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"She was trash: trash cheats. Trash wants reward without working."
January 3, 2014 3:51 PM   Subscribe

Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and the Spectacles of Female Power and Pain.
posted by lalex (128 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't believe I just skim read that entire article. But the only thing I can take away from it is, the whole bit about Nancy being on the float with Mickey Mouse after winning the silver and telling him, "I can't believe I'm doing this. This is so corny, this is the corniest thing I've ever done." made me love her MORE, not less.
posted by ReeMonster at 4:11 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


Blades of Glory, i think just about makes any recap of the Tonya Nancy drama seem like an unfunny rip-off.
posted by Colonel Panic at 4:22 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


That's a powerful essay on class, gender, and sport. Thank you for posting it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:27 PM on January 3 [47 favorites]


I was a kid when this happened so only vaguely remembered the shape of events from everyone being glued to CNN or whatever and man this is so bizarre.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:35 PM on January 3


I was in an improv comedy group at the time, and we did a "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"-style parody with Tanya and Nancy. The fact that we were in Massachusetts (Nancy's home state...my Dad taught her in Jr. High in Stoneham) made it all the more glorious.
posted by xingcat at 4:37 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Ever find yourself humming an old half-forgotten tune you haven't heard in ten or fifteen years, then you turn on the radio to find it playing? I was driving home just now and hit a backup, and the "why, why, why" thing played in my brain for a second, then I spent the rest of the drive thinking about Nancy and wondering whether Tonya was in on the plan from the get-go. Then I got home, settled in and checked the blue. Weird.
posted by gimli at 4:38 PM on January 3


What Pope Guilty said. That's the best thing I've read about Tanya and Nancy, and maybe about figure skating period. Here's one paragraph to lure people who might be wondering whether they want to devote the time to it:
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.
posted by languagehat at 4:45 PM on January 3 [33 favorites]


Interesting passage:
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 this:
...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.
It reminded me uncomfortably of the old Hollywood studios and their attempts to control the images of their stars and starlets. This is a good read. Thanks for posting it, lalex.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:45 PM on January 3 [14 favorites]


I was a big fan of women's figure skating in the early 1990's. Maybe because I was never a Nancy supporter (Kristi all the way!), I clearly saw the stilted media coverage that obviously despised Tonya. And I clearly saw that she was despised because of her class (the first time I'd become aware of middle class privilege).

I always felt bad for Tonya, and the article says a lot that I didn't have the words for at the time. Especially the bit about women's figure skating ending with that era, as the teens started literally jumping to victory.
posted by honey badger at 4:46 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


She wasn’t artful, but it wasn’t her job to make art...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.

This sounds like the writer hasn't actually watched Olympic figure skating at all. It's like saying of a baseball player "sure, he closed his eyes every time he swung and only occasionally made contact with the ball, but it wasn't his job to actually get hits or get on base, it was his job to swing wildly at everything which might or might not be a pitch."

Like figure skating or hate it, part of what both male and female skaters are specifically attempting to do out there is make what they do look effortless and "artistic."
posted by yoink at 4:53 PM on January 3 [10 favorites]


This sounds like the writer hasn't actually watched Olympic figure skating at all.

I don't want to derail or threadsit, but I think the author has watched quite a lot of figure skating.
posted by lalex at 5:01 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


So the only things connecting her to the crime was the testimony of four witnesses and her efforts to locate where Kerrigan was staying in advance of the attack? I mean, I don't know what happened but the author seems a bit to eager to believe anything Harding said. What if the story is more complicated? What if she was both a victim and a cheater?
posted by Area Man at 5:08 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


Admittedly, it is weird that the author painstakingly explains how important the idea of "patrician," elegant artistry is the sport and to scoring, but then writes "it wasn't [Harding's] job to make art." That sentence made me double-take too.
posted by pineappleheart at 5:08 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


And I clearly saw that she was despised because of her class

And because, you know, she was almost certainly involved in the plot to de.liberately injure a rival (notwithstanding the writer's utterly bizarre attempt to handwave this away by suggesting that the weapon was only a police baton and not something real like a lead pipe and that it didn't even land on the knee and that Nancy Kerrigan is clearly a big cry baby who should have just laughed the whole thing off. Heck, she didn't even say "why me," just "why"!!!! [WTF?]).

I don't want to derail or threadsit, but I think the author has watched quite a lot of figure skating.

Obviously--which makes it all the weirder that she writes such a patently stupid sentence about it.
posted by yoink at 5:09 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


So the only things connecting her to the crime was the testimony of four witnesses and her efforts to locate where Kerrigan was staying in advance of the attack?

But Nancy Kerrigan didn't actually say "why me," so obviously Harding was innocent.

Yeah, this is the most ridiculously one-sided account imaginable. Her unbridled--not to say unhinged--hostility to Kerrigan is bizarre. It's also incoherent. "The judging was all fixed, nobody cared about real skating skill, they just handed out the medals to you if you were from the right background and looked pretty!!" Then we learn that Kerrigan repeatedly came in behind Harding, despite being so much more "feminine" and pretty and that she broke all the rules by becoming a skating celebrity without being a winner.
posted by yoink at 5:14 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


Tanya has this to say

"Hey, remember I was the best American figure skater of the 1990s, doing circle 8s around all those cuties who came before me.
I won a U.S. Championship and placed second in the World Championship. I was the first ever to do a triple axel combination with a double toe loop. That’s what you should remember, not what my low-life ex-husband did to that snooty princess, Nancy Kerrigan.
I had nada to do with the attack, but I was still charged with a crime. I paid my debt to society—and continue to pay every frickin’ day. I can’t skate in official tournaments, and even sleaze bags won’t hire me for shows.
My dreams of a movie or music career fizzled. I turned to boxing and was damn good. I beat the stuffing out of Paula Jones, one of Bill Clinton’s main squeezes, in a 2002 celebrity fight. Yeah, she was 10 years older but Paula was one tough old boomer broad. I had to quit that career because of asthma.
posted by Postroad at 5:18 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


Marshall tellingly wrote in the Hairpin article lalex linked to: " I am absolutely in love with Ms. Harding. I always have been and I always will be. . . . I don’t know how active a role Tonya had in the attack, and the fact is I don’t really want to."

That said, I did really enjoy this article despite thinking Marshall was remarkably easy on Harding; it's not as though anyone else is, so I can give her some leeway.
posted by pineappleheart at 5:18 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


languagehat: "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? "

This was an interesting article, but I felt like it overstated the case a little bit in retrospect. Tonya Harding was absolutely explosive, and people were always so thrilled when she came on the ice because she could do things nobody else (but Midori Ito) could do. But a big part of her appeal was that she wasn't a totally graceful, pretty skater like Kerrigan and Yamaguchi, and when she fell apart, she fell apart spectacularly -- which Ito did too. Kristi Yamaguchi was always going to deliver an amazing performance, even if the skating fell short; Tonya Harding was either going to explode off the ice or completely fall apart, and you never knew which, and that made her exciting (and sometimes frustrating) to watch.

And really, Harding, like Kerrigan, showed every emotion on her face on the ice. You could TELL when she got all up in her own head and the program was falling apart on her. And Harding's skating never did look effortless ("Midori was a remarkable jumper, and she made the axel look effortless: launching all four feet nine inches of herself into the air, her body seemed light, buoyant, and meant for flight. Tonya’s axel did not look effortless. It did not even look beautiful. It looked difficult—which, of course, it was."), but part of the appeal was that we were all holding our breath with her because it looked hard. The author holds that emotion on the ice up as a symbol of Kerrigan's girlishness, but Harding was similar, and they could both be hard to watch when they fell apart on the ice because they got so. upset.

The news coverage of the two definitely diverged and played out ideas of femininity and class, but the SKATING coverage, before the incident, I don't think those were criticisms of Harding's femininity or skating -- she was just a completely different KIND of skater than Kerrigan and Yamaguchi, and exciting in a completely different way. Also, a lot of Nancy Kerrigan's press-friendly story was her blind mother who sat two inches from the TV to see her skate and touched her image on the TV while she did and the sportscasters LOVED THIS WITH ALL THE LOVES. I remember this vividly 20 years later.

It was also the heydey of Marval and Urbanski, "the truck driver and the waitress," whom everybody adored, although every single story had to talk about how blue collar they are (including that youtube link there).

But I don't know, I was just a kid who loved watching figure skating and obsessively read all the coverage in the paper, not an adult carefully dissecting the news. I remember my mother felt bad for Harding right away when it became clear Harding's "team" was involved in the incident -- I was 13ish at the time of the attack, and I was like "BOOO that woman is awful" and my mom was like, "Whatever that girl did or didn't do, she has been dealt a really rough hand."

I don't know. I feel like a more interesting article might be about the press's treatment of Surya Bonaly, whom I remember getting much more unkind press coverage as being mannish, big, and angry.

(Also, watching the video of the incident again -- man, remember when everyone wore scrunchies like that and had fluffy front bangs?)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:25 PM on January 3 [22 favorites]


I just saw an snippet of an interview with Tonya Harding on the ABC nightly news (presumably promoting the upcoming ESPN documentary on January 16) and she was dishing about the ridiculous favoritism in the sport. The example she gave was when she was told that if she ever wore the pink costume she'd made herself (because she couldn't afford the $5,000 outfit) she wouldn't win anything again. It was clear she was still holding on to a lot of pent up hostility and I wondered if the motive for the Kerrigan attack was misplaced anger at a corrupt sport. IIRC, I seem to remember a time in figure skating in which they were penalized for wearing boots that were any color other then beige and when school figures were still mandatory in competition (I think they were still doing them in competition when Tonya and Nancy were competing?).

Interestingly, despite her plea, she still maintains she didn't know about the conspiracy until after it happened though.

Also: Has it really been twenty years? I need a drink.
posted by Dr. Zira at 5:26 PM on January 3


Her unbridled--not to say unhinged--hostility to Kerrigan is bizarre.

That's interesting because it's not really how I viewed it at all; it seems like the hostility is to the media conception of her. It's not Nancy Kerrigan's fault that this happaned, she just fit into the positive conception of what a female figure skater "should" be, and, while she benefits from it in some ways like endorsement and also possibly higher scores based on being "ladylike", she's still a victim of a system that has these values and expectations for women and she's still being used to propagate that. I also saw stuff like the points about the "lead pipe" and whatever not as attempts to discredit Nancy Kerrigan but as attempts to demonstrate how inaccurate the media portrayal was.

I thought that what was really being discussed here was the difference in benefit of the doubt given to each of these women based on their perceived backgrounds and, even if that went well for one of them and badly for the other, they're still both caught up in this without any real say in how they're presented.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:26 PM on January 3 [44 favorites]


And I clearly saw that she was despised because of her class

And because, you know, she was almost certainly involved in the plot to de.liberately injure a rival


She was despised for class before any of that ever happened.
posted by sweetkid at 5:33 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


I thought that what was really being discussed here was the difference in benefit of the doubt given to each of these women based on their perceived backgrounds and, even if that went well for one of them and badly for the other, they're still both caught up in this without any real say in how they're presented.

On that note, it might be important to remember this, from the bottom of the page:
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.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:39 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


I haven't thought about Kerrigan and Harding since the nineties. I might be largely alone in this thread, but I find Marshall's account convincing -- at least as convincing as the general idea at the time that Harding was a stupid, sociopathic monster. Both versions of the story are swayed by a common and comprehensible emotion (the public's thirst for a catfight between the right kind of woman and the wrong kind; a cultural critic's sympathy for a campy underdog). It makes sense to assume that neither is entirely true, but given the choice of whether to give an abused woman the benefit of the doubt, I default on giving it. I'm not on a jury here and it costs me absolutely nothing.

I saw the sentence about it not being Harding's job to make art as part of the article's mission to divorce figure skating from an image of effortlessly feminine floating and bring it into the world of athleticism. I think Marshall might have jumped too far with this line -- even she acknowledges that it has a substantial artistic component -- but I don't think the line alone is a dealbreaker to taking the work seriously.

I hadn't heard of Marshall before, but I'm looking forward to her book, "women in media spectacle" being a subject I've never totally named/codefied my interest in (but have now).
posted by thesmallmachine at 5:42 PM on January 3 [15 favorites]


(Wrote that without seeing the last few posts, and now that I've read them, I really want to concur with everything Mrs. Pterodactyl said.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 5:44 PM on January 3


Yeah I'm surprised more people in here weren't picking up on the whole "Tonya wasn't as bad as everyone thinks, it wasn't REALLY a crowbar and he didn't REALLY smash in her knee-cap. Tonya is the victim here!"

Whatever, I cheered when she broke her stupid lace.
posted by ReeMonster at 5:47 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


With regard to the lead pipe, journalists get weaponry wrong all. the. time.

The article puts the facts of the case on a Procrustean bed. It is true that Harding was mocked and reviled for being "white trash", and that's interesting, but at the same time, she really was part of an asinine, criminal scandal.

Besides, I'm not even into figure skating, but I had thought it was fairly common knowledge by now that Kerrigan was not a Disney princess, but instead a person - the kind of person who is a competitive athlete, and competitive athletes are rarely all that cuddly. And yeah, I think her "corny" line was actually really hilarious, and it makes me like her more.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:48 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


> Paula Jones, one of Bill Clinton’s main squeezes

He did not have sex with that woman. She turned him down. You are thinking of one of the other dozens of his main squeezes.
posted by bukvich at 5:49 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


The author has a lot of good points about class (or the appearance of class -- as she notes, Kerrigan was from a "working-class background"), media narratives, ideals of femininity, and the world of skating, but I can't help feeling she's a little too eager to redeem Tonya Harding. I mean, the thing with the laces looked fake and staged *while it was happening on live TV*, not just in later retellings. According to the author, "her lace had broken during the warm-up, and now she couldn’t find a replacement". This is presented as simple fact. (Because why would you bring backup laces to the Olympics just because you needed a special length and you'd "dealt with the same issues years before"?)
There's enough to be said about how women are portrayed in the media without picking sides like that. Tonya Harding could have known about the kneecapping plot, could have faked the laces problem to get a later spot in the program, and there'd *still* be plenty to say. If your subject is "women's roles in media spectacle", don't risk alienating part of your potential audience who might not buy your version of events that *aren't actually relevant to the main topic*. That's my advice, anyway.
posted by uosuaq at 5:54 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Superb essay, thank you for the fpp.
posted by spitbull at 5:55 PM on January 3


I took the "not about making art" thing to be that Harding was like a superb technician or engineer of her craft. She landed an unlandable jump; that's like building a 200 story tall skyscraper. Nobody cares if it's just a big tall fucking box because it's 200 stories tall. That was what Harding could do. Nobody had ever taught her grace, but somehow she had learned strength and power and determination and those are the qualities that came through in her set.
posted by localroger at 5:57 PM on January 3 [10 favorites]


Mr. Darling and I have the softest of guilty-pleasure soft spots for Tru TV's "World's Dumbest" franchise, and every time Tanya's on I'm happy that she is earning what I assume to be a few hundred bucks (or maybe just a few bucks for reruns). She tells terrible jokes and is more often the butt of them, but she seem to be a good sport.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 6:01 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Powerful essay. The treatment of HArding reminds a bit of the current treatment of Miley Cyrus--both were excoriated for being the "wrong" kind of woman, even if they succeed.
posted by LarryC at 6:08 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


I think that's a rather unfair comparison--Harding never shaped her career around cultural appropriation and minstrelsy.

This article reminds me of a gymnastics article I read about how female gymnasts are treated in the press. The smaller, lithe ones are inevitably called "artistic" and "graceful", the more muscular, stocky ones are called "powerful" and "athletic" and can receive erratic scores from judges for it. Even if the "feminine"-looking ones are doing the exact same movements.

It is something female athletes have been facing since they existed: the struggle between acquiring more power and strength while not stepping over the undefined line of "femininity" that will lead to your excoriation by those around you.
posted by schroedinger at 6:18 PM on January 3 [30 favorites]


I thought one of the more striking assertions of the essay was that she was abused by her mother, half-brother, and husband, but the media used these assertions "as proof of Tonya’s trashiness."
posted by lalex at 6:24 PM on January 3 [15 favorites]


It is something female athletes have been facing since they existed: the struggle between acquiring more power and strength while not stepping over the undefined line of "femininity" that will lead to your excoriation by those around you.

That, and putting a whack on the competition.
posted by ReeMonster at 6:26 PM on January 3


I got to see a preview of the upcoming — and terrific — 30 for 30 about this ("Price of Gold," which airs January 16), and it follows most of the same narrative as this article: That Tonya and Nancy represent different classes even more than they embody different styles of skating. One thing that this article doesn't really mention is how much of the story has been reshaped in the years since — Harding, banned from skating, has appeared in a sex tape, in celebrity boxing, and has been arrested. That trashy/classy narrative has been reinforced for 20 years.
posted by Charity Garfein at 6:30 PM on January 3


That's one helluva piece of writing! Said above, it's also one of the best pieces about figure skating that I've ever read. Bonus: it sets a lot of the record straight about what happened to Nancy Kerrigan, and why it happened. I hope Tonya Harding is doing OK these days. One thing for sure: fame is always fleeting.
posted by Vibrissae at 6:41 PM on January 3


I thought one of the more striking assertions of the essay was that she was abused by her mother, half-brother, and husband, but the media used these assertions "as proof of Tonya’s trashiness."

Yeah, that was pretty awful. It still goes on--look at how Rhianna was treated after Chris Brown beat her face in. There was all kinds of backbending to argue how she deserved it.

Really, from the perspective of this article the crime and media circus displayed a whole rotting pit full of misogyny and sexism.
posted by schroedinger at 6:49 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


The article puts the facts of the case on a Procrustean bed.

Your statement is far more eloquent than anything in that article, despite the author's alleged MFA in "Writing." This article is way too axe-grindy. It is an obvious attempt to rehabilitate Tonya Harding's reputation. It starts disingenuously by framing Nancy Kerrigan as whining "why me?' instead of "why?" Well any damn idiot would know why her, to keep her from winning that competition and a spot on the Olympic team. The question was obviously, why would anyone do something so unsportsmanlike?

Every once in a while, I am intrigued enough to read some long-form sports "journalism" and I immediately regret it. I feel like I was bludgeoned with crudely formed cliches ("as dewily innocent as Jackie Kennedy had, sitting in the Dallas sunshine, before the first shot cracked through the air... Only Nixon could go to China, but only Peggy Fleming could go to the USSR"), assaulted with adjectives ("To the commentators, she was 'lovely,' 'ladylike,' 'elegant,' and 'sophisticated'..") and metaphors that I hope were only inadvertently sexual ("you could almost taste the athlete’s sweat"). If you are going to write about the sexual politics of female athletes, you should probably first do some self-examination about your own sexual politics as a so-called journalist. And you probably should get your facts straight too. She claims Tonya's film debut was in 1996 in a movie with Emilio Estevez. But her "debut" was years earlier, in an infamous and well publicized sex tape. It seems to me that the big story here is what the author is repressing.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:59 PM on January 3 [6 favorites]


It starts disingenuously by framing Nancy Kerrigan as whining "why me?' instead of "why?"

From the article:
But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”
posted by Dark Messiah at 7:03 PM on January 3 [8 favorites]


This article reminds me of a gymnastics article I read about how female gymnasts are treated in the press.

Yeah, as I was reading this, I was reminded of the biography of Mary Lou Retton that I read, oh, sometime in the 80s where she talked about being taught to walk between the various apparatus for competition, because the spectacle of women's gymnastics didn't involve the competitors walking, as she described it "like football players" like they did in practice.

I thought of it again in the description of Nancy Kerrigan warming up surrounded by teenagers, and of Tanya "fighting" to package her athleticism gracefully. Seems like every time I watch women's gymnastics, it's younger and younger competitors whose dance moves look more and more extraneous against their sheer physical power, and I wonder why they can't just have acrobatic routines, like the men.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:11 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


Yes, DM, that is the author putting the words in Nancy Kerrigan's mouth, while claiming it is some nebulous media concoction. No, it is the author's concoction. You stopped too soon on that selective quote:

But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”

Twenty years later, we are still trying to answer this question. And if we have been mishearing something so simple for so long,.."


Nobody ever misheard that statement as "why me?"

I am often puzzled as to whether sports journalists are idiots, or that they just write as if their target audience is a bunch of idiots.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:11 PM on January 3 [3 favorites]


"Kerrigan's father, a welder, sometimes worked three jobs to fund her skating career, and also drove the ice resurfacer at the local rink in exchange for Nancy's lessons."

More stable than Ms Harding's home life, but even so....
posted by IndigoJones at 7:14 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


Yes, DM, that is the author putting the words in Nancy Kerrigan's mouth, while claiming it is some nebulous media concoction. No, it is the author's concoction. You stopped too soon on that selective quote:

But they will say, without fail, the one thing she didn’t say: “Why me?”

Twenty years later, we are still trying to answer this question. And if we have been mishearing something so simple for so long,.."

Nobody ever misheard that statement as "why me?"

posted by Anoplura at 7:19 PM on January 3 [16 favorites]


Mrs. Pterodactyl: it seems like the hostility is to the media conception of [Kerrigan]. It's not Nancy Kerrigan's fault that this happaned, she just fit into the positive conception of what a female figure skater "should" be, and, while she benefits from it in some ways like endorsement and also possibly higher scores based on being "ladylike", she's still a victim of a system...

I disagree. There's hostility to Kerrigan in the piece from many different angles. The worst is the targeted dismissals of her ability, countered with faint praise in the interest of appearing objective. I get the impression that the author dislikes Kerrigan for being too bland and graceful without charm. That may in fact be an apt characterization of the performing Nancy Kerrigan, but it doesn't make her a bad person. The author is aware that Harding is hard to like, and attempting to depersonalize her rival in the face of competing sympathies.

Other gratuitous dig I noticed: the author makes a fair point about the emphasis on Harding's physical shortcomings, but then offhandedly mention's Kerrigan's crooked teeth. At first, I wondered why she would marr her story with that obvious double standard. Turns out it was so she could later insinuate "Oh, Princess got her teeth fixed."

It ends up an ill-considered tactic anyway-- this whole story is supposed to be predicated on class differences, so telling me that Kerrigan competed with bad teeth until she could fix them as an adult doesn't seem to fit with the narrative that she was swimming in privilege. I'm kind of led to the conclusion that the big difference between them was that one was quiet and polite, and I'm being told to side with the person who wasn't.

I don't want to put too much weight into this point, but I noticed it: The author accuses people of disliking Harding for being working class, but there's a whiff of accusation that Kerrigan, who wasn't significantly advantaged, is a class traitor. Kerrigan is reserved, unobstrusive, proper and cold-- pretty much the dying New England Anglo-Irish stereotype. You get the feeling that the author feels like Kerrigan is putting on airs. Actually, she's just part of a tradition of unpretentious Irish-American families who work hard while wearing stone faces and feel strongly about not airing their laundry.

I've had it with anti-heroes. The public sided with Nancy Kerrigan because she'd make a better neighbor.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:21 PM on January 3 [24 favorites]


Harding never shaped her career around cultural appropriation and minstrelsy.

on the other hand, miley's never hired a goon to break katy perry's windpipe

hmmm ...
posted by pyramid termite at 7:37 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Oh FFS. My question has been answered. Sports writers are idiots, and they also deliberately write as if their audience is composed solely of idiots.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:46 PM on January 3


I was in my senior year of college during these Olympics, and we hung up on our wall the amazing quote from The Boston Globe that said Harding had thighs "like a Baltic peasant."

Honestly, we couldn't believe that the city's paper of record would actually write that, and figured it gave us license to say whatever we wanted in our own schoolwork. This gave rise to a roommate delivering a speech in Spanish on the election of Abraham Lincoln that said, if memory serves, "El dinero intelligente es on Señor Lincoln."

In retrospect it is clear that The Globe did us no favors with this encouragement.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:48 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


This reminded me of an article I read back when this was actual news, a 1994 Rolling Stone piece.(Which I see is also quoted in the FPP article.) It would be hard to overstate the extent to which Harding was pilloried for being "trashy." Harding was depicted as the absolute reverse of this description of Kerrigan:

She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak

At least within Portland, Harding became this total exemplar of the worst caricatures of outer Southeast white trash -- it played perfectly into local geographies of class and gender.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:58 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Throughout the piece, I kept thinking "huh, Nancy Kerrigan was the Anne Hathaway of the 90s." Same classy ladylike image, same strange propensity for attracting undue hatred. I don't think it's just the author's spin, either; back when this was all unfolding I remember it being trendy to make fun of Kerrigan. For crying after being attacked, for being too princessy, for not being attractive enough to get away with being princessy.

It's a no-win situation if you're a woman in the public eye: people will hate you if you're trashy and butch, but they'll also hate you if you're demure and poised.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:02 PM on January 3 [15 favorites]


Maylor Curley: Other gratuitous dig I noticed: the author makes a fair point about the emphasis on Harding's physical shortcomings, but then offhandedly mention's Kerrigan's crooked teeth. At first, I wondered why she would marr her story with that obvious double standard. Turns out it was so she could later insinuate "Oh, Princess got her teeth fixed."

It ends up an ill-considered tactic anyway-- this whole story is supposed to be predicated on class differences, so telling me that Kerrigan competed with bad teeth until she could fix them as an adult doesn't seem to fit with the narrative that she was swimming in privilege. I'm kind of led to the conclusion that the big difference between them was that one was quiet and polite, and I'm being told to side with the person who wasn't.


I think we're going to end up disagreeing on both the article and the people in it but I did want to address this -- I didn't think the article was implying "Princess got her teeth fixed", I think it was more that, when Nancy Kerringan did stuff like have her teeth fixed, something that has absolutely no bearing on her abilities as a skater, that helped her do well with the public and with judges. It's an example of how both of them were assigned roles by the media which had nothing to do with their hard work and talent.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:04 PM on January 3 [18 favorites]


She claims Tonya's film debut was in 1996 in a movie with Emilio Estevez. But her "debut" was years earlier, in an infamous and well publicized sex tape.

This is a pretty nasty way to characterize the leaking of what was supposed to be a private video. I'm not a Harding defender, but calling a gross act of revenge a "debut", like Harding wanted that everywhere, is pretty horrible. Did you call the posting of revenge photos on Is Anyone Up? "debuts" too?
posted by schroedinger at 8:07 PM on January 3 [27 favorites]


[Comment about Harding's sex tape deleted; can we skip having a big derail about that? If you'd like to discuss with a moderator please use the contact form as always. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:39 PM on January 3


The article makes some great points that are actually undermined by the author's obvious over-determination to fit everything into a narrative. It's way too long and somehow leaves me with a weird feeling of, yes everything was rather terrible all around but isn't life unfair anyway? She is right that Tonya received a raw deal but at the same time the story is a bit onesided. For crying out loud, you don't need to overdramatize/melodramatize your story if you're really trying to make an intelligent case, but I suspect the author is going more for emotion.
posted by blue shadows at 9:43 PM on January 3


I remember it being trendy to make fun of Kerrigan. For crying after being attacked, for being too princessy, for not being attractive enough to get away with being princessy.


March 8, 1994, NY Times:

Kerrigan Is No Bambi:

"... Kerrigan, it is remembered, was overheard being peevish while waiting for Oksana Baiul, who had narrowly beaten her out for the gold medal, to come to the medals stand. Again, on microphone but in private conversation -- this is a woman who will never do a commercial for Spy Shops -- she wanted to know why Baiul was putting on more makeup for the occasion. "She's only going to cry again, anyway," Kerrigan said.

To critics, this marked her as an ungracious loser.

And before that, during practice on the day before the Olympic finals, she continued skating her long program when Baiul and Tanja Szewczenko collided on the ice across the rink from her.

So now you hear how people have gotten nauseous from Kerrigan's smile -- "too many teeth" -- and her girlish voice, which they perceive as masking something darker within her heart.

Maybe such a response to her testy behavior is simply sexist. But one thing is certain. It exposes our little dream world of what we think athletes should be all about. It should, the dreamers dream, be more than athletics. We want them to be Homeric ideals when they are just human beings with Achilles' heels, lest we forget. It is especially disappointing when the athlete was supposed to be Snow White, Cinderella and Bambi all rolled into one. It turns out this is a tough competitor, with some qualities not unlike those we have celebrated in, among others, Billy Martin and Bob Knight.

