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 cinemas everywhere 23rd February.
On the morning of Wednesday 8th February 1587, at precisely 8 o’clock, Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, approached the scaffold for her execution. It took three blows for her head to finally be severed from her body, and legend has it that her lips continued to move for up to 15 minutes after. Her death was the final stroke in a decades long rivalry between Mary, and her cousin and neighbouring ruler, Queen Elizabeth I of England, on whose orders she met the axe.
The quarrel between these two female rulers has gone down in history as one of the most iconic female feuds of all time, moulded and memorialised over the years by countless novels, plays, TV shows, and films. The most recent adaptation, 2018’s highly anticipated Mary, Queen of Scots, will star Saoirse Ronan as Mary, and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth.
This will mark Robbie’s second foray into the fertile territory of stories about women pit against each other for blood and sport — the first being I,Tonya, the acclaimed biopic about notorious 1990s figure skater Tonya Harding, which she both produced and stars in. What’s interesting, though, is that these two stories — one a religious and political struggle between two 16th century queens, the other a mid-90s tabloid sensation — are linked by far more than just one Australian actress. They are two variations on a theme that has been dominating popular culture for generations: our fascination with famous female feuds.
They come in all shapes and sizes, and transcend eras: Olivia de Havilland vs. Joan Fontaine; Jennifer Lopez vs. Mariah Carey; Hillary Clinton vs. Monica Lewinsky; Elizabeth Taylor vs. Debbie Reynolds; Nicki Minaj vs. Remy Ma; Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera; Angelina Jolie vs. Jennifer Aniston; Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Chloe Grace Moretz, and pretty much any other woman she has come into contact with.
Some are rooted in fact (upon hearing of Joan Crawford’s death, Bette Davis allegedly said: ‘You should never say bad things about the dead, only good… Joan Crawford is dead. Good.’); others are veiled in rumours and innuendo (Susan Sarandon recently revealed that the rumours about opposition with Julia Roberts on the set of Stepmom were made up by her publicist). Many involve women fighting over a man, but mostly, it all comes down to the idea that there isn’t enough room at the top for two women of equal standing to respect each other; they must, according to conventional wisdom, be exchanging shady remarks or glances behind the scenes. We see that play out in the media (As I write this, Gossip Cop has a headline that reads: “Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie Feuding?” for the pure and simple reason that they both happen to be sharing the cover of British Vogue this month), and in Hollywood, responsible for crafting many of the narratives and tropes that define how we see the world.
“Pitting women against women and encouraging women to distrust one another has been a deeply-embedded feature of our culture,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, Executive Director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, explained in an email to Refinery29. “There are so many examples of these portrayals, they are almost transparent. From The Women (1939) to My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), we're so used to seeing these stories, we don't even think about them. They're like the air we breathe.”
Prolific showrunner, screenwriter, and producer Ryan Murphy, who always has his finger right on the pulse, nailed it when he created his Feud anthology last year. The first instalment focused on the storied and tortured relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis before, during, and after the filming of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? The show definitely leaned into the feud. But it also unpacked it in a way that left viewers with a more nuanced and complex understanding of these two women who were vying for the limited roles available for women over 50 in an industry that values youth and beauty over almost anything. They had to play up the only angle they had to remain relevant. The setting for this particular drama was the late 1960s, but it could have been 1860, or 2018, so universal is the story. Also universal though is that the gatekeepers to these stories have, throughout history, been men.
Which is why the lack of women in off-camera positions of power is more than a vague issue of representation. A recent study conducted by Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, called "Inclusion in the Director's Chair?, classified 1,223 filmmakers working on 1,100 top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2017 by gender. Only 4% were women. That means 44, out of 1,223, or a ratio of 22:1. For every woman director, there are 22 men hired for the same job.
Lady Bird, which just won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, is a perfect example of a film that really gets at the very specific relationships that exist among women. It’s no coincidence that the film was written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and sadly, no surprise that she was shut out of the Best Director category despite her film’s success. Similarly, three out of the five directors who worked on Feud: Bette and Joan were women. There are certain nuances that can only highlighted by having women behind the camera.
“Individuals who tell our stories shape and control our culture,” Lauzen said. If we are bombarded with stories of women fighting it out, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And honestly, can you blame them, when we only seem to be able to allot space for one woman at a time in the spotlight? I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to wait my turn just because the current power structure demands it.
I, Tonya — nominated for three Golden Globe awards (Allison Janney took home the award for Best Supporting Actress), two Screen Actors Guild awards, and three Independent Spirit awards, and with Oscar chatter building up — is an example of a film that straddles both the old Hollywood power structure, and the new ideals the industry says it’s striving towards. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers are both men; but Robbie produced the film, which ultimately tells a very female-focused story, and poses some hard questions about that same power structure.
The film is a retelling of the events leading up the infamous “incident” involving champion figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding and a steel bar in Detroit, Michigan, on 6th January 1994. By focusing the majority of its attention on Harding’s own early life and career, rather than the scandal that followed, the film seems to challenge us to reassess our opinion of Harding, to reframe her alleged involvement in Kerrigan’s injury in the context of her upbringing and personal struggles. It demands that we see past the tabloid tale of two women duking it out on the national stage.
