Seven weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Nancy Kerrigan, American figure skating frontrunner, was physically assaulted at a practice rink in Detroit. A masked
figure approached her and clubbed her on her right knee with a baton. Soon after, the assailant was revealed to be hired by Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of fellow American figure skater Tonya Harding. Thus ensued a media frenzy.
Kerrigan, even before this incident, was America’s sweetheart. With her classic-figure-skating long limbs and feminine grace, she was exactly what the public liked (and still likes to this day) to see in a figure skater. Harding, on the other hand, while still successful, was more athletic and sturdy in build – not the typical figure skating frame. Additionally, Harding was a high school dropout who was known to have grown up in a poor, physically abusive household – also decidedly not the qualities typically found in a national sweetheart. In a sport with subjective judging and a major factor being grace and femininity, these things matter. It is also these things that made the media narrative of this incident so easy to shape. Nancy Kerrigan, sweet, elegant Princess, brutally attacked at the hands of Tonya Harding, bitter, angry trailer-trash.
Tonya Harding, it is important to note, was never (and still has not been) proven to have been involved in the crime at all. But Kerrigan, with her beauty, femininity, and classic, middle-class
whiteness, was automatically the innocent party. The innocent party was wronged – someone had to be a villain, and who was easier to villainize than her brawny, lower-class teammate, Tonya Harding? Objectively, Kerrigan is innocent in all this. She is the victim. I do still think, however, that white, feminine innocence played a part in this narrative, in which Kerrigan is a manifestation of Christina Fallin in the Adrienne K piece, or of Maureen Peal in The Bluest Eye. It is her relationship to whiteness, to femininity, to Americanness, to purity, that allows this crime against her to be seen as so heinous.
With this in mind, a new, dichotomous narrative was created. On this side (more often presented in modern-day thinkpieces than in 1990s mainstream media), Harding was a scrappy and underappreciated underdog. She was from the wrong side of the tracks, but she had moxie. Kerrigan, however, was a stuck-up crybaby with Vera Wang-designed skating costumes and wealthy parents who had provided her with everything she needed to succeed (which is not, for the record, true – Kerrigan came from a blue-collar family and her father worked two jobs so she could continue to skate).
It is undeniable that Kerrigan was wronged in this situation. A horrifying attack was committed against her. It is also, however, hard to deny that Harding wasn’t also treated unfairly. We don’t know, and probably never will know, whether or not she played a part in the attack, but that also doesn’t matter. The media continuously placed Kerrigan and Harding into tiny, simple boxes, regardless of what those boxes represented. When it comes down to it, neither of these narratives was positive for either of these women. When Kerrigan is portrayed as the innocent and wronged sweetheart, she is naive, self-pitying, and also held to much too high a standard. When Tonya is the scrappy underdog, she is still being defined by the fact that she doesn’t fit the normal standards of beauty and culture in the ice skating world. And so, rather than a celebration of athletic excellence, the 1994 Olympic Games became a war of female stereotypes.
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, (New York: Vintage Books, 1970)
Adrienne K, “Dear Christina Fallin,” Native Appropriations, 2014.