....

Their motivation and that of this woman from a working-class family is the same: money. Well, then, her detractors say, take it and quit complaining about it. But Kerrigan explained she felt it was corny in the parade, and demeaning, to wear her silver medal around her neck, as her mother had urged. It's one thing to agree to something; it's another to feel stupid while doing it. One thinks of Jesse Owens racing a horse to cash in on his Olympic gold medals........ "
posted by Rumple at 10:10 PM on January 3


I don't know. I feel like a more interesting article might be about the press's treatment of Surya Bonaly, whom I remember getting much more unkind press coverage as being mannish, big, and angry.

Oh, man, I was really young when all this happened (probably more like 10-11 to your 13?), and I was never big enough into it to know who else was getting what kind of press coverage, but Surya Bonaly just BLEW ME AWAY as a kid.

She's one of the only skaters aside from the whole Kerrigan fiasco and Michelle Kwan I still remember today, decades later, when I really honestly don't care about figure skating at all and don't even watch the Winter Olympics anymore.
posted by Sara C. at 10:27 PM on January 3 [4 favorites]


Wait, weird, nevermind, I was also 13 when this happened in '94. Did Surya Bonaly compete in 1990 as well or was I just a naive child in the face of winter sports?
posted by Sara C. at 10:39 PM on January 3


She competed in the 1992 Games in Albertville, so that might be what you're thinking of.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:42 PM on January 3


Right, I forgot, that was the time there were like a million winter olympics right in a row.
posted by Sara C. at 10:57 PM on January 3


One of the things that bothers me about this piece (along with a few other things that have already been mentioned) is its attempt to use Harding's abusive relationships with her mother and first husband — which I'm sure were quite abusive — to imply that her participation in the plot was coerced.

I think Tonya Harding as we've experienced her in mass culture is a great example of how patterns of emotional and physical abuse can produce a permanently wounded human being. It does bother me that the others involved in the plot, including Gillooly and the dude who actually did the deed, get to be forgotten, yet we remember Harding because she was the one on TV.

Yet I'm not sure these feelings rise to the level of sympathy; we are, after all, talking about a person who either (a) planned to permanently cripple someone because she thought that person was standing in the way of her deserved accolades; or (b) knew that her abusive husband was planning this but somehow was unable to scuttle the plans. Even scenario B is hard for me to imagine. (The piece tries to air Scenario C, Harding's official story that she was unaware of the plot until after it happened, but I don't think that passes the laugh test despite the author's efforts.)

I think I can manage to think of Harding both as the victim of a lifetime of abuse and as someone who did a horrible thing for which she should be punished. On one hand, the white-trash narratives were concocted so easily and so cruelly, and she didn't deserve for her past to be used as a punchline. On the other hand, the resulting notoriety has given her a curious (if erratic) revenue stream over the last 20 years — a privilege which was only afforded to her because of her fame. Lots of people commit lesser crimes than what Harding did and end up with their lives completely ruined as a result.

The luckiest part of all this is that the goon missed Kerrigan's kneecap and hit her thigh instead. If Kerrigan had had her kneecap smashed and her career ended, as was the intent, would anyone on earth be suggesting 20 years later that Harding had gotten a raw deal?
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:21 PM on January 3 [7 favorites]


Despite certain opinions to the contrary expressed in this thread, if someone is going to write a hagiography of Saint Tonya, and argue for her beatification, they are going to to have to deal with her greatest tribulations. It is a central issue, not a derail.

The author of this ridiculous article could not possibly have been ignorant of Harding's bad publicity and its clear association with her later film career. Harding consistently cast herself as a victim, and the author tap dances around this point without ever addressing it. The author's unsophisticated analysis of the sexual politics of celebrity and social class is incomplete without a full look at Harding's legacy. The release of the sex tape gave Harding an opportunity to fully establish her public image as a victim. If anyone is uncertain of how clearly the sex tape was associated with her Hollywood film career, I encourage you to watch this video that contains interviews with both legit film people, and then Bob Guccione. The newscaster literally speaks of the sex tape and the Hollywood film production in the same sentences. I am astonished that this lurid piece of television from 1996 is better informed and more analytical than the author:

She is at work on a book about women’s roles in media spectacle, from which this piece is excerpted.

Perhaps she ought to address the issue of media spectacle.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:25 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


Surya Bonaly could do backflips on ice skates (and Midori Ito complained that Bonaly doing it in warmup threw off Ito's whole program). That was a really great time to watch women's skating, so many great skaters with so much personality.

I do also recall that US sportscasters presented Kerrigan and Harding's working class backgrounds as a virtue, making them hardworking all-American girls, as set against the skating aristocracy of other countries. I'm willing to believe the judges went easier on skaters they viewed as right for the sport (although the American women were suspiciously dominant if that was the case), but as that was seriously one of the major things the commentators talked about all the time, how our girls got such a raw deal for being bootstrapers when in fact it rendered them awesome, I feel like that also ought to be addressed.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:40 AM on January 4 [7 favorites]


She's also one of the only figure skaters I've ever seen who wears pants. Or like catsuits/unitards/whatever you'd call that. Are those even allowed?
posted by Sara C. at 2:02 AM on January 4


I do also recall that US sportscasters presented Kerrigan and Harding's working class backgrounds as a virtue, making them hardworking all-American girls, as set against the skating aristocracy of other countries. I'm willing to believe the judges went easier on skaters they viewed as right for the sport...

Along similar lines, this observation is interesting: "Moreover, these events are set against a background of increasing sexual conservatism in skating, as a number of prominent male skaters died of AIDS, compromising skating's image as wholesome middle-American family fun. There was thus increased pressure on the women to maintain figure skating's white-bread image. Dreams of Gold, by Wayne Coffey and Filip Bondy, an overnight paperback about Kerrigan, explains:
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."
posted by taz at 2:57 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]


One of the things I remember from that time (when I was in my twenties and living in Portland) was that Nancy Kerrigan was portrayed as pretty and graceful but dumber than dumb. The "corny" remark was a much-cited example of her apparent unawareness of what was expected of her as a sponsored athlete and media darling. (No one who'd seen her interviewed would suggest she was doing it consciously.) Whatever else was said of Harding, pretty much everyone agreed she was brighter than Kerrigan, but they were both scorned as gullible, uneducated, and stupid, a contrast with Yamaguchi and Witt.
posted by gingerest at 3:05 AM on January 4


I think the one thing that completely destroys the author's preferred narrative is that the difference between Harding and Kerrigan's class backgrounds isn't nearly as great as she needs it to be for her story to work. The author's use of "patrician" to describe Kerrigan immediately struck me as deeply strange. Kerrigan isn't the scion of some blue-blood New England family, or even the daughter of a doctor/lawyer/banker. Her dad is a welder and her mom is disabled. "Patrician" could plausibly be used to describe Yamaguchi, the daughter of a dentist, but not Kerrigan.

The only thing that separates the Harding and Kerrigan in terms of their background is that Kerrigan's parents are married and stable, while Harding's parents most definitely aren't. That's no insignificant difference, granted, but in terms of the whole socio-economic package, aren't "welder" and "unemployed" far closer to each other than either is to "dentist"?

So I think the author, in her fairly obvious attempt to rehabilitate Harding, has buried the lede. The real story here isn't the difference in the way the media treated Harding and Kerrigan. It's the difference in the way the media has treated Harding/Kerrigan on one side and Yamaguchi on the other. There really is a class difference there, while don't think the difference between Harding and Kerrigan is sufficiently different to do the major work that the author needs it to do.
posted by valkyryn at 3:20 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]


The article makes some great points that are actually undermined by the author's obvious over-determination to fit everything into a narrative.
Perhaps they just chose the wrong narrative.
They were both victims and we were the perpetrators.
posted by fullerine at 5:30 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


There, as in 1994, you will find ranches and ranch houses; towns with names like Boring and Needy, which don’t so much invite mockery as head it off at the first pass; and roadside farm stands and U-Pick outfits that, in the summertime, erect signs telling motorists WE HAVE BERRIES: BLACKS AND BLUES.

I left Oregon in 1997, and this short summary brings back so many memories. I have friends who live in Boring (beautiful views of Mount Hood when you get beyond chortling at the name), and my handle, fraula, means strawberry, chosen because I grew up visiting many of the same berry fields.

I also always felt a connection with Harding, who was only a few years older than teenager fraula in the late 80s and early 90s, and came from a very similar background. White trash. Oregon white trash. Countryside hicks who grew up on and around ranches, drove fast cars (I had a 72 Chevy Nova, cherry red, I polished its chrome quasi-religiously), and saw sports as physical prowess. I liked Harding. Liked that she reminded me of friends with their brash yet compassionate forwardness. Their childhoods having been spent with enough feminism in the air and in schools to allow them to participate in sports with apparently-vanishing afterthoughts about their "femininity". That is indeed something that seems to have been lost in the late 1990s-early 2000s. I don't understand why, as a society, we've taken a step backwards; why athletic women are portrayed young, innocent, naive, non-threatening being the underlying takeaway. Note the use of "portrayed" too: there's no lack of mature women athletes. But they're not portrayed, and the rare times they are, it's not as powerful, mature women, unless it can be twisted negatively.

This essay, and reactions to it, help me understand why. There is a narrative surrounding women as equivalent to unquestioned opinions on "femininity" that still hasn't been deconstructed profoundly enough for society to throw it off. This article, and reactions to it, show that no matter how much a woman may speak out – "Despite her allegations of abuse, despite the restraining orders and 911 calls she placed, and despite her claims that she feared for her life both before and after the assault on Nancy..." – she's still thought to have not done enough. She says she had a gun held to her head and was raped by three different men following the attack on Nancy, in order to scare her off going to the FBI.

