The new Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, has been widely derided on social media as a glorification of the very kinds of assault that the #metoo movement seeks to eradicate. People say we shouldn’t lionize a criminal. People are adamant that Tonya is not a victim. NOT a victim, they write on Twitter.
But, a few things became clear to me as I watched I, Tonya. Tonya Harding was precisely a victim. Not because she grew up poor and marginalized, but because she was the victim of rampant emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. First at the hands of her mother (who stabbed her) and stepbrother (who molested her) and later her husband (who shot her and held a gun to her head on more than one occasion). These scenes of abuse are only the tip of the iceberg of what she endured and in interviews Tonya has said as much.
The fact that Tonya Harding might go on to perpetuate this cycle of violence, in one form or another, can only be understood within this framework of intergenerational trauma. Growing up, Tonya’s ability to fight back, to outscrap, to outsmart, to think five moves ahead of her opponent (read mom, stepbrother, husband) was likely the only reason she survived. It was not only adaptive, but necessary. This doesn’t mean we excuse violence or the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, but rather, we look at this event as part of a much larger narrative; one that elicits compassion, understanding, and yes, perhaps some forgiveness.
I think Tonya Harding is a god damn hero. Her resilience is truly otherworldly. Her ability to not only survive the abuse of her childhood and adulthood, but to bring to fruition her prodigious talents in the midst of this chaos is awe-inspiring. Tonya Harding isn’t merely deserving of our pity, she deserves our reverence. It’s easy to write someone off as a monster, but not particularly helpful. In the age of the #metoo movement where it seems new allegations against a personally beloved man emerge on an almost daily basis, we would be well-served to cultivate a competence in the art of nuance. Individual people are part of families and socioeconomic contexts and larger sociopolitical contexts. This doesn’t absolve people of their crimes, but it’s time we moved beyond mere blame or absolution.
Critically, Tonya Harding still denies knowing about the attack. I’m not sure whether or not she knew. Regardless of her conviction, or lack thereof, history remembers her as a villain and lumps her together with the convicted. Her husband and mother have come out to deny her claims of abuse. Her husband claims she knew about the attack. #Metoo is good enough for Salma Hayek and Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd, but for Tonya Harding the public reserves a particular brand of animus. In response to her requests for the benefit of the doubt, for support, what the world seems to be saying to Tonya is #notyou.
I honestly don’t know what Tonya Harding knew or didn’t know. And neither do you. I know that there football stars who have beaten their wives senseless and gone on to play another game and be exalted by another ten million fans. I know there are movie directors who have been convicted of raping children who have gone on to win Academy awards. I know there are music moguls and rock stars who have sexually assaulted children and been convicted of domestic abuse and have gone on to go platinum. Even if we believe that Tonya Harding planned the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the general public has been generally stalwart in their grudge. Those who don’t revile her ridicule her. Both are forms of degradation, and degradation in nothing new to a person who has survived a lifetime of domestic abuse.
Would you think I was heartless if I said I don’t really care whether or not Tonya Harding planned the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Perhaps you are the heartless one who fails to consider Tonya in a larger context of gender-based violence? I don’t think the attack on Nancy Kerrigan was okay, but given the fact that Tonya Harding denies knowing and I choose to believe her, and given the fact that some 24 years have passed, and given the fact that Tonya survived and thrived and was formed in the midst of layers upon layers of trauma, and given the fact that I believe people are deserving of forgiveness, what stands out to me about Tonya is her resilience, her strength, her vitality, her ability to withstand a world constantly saying #notyou.