I sometimes think this country is better at telling stories about itself than anything else it does. And because we’ve invented and/or commercialized so many different conduits for storytelling — movies, radio, television, pop music, all the many streams and tweets and gurglings of the Internet — those stories can be remulched as necessary to fit the fashion of the times while also plugging into more timeless, iconic narratives.
Which brings me to Tonya Harding.
Oh, God, not again.
The Olympic figure skater, disgraced in 1994 for her alleged involvement in the attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, has bobbed to the surface of pop culture after 23 years with a critically acclaimed new film, “I, Tonya,” that casts Hollywood glamourpuss Margot Robbie as Harding. Because of the film’s buzz (and perhaps looking to capitalize on the upcoming Winter Games), a two-hour ABC News special titled “Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story” will air on Jan. 11 at 9 p.m., in which newswoman Amy Robach interviews the former skater, now 47.
You’re forgiven if you’re less than interested, or if you think this story was done to death back in 1994, when the TV and magazine tabloids pounced on it with glee. Perhaps you think the only victim here was Kerrigan, who was merely present at the sideshow and who has wisely and rightly stayed as far away from the current Tonyaissance as possible.
But that’s ignoring the squiggly truth that many people like to revisit such stories again and again, as cautionary tales in which the listener is able to stake out various moral positions, from appalled apoplexy to curdled sympathy. The conventional wisdom is that we’re drawn to scandalous sagas for the rubbernecking thrill — the sheer peek-at-the-geek-ery. And that’s part of it. But retelling them also helps us define and situate ourselves in the social landscape.
Those definitions can shift over time. In 1994, it was obvious who the players were and what they represented. Kerrigan was the princess, elegant and demure, and Harding was the rough-necked interloper. No matter that both women come from working-class roots — Kerrigan, raised in Stoneham, is the daughter of a welder, while Harding grew up with a waitress mother in Portland, Ore. — or that figure skating in America has long been embedded with aspirational notions of class and caste. Certainly no matter that both women were world-class athletes who should have been gauged solely on their abilities in the rink.
Whether you believed that Harding had foreknowledge of the kneecapping attack on Kerrigan by two men hired by her former husband, Jeff Gillooly, and bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, or whether you thought she was unfairly maligned (for the record, she pleaded guilty only to hindering the prosecution), the die was cast. So much of it had to do with outward appearances: Kerrigan, tall and reserved and graceful, versus Harding, compact and peppery and explosive on the ice. So much of it had to do with assumed class markers of costume and setting, where they lived and with whom they surrounded themselves. Even Gillooly’s name sounded comical and down-market. Eckhardt, the supposed mastermind of the plot to take out Kerrigan, came across as a doughy extra with delusions of grandeur. It was reality TV before reality TV took over the culture.
That Harding chose to go into boxing after being banned from figure skating for life confirmed for many her lack of conventional comportment and “class.” The movie “I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, rejiggers the story to cast her, for better and for worse, as a fighter. The 27-year-old Robbie plays Harding — quite well, if not always believably — in her teens, her 20s, and today, and the theme running through this version of the story is the constant uphill struggle for respect. From whom? Everyone: a cruelly undercutting mother (Allison Janney), a physically abusive husband (Sebastian Stan), the frost-bitten snobs of the skating world, and anyone and everyone who dined out on her media corpse in the aftermath of the Kerrigan attack.
If you don’t want to buy it, that’s fine. The movie’s a provocative two hours, though, sardonically smart at times and difficult to watch whenever Gillooly is knocking Harding around. And in the sequences in which the latter-day Harding sits smoking in her kitchen and addresses the camera, the message of this new iteration of the story is clear. She survived being “Tonya Harding.” She survived us.
The ABC News interview hasn’t been made available for critics to preview. The online trailer says a lot, though, especially about how the discomfiting new message of “I, Tonya” can get massaged into existing clichés. As a piece of marketing flotsam, actually, the trailer is brilliant, recasting the Tonya-Nancy dichotomy as an archival version of “Frozen” or “Wicked” for a generation that wasn’t around the first time. “It was almost like something out of a Disney script,” one onlooker says as we see competing images of Harding and Kerrigan (and, again, you twinge with sympathy for Kerrigan’s role in a farcical melodrama she had no part in creating).
Harding is seen in interview close-ups stating her case (and admitting she overheard vague next-room planning but did nothing to stop it; the movie makes more or less the same claim). In the trailer, interviewer Robach feeds her the lines of a new narrative, one more simplistic than the movie’s: “You believe you were a pawn.” “Absolutely. “And yet you paid the ultimate price.” “Yes, I did.” As background music, Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” plays, just like it does in the film.
The ad spot even takes a stab at the fourth-wall breaking of “I, Tonya,” when it cuts from an announcer intoning “Everybody will be talking about this” to Harding muttering, “Oh, brother.” She used to be a joke; now she’s in on it.
The ABC News version of the story seems to be aiming for something more redemptive than the weary defiance of the film. It’s a way to reintroduce this story and this anti-hero to a post-reality TV generation, and it’s a way to ask for forgiveness. More than that — and maybe most enticing of all — it offers the chance to control her own narrative.
Of course the show is bottom-feeding. Of course it’s tabloid news. Of course Tonya Harding will never be entirely forgiven — for whatever it is she did or didn’t do, or maybe just for being Tonya Harding. (And while we’re on the subject, how come no one has raised the way we tend to forgive our bad boys, given enough time, while bad girls are usually bad forever?)
The stories we tell ourselves eventually become fairy tales. With this one, we’re forever after arguing about the witch.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.