I have the same birthday as Tonya Harding.
I didn’t know this fact during the time she was competing in the olympics, but I did feel drawn into her story as the drama of her rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan and subsequent tabloid devouring of her life played out. It was a class war. It was a class war that the public was complicit in by reveling in her “white trash” antics and using her name as a national punