I, Tonya: American Tragedy?

In his Ethics, Aristotle argues that we acquire virtues like justice, temperance, moderation and wisdom through exercising them, and our fundamental dispositions of character are formed by the habits of reaction and behaviors instilled in us in childhood. (Yes, this is a review, of sorts, of the film about the figure skater Tonya Harding. Bear with me.)

…the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances….It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

If “I, Tonya” is a tragedy in anything like the classical sense–Aristotle’s sense–it is because it shows how the formation of a character in childhood could make “all the difference”–the difference that could ruin a career, if not a life. This is not to blame Harding’s mother. She, too, was formed, and if she warped Harding with her abuse, she also made her a skater. At a cost. Which was perhaps the necessary cost–and perhaps not.

Classical tragedy, as Aristotle analyzed it, followed the rise and fall of a great man or woman due to some fatal error (hamartia)–except that “error” implies that one might not have erred, whereas the tragic misstep seems fated, inevitable, given the character of the protagonist and the situation in which she finds herself.

What, according to the film, was Harding’s misstep?

To pinpoint it as her “decision” to go along with her then-boyfriend Jeff Gillooly’s plan to mail death threats to Nancy Kerrigan–the plan that culminated in the assault on Kerrigan and led ultimately to Harding’s ejection from figure skating–is unsatisfying. As portrayed in the film this was hardly a ‘decision’–Harding was preoccupied with preparations for the Olympics and didn’t think much about Gillooly’s plan, although she did certainly take part, finding out Kerrigan’s training location and schedule.

The fatal choice, it seems to me, was getting back together with Gillooly. The film suggests that Harding does this because she had to create the right image, to look like a girl from a good home, because her technical prowess was never enough to overcome the disadvantages of her “presentation.” Perhaps the fatal choice was staying with Gillooly so long in the first place despite his abuse. But Harding, it would seem, was primed to accept abuse having (she says) suffered it at the hands of her mother. “Maybe I deserved it.” Maybe also by every slight she received for her homemade, too-garish costumes. Or having had to drop out of high school.

If tragedy is about fate, most tragedies tend at the same time to implicitly provoke some question about fatedness, a question as to whether it really had to happen this way. This is a question we might all ask about our lives at one point or another, especially when they are going badly. It somehow seems at once that we had no choice–that even our bad decisions were conditioned by everything that came before, which was conditioned by what came before that, back into the mists of infancy and outward into the interlocking mechanisms of institutions, culture and history.

True tragedies aren’t morality tales, which tell us that we can do the right thing and if we do it all will be well. Tragedies reveal the contours of conditions beyond our choosing. In “I, Tonya” those conditions are both personal and cultural. Harding’s past–her class, her upbringing–was gravity in the physics of American culture, American history, American inequality. For a moment she broke free of it and made three and a half perfect turns in the air. And then she came crashing back to earth. As was inevitable. Or?

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