The Real Cycle of Abuse in ‘I, Tonya’

“How many packs of cigarettes is a gold medal worth in prison?” – David Letterman, Top Ten Questions Connie Chung Asked Tonya Harding
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By  · Published on January 16th, 2018

“How many packs of cigarettes is a gold medal worth in prison?” – David Letterman, Top Ten Questions Connie Chung Asked Tonya Harding

America doesn’t give a fuck about the truth. Be honest. It’s okay. Say it. We engage in rhetorical combat on social media where we throw around three-dollar phrases like ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘straw-man fallacy’ and trade on fact-checker articles. We throw down other people’s thoughts in arguments like we’re laying down cards in our very own reality-based turn game. We don’t really care about the truth. We just want to feel right. You know who’s known that for decades now? Your nightly news team. The media doesn’t sell news, they sell judgment. They promote self-righteousness. Tell me you didn’t get that message loud and clear from I, Tonya. 

In a grotesque film full of physical and verbal abuse, this quote was the emotional crux. This moment set my brain on fire.

“I thought being famous would be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.” – Tonya

We showed up, excited to see this thriller’s take on Harding and “The Incident”. Give us the details, we said. We need them, we chanted. And, boy howdy, did they ever.  Nobody ever really cared what happened. Except maybe Nancy Kerrigan.

I was 12, but remember watching all the coverage for this mashed up with the Winter Olympics coverage. Sure, I was a kid, but I remember the press ran deep with the assumption that (uh-doy!) she did it. We were breathless in our judgment. And, oh gosh. The revulsion when Harding’s lace broke after they let her on the ice to skate. When she skated up to the judges, I remember people talking about it as though, what other special treatment could she possibly want? Primadonnas! She has it all! And. She. Got. Away. With. It. Now, we asked, show some coverage of those tears again.

It was gross. I, Tonya may explore several of the viewpoints on what happened in Harding’s life, but it’s a straightforward condemnation of the way we consume media. More accurately, it removes that “media” veneer. It illustrates quite clearly how we consume lives.

Craig Gillespie’s approach to telling Tonya Harding’s story as a mockumentary is a hell of an example of high risk, high payoff filmmaking. I try as hard as I can to go into a movie as a blank slate. I want to be open to what it is that the film is saying to me. When I go in with expectations set, I often find it too challenging to put those aside on a first watch. Harding’s story, though. You guys. With Margot Robbie as Tonya “Suck my dick” Harding? Amazing. Our desire to see an exploration of Harding’s story is practically pornographic.

Fourth-wall breaking mashed up with re-enactments of various viewpoints is tricky to get right. In this case, it earned Gillespie two victories. First, with some smashing editing, it made a for a riveting back and forth between painful violence and immediate commentary. Second, and more importantly, it was itself the constructed narrative it was taking on.

We’re tempted to come out of that movie thinking we know Tonya Harding better than we previously did. I sure was. That is the point of the constructed narrative!  Tonya herself points it out.

“The haters always say, Tonya just tell the truth. But, there’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit.” – Tonya

Stay with me, because I’m going to get heady here for just a moment to make a point. There’s a painting by René Magritte. It’s called The Treachery of Images. The inscription at the bottom says “This is not a pipe.” The point is really that simple. We see the image, and our brains insist we have seen a pipe. You can’t pack it and smoke it, though, can you? Humans have a tendency to confuse images of a thing with the thing itself.

This is something that Gillespie is playing with very carefully through the course of I, Tonya.  I’m quoting Tonya Harding in this piece. But, it’s Robbie’s Harding, as written by Steven Rogers and directed by Gillespie. I honestly don’t know if Tonya Harding said exactly that. I wouldn’t be surprised! But, I haven’t seen her say it.

This is the core of the film. We have confused the image presented by the media with Tonya Harding. We’ve confused the narrative the reporters of the 90s constructed by interviewing morons and conspirators with cold facts. And we aren’t that worried about it. If we buy into the confusion of the image, we get a dose of sweet vindictive dopamine. We feel vindicated in the complete destruction of Tonya Hardings’ life work, up to that point.

At the beginning of the movie, Gillespie features a scene with Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale), where he talks a bit of trash about the news.

“I was a reporter for Hard Copy, a crappy show all the ‘legitimate’ news outlets looked down on – then became.” – Martin

From the beginning of the movie, they hang a lantern on the film’s intentions. The media is bullshit. There is no truth. The news media think they’re better than Hard Copy, but, my friends, they aren’t. They sell more intrigue and salaciousness than a sweeps week episode of the Real World.

We’re thirsty to see people succeed. It validates our sense of the American Dream. If Tonya Harding can come from so little and still be the first American woman to land a fucking triple axel in competition, then we can achieve our dreams, too.

But, we’re thirsty, right? If she’s got her dream, and I don’t, then how did she cheat to get it? Her success also validates our failures. And so we rip our success stories to shreds, or we stare at them with hundreds of millions of eyes until they implode. Because how dare they have what we covet. Right? We consume the American Dream like its Communion.

How is it that a mockumentary about an event from the 90s can be so relevant? Let’s chart the course. Maddox was right, in ’94, the news still consisted of journalists. But, that wasn’t what was selling ad time. It was feature stories about Our Reality. Exactly like Harding’s. What a trifecta! A success story meets conspiracy meets the story event that is the Winter Olympics. That’s the kind of vertical integration that would get 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy excited.

That’s news as Reality Entertainment. What else could it have been? How much air time do we need to give to co-conspirators? That’s a rhetorical question. The answer is exactly as much drives up the ratings-share to increase the price of their ad time. I’m not preaching anything new here. The path goes straight from that to Reality Television. And from there to social media.

Do you remember the scene in I, Tonya where Jeff Gillooly walks up to the window to see the press clearing out of his front lawn? Do you remember what was on the television screen? O.J. Simpson’s freeway chase spectacular. Remember all that coverage? One of the defense attorneys who got a bit of coverage through that months-long spectacle was Robert Kardashian. The through line from the news as reality entertainment, to reality tv, to social media is right there. Good on Kim K. for finding a way to monetize that for herself.

We went right along with it. How many articles have you read about “phubbing”? That’s a word that means the practice of ignoring your companion to keep up with what’s on your phone. We live and breathe social media.

Social media is the weaponization of the dopamine hit we got from that judgmental feel watching the nightly news. Every other week, we offer up some person’s social media posting as an example of something great, and then we look as deeply and casually as we can into their life until we find something to justify burning them with holy fire.

Want a great double feature? Watch I, Tonya and then check out its spiritual successor Ingrid Goes West.

We are broken. We are predators. And we are looking at you.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.