documentary American Teen, The Price Of Gold is primarily Harding's story. Kerrigan didn't participate in it, although her husband did. Harding, on the other hand, is eager to explain herself and to maintain, as she always has, that she knew absolutely nothing about the attack on Kerrigan.

Burstein's film acknowledges that in truth, nobody really knows whether Harding knew about the attack or helped plan it. Nobody probably will ever really know. People believe what they believe, and everyone is sticking to the same version of events as always, so if the film were primarily about that, it wouldn't be very interesting. What it's about instead are the ways in which this entire story, and the way in which it is remembered, became a reflection of cultural ideas about class and style and femininity and sports that put both of these women in a really, really bad position long before 1994.

Certainly, Harding has time here to explain — with the help of archival footage in some cases — just how difficult her young life was. She describes all manner of abuse at the hands of her mother and later her husband. A friend of hers recalls accidentally witnessing an incident in which Harding was beaten with a hairbrush at a competition. In some old tape from a past documentary project, we get to watch Harding on the phone with her mom as she explains how a routine went and is pretty obviously being given an earful about her inadequacies (though we only hear her side of the conversation).

It's difficult for anyone to talk about a skater, it turns out, in a way that's very nuanced. When Connie Chung says in an interview that Harding had "moxie" but was from the "wrong side of the tracks," she's trafficking in sympathetic cliches, but cliches nonetheless. So is Harding's coach in an old piece of tape from 1986 in which she says skating is Harding's "ticket out of the gutter."

It's important to remember that this was not a class war between an upscale princess with lots of money for training and costumes and a downscale working-class family. Kerrigan's family was not wealthy, and until it was trained out of her, she was also a tomboy who mostly cared about jumping and not grace. "She really wasn't all that interested in being artistic," her coach says.

This became Princess versus Trash largely because that was convenient and made a good story, not because it fit either one of them comfortably. And as the film points out, Kerrigan was pilloried as soon as she won the silver medal at the Olympics for a candidly caught moment in which she expressed frustration over waiting around — so she believed — for winner Oksana Baiul to fix her makeup. And even before that, she became known for wailing "Why me?" after being hit, a quote that front-covered Newsweek, even though she didn't say it. She said the much less surprising "Why?" The bafflement is quite natural; the self-pity was a narrative flourish.

Kerrigan got the shaft, too, in a lot of ways. Yes, she got to go off and be in ice shows and make money, but to a lot of people, she was tagged as a snooty whiner in an incident that — let's not forget — started with her being rather terrifyingly assaulted, which wound up overshadowing her Olympic performance and denying her training time when she most wanted it.

Because Burstein takes the time to listen to and explain Harding's complicated life, it would be easy to read it as advocacy for a reconsideration of her legacy. Which it sort of is. But as sympathetic as the documentary is to Harding, she is a human being, not a story of poverty, and she stubbornly resists classification as any sort of noble working-class hero. She's still deeply ungenerous when she talks about Kerrigan (who, after all, still got assaulted by no fault of her own even if Harding had nothing to do with it), calling her a "crybaby who didn't win the gold." She is what she has always been: easy to sympathize with over everything she's encountered, but hard to like.

But the point is really this: Who cares? She doesn't have to be likable for the pigeonholing and image-making of female skaters to be deeply and profoundly messed up, and for her to be an example of it. And she certainly doesn't have to win a likability contest with Nancy Kerrigan, because they're supposed to be athletes. When Harding says she was mocked and punished for her homemade costumes, that stinks, whether she's a particularly nice person or not. When she and a bunch of other people say that the skating establishment didn't want her as champion because of the inadequately classy or feminine image she presented, that isn't fair or unfair depending on whether you'd want to have lunch with her.

This is where the framing went so haywire in the first place, is in concluding that the issues of class and looks and style in skating and coverage of skating came down to figuring out which one of these women is the bitch. Because either or both of them or neither of them could be a nice person, and all the issues about the sport and the way it's discussed remain the same. Tony Kornheiser says at one point that "figure skaters are the Barbie dolls of sports." Which raises the question: Whose fault is that? Not Tonya Harding's, but not Nancy Kerrigan's, either.

It's not really a documentary about who did what to whom, and it doesn't really attempt to crack the case of which one of these women is or isn't likable. Instead, it puts forth an unstated argument that who is likable is beside the point, because they both got hosed, and they probably never had a chance — either one of them — to be treated and judged as athletes.

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