It’s a tall order, which requires changing a perception that has been ossified by centuries of reinforcement. And to a certain extent, it works. If nothing else, the film highlights the complicit role that we, the viewers, have played, not just in vilifying Harding, but hundreds, thousands of women who have come before — from Mary to Tonya, and beyond.
Because although the film doesn’t quite exonerate Harding — she is an unreliable narrator — it does introduce the seed of doubt that makes us question the black and white narrative that made headlines over two decades ago.
Robbie recently weighed in on that narrative during a pre-screening Q&A with Refinery29’s Arianna Davis. "I think it was easier to put Tonya as the villain because she just wasn't the image that the figure skating world wanted,” she said. “I've watched every video of her skating like a thousand times over and the number of times they comment on the class of family she comes from, it should just be about the skating, but they'll be like 'Here's Tonya Harding, girl from the wrong side of the tracks!' It's just like, give her a chance! But it's about which box they decided to put each woman in.”
Paul Walter Hauser, who plays Eckhart in I,Tonya, has another theory: "I think there's really been an unfair stigma,” he said during the same event in December. “Go to any checkout aisle of any grocery store, and you'll see people plastering names and accusations on women in the media. It's just people gravitating toward a story and things tend to snowball. In Tonya's case, like many stories, they let it evolve into this monster."
In reality, both are correct. As a non-conformist, Harding presented an attractive target, but the reason she wore the bullseye in the first place is because pitting powerful women against each other is an easy way to control them. Assertive women who don’t play by the rules present a threat to the order of things; fabricating a narrative that plays them off against each other in reductive and stereotypical roles is a way to take away that autonomy. Rather than a strong woman paving her own way, you end up with a bit player in production orchestrated by the forces she’s was trying to subvert.
A good example of this played out in 2016 between Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, when, after weeks of Swift’s protests that she, image-conscious, safe, feminist Taylor Swift, would never have allowed Kanye West to refer to her as a “bitch” — as he did in “Famous” — Kardashian leaked the receipts of a phone conversation between Swift and West proving the exact opposite. Swift, the pop star equivalent of Betty Cooper to Kim Kardashian’s too rich, too tan, too curvy Veronica Lodge, was caught in a lie. Snake emojis were exchanged by both fandoms, headlines declared it the feud of the year, and we ate it all up, because what does America love more than to see two women get catty in public?
So refined is the technique at this point that we don’t even need two women to create a feud — sometimes only one will do. Unlike Tonya Harding, Taylor Swift is the perfect example of someone who did everything society asked of her and still lost. In her book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love To Hate, Mock, and Fear….and Why, Sady Doyle explains this paradigm: “Swift’s persona played perfectly to the ideals of feminine purity and innocence that her unlucky peers had been caught violating,” Doyle writes. “[...] She did everything right and took all the right stances: [...] She did not drink, did not use drugs, and told interviewers her idea of fun was spending time with her parents.”
Fast forward to 2017, and Taylor Swift has, in certain media circles, become a punchline. She’s the woman who made Tom Hiddleston wear an “I Heart T.S.” tank top to a 4th of July bash; who dates men only to break up with them and write a good song about it; who, despite her famed squad, can’t seem to get along with other women; who maybe voted for Donald Trump — or at the very least, refused to campaign for Hillary Clinton.
Swift is a woman who has aggressively policed her own image, yet still fell prey to the forces that seek to take women down a notch to control them. By sticking to the rule book on her own terms, she was, in her own way, bucking the establishment.
The film highlights the complicit role that we, the viewers, have played, not just in vilifying Harding, but hundreds, thousands of women who have come before — from Mary to Tonya, and beyond.
“She’d played the game exactly right, and she still hadn’t won it — not completely, not without incurring penalties,” Doyle writes. “Which is what happens, when games are designed so that no one can win.”
I,Tonya is being released at an interesting time, when we are particularly receptive to redeeming narratives about wronged women. One of the byproducts of the reckoning currently being faced in Hollywood and beyond in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal is that we are finally coming to understand that the systemic power imbalance that dominates our culture has consequences. Women who did nothing more than refuse to submit to expectations have been held back, silenced, or branded a villain and left in the dust. The question now, is whether anything will change. Certainly, cultural forces like I,Tonya, and the upcoming 2019 installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story (which is rumoured to be taking on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal) are forcing us to talk about it.
But look through some of the top headlines from the past couple of months, and you’ll find some familiar sounding ideas: “Michigan Doctor Recalls Nancy Kerrigan’s Screams As I,Tonya Hits Theaters”; “Tonya Harding Says She 'Knew Something Was Up' Before Infamous 1994 Baton Attack On Nancy Kerrigan”; ”Tonya Harding Says She's Done Apologising in a New, No-Holds-Barred Interview.”
We love a catfight, and frankly, that’s unlikely to change. But what’s heartening is the idea that we’re now moving past the superficial layer of a media cage fight between a good girl and a bad girl, and diving into a new genre of entertainment — one that aims to untangle the complicated narrative strands that make up female feud DNA. And think of how many there still are to tackle.