A few weeks ago, the movie I, Tonya was making headlines for its three Academy Award nominations. The hit film tells the intricate and devastating story of U.S. Olympic ice skater, Tonya Harding. The movie is engrossing, funny at times, disturbingly real, and has a vividness highlighted by Margot Robbie’s astonishing performance. The film focuses on Tonya’s difficult life growing up in a turbulent American family, her subsequent rise to fame, and the universally-known incident that turned her into one of the most hated people in the world: the attack on her foremost competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya and her then-husband, both entangled in the incident, were blamed—but it was the skater who took the hardest fall.
I had been dying to watch I, Tonya. Apart from my slight weakness for ice-skating related movies, the fact that it was based on this true, dark, and altogether unresolved story made it even more enticing.
After watching the film, however, I was left with a troubled feeling that I couldn’t shake. Throughout her life, Tonya was physically abused by her husband—a sick relationship involving guns, emotional manipulation, and mutual violence. The protagonist came back again and again, even when she said she’d had enough. What made me uneasy was the cinematic portrayal of this persistent abuse. Although the tone throughout the movie was light, it told a dark story. Captured as though in hindsight, the story, intertwined with personal interviews, seemed to soften the blow of an all-too-serious issue. While this technique was at times useful, serving to make the film’s difficult content accessible to a wider audience, I felt that it also crossed a thin line between artistic license and the trivialization of domestic abuse.
As Tonya received hits, fought back, struggled, had her face smashed into a mirror, and so forth, the conflict was set up almost as a game—a relentless, desensitized, playful back-and-forth. Not only did her boyfriend (who then became her husband) abuse her, but so did her alcoholic, foul-mouthed mother, who spit out insult after insult in a ridiculous, almost comedic way. The movie repeatedly displayed patterns of abuse in a darkly humorous way, which, as Chris Lee’s Vulture article says, created “a funny paroxysm of domestic abuse.”
To rewind for a second, I want to say that I liked the movie. I really did. And when it comes to art, to film, to the retelling of stories, there has always been a blurred line between accuracy and artistry. In a time when it seems as though anything and everything holds some degree of political incorrectness, it may seem obnoxious to overanalyze minor aspects of popular media, to criticize or to point fingers. My concerns with I, Tonya, though, are more than a squabble over political correctness. Its humorous portrayal of abuse disturbed me, and I believe that in this case, it is critically important for me to speak out. It is dangerous to trivialize domestic abuse.
To some extent, I also understand how the creators of the film slipped across the line and into this dangerous territory. It’s impossible to determine exactly the “right” way to portray abuse—because there’s no right or wrong way. Violence is and always has been difficult to frame, difficult to capture through a fair and persuading lens. But I believe that domestic abuse should never consist in “funny paroxysms.” It is not abrupt, sudden in its beginnings and endings, quick to be laughed off. Violence is serious. It is cumulative. It builds upon itself. And unlike a movie scene, it does not end when the cameras are turned off. Filmmakers, as perhaps the most prominent cultural influences of the modern era, are responsible for acknowledging the severity of the content they deliver. When they fail to do so, society is inclined to follow suit.