And yet we still hear that the abuse damaged her irreparably; abuse made her into someone who would commit a crime. Never mind that she reported crimes. Never mind that she spoke out about her abuse and spoke respectfully about competitors. Abuse carried out by others, somehow makes her guilty.

We tell victims of abuse that they can't be victims, they have to be actors, survivors. But when they are, visibly, we tell them no, sorry, there's this bad thing that looks pretty related to you and would make a lot of sense since you are a victim.

Harding spoke out (you don't have to take her at her word, restraining orders are on the record, for starters) and was not listened to. Look at how many women, you can see it here on MetaFilter, so often speak up about their abuse and how it was not stopped; was not prosecuted; was ignored and even tacitly approved by others. Maybe all of these things work together. Maybe societal narratives surrounding abuse and women favor abusers, which would have made a perfect cover for a crime like the one against Nancy Kerrigan. Maybe, even though we can't know exactly what happened, we can listen to all of these things and acknowledge that Tonya Harding has her own voice. Her voice is not the voice of her abusers. By listening to that voice – you don't have to believe all of it – you work towards reducing the power of abusers. You tell them through that action, in effect, "you tried to silence this woman and use her like an object for your own ends. I am not listening to your victimizing any more. I am listening to a survivor. She may not be perfect, but she has shown strength and uprightness that abusers have not."
posted by fraula at 5:33 AM on January 4 [43 favorites]


There is an interesting flipside to the gender policing of figure skating in Canada's short and slightly stocky for figure skater Elvis Stojko, a men's World Champion skater who desperately wanted to be seen as manly and incorporated martial arts moves into his routines to try ensure it. He also was more of a power skater than graceful but seemed to suffer much less.
posted by srboisvert at 6:23 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


This essay (and many reactions to it) are a good reminder of why MFAs shouldn't sit on juries. The author is super eager to talk about who met or contradicted social expectations, and incredibly reluctant to talk about, or even acknowledge, who hired a bunch of thugs to break her rival's knees. One gets the feeling she thinks that little detail is too dull to take seriously.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:50 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


> This was an interesting article, but I felt like it overstated the case a little bit in retrospect.

Well, sure. It wasn't written in a vacuum; it was written in a world in which everybody who remembers the episode has been mocking Tonya and assuming she was GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY. The author's attempt to present the case for the defense may not be totally convincing, but I'm glad she made it, and you can see the need for it by the number of commenters here who are so in love with their hate for Tonya they would rather mock the author (oooh, an MFA, how disgusting!) than even provisionally rethink the issue.
posted by languagehat at 9:03 AM on January 4 [20 favorites]


Nu, an MFA isn't inherently disgusting, but I do find it a little gross how so many cultural studies people write about violent crime as though the violence wasn't real, only the media reactions to it.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:14 AM on January 4 [5 favorites]


On the other hand, that's sort of what she says a whole bevy of non-MFA journalists did with the well-documented history of violence against Harding. It wasn't really violence: it was evidence that she fit into a cultural narrative about trashiness.

I definitely remember feeling a certain solidarity with Harding at the time. I actually think that's an interesting cultural phenomenon, because it seems to have been less unusual than I would have thought. I wonder if that episode resonated with some girls who felt slighted for not being able to adhere to gender expectations.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:50 AM on January 4 [5 favorites]


This is totally unrelated to the article, but it's an interesting, little known anecdote about the Kerrigan family that I learned from a good friend from their hometown:

Nancy's father Daniel, after his daughter was successful and the family was financially secure, won close to seven figures from a high-chance lottery scratch ticket. This polarized the townies in her home town of Stoneham, many of whom felt that Dan had no business playing the lottery when he was already well-to-do and that by doing so, he had taken the money out of the hands of a random person less fortunate than he.

It seems ludicrous to me that he would be resented for this, and it sheds some insight on the thoughts of people who gamble.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:10 AM on January 4 [2 favorites]


The author's use of "patrician" to describe Kerrigan immediately struck me as deeply strange.

I agree with the author so far as presentation on the ice (and in media discussion of Kerrigan's skating style) is concerned. Kerrigan's grace and elegance and bearing were the points the press and commentators sold, while for Harding it was strength and speed and power. Relative to the two of them, imo, Yamaguchi operated in a middle presentational ground, with more "grace" in her routines than Harding, but more "punch" than Kerrigan. Also, "patrician" would've then (and, I think still) been unlikely to have been applied to Yamaguchi, because the American image of "patrician" is white. Who got compared to Grace Kelly? That's the person whose presentation (on the ice, at least) could be called "patrician".

Also, speaking about class, there are (and historically have been) different degrees of social approval attached to the working class who appear to fit in (or aspire to fit in) with middle class values, and those who appear not to. Perception has much more to do with the difference between "blue collar" and "white trash" than income. Stable marriage, stable job, settled family life: those are ideals that US society privileges and they enabled Kerrigan's image to be upwardly mobile in a way that Harding's could not be.
posted by EvaDestruction at 10:25 AM on January 4 [9 favorites]


The author's attempt to present the case for the defense may not be totally convincing, but I'm glad she made it, and you can see the need for it by the number of commenters here who are so in love with their hate for Tonya they would rather mock the author (oooh, an MFA, how disgusting!) than even provisionally rethink the issue.

Not only is the defense unpersuasive in and of itself, but the defense only goes as far as claiming that Harding wasn't involved in the attack. The article doesn't consider how to reframe Harding if we do, as most people do, accept that Harding was indeed culpable in the attack. It doesn't help that the article is seemingly unaware of how unconvincing its defense is. It feels like somebody chiding me for being so naive to believe that, say, Germany lost WWII.

Let us agree, even if just for the sake of argument, that Tonya Harding was indeed a willing player behind the attack. How would that reframe this article?

Put another way, the whole article is about reframing media presentations of Harding and Kerrigan. However, when a crucial part of the article's reframing is so unpersuasive, then what are we left with?

Regarding MFAs, I don't care who has what degree, but this article was overwritten.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:14 AM on January 4 [4 favorites]


...Surya Bonaly, whom I remember getting much more unkind press coverage as being mannish, big, and angry.

Oh, lord, I'd forgotten about that. She was amazing in all the ways the author waxes rhapsodic about Harding being amazing, but also projected this fantastic joy and energy at the same time. When I would hear the comments about her physical appearance or presentation, I would literally have to ask myself if they were actually talking about the same person.

That's relevant here because we all have different memories of this. I had barely been aware of either Harding or Kerrigan before the accident because...well, I didn't think they were interesting. Afterward, I kept thinking that the narrative could all be understood in terms of which side of the tracks they came from, to use the old American cliche: Tonya was from the wrong side; Nancy was from the right side. That's how I remember it, at least.

The one thing I can definitively remember about the skating is that I found them both disappointing to watch. I'd been rooting in an underdog sort of way for Harding because I kept thinking 'man it's gonna hurt her if she can't outperform Kerrigan now.'
posted by lodurr at 11:54 AM on January 4 [1 favorite]


For "accident" read "incident." I think this is more of a function of the fact that it just didn't register with me right away than anything else. If I recall correctly, I only registered awareness of it at least a day after it started being covered on the news.
posted by lodurr at 12:00 PM on January 4


What I find sort of weird about the article, after doing a little reading about the facts of Harding's skating career, is that the skating judges sure seemed to be working in her favor just a few years prior to the Kerrigan incident.

You can't have it both ways. Either there is rampant bias or there isn't. My guess is that Harding did not think the judges were biased against her class/femininity/athleticism in 1991 when she was at the top of her game, landing triple axels, winning national competitions, and getting 6.0 scores. So what changed between then and later in her career? Did this bias develop out of nowhere between 1992 and 1994?

On paper Tonya Harding's problem seems to be that her career peaked early and the timing was all wrong for her to do particularly well at the Olympics. Which is unfortunate. But I have to say that far more unfortunate things have happened to athletes before.

That said, I think media portrayal and actual competition judging are two very different things, and the media absolutely did her a disservice due to classist bias.
posted by Sara C. at 1:40 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Sara C.: "My guess is that Harding did not think the judges were biased against her class/femininity/athleticism in 1991 when she was at the top of her game, landing triple axels, winning national competitions, and getting 6.0 scores. So what changed between then and later in her career? Did this bias develop out of nowhere between 1992 and 1994?"

I think the author's assertion is that Harding was only winning competitions while she was able to land the one jump that no one else could do. Once she lost the ability to land the triple axel consistently, she had the same bag of tricks as any other top-tier female skater, but that apparently wasn't enough. The only way Harding could overcome this bias was to be obviously technically superior to her peers.

I don't buy it at all, but I think that's what the piece is trying to argue.
posted by savetheclocktower at 1:53 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Once she lost the ability to land the triple axel consistently, she had the same bag of tricks as any other top-tier female skater, but that apparently wasn't enough. The only way Harding could overcome this bias was to be obviously technically superior to her peers.

I don't buy it at all, but I think that's what the piece is trying to argue.


It's probably unpersuasive because there's no obvious reason she should have beaten the rest of the field without her signature move. The one thing she doesn't seem to have had is poise and consistency. The author really seems to be trying to argue that those things shouldn't be part of the judging criteria because she thinks they're somehow linked to "feminine" constructions that she doesn't like. Well, I mean, okay, but as has also been pointed out elsewhere, that's kind of like trying to argue that figure skating should be more like the 100m dash, i.e., an event that really is 100% about athleticism, instead of an event which is significantly predicated upon style, like, oh, I don't know, figure skating.
posted by valkyryn at 2:07 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Also, if you were winning competitions due to your amazing move that nobody else can do, and then you stop being able to do it, it's not really unfair that you also stop getting the scores you used to.

