women in film

Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky and the Redemption of the ’90s Tabloid ‘Villainess’

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Near the end of I, Tonya, disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) describes what it felt like to become a media punchline in the wake of the Nancy Kerrigan scandal. “It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you,” says Robbie-as-Harding, gazing defiantly out at the audience from behind her blonde bangs. “All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”

Watching this scene, I felt — as the filmmakers intended — a shudder of complicity. It’s the same uncomfortable feeling I had watching Confirmation, about the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings (starring Kerry Washington as Anita Hill), or seeing Sarah Paulson’s heart-wrenching depiction of Marcia Clark in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Most of all, it reminded me of how I felt two Halloweens ago, when I had planned to dress up as Monica Lewinsky (I know, I know). I’d prepared my blue dress and beret and carefully-laminated ‘White House intern’ badge, and then, on October 28, Lewinsky published a piece in Vanity Fair called “What it’s Like to Become a Halloween Costume.”

“Regardless of where we consider someone’s behavior to fall on our moral spectrum, we might want to take a long, hard look at whether it makes sense for society to condone mocking such people,” Monica wrote. “Especially those who had never intended to become part of a global conversation in the first place.” I was mortified: Not simply at how unoriginal my costume was, but also at the sudden recognition that what had seemed like a funny throwback was something quite different.

The mainstream prominence of feminist ideals has cast a new light on another era’s tabloid punchlines, and I, Tonya is part of a wave of pop-culture offerings to take ’90s “villainnesses” — women whose names alone were enshrined in song-lyrics and SNL sketches — and reframe them as victims of misogyny. Watching American Crime Story and Confirmation, or reading new reporting on bygone scandals, it becomes apparent that the mental aerobics required to castigate Anita Hill or Marcia Clark or Lorena Bobbit or Monica Lewinsky (or, yes, Hillary Clinton) as one-note tabloid jokes involved dismissing the male behavior that helped catapult these women into the public eye. The new pop-culture revisionist histories ask viewers to confront their own complicity: to think of all the times they too unthinkingly accepted the premise that she was just a bitch or a scold or a shrew or a crazy slut.

I, Tonya’s reframes its heroine as not a scheming monster or ridiculous laughing-stock, but as a woman victimized many times over — first by an abusive mother and husband, and then by a relentless media that insisted on casting her as the white-trash villainess to Nancy Kerrigan’s all-American good-girl. As Sarah Marshall — who has been a major force in rewriting Harding’s legacy — wrote for Splinter, in another piece about re-examining the “scandalous” women of the ’90s:

In 1994, it was no secret that Tonya Harding had filed multiple restraining orders against her ex-husband, or that she had grown up with a mother who beat her and emotionally abused her, or that her family had refused to press charges after her half-brother attempted to rape her when she was 15, or that she said she had taken so long to come forward because she was terrified of what Jeff might do to her. But somehow, every part of Tonya Harding’s life could still be passed off not as a story of violence inflicted on a woman, but of violence that woman had inflicted on the world.”

Consequently: “Seeing Tonya as a victim would have meant seeing that someone should have helped her, and wondering why no one did. It was far easier to see her as a vicious mastermind — and so we did.”

A fast version of the so-called “incident,” for those of you who still think that Tonya Harding literally whacked Nancy with a crowbar herself (and you’re not alone if you do): In the lead-up to the 1994 nationals and the subsequent Olympic games, a man named Shane Stant attacked Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya’s main rival, at her training rink, hitting her on the leg with a police baton. While it was later discovered that Tonya’s husband Jeff Gilloolly and bodyguard Shawn Eckardt had orchestrated the attack, Tonya’s involvement remains murky. Some have alleged she knew about the attack from the beginning; others, including the filmmakers of I, Tonya, depict Tonya as essentially blameless. In the latter telling, she knew about Gillooly’s original plan (to scare Nancy with a series of mailed death threats) but had no idea about the eventual assault — her only guilt was in covering for her ex-husband after-the-fact. And, given what we know about how he treated her — allegedly subjecting her to repeated brutal domestic assaults and threats on her life — this act of self-preservation seems hard to fault.

The story uses a faux documentary format, interspersing footage of Tonya’s life with after-the-fact “interviews” with Harding and Gillooly (inspired by real transcripts), which often conflict. Yet it doesn’t ultimately matter exactly whose version of events we believe about “the incident.” As Harding points out repeatedly, there is no single truth, only different versions of the story depending on who’s telling it. While this post-modern storytelling conceit feels contrived at times, it hammers home the film’s central point: that turning a figure into a lasting villain in the public imagination requires accepting a certain narrative, one that has all sorts of biases built in, even if those biases are so pervasive we don’t always notice they’re there.

