Why are we still fascinated with the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal? I spoke with women to get their perspective
My friends and I recently went to our college campus for Homecoming 2017. We tailgated and had the intention of watching the football game, but #SPORTS didn’t happen for us. Instead, we went back to my friend’s apartment, ordered takeout, and watched 30 for 30: The Price of Gold, ESPN’s 2014 documentary about the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal.
Now, of course this incident suggests that none of us really care that much about football. But it also speaks to something greater: the continued fascination that we, and many, have in “the whack heard ’round the world” more than 20 years later. We could have watched anything, but we chose to ignore what had been sitting in our streaming queues for months and instead rewatched The Price of Gold for about the hundredth time (not an exaggeration).
And we’re far from alone in our ongoing obsession.
There’s a reason why a chamber opera, Tonya & Nancy: The Opera, premiered in 2006 — and inspired other interpretations (it got the musical treatment!) and myriad performances in the following years. There’s a reason why there’s a museum dedicated to the pair, which first drew attention in 2015. There’s a reason why the duo are continually referenced in pop culture, like in BoJack Horseman and Broad City this year. And there’s a reason why Twitter lights up anytime anything from I, Tonya — the dark comedy starring Margot Robbie that’s due in theaters December 8th — makes its way on over to the internet.
Even today, people simply can’t get enough of the soap opera-esque story, in which Shane Stant took a baton to Kerrigan’s knee in advance of the 1994 Olympics. And though Stant carried out the deed — with Derrick Smith as the getaway driver, and Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his friend/Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckardt behind the planning — it’s Harding who was really condemned by the public. She ultimately plead guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution after the Olympics, but many *still* believe she was more directly involved in all this.
Which brings us to the questions at hand: What’s behind this continued fascination in the Harding-Kerrigan scandal? Why do people, more than two decades after the fact, still debate and obsess over Harding’s role in the attack? The reasons, of course, differ from person to person but here, I offer my thoughts. As do my fellow Harding-Kerrigan nuts — HelloGiggles’ Deputy Editor, Emily Popp, and my mother, Lindy Smith.
For myself, my continued fascination comes down to the role class plays in this saga.
My interest might seem unexpected when you consider the fact that I’m a 26-year-old who doesn’t care a whole lot about #SPORTS. Also, I would have only been three at the time of the attack and therefore, don’t remember anything about it firsthand. Everything I’ve come to know and obsess over in relation to this, I’ve learned about and experienced after the fact. But, here we are.
I’ve been letting the above questions marinate since I, Tonya dropped its first teaser trailer on October 19th, and I think I’ve pinpointed why I, personally, am so invested in this saga. My parents signed me up for figure skating classes as a kid, and that certainly laid the groundwork for my fervor. In fact, I became so interested in figure skating that as an elementary schooler, I wore a replica of Michelle Kwan’s signature necklace, and would tell anyone who would listen that I could do a triple axel (obviously, I couldn’t).
As I got older, I came to understand the gist of what happened between Harding and Kerrigan and it just seemed unbelievable that anyone could go so far to literally knock a rival out of the competition. As I got even older, I came to understand the class element to the scandal, how Harding grew up with poverty and had a difficult childhood — and was pitted against Kerrigan, who was also from a working class family but fit the ice princess ideal.
For me, understanding Harding’s background didn’t justify any potential wrongdoings, but it helped me wrap my head around what happened and why. It added a whole other dimension to this complex story that’s often minimized to a mere catfight. So, I continue to think and talk about, and read and watch all things Harding-Kerrigan to this day.
For Emily, her continued interest has to do with the way the media and people pit women against each other.
“I was about 8 at the time, and I had a definite awareness — but not a total understanding — of the scandal and what a media sensation it was,” said Emily. “I had never even heard of the Olympics before. My parents weren’t huge sports people. But I loved ice skating, so the ’94 Olympics were the first games that I ever watched.”
Emily explained that attack and its subsequent aftermath marked the first news event that she followed in real time. “It was the first big news event that I understood and took an interest in. Before, the news was just something my parents watched. It was for adults only.” She also saw Kerrigan perform at Disney World in advance of the Olympics, so she idolized her.
She believes her interest in the events stemmed from the totally crazy, lawless nature to the attack, involving two completely “opposite” women. Not just that, but Emily is also interested in the way that these women were, and continue to be, represented in the media — with Harding, not always, but often being a two-dimensional villain and Kerrigan being near-perfect hero. (Hell, even Barack Obama made a Harding kneecap joke in 2007 in a political speech.)
The two continue to be cultural touchstones, but their layers are frequently looked over and what’s often left is two women viciously duking it out in pursuit of Olympic gold, or something to that effect. There’s simply much more to it than that. And sadly, they’re far from the only women to be represented as such by some outlets.
Explained Emily, “I think another big reason why the Tonya-Nancy moment had such an impact on me is that unforgettable “Whyyyyyyyy?!?!” She’s referring to Kerrigan’s “meme-ish” howl, which left an indelible mark in her memory. And how could it not? It’s perhaps the biggest “quote” to come out of the events.
For Emily, the scandal stayed burned in her memory in part because of her personal attachment to it; it was the first news event she ever understood and “followed,” after all. But also, clearly, there is something universal that fueled her continued fascination.
For Lindy, it’s that there’s still so much ambiguity surrounding the attack.
My mom lived through the events and was old enough to remember the particulars. For her, ice skating is a graceful, gracious, ballet-like sport — and Harding seemingly rejected all that, and did whatever it took to win. It was made all the more shocking because, “Now, people have no manners. But then, they did.”
So, mom totally kept up with the events from start to finish while raising a toddler (me!) who would later become just as fascinated (is it hereditary??). “It was just shocking that she was that low of a person,” she continued. But what’s especially interesting about mom’s account is that she points out that this was way before the social media sensationalism we’ve grown accustomed to today. “You just couldn’t get enough because you weren’t getting as much information as you get now.” And because there was no social media, there was more room to imagine, wonder, and gossip about what happened.
Which brings us to her interest today: There are still so many unanswered questions. Sure, Harding wasn’t charged with planning the attack. But to mom, she seemed guilty. So, mom asks: If Harding was, in fact, directly involved in the attack, how did she convince these men to carry out the deed? And how did she get away with it? In any case, mom thinks it’s interesting that Harding was pretty much found guilty by the public, and is still thought to be guilty by many today.
Also interesting will be whether that outlook changes at all — for mom, or others who still condemn Harding — when I, Tonya lands in theaters. And you bet myself, Emily, and mom will be first in line to find out.