Tonya was tiny, but her presence on the ice was powerful, undeniably muscular, and impossible to ignore. Commentators like to talk about skaters “fighting for each jump”; Tonya seemed to fight the jumps themselves. Later, much would be made in both the press and in parody about Tonya’s thighs: they were huge! They were so fat! How could she pretend to be pretty, or even feminine? But they were, at the end of the day, nothing more or less than the thighs of an athlete. They were thick and powerful because she needed them to be that way to launch herself into the air. When Midori jumped, she seemed to float like a leaf borne on the wind. Tonya, Time magazine wrote during the scandal, “bullies gravity.” They meant it as a criticism of her skating, and, by extension, of her, but one wonders: did this have to be a bad thing? What was inherently wrong with a spectacle of female power in which you could almost taste the athlete’s sweat, and feel her desire, her soreness, and her determination to leave the ground? She wasn’t artful, but it wasn’t her job to make art; she wasn’t soft and feminine, but it wasn’t her job to be those things, to sit still, or to smile passively while the cameras lingered on her face. It was her job to jump and spin, to tear the ice with her speed, to fight and fall and get up and fight again. And for a while—when the axel was a novelty and her country needed a skater who could challenge the Japanese, when the old narrative of American spunk versus a foreign juggernaut was ready to be dusted off for yet another Olympic year, and when Tonya could be counted on to win—the axel was enough to make Tonya enough. For a moment, everything seemed within her reach.
What was inherently wrong with a spectacle of female power in which you could almost taste the athlete’s sweat, and feel her desire, her soreness, and her determination to leave the ground? She wasn’t artful, but it wasn’t her job to make art; she wasn’t soft and feminine, but it wasn’t her job to be those things, to sit still, or to smile passively while the cameras lingered on her face. It was her job to jump and spin, to tear the ice with her speed, to fight and fall and get up and fight again.
...in a sport where gender roles are policed so rigidly, on and off the ice, that Tonya Harding, a petite, blond, white woman, was somehow butch enough to register as a threat to skating’s femininity—in a sport where all this went on, and was in fact common knowledge, the idea that the USFSA would attempt to control a skater’s marital status is hardly implausible.
Sarah Marshall grew up in Oregon and recently completed an MFA in writing from Portland State University, where she now teaches. She is at work on a book about women’s roles in media spectacle, from which this piece is excerpted.
But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”
There was great concern about spooking potential sponsors on the issue [of AIDS]. One USFSA member estimated that the association had lost about half a million in endorsements since the problem became a subject of the national press.... The figure-skating world actually policed itself on the sexual front. Scoring marks became subjective, prudish weapons.... Once these same judges had enforced economic and political ideologies,... now a greater moral struggle was at hand... Under these circumstances the USFSA was infinitely more comfortable with Kerrigan than it would have been with her chief rival, Tonya Harding Gillooly."
The article makes some great points that are actually undermined by the author's obvious over-determination to fit everything into a narrative.
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