Is the idea that, if Tonya Harding's style was that of a delightful little sprite, nobody would care that her technique was slipping, and they would still give her the same scores? That if Nancy Kerrigan used to be able to nail a triple axel and then lost it, she would still be at the top of the heap because she's more elegant?

The whole point of sports is that it's about being able to physically do things that others cannot do.

I can't land a triple axel, either. Where's my Olympic gold medal?
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Afterward, I kept thinking that the narrative could all be understood in terms of which side of the tracks they came from, to use the old American cliche: Tonya was from the wrong side; Nancy was from the right side. That's how I remember it, at least.

I remember the first time I ever heard Hole was when NBC was doing that bio thing of figure skaters and they set a Hole song to Nicole Bobeck's bio. She ended up in one of these so called "white trash"/non Nancy Kerrigan situations and i remember they had her posed looking mean in miniskirts. She was pretty young too. Under 18.

We watched a lot of figure skating at my house. And I figure skated non competitively (more like ice danced in sparkly pink sequined costumes with a pink sequined fringed fascinator bobby pinned into my hair---good a little girl with flat feet and lack of physical discipline but sheer love of performance). But I loved watching figure skating. I can't look away, even now!

Does USFSA do any special new and improved media coaching for rising young stars before they become breakout stars now? I remember the story that Tonya's mom used to beat her with a hairbrush being around while she was still skating.
posted by discopolo at 2:18 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


Awwww, are flat feet a strike against you in figure skating?

And here I've just told myself my whole life that the reason I did not become an Olympic figure skater is that I grew up in the south.
posted by Sara C. at 2:22 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


valkyryn: "instead of an event which is significantly predicated upon style, like, oh, I don't know, figure skating."

To go further down the road of half-defending an argument that didn't even persuade me:

Figure skating and gymnastics (and other judged sports like diving) bother me because we all know that they involve some combination of technical acumen and artistic brilliance. And we're mostly on the same page on the technical stuff (though, as the author points out, not all judges notice all technical fuckups), but there's no way to ground the artistic stuff in a way that is not just arbitrary and unique to each judge.

When a judge says that a figure skater should be "graceful," that word could mean "skating in a similar style to a previous skater that I liked," in which case it would reward homogeneity of style. Or it could mean "skating in a way that is obviously visually appealing," in which case it could reward certain body types over others (perhaps to the detriment of technical prowess, since the author argues that Harding's ability to land the triple axel was partly attributable to her strong thighs). Or it could mean "I know it when I see it," which might be the most infuriating definition of all.

At their worst, judged competitions can end up like dog shows: we have decided these are the best specimens because they conform best to these arbitrary characteristics. We've seen that figure skating is vulnerable to vote-trading and other shady under-the-table shit, and that kind of stuff just doesn't happen in sports where the criteria are clearly defined and where anyone at home can keep score.

I'm not suggesting that figure skating should turn into a competition where everyone tries a triple axel and the person who lands it gets a gold medal. I'm only saying that a nebulous "artistic score" can conceal a whole lot of conservatism and institutionalized bias. I can believe this even as I doubt that it was the source of Harding's professional difficulties.
posted by savetheclocktower at 2:35 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


Oh, yeah, I do think those types of biases are what keeps figure skaters petite and feminine* and free of tattoos and lacking in spiked purple mohawks. And why you still see the fluttery skirted costumes and the chignons and only white or tan skates, when, really, figure skaters should be able to look however they want.

I just don't know that they necessarily apply in a situation where someone is at the highest echelon of the sport and has already won every award in the book.

*FWIW I did a google image search for Tonya Harding and while, I don't know, maybe she seemed unfeminine in comparison with Kristy Yamaguchi or something, she's not exactly butch.
posted by Sara C. at 2:47 PM on January 4


On the Surya Bonaly note, I remember watching figure skating during this time, but I don't remember mannish comments from the commentators. They usually mentioned that she was a model in France, although I remember thinking at the time that their tone seemed dismissive of it. They also never seemed to consider her a contender for a medal during the Olympics. I wasn't sure if it was because she'd had a bad year, or was past her prime, or because they just thought she was too unconventional. She certainly made an impression though, since I can still remember her twenty years later. I remember in her exhibition performances she would do backflips, and land them on one foot.

On the actual topic, in recent years I have thought that Tonya got a rough break. I just never felt like they proved her involvement in the crime well enough to warrant the punishment that she got. I actually don't find it so difficult to believe that she might not have known about the attack until afterwards. Either way, the media certainly hated her and it doesn't seem to have changed its tune since - everything she does is just further proof of her trashiness. Even her bits on Worlds Dumbest played in to that dumb, white trash thing - which actually started to bother me after awhile.
posted by madelf at 5:10 PM on January 4 [3 favorites]


You guys are talking as though the judging in figure skating wasn't rigged. With the behind the scenes maneouvering, obviously these sorts of cultural influences of class and "poise", not to mention race and nationality, could be, and were, easily overlaid onto the athletic baseline.
posted by Rumple at 5:18 PM on January 4 [2 favorites]


Surya once didnt get the medal she wanted and refused to stand on the podium. But she was an amazing athlete.
posted by discopolo at 5:25 PM on January 4


Although I do believe a lot of what the author has to say--that there's not enough attention paid to the role of the jealous, abusive, possessive husband/ex-husband, and that classism played into the treatment of Harding--something bugs me about how she portrays Kerrigan, and that's the narrative of The Female Athlete Who Got To Where She Is/Was Solely (or Primarily) By Being Pretty. That's a narrative that you never really hear or read about male athletes.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:59 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


the narrative of The Female Athlete Who Got To Where She Is/Was Solely (or Primarily) By Being Pretty

After reading the article twice, I still don't get the impression that the author was trying to paint Kerrigan that way, but that she was pointing out how she was portrayed in the media at the time as the elegant, ladylike one, the good girl from the good family, in stark contrast to Harding, who was painted as the trashy, low-class one. I remember watching the media spectacle around these particular Olympics and being a little bit grossed out by those back-story human interest packages that ran on NBC during their games coverage. Kerrigan was always shown as the clean, sweet, demure one, Harding was given the classless and trashy edit.
posted by palomar at 6:27 PM on January 4 [5 favorites]


palomar: " I remember watching the media spectacle around these particular Olympics and being a little bit grossed out by those back-story human interest packages that ran on NBC during their games coverage."

The Lillehammer Olympics were aired on CBS. I have like an eidetic memory for "Bob Costas touchy-feely backstory packages at the Olympics" and the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics had NONE OF THOSE.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:31 PM on January 4


My mistake. I must have imagined it all.
posted by palomar at 6:37 PM on January 4


Well I'm sure CBS had its own human-interest packages but they were not Bob-Costas-related.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:39 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


Nobody ever misheard that statement as "why me?"
I am often puzzled as to whether sports journalists are idiots, or that they just write as if their target audience is a bunch of idiots.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:11 PM on January 3

If you had given me a multiple choice test over what she said before reading this article, i would have chosen "why me?"

That was absolutely the way it was portrayed in popular media.
and I don't consider myself an idiot.
posted by wester at 8:21 PM on January 4


Video of Tonya Harding's historic triple axel.

I feel bad for Tonya the way I feel bad for Lindsay Lohan. The only reason Lilo isn't Natalie Portman is because Lilo had terrible parents.

Also, at the end of the video: man, Kristi Yamaguchi is a true athlete and example of grace and sportsmanship.

Also, I'm getting that Tonya only really seems like trash in retrospect. Lots of girls had that weird poodle hair in the late eighties. I was pretty young, but I don't remember knowing Tonya Harding came from a rough upbringing until the domestic violence and her mom beating her with a hairbrush incident became something that was talked about. But I was pretty young and it's hard to pick up on those things at that age.
posted by discopolo at 10:10 PM on January 4


I'm only saying that a nebulous "artistic score" can conceal a whole lot of conservatism and institutionalized bias. I can believe this even as I doubt that it was the source of Harding's professional difficulties.

I think I'm probably on the same page here, but I think the problem is even more basic than that. Simply put: figure skating, like gymnastics, is a sport in which victory is dependent upon scores issued by a panel of judges. Inherently so. It's not a race. It's not a height contest. It's not a question of doing one, single thing first, or highest, or longest. It's subjective. Bias, of whatever kind, is necessarily impossible to eliminate.

If you don't like that, go watch bobsledding.
posted by valkyryn at 1:45 AM on January 5


Eh, this is like reading a deep sociological analysis of how the CEO of a Fortune 500 company beat someone else out for the job, and how the runner-up is really a victim of all these horrible social forces that predetermined the outcome, even though the same forces did nothing to stop the runner up from getting so far in the first place. Oh, and the runner up was busted deliberately sabotaging the other guy.
posted by leopard at 5:59 AM on January 5 [1 favorite]


Is the idea that, if Tonya Harding's style was that of a delightful little sprite, nobody would care that her technique was slipping, and they would still give her the same scores? That if Nancy Kerrigan used to be able to nail a triple axel and then lost it, she would still be at the top of the heap because she's more elegant?

I used to watch skating obsessively, and the answer to that has and always will be, YES. The more "butch" female athletes such as Harding and Bonaly were always getting crap and lower scores for being "athletic" rather than Ice Princess. Lookism is everything in the judging-type sports. Not that either of them can help their body type in that they didn't come out looking like fragile swans, but "butch" already somewhat doomed them even before those two had ice drama.