Tonya’s story is noteworthy both for how unique and how familiar it is. She was a remarkable athlete, the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, and a figure at the center of a bizarre tabloid drama. But, as Marshall put it in a seminal piece for The Believer, she was also “merely one of the countless American women attempting to escape, or at least endure, an abusive marriage.” Back in 1994, when the news was fresh, people focused on the story’s uniqueness, how it was a salacious sports scandal like none other, the “whack heard round the world.” In 2017, in the age of #MeToo, it’s easier to see it as another piece of a larger, familiar story: that of a woman whose abilities went to waste thanks to unjust power structures. It might remind you a bit of the 2016 election. Or it may remind you of another Clinton drama, one that took place four short years after Tonya Harding became a national laughing-stock.

Which is why I’m so excited for the fourth season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story (likely airing 2019), which is said to finally be tackling the Clinton-Lewinsky saga. Of all the ’90s tabloid figures currently getting a second look, there are few who feel more overdue for glossy reimagining as feminist heroine (or, at very least, sympathetic figure) than Monica Lewinsky. I don’t care particularly which filmmaker or TV auteur steps up to the plate, but Murphy seems to be a good choice; as he demonstrated in the People vs. OJ, he’s adept at combining intimate human drama with a sweeping social narrative, showing how the O.J. media frenzy was a perfect storm of divisive racial politics and celebrity that swept up individual lives. Likewise, as #MeToo sparks a reevaluation of workplace power and sex, and as we continue to reexamine the Clintons’ legacy in the wake of the 2016 election, the time feels ripe to look at how the skewed political, media and cultural landscapes of 1998 made Monica Lewinsky an unfairly demonized public figure — when her story is perhaps less the exception than the rule.

As with Harding, the feminist reconsideration of Lewinsky has been building for a while, from her big Vanity Fair feature in 2014 to her 2015 TED Talk (she now works as an anti-bullying activist). Likewise, in the past few years, a host of op-eds have analyzed the way feminists failed Lewinsky, an assessment that has continued to gather steam as liberals have begun to reassess the allegations against Bill Clinton. Yet while Lewinsky may have found a new reputation in feminist media circles, she has yet to be afforded the sort of lasting image rehabilitation that only Hollywood can provide. As David Edelstein writes of the power of entertainment-industry stardust, “I came away from I, Tonya with new sympathy for its much-reviled heroine, and thinking that the obligatory where-are-they-now crawl should have ended with ‘In 2017, Tonya’s reputation was partially restored by the biopic I, Tonya, in which she was triumphantly played by the Australian actress Margot Robbie,’” he writes. “For the living, there is hardly a more potent source of celebrity than being the subject of a biopic.”

A biopic (or bio-miniseries) supplants messy media coverage and reimagines it through a new and brighter lens — in this case, a feminist one. Sure, this kind of pop-culture deification can lack nuance, but so does tabloid vilification — it’s the pendulum swinging the other way, a necessary overcorrection to decades of the same old misogynist stories. I was only 4 years old when the Harding-Kerrigan incident took place, and I’m pretty sure that from now on, whenever I think of Tonya Harding, I will think of Margot Robbie in I, Tonya — not a scheming sociopath, but a plucky fighter who couldn’t catch a break. For young women who weren’t around to see Monica torn apart in the press, but who are growing up in a world with a very different understanding of the dynamics of power and consent, a pop-culture retelling of Lewinsky’s story stands to help definitively rewrite her place in the cultural imagination for future generations. Why doesn’t she deserve to be played by a beautiful, cool young actress, displayed throughout the city on giant glossy billboards? In the theater lobby after I, Tonya ended, I saw young girls posing proudly in front of posters of Robbie — scowling, skates in hand, in a pose of cool defiance. Just as Tonya’s history of abuse takes on new weight in the harsh glare of 2017, Monica (who was around the same age as Tonya at the time) looks much less like an anomaly and more like yet another young woman who was, to quote Marshall again: “victimized, usually by a powerful man, and then re-victimized by the media.”

As Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair, after detailing a Q&A where someone asked her what it was like to be America’s “blow job queen”: “It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.” Paradoxically, turning her story into art might be the best way to remind a mass audience of the personhood she has so long been denied — and to shift the public onto a new, more sympathetic line of questioning. I don’t expect there will ever be an end to the Monica Lewinsky or Tonya Harding Halloween costumes, but perhaps one day, young women will don their skates or berets with appreciation, instead of irony — and the somehow ever-surprising recognition that women are people, too.

The Redemption of the ’90s Tabloid ‘Villainess’