Laurie Toby Edison

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Kendra James, Tonya Harding, and the Dictatorship of Expectation

Laurie and Debbie say:

In 1994, the figure skating world was rocked with a major scandal, when skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and hit in the leg the day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan was unable to skate the next day, and Tonya Harding won the championship (which she might well have lost to Kerrigan if Kerrigan had been in competition). A couple of weeks later, Tonya Harding confessed to having been a party to the attack on Kerrigan. It took months for the media furor to die down.

Sarah Marshall, writing at The Believer, recaps and analyzes the Kerrigan/Harding story at some length. Here is some of her context on Harding and Kerrigan.

[Kerrigan's] performance at the 1992 Games was not a triumph of athleticism—though even then Nancy was a far more formidable athlete than anyone gave her credit for—but it was a triumph of image-making. To the commentators, she was “lovely,” “ladylike,” “elegant,” and “sophisticated,” and the audience agreed. Vera Wang had based the design for Nancy’s costume on a dress from her bridal boutique, and as Nancy took the ice in Albertville, France, skating to the theme from Born on the Fourth of July, she seemed to be presenting herself as America’s hopeful young bride. Even her lack of competitive savvy gave her an air of innocence and sincerity: she was radiant when she landed a difficult jump, and appeared near tears after making a mistake. She had the style and grace of a woman, but the bashfulness and sincerity of a girl. She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak, and in the end she embodied no quality quite so perfectly as she did the set of draconian contradictions that dictated a female athlete’s success. …

When Tonya first rocketed to fame by landing the triple axel in 1991, the media had tried to put a more positive—and more salable—slant on her lifestyle, using the same information, which they would later call in as proof of her trashiness, to paint a picture of a spunky, all-American tomboy. In the words of one profile piece, “She’s only five feet one inch… and weighs only ninety-five pounds. But as petite as she is, there’s a tomboy streak in her that she’s proud of. She drives a truck and tinkers with her car… Yet there’s clearly a young lady coming through in her skating, and her personality.” In 1991, the skating world had no choice but to try to love Tonya: she had done what no other American woman could, and if she continued to grow as a skater—and continued to act more and more like “a young lady”—she could make her country proud at the Olympics, and earn both its love and its money.

Back then, she also didn’t need stories of ladylike behavior and quirky tomboyishness to convince her audience that she was worth believing in. At the pinnacle of her career, Tonya was, in a word, spectacular. At the time, the only other woman who had landed the axel was Midori Ito of Japan. 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.

Of course, once Harding’s role in the attack on Kerrigan was revealed, no “positive slant” was possible. Harding  was completely demonized; Kerrigan was completely canonized. The media focused relentlessly on a single story. One thing Marshall does in the long article is shed some doubt on Harding’s complicity, by framing the confession in the context of Harding’s incontestably abusive marriage.

Twenty years later, African-American skater Kendra James links her own experience to the Kerrigan/Harding chasm.

Kendra James on the ice

Photo is figure skater Surya Bonaly.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

James goes on to draw other parallels between herself and Harding, such as choice of nontraditional skating music.

Racism is not classism, but African-Americans in this culture are presumed to come from lower-status class backgrounds, regardless of the reality of their lives. And abuse happens at all levels of society. Nonetheless, James’ conclusion matters:

We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the “‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with [Surya] Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.

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