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December 7, 2017

‘I, Tonya’ and Reevaluating the Misogyny of the 90s

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Up until recently, Tonya Harding was a punch line. Her place in popular culture was the figure skater who organized a hit on her competitor and left the sport in disgrace. Her fate was related to getting the hell beat out of as a boxer. While some may see the new film I, Tonya as an attempt to “re-write” history, the movie shows how we got history wrong the first time. Coupled with last year’s smash hit The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, today’s media is showing the inherent misogyny we accepted just a couple decades ago and the importance of setting the record straight.

The reason that a film like I, Tonya or a series like American Crime Story are getting any traction is because they’re going against the grain of our preconceived narrative. That narrative was forged in the media and has persisted until something high-profile enough like a potential Oscar-nominee or a prestige miniseries comes along to challenge that conception. In the case of Harding, played by Margot RobbieI, Tonya points out how many people got the story wrong to the point where they thought Harding was the one who actually bashed in Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. With American Crime Story, which starred Sarah Paulson, we see that Marcia Clark’s greatest failing was having too much faith in the American public and assuming that, recognizing a case of domestic violence for what it was, they would convict accordingly.

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Image via NEON

What both women have in common and what this recent work serves to emphasize is that the popular media of the time not only relegated both to caricatures, but minimized their accomplishments. Yes, in a media circus, everyone gets made to look silly, but in the case of Harding and Clark, they were minimized in favor of serving a narrative. For Harding, she was a thug from the wrong side of the tracks who engineered an assault on a rival skater. There was no mention of how Harding, due to her appearance, could never get a fair shake despite her skating abilities. For Clark, there were plenty of jokes about her hair, but not her success as a prosecutor or the merits of her case.

Although we can point to the benefit of hindsight, the sight also comes from where we stand now. That’s not to make a case that in 2017, we are significantly more “woke” (over 60 million people voted for a sexual predator to be President), but it does show an encouraging evolution in our values and our beliefs. Rather than romanticize these major stories of the 90s, talented artists are instead taking a more critical eye to these events. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to be completely joyless—I, Tonya is a blast even if it does make us uneasy and uncomfortable—but rather acknowledging that we as a society got some things wrong, and not in a forgotten past, but only about 20 years ago.

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Image via FX

That’s not to claim that Harding and Clark are saints and that we need to sanitize our history. Harding was most likely an accessory after the fact, and Clark, as I previously mentioned, egregiously failed to understand the landscape on which to try her case. But these women were far more than a skating thug or a bad haircut, and while late-night comedy and news reports made them out to be less, thankfully our current popular culture is willing to understand them as more.

We won’t always get it right. Sometimes the art of our day won’t always meet the challenge. For example, Confirmation, which looks at Anita Hill coming out to say how she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, probably would have been better suited to a miniseries rather than an HBO movie. But even there, we’re trying to revaluate where we came from and how we can be better. This history, even recent history, is not carved in stone, and I hope that more talented artists continue to come forward to question and to challenge the stories we think we know.

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