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‘I, Tonya’ Takes On The Media’s Messy Relationship With Female Athletes

A study shows the bias hasn’t improved since the 1994 scandal.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya." Photo courtesy of NEON/30West.

Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding is a household name, and not because of her talent and accomplishments on the ice.

The new movie “I, Tonya” stars Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) as the infamous Harding, coming to terms with her abusive mother (Allison Janney) and blue-collar upbringing, while navigating the world of competitive ice skating. Harding, known for her athleticism and big jumps, became the first American woman to land a triple axel during the short program in 1991. The maneuver is so difficult that the filmmakers of “I, Tonya” had to use computer-generated imaging to recreate it for the film, altering footage of a skater performing a double axel instead.

The movie also explores how Harding became one of the most famous villains in sports after her ex-husband was implicated in the brutal beating of fellow competitor, Nancy Kerrigan.

"I think it was easier to put Tonya as the villain because she just wasn't the image that the figure skating world wanted,” Robbie told Refinery29 at a recent screening for the film. “I've watched every video of her skating like a thousand times over, and the number of times they comment on the class of family she comes from — it should just be about the skating, but they'll be like 'Here's Tonya Harding, girl from the wrong side of the tracks!'”

Robbie noted that she felt Kerrigan was also unfairly portrayed, as the media cast her as the “elite” queen to underdog Harding, when in reality, Kerrigan grew up in a blue-collar family, too.

Margot Robbie and director Craig Gillespie on the set of "I, Tonya." Photo courtesy of NEON/30West.

"I think the media likes to pit two women against each other, and people eat that up,” added screenwriter Steven Rogers.

It raises a powerful question: Does the media reinforce a good vs. evil narrative that reduces strong female athletes into caricatures of themselves? How different might Harding’s background story have been treated had she been a male skater or perhaps an ice hockey player? Would her grit and aggression on and off the ice have been celebrated?

The answer is likely yes, according to recent studies, which show that the amount of media coverage and representations of female athletes has actually worsened in the last 25 years.

Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor of strategic communications at the University of Missouri, found that coverage of athletes participating in the 2016 Olympics as compared to the 2012 Olympics had become more sexist and more racist in her study published in the Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism in June.

Margot Robbie as a young Tonya Harding in "I, Tonya." Photo courtesy of NEON/30West.

Frisby and lead author Kara Allen analyzed 723 newspaper and magazine articles covering the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. The biggest increases came when referring to women as second-class citizens or projecting restrictive gender roles. “Results seem to imply that coverage of the female athletes focused on policing behaviors acceptable for the female gender and whether or not women were adhering to these expectations,” Frisby wrote.

As for that famous attack on Kerrigan, Harding has always said she did not know about it, though she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder an investigation and was barred from United States Figure Skating Association competitions, something Robbie thinks was an unfair punishment.

She hopes this film and other female-driven films and television projects on the slate at her new production company, Lucky Chap, will help change the narrative around how women are portrayed, not only in sports media, but in media and society at large.

“I can kind of feel that this young generation as we enter the industry, we're pointing out the things that we don't agree with, and we wanna change it,” she said. “It is about moving forward and finding what we're gonna fix and actually doing something about it instead of talking about it.”

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