How I, Tonya Handles Domestic Violence On Film

Photo: Courtesy of Neon Films.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for I, Tonya.
There's a scene from The Philadelphia Story that I think about a lot. It's the opening shot of the movie, and Katherine Hepburn is giving Carey Grant the boot. We see him carrying out his suitcases in a huff, looking dashing as always in a well-cut suit and hat. Then, out comes Hepburn, carrying his golf clubs. Her triumphant smile as she cracks one over her knee is a rare show of female power that feels surprisingly modern. A man has slighted a woman, and she has taken charge and sent him on his way. Except that moments later, Cary Grant taps his wife on the shoulder, and after raising his fist and hesitating, chooses instead to strike her with his open palm, physically pushing her flat on her back.
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In the context of 1941, when the film was released, this moment was played for humor. It's a man putting his shrewish wife in her place — on her back, where it's communicated that she belongs. But watching it as a teenager, I remember being struck at the casual violence of it all; the fact that this is how we're introduced to Grant's character made it much harder for me to root for him later on, as we're meant to.
I thought about this scene again while watching I, Tonya, the new biopic about notorious figure skater Tonya Harding, played by Margot Robbie. The film, which uses the scandal and frenzied headlines surrounding Harding's possible involvement in the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan almost as a conceit to focus directly on Harding's own story, shines a light on the harsh realities of Harding's upbringing, including the shocking domestic abuse she was subjected to both in her childhood, and her marriage. Seeing her navigate the obstacles in her own life makes her brief moment of success all the more impressive, and her eventual downfall that much harder to witness.
A mockumentary-style structure allows viewers to see events from different points of view. We hear from Lavonda Harding (Allison Janney), Harding's mother whose determination to see her daughter succeed — which isn't all that altruistic to begin with — often means mistaking tough love for actual abuse. Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Harding's first love and never quite ex-husband, and the man who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan, also serves as a narrator. But most importantly, we get to hear things from Harding's own perspective, although I'll leave you to determine whether she's a reliable witness.
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This setup means that every character has a chance to tell their side of a very complicated story, which could have been problematic in the context of the domestic abuse that is graphically depicted in multiple scenes throughout the film. Director Craig Gillespie avoids this problem by focusing on the abuse perpetrated on Harding by Gillooly on film, so that any claims he may be making about her ring false. Gillooly's claim about Harding threatening him with a shotgun, for example, plays very differently when it's accompanied by a shot of him slamming her face into a mirror.
Gillespie has said that the way in which Harding's repeated abuse would be handled was of paramount importance to Robbie, who also produced the film. “I said, I think we have to be brutal,” he told Vogue. “We can’t shy away from it because this informs so much of who she is, what she lived with, the choices she makes, how she sees the world.”
At its core, this is a film about domestic abuse: how it starts, how quickly it escalates, and how the numbing repetition of such violence colors the victim's worldview. One scene that has stayed with me since the screening is when Lavonda, upset at what she perceives to be her daughter's talk-back attitude, throws a knife at her. It's a shocking moment that's made all the worse by the complete matter-of-factness with which Tonya stares at the blood welling up on her arm, where the weapon has been lodged.
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Comedy is used as a weapon throughout the film, almost daring us to laugh at this blackest of romantic comedies. The fact that Tonya can joke about Jeff punching her in the nose in her on-camera interviews only proves how disconnected she is from it all. It's hard to watch, and it is uncomfortable to think that something like this can be played for laughs (Robbie and Stan's deliveries are undeniably funny.) But going back to that scene in The Philadelphia Story, the almost relaxed, matter-of-fact way that domestic abuse is portrayed in I, Tonya is essential, in that it proves how casually violence is used to put powerful women in line.
The good news is that unlike with Cary Grant, who finds redemption and glory in subduing Katharine Hepburn's outspoken heroine, the last we see of Jeff Gillooly is as a sad, inconsequential man with an unfortunate goatee. And that's progress.
Twenty-four years following a scandal that rocked the world, Margot Robbie takes on the role of figure skater Tonya Harding in a behind-the-scenes story that will have you questioning what’s real, what’s fake, and how much we truly know about the controversial figures who become cultural lightning rods. I, Tonya hits theaters everywhere January 5th. Grab your tickets HERE
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