Lookism is a big thing in this article--both Kerrigan and Harding come from the blue collar world, except Kerrigan just came out looking thinner and more "noble" (or Ice Princess) and her family was sane. And look at how it's mentioned in the article that Harding comes off worse because she doesn't make it look effortless.

Seriously, judges are bastards. This is making me want to watch Stick It (as in, to the judges) again for some kind of mental revenge.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:03 AM on January 5 [3 favorites]


But, again, Tonya Harding won basically every skating competition that exists in 1991. She got perfect scores.

I'm sure the biases exist (you don't see a lot of actually butch figure skaters), but once you're at the top and those judges are giving you literally the best possible scores a person could get, that's not a real complaint you can make.
posted by Sara C. at 9:12 AM on January 5 [2 favorites]


"But, again, Tonya Harding won basically every skating competition that exists in 1991. She got perfect scores. I'm sure the biases exist (you don't see a lot of actually butch figure skaters), but once you're at the top and those judges are giving you literally the best possible scores a person could get, that's not a real complaint you can make."

This is wrong- Tonya Harding received *two* perfect scores of 6.0 for her technical (not artistic) score at Skate America in 1991, the first time a woman was ever awarded even one 6.0 for technical marks.

The fact that she received two perfect 6.0 scores for landing the triple axel and jump combinations flawlessly in no way means that she didn't face huge discrimination from the judges for her presentation (lookism being factored in as a large part of the presentation mark). I have a lot to say about this article because I competed in NE around the same time that Kerrigan was moving up through the ranks and skated some of the same freestyle sessions with her (but did not know her by any stretch of the definition of that word) but probably won't find the time to do so today.

In general I thought this article did an excellent job of capturing what the figure skating world was (is still?) like. I think it's difficult for anyone who wasn't a part of that subculture to fully grasp the classism and in/out status plays that were rampant in the sport, especially in the greater Boston area.

p.s.- Kerrigan's family also faced disfunction and tragedy in later years.
posted by stagewhisper at 11:04 AM on January 5 [5 favorites]


"p.s.- Kerrigan's family also faced disfunction and tragedy in later years."

Bit at the end of that 2012 article relevant to comments above:

"Nancy Kerrigan, at the U.S. Championships in 1994, was clubbed on her right knee by an attacker during practice. An investigation revealed that rival Tonya Harding had knowledge of the planning of the attack, which left Kerrigan on the ground clutching her leg and crying "Why me?"

I was 13 at the time and didn't pay much attention to the story, so my main source of information on this whole drama was SNL and one verse of a Weird Al song. Interesting read.
posted by history_denier at 1:50 PM on January 5


Yea I think I remember SNL doing something about Kerrigan crying in the locker room after they hit her.
posted by sweetkid at 1:54 PM on January 5


> "But, again, Tonya Harding won basically every skating competition that exists in 1991. She got perfect scores. I'm sure the biases exist (you don't see a lot of actually butch figure skaters), but once you're at the top and those judges are giving you literally the best possible scores a person could get, that's not a real complaint you can make."

This is wrong- Tonya Harding received *two* perfect scores of 6.0 for her technical (not artistic) score at Skate America in 1991, the first time a woman was ever awarded even one 6.0 for technical marks.


I'm confused. You quote a comment saying "She got perfect scores" and say "This is wrong- Tonya Harding received *two* perfect scores." Huh? "No, she doesn't have ears, she has *two* ears!"
posted by languagehat at 1:55 PM on January 5


Lookism is everything in the judging-type sports. Not that either of them can help their body type in that they didn't come out looking like fragile swans, but "butch" already somewhat doomed them even before those two had ice drama.

I'm sorry, but it seems pretty arbitrary to complain about penalizing them for not winning that particular aspect of the genetic lottery in a context where a ridiculous percentage of anyone's success is dependent upon winning said lottery. I cannot land a triple axel, and I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have been able to even if I had practiced figure skating eight hours a day starting at age eight. The body I was born with was never, under any circumstances, going to enable me to compete on an international level. Or any other sport, for that matter.

But that's the thing of it, right? Pretty much every professional or even semi-professional athlete has won at least some aspect of the genetic lottery. It's why professional athletes are employed. Not everyone can do what they do, and it's not merely a matter of practice. It takes dedication and effort to turn raw talent into effective athleticism, but if raw talent is not there, no amount of dedication and effort can make up for it.

So, basically, you're saying that it's totally okay to score people on the "raw talent" aspect of the genetic lottery, but it's not okay to score people on the "appearance" aspect of the genetic lottery. I don't see any reason for making that distinction. You're right, no one can help their body type, but no one can help their underlying athletic ability either. Maybe you don't like the fact that appearance seems to be part of the judging in figure skating, but I don't see how you can get rid of that and still have an artistic aspect to the sport.
posted by valkyryn at 2:14 PM on January 5


I too remember it being reported as "Why me?" And for whatever light it casts on the article, I only remember it because I remember someone, maybe at The Village Voice, writing "It was so irritating, hearing her whine 'Why me?' I wanted to reply 'Why not you?'"
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:27 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]


Sorry for the lack of clarity, languagehat. I thought the comment I was replying to seemed making the broad statement that she won every competition by getting perfect marks across the board when she was landing triple axels, and therefore charges of lookism don't hold water. In point of fact, she was only getting a couple of 6.0 marks, and only for the technical scores, not artistic.

Therefore, she could be winning competitions because a triple axel is hard to ignore (and I need to also add here that her other jumps were incredibly high and powerful compared to most of her peers, a difference that was often lost when mediated through video recordings) while still being docked points for not fitting into the acceptable Figure Skater image.

For anyone who didn't grow up competing in this environment: even at a local level, to not realize that you'd be docked points not matter how well you out-skated someone at your general level if you were unable to fit into a very narrow ideal, but your competitor could, would be ludicrous. It wasn't really a secret at all that some skaters you competed against would have to falter on pretty much everything in their routine for you to have a shot at beating them, it was accepted as Just the Way Things Were.
posted by stagewhisper at 4:35 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]



So, basically, you're saying that it's totally okay to score people on the "raw talent" aspect of the genetic lottery, but it's not okay to score people on the "appearance" aspect of the genetic lottery. I don't see any reason for making that distinction. You're right, no one can help their body type, but no one can help their underlying athletic ability either. Maybe you don't like the fact that appearance seems to be part of the judging in figure skating, but I don't see how you can get rid of that and still have an artistic aspect to the sport.


It's not just genetic lottery...there has been a lot of discussion about how women in these subjective sports (gymnastics and figure skating primarily) are pressured to diet themselves to tininess despite their considerable daily activity, trying to delay puberty in some cases.

It's really disgusting but it's not about "well some girls just happen to be the pretty ones."
posted by sweetkid at 5:07 PM on January 5


> Sorry for the lack of clarity, languagehat. I thought the comment I was replying to seemed making the broad statement that she won every competition by getting perfect marks across the board when she was landing triple axels, and therefore charges of lookism don't hold water. In point of fact, she was only getting a couple of 6.0 marks, and only for the technical scores, not artistic.

Oh, OK. I didn't get that from it at all; I read it as "Tonya Harding won basically every skating competition that exists in 1991. She [even] got [some] perfect scores." Thanks for clarifying!
posted by languagehat at 5:32 PM on January 5


I thought the comment I was replying to seemed making the broad statement that she won every competition by getting perfect marks across the board when she was landing triple axels, and therefore charges of lookism don't hold water.

My intention was exactly what languagehat wrote above.

It is really hard to insist that somebody who won numerous extremely competitive skating competitions at the national level faced "bias" from the judges. Nobody seemed biased against her when she one of the top skaters in the US in '91.
posted by Sara C. at 8:21 PM on January 5


pressured to diet themselves to tininess despite their considerable daily activity, trying to delay puberty in some cases.

This, in my opinion, is of much deeper significance than "Tonya Harding only came in fourth at the '92 Olympics." As if being the fourth best skater in the world is some kind of tragedy.

The real tragedy is all the casualties along the way.
posted by Sara C. at 8:23 PM on January 5


this article, which includes current interviews with both women, might be of some interest.
posted by nadawi at 9:21 PM on January 5


I've interviewed them both, for different Tv shows. Neither were particularly articulate, because their chief means of expression was physical, not verbal. Kerrigan was more willing and able to take coaching advice (skating, style, media,presentation) Harding was her own worst enemy. While I think Marshall had some interesting points, she's writing about people she's never met. The 30 for 30 is very good.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:47 PM on January 7 [2 favorites]


So, basically, you're saying that it's totally okay to score people on the "raw talent" aspect of the genetic lottery, but it's not okay to score people on the "appearance" aspect of the genetic lottery. . . . Maybe you don't like the fact that appearance seems to be part of the judging in figure skating, but I don't see how you can get rid of that and still have an artistic aspect to the sport..

How do we define "artistry"? Is it musical interpretation? Balance and grace of movement? Timing? Or is it how closely the skater subscribes to a judge's patriarchal notion of what women should look like--tiny, thin, non-muscular, powerless?

They ask female skaters and gymnasts (and only the female ones) to achieve diametrically opposed goals: develop tremendous athletic ability without the musculature necessary to support it, because their idea of what is "artistic" has nothing to do with "artistry" and everything to do with "muscle on women, UGH". The end result is generations of female athletes with eating disorders and health problems as they try to fight the natural effects of puberty and difficult athletic training by starving themselves.

