If Tonya Harding had been no more than the first female ice skater to land two triple axels in competition, most of us would have forgotten her by now. But in 1994, an associate of her ex-husband attempted to break the leg of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. In the subsequent media frenzy, Kerrigan was cast as America’s sweetheart, with Harding as a soap opera villain. The incident turned “Trashy Tonya” into a cult figure, subject of TV movies, pop songs, plays and musicals, and now a movie.
I, Tonya takes its stylistic cue from Martin Scorsese, presenting her story as freewheeling mockumentary stuffed with larger-than-life characters, obscene dialogue and unreliable narrators. It is played for scabrous black comedy, but is a not unsympathetic character study of an outsider from an abusive background striving to make it in a discipline that expects its skaters to conform to public expectations of sweetness and femininity.
One thing I, Tonya is not about is a woman invading masculine turf. In movies, as in life, athletic prowess has long been a boys’ club. Games involving hitting, throwing, violent body contact or sweat-inducing effort have always been viewed as unfeminine. A woman’s role in these macho narratives is to be banished to the sidelines as a Wag, providing eye candy between boxing rounds, or as a cheerleader, egging on the male players.
And so most female-centric sports movies revolve around the struggle against misogyny. In Heart Like a Wheel (1983), Bonnie Bedelia overcomes male resistance to make it as a drag racer. In Bend It Like Beckham (2002), a west-London teenager overcomes the opposition of her Punjabi family to make it as a footballer. In Girlfight (2000), Michelle Rodriguez is told: “No girl has what it takes to be a boxer.” For women, making it in a male sport is invariably the story.
The very title of Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992) is the verbal equivalent of a paternal pat on the head. Inspired by the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was set up while male players were fighting in the second world war, the film is a critique of patronising attitudes while simultaneously trivialising its female players’ efforts almost as much as the male characters, with coach Tom Hanks complaining: “I haven’t got ballplayers. I’ve got girls. Girls are what you sleep with after the game, not what you coach during the game.”
Sometimes, the male world is so exclusive that the sportswoman has to disguise herself as a man to compete, hence we have Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1944), chopping off her hair to win the Grand National. Or Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man (2006), a high-school variation on Twelfth Night, in which she stuffs her long hair under a pudding-bowl wig so she can enrol at a boys’ school to carry on playing football.
Occasionally, movie sportswomen do break the mould. Outliers include Robert Aldrich’s final film, The California Dolls (1981), which follows the fortunes of a female tag-wrestling team (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) and their manager (Peter Falk) as they travel through the midwest towards a grudge match in Reno. It’s a road movie as much as a precursor to the Netflix series GLOW, but the climactic bout is a corker.
Fresher territory is also mined in Personal Best (1982), in which Mariel Hemingway trains to qualify for the 1980 US Olympic track and field team. It’s perhaps best summed up by Ross in Friends: “Two women … stretching … they take a steam bath together, things get a little playful …” In fact, the lesbian relationship between Hemingway and fellow pentathlete Patrice Donnelly gives way to more conventional heterosexual entanglements, but not since Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia had there been so much athletic nakedness on display.
In cinema, as in life, sports seen as traditionally feminine are as much about presentation as performance. Gymnastics hasn’t made much of a mark in the cinema but Stick It (2006) features a rebellious heroine who sneers at the girly gymnastic routines and fights for the right to show her bra straps without having points docked by stuffy judges. And let us not overlook Drew Barrymore’s directing debut, Whip It! (2009), in which Ellen Page rejects small-town beauty pageants in favour of a women’s roller derby team.
The “feminine” sport par excellence, of course, is ice-skating. Norwegian spinmeister Sonja Henie, who greeted Hitler with a Nazi salute at the 1936 Olympics, became the first skating superstar (think Ginger Rogers on ice) and one of Hollywood’s top box office draws. More recently, ice-skating movies have formed something of a niche subgenre: romance, rivalry and sparkly costumes. In Ice Castles (1978), the heroine gets too big for her skates, loses her sight in an accident, but hides her blindness to win the championship! In The Cutting Edge (1992), a spoilt little-rich-girl skater teams up with a blue-collar ice-hockey player and they fall in love at the Winter Olympics! In Ice Princess (2005), a science geek takes to the ice for a physics project, falls for a hunky Zamboni driver and ends up torn between Harvard and figure skating!
But I, Tonya breaks new ice. Like last year’s Battle of the Sexes, based around Billie Jean King’s 1973 show match against Bobby Riggs, the female protagonist doesn’t have to waste her energy trying to play in a man’s world – she’s already a player, and her world is as female as they come. Like the best sports movies, the sport isn’t the story; it’s part of the character, and both films have bigger thematic fish to fry.
I, Tonya is on general release in the UK now. Review, page 13.