Context and singular moments in I, Tonya

Some spoilers ahead.

Just a quick disclaimer here – I was too young during the Tonya Harding controversy, when the top figure skater’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt hired someone to break fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg so she couldn’t compete at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Everything I know about the controversy stems from I, Tonya and other articles that have retraced that history.

Whether or not I, Tonya is the true retelling of the Harding/Kerrigan controversy or another embellished story, it helps showcase how people – especially those in the spotlight – can be defined, for good or for bad, by singular moments.

For me, the best part of I, Tonya was that it provided some much-needed context behind those singular moments, allowing even people who didn’t know about Tonya Harding to understand what it might have been like to be both a top figure skater and abused wife and daughter.

The film is told from many perspectives – absent Kerrigan’s – and is a fine example of how visual storytelling, and The Office-style interviews, can recreate a piece of history.

Many articles are saying that Tonya Harding finally got her redemption thanks to the movie. But the event happened almost 24 years ago already, which is an awful long time to get redemption of any kind, especially when you’re in the national spotlight.

Tonya Harding: expectations

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, outside of the skating rink.

I, Tonya also shows what it’s like to play up to expectations – as a daughter, woman, and national figure skater. Here, we see the power of both singular moments and why those singular moments are so powerful – because they provide such an intense moment compared to what you’ve gotten used to.


Tonya’s relationship with her mother, for example, was both strained and ongoing: it stayed relatively the same throughout the movie. This provided an interestingly stable backdrop against the powerful moments that upturned Tonya’s career.

From the moment Tonya’s mother forced coach Diane Rawlinson to train her daughter to the faux catharsis, we saw the mother-daughter relationship defined, then amplified, then finally reaching a sort of reluctant acceptance that the relationship would never get better.

Tonya’s household, as seen in the movie, was not a happy one. Her mother abused her both physically and emotionally, pushing Tonya to keep on practicing even when she needed to use the bathroom, to the point where she urinated on the ice. There’s even a dramatic moment (which may be artistic license rather a recreated event from real life) in the movie where her mother throws a knife that sticks itself into Tonya’s arm.

It’s hinted that Tonya’s mother wasn’t very happy about her own life choices, and so tried to make Tonya the very best she could be. This cycle of abuse (contributed to in no small part by Jeff Gillooly) becomes even more telling considering Tonya later became hated by practically the world – and makes you want to empathize with her even more.

Womanhood and figure skating

As a woman, Tonya Harding always got flak from society. As shown in the movie, Kerrigan’s person on the ice a was that of a princess – feminine and beautiful – while Tonya’s crass personality turned people off. She may have even lost some points because she didn’t embody what people thought was the “ideal” figure skater, an image Kerrigan seemed to exemplify (though thinking about it, that must have been hard for her, too).

Harding only overcame this when she did the almost impossible. She was the first American woman to successfully make a triple axel jump during a competition, and you can see from the movie it’s one of the defining moments of her career. “I was loved,” movie Tonya says – but only for a moment.

After that, her career was shattered thanks to her ex-husband; though she reached the Olympics a second time, everything that she had worked for was soon gone. She was hated, banned from participating in United States Figure Skating Association events as a skater or coach, and could no longer do the sport she loved.

And for 24 years, she remained hated – some people even remember Tonya being the one attacking Kerrigan – until this movie was filmed.

Margot Robbie: the next step

Margot Robbie recreating one of Tonya Harding’s defining moments: right after she landed that triple axel.

As for Margot Robbie herself, this is only the next step in a burgeoning career that’s only sure to grow even bigger as she continues onward. She’s long been one of my favorite actresses, even though I’ve only seen her in two movies (The Legend of Tarzan, Goodbye Christopher Robin), but the display of raw emotion she displayed as Tonya Harding, and the fact that she played a titular role for the first time, only speaks to her talent.

No matter what role she plays – fluttery lady who cares for her kid but not enough to stay with him, sassy DC villain, jungle survivor, or brash and incredibly talented figure skater – she is sure to impress.

As for the singular moment? For me, at least, this movie was the pivoting point where she transformed from a great actress to one I’ll remember for a long time.

Image credits: LuckyChap Entertainment, Clubhouse Pictures, AI Film


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