If gender presentation wasn't tied to how a judge defines a skater's artistry, then we wouldn't see male skaters hailed for picking powerful, butch routines and decried if they came off too "fruity".
posted by schroedinger at 8:46 PM on January 8 [6 favorites]


male skaters hailed for picking powerful, butch routines

Ah yes, the famously "butch" sport of ice skating. If you think football players are pansies pretty much your only remaining options are ice skating or diving for real manly manliness.

There is no systemic pressure on male skaters to come across as "butch." It is true that male skaters get points for technical difficulty and that involves something of a consistent push towards higher jumps, faster rotations etc. etc.--but the same is true of female skaters. Male skaters, just like female skaters, lose points if they betray effort or fail to land and recover smoothly from exceptionally athletic jumps. Lots of male skaters have lost points and fallen out of medal contention by going for a quad and not bringing it off gracefully rather than taking the triple or the 3.5 and keeping the flow of their routine intact. More and more female skaters are beginning to try landing quads in competition and, just like the men, when they start being able to routinely land them with "artistry" they'll get extra points for the athletic prowess.

I'm not saying that there aren't all kinds of weird distortions involved in the understanding of "artistry" according to different gender norms, but you make it far more black and white than it is in practice. Both male and female skaters are balancing competing regimes of excellence--"artistry" and "athleticism"--and that's part of the defining nature of the sport. If someone wants to set up a competition that's more like high jump or long jump--where skaters just got out and have best-of-three tries at landing a quad or something--then that would be fine, but it would also be a completely different sport.
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on January 9


I think it's somewhat different for the paired events, since there's so much emphasis on coordination/matching, which creates different parameters for choreography than in the singles. Gestures are limited by the need for the pair to match their timing very precisely, and side-by-side moves are limited by women's strength in the jumps and men's flexibility in the spins and spirals. The controversies about pair/dance performances that I recall had to do with sexuality in the routines rather than gender presentation. But, for example, Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko's masculinity were absolutely part of their media stories.

This article, written in '96 about Rudy Galindo's win that year's US Nationals, in is an interesting study -- it captures that Galindo himself believed he was discriminated against for his presentation, but also that he realized the need to build his technical skills. The article itself establishes there are definite ideas about what "artistry" involves (see, for example, the "outlandish costumes" comment by the article's author) that worked against him. And compare the remark in that article that "[t]he judges, whatever their predispositions, were powerless to place him anywhere but first" with the one in this article that "an off-duty judge seated near the media section said aloud what most of the audience was thinking: "Please, please do the right thing."'

I haven't followed ice skating for a long time (if it isn't already obvious by the examples I'm picking), but I am dubious that Johnny Weir would be an off-ice celebrity I've actually heard of if his on-ice presentation wasn't in some way notable/controversial.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:42 PM on January 9


There is no systemic pressure on male skaters to come across as "butch."

you should read up on some of the kerfuffles surrounding the way that johnny weir has been graded and commented upon, including by others in the sport.
posted by nadawi at 1:19 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Also, Elvis Stojko was rewarded way past his artistry level (although not his athletic level, those quad combos were bad-ass) because he was the butchest thing men's figures has ever seen.
posted by gingerest at 7:47 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Ah yes, the famously "butch" sport of ice skating. If you think football players are pansies pretty much your only remaining options are ice skating or diving for real manly manliness.

Figure skating is very sensitive about the perception of its male competitors as prancing fairies. Competitors who are able to display a larger-than-average amount of butchness are rewarded, and those who are unabashedly flamboyant are sources of controversy and derision.
posted by schroedinger at 8:38 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


Figure skating is very sensitive about the perception of its male competitors as prancing fairies. Competitors who are able to display a larger-than-average amount of butchness are rewarded, and those who are unabashedly flamboyant are sources of controversy and derision.

Yes, it would be fair to say that within the very non-butch range of expression that male ice skaters occupy there is some cost to being at the extremely non-butch end of that spectrum and some advantage to being at the slightly more butch end of that spectrum. That is not the same thing, however, as suggesting that male ice skaters are either expected to be as "butch" as possible or are rewarded for coming across as "butch" as possible.

If you imagine some kind of cultural gender-expression continuum from "as butch as possible" to "as non-butch as possible" with cowboys and oil-rig workers and linebackers all way over at the left end of the line and, what, drag queens? over at the right hand end of the line then "male ice skaters" are much, much, much closer to the drag queens than they are to the linebackers. They're occupying pretty much the same space in terms of general cultural categorization as male ballet dancers, hairdressers and male wedding-planners. Now, sure, that makes the organization a little angsty about the possibility of turning off middle-America during the big-money events like the Winter Olympics, so there's some pressure on to police the left-edge of the boundary. They don't want Drag-Queens-on-Ice. They don't want people thinking too explicitly, "ice skating...that's that gay sport, right?" (A similar thing goes on in ballet, of course, with lots of promotion of the "athleticism" of male ballet dancers etc.). But this isn't the same thing as an attempt to turn male ice dancers into icons of "butch" masculinity.
posted by yoink at 9:19 AM on January 10


ice skating judges (and commentators, fans, people who give advertising contracts, etc) aren't judging ice skaters on a continuum from cowboys to super femme guys (and ugh, can we just not with bringing drag into this) - they're judging them against other ice skaters and there are very definite pressures to perform towards masculinity and butch as they define it within male ice skating.
posted by nadawi at 9:31 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


If you imagine some kind of cultural gender-expression continuum from "as butch as possible" to "as non-butch as possible" with cowboys and oil-rig workers and linebackers all way over at the left end of the line and, what, drag queens? over at the right hand end of the line then

One thing I realized when I was googling Tonya Harding and reading a little background on this whole topic is that the world of skating is really insular and narrow. Tonya Harding is not butch no way, no how. She doesn't even come off as particularly "athletic" to me in comparison with, say, a gymnast like Shawn Johnson, let alone a skier or a wrestler or any of the other Pure Athletics types of olympic sports. Watching her skate, as a lay-person, while, no, she's not one of those effortless ice princess pixie types, I don't really see any of the things the commentators seem to see. But in her world, at that time, clearly It Is Known that she did present on the butch and athletic end of the figure skating spectrum.

It seems weird to me as an outsider, and I kept wanting to say BUT YALL TONYA HARDING IS A DAINTY BLOND FLOWER SRSLY WHUT, but I'm prepared to accept that all the people who intensely follow skating who are saying that, at the time, she came off as downright butch, are not lying.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the distribution of female gender presentation in women's and pairs figures is skewed hugely towards the ultrafeminine, and its social policing is really strict. I think that's the case in most of the artistic forms of women's sport (where presentation is usually scored) - gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, ice dance, competitive dance.
posted by gingerest at 2:13 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


"Over the next 25 days, as the drumbeats for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics grow louder and nearer, we’ll all be sucked into a polar vortex of hype, hoo-hah and hullabaloo, and all of it will essentially say the same damn thing: The Olympics are the pinnacle of meritocracy, where the best and the brightest test themselves against history and one another, measured only by what happens on the field, in the arena, at the bout or meet or tourney.

Some of us will find this fanfare more bitter than usual.

I’m talking about fans of Mirai Nagasu, the 20-year-old figure skater whose Olympic hopes were dashed this week when U.S. Figure Skating made the shocking decision to ignore her bronze medal in the U.S. National Championships — the event that traditionally determines the candidates selected as Olympians — and instead pick 22-year-old Ashley Wagner, who placed a distant fourth after falling twice in her routines, for the team that would represent America in Sochi.

It’s worth underscoring how significant this snub was: USFS has never in history ignored the results of the Nationals in picking its Olympic athletes when injury was not a factor.........

..... So why was Wagner ultimately chosen over Nagasu? The skating federation pointed to Nagasu’s spotty record over the past 12 months, and to Wagner’s higher overall standing in global rankings. But given the dramatic and unprecedented nature of USFS’s decision, it’s hard not to see other reasons for the slight — conscious or unconscious.

Wagner’s flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype: She’s the embodiment of the “golden girl” the media has extolled when they’ve waxed poetic about idealized ice queens of the past, from Norway’s Sonja Henie to East Germany’s Katarina Witt, a marketer’s dream who’s already signed up tent-pole sponsors like Nike, Pandora Jewelry and CoverGirl, which assessed her Teutonic beauty as being worthy of serving as one of their global “faces.”

More:

"....Here’s the real deal: Ashley Wagner has signed a pile of big-name big-money contracts, as the face of Cover Girl, Nike, Pandora, P&G, Hilton HHonors, the Century Council, Highmark, and British Petroleum. These corporations pay the bills. That’s why she’s going to the Olympics. Who is Mirai Nagasu? Just some skater, an Asian American one at that. Who is Ashley Wagner? The face of Cover Girl and Nike, on every NBC Olympic spot. Why have all the big corporations heaped money on Wagner, going all-in betting on her Olympic glory, while overlooking Nagasu? You be the judge."
posted by Rumple at 8:47 PM on January 14 [8 favorites]


Grantland: We Went There: The High Drama of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:30 AM on January 15


Complicating The Tanya and Nancy Narratives , 20 Years Later (by Linda_Holmes)
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:19 AM on January 16


Slate discusses The Price of Gold, an ESPN 30for30 documentary on the Harding/Kerrigan situation. The article reinforces the importance Kerrigan's looks and "feminine" style played in her popularity.
posted by schroedinger at 3:26 PM on January 16


Why Is The World’s Gayest Sport Stuck In The Closet?, on men's figure skating, touches on "athletic" and "artistic" divide signifiers.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:28 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]


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