America loves an underdog — except if that underdog is a woman from an underprivileged background who refuses to conform to the playbook provided for her.
So, it seems in the case of Tonya Harding, who, like many women before her, has gone down in history as a scandal rather than for her physically demanding achievements. I'm referring, of course, to the incident that took place on January 6, 1994; on the eve of the National Championships that would decide the U.S. skating team bound for the Winter Olympics in Lilliehammer, Norway. Harding's rival and main competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked and injured by a masked assailant wielding a metal bar.
The ensuing investigation, which uncovered the involvement of Harding's ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, along with the rumors that Harding herself orchestrated the hit, became a fixture of nightly news, solidifying Harding's reputation as a power-hungry shrew who would stop at nothing to win. It all came to a head with Harding pleading guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers, and a lifetime ban from the sport she had devoted her life to.
For years, that has been the sole narrative around Tonya Harding. But now, with the release of I, Tonya, the Harding biopic starring Margot Robbie, we finally get to see "the incident" from her perspective, as well as the many hurdles that she had to overcome to get as far as she did.
Julianne Nicholson, who plays Harding's coach Diane Rawlinson, said that the experience of making the film made her reassess her preconceived notions about Harding's character.
"I did feel more compassionate towards her," she said in an interview with Refinery29. "I felt that she was dealt a raw deal from the time she was born. She didn't have the skills to be in any other world aside from the one that she grew up, which was kind of no holds barred, take what's yours by any means necessary. And when she was dropped in the real world, it didn't make sense to her."
Throughout the film, we see Harding struggling with the aftereffects of her upbringing: Her mother, Lavonda, (Alison Janney) pushes her to be the best figure skater in the world, often at the expense of her daughter's well-being. This abusive relationship with her mother left Harding unequipped to respond when the other relationship in her life, with first boyfriend turned husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), turned violent.
This didn't at all jive with what society expects from a figure skater: a quietly poised and demure young woman whose physical strength is concealed beneath an elegant layer of sequins. Throughout the film, we see Rawlinson struggle to mold Harding into that ill-fitting model, with little success.
"The ice skating world was very similar to beauty pageants," Nicholson explained. "It was about not only how well you could skate and how much of an athlete you were, but poise, and grace, and elegance. The skating world was not happy with Tonya coming in — she just went against all of that, from the shape of her body to her power and strength, and where she came from. They did not want that woman representing the whole sport. There's an idea that if a woman's beautiful and doesn't come power first, that is a safer woman to deal with."
That idea, Nicholson says, is one we're still fighting today. You only have to look at some of the conversations around Serena Williams to draw parallels with Harding's treatment by the media and her peers. But unlike her very prim and blonde character, Nicholson wants us to trash the mold.
"I wish we had more women like that," she said. "But I think it's scary to a lot of people, and in particular, men. It threatens something in themselves, it doesn't fit with their idea of how a woman is supposed to act."
Hopefully, this film will give us the momentum to soar past those outdated expectations.
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.