I recently was comparing my favorite films of 2017 with a bartender in a cinema bar and told him I was disappointed that I, Tonya wasn’t nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
“Sure, it was a good movie,” the bartender said to me, “but it wouldn’t win. Nobody is going to vote for an ice skating movie.”
Do people really see I, Tonya as an “ice skating movie?” And, if so, what does that even mean?
Skating films aren’t a genre to themselves as they tend to be dependent on other genre tropes. The first movies that featured figure skating were spectacles that focused on the skating sequences as production numbers. Sonja Henie parlayed her extraordinary competitive success into entertainment with films that could easily have been rewritten for the swimmer Esther Williams, or really any movie musical darling.
Some skating movies attempt to copy the sports film/underdog archetype, such as Ice Dreams. Even Blades of Glory is a satire of a typical sports film, similar to Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story — except this time with more gay jokes. The Cutting Edge and its myriad of unimaginative sequels are considered rom-coms. Most skating films are more or less a schlocky, sentimental Lifetime reject. (I’m looking at you, Ice Castles.)
And Ice Princess is an insulting suggestion that a physics student is the first skater to know what a 45-degree angle is and therefore has a competitive edge over years of training one’s muscle strength, endurance, and coordination, but I’m totally not still bitter over that movie’s premise.
The reason it has taken so long for a story like I, Tonya to have a more sophisticated perspective of figure skating is that popular culture sees skaters as shallow, privileged, graceful ladies. Despite the frequent falls, they never seem to have have visible injuries the way that contact sports have bloody lips and black eyes. There are no messy ponytails; there are tight buns under a hard hat of hairspray. Skaters compete in lightweight dresses and velour pants in a freezing ice rink, so hardly anyone builds up a visible sweat after only four minutes. And it’s a sport that naturally attracts young athletes because there’s an advantage to being small when propelling one’s own bodyweight. So of course, we tend to see young, graceful, pretty ladies in the sport.
Tonya Harding is a flawed, unlikeable character. In the movie she’s portrayed as disadvantaged yet sympathetic, hard-working yet undisciplined, enthusiastic yet temperamental. Tonya Harding in real life had an unconventional jumping technique that nobody uses today, yet less than 10 women in the history of the sport have landed her career-defining move, the triple Axel, in competition. And while her technique was strange and ungraceful, you can’t deny that her Axel had more power, height and distance than Mirai Nagasu’s 25 years later.
All of this compelling subject, and that’s before the infamous Kneecap Clubbing Incident.
I, Tonya is effective because it addresses the way both the mainstream press and the figure skating community treated athletes that were seen as anomalies. There was (and still is) classism present in a sport that judges “on presentation;” in fact, back in the 90s that was 50% of a skater’s score with no objective standards.
As a girl growing up, I depended on the role models I had in skating. Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi inspired me both with their talent and their off-ice character. And I hope that the next generation of skating fans find inspiring heroes in the skating athletes we see on TV and in straight-to-DVD specials.
Tonya Harding, as interesting as she is, is no role model. She’d be a terrible choice for a family film. But understanding her story amid the context of her sport and her generation challenges ideas that eight-year-old girls and boys haven’t developed yet. And now that I’m adult I think there are still stories to tell about figure skating on film that are complex and challenging.
Now if we could tell a story onscreen about a competent male figure skater without questioning his masculinity, I’d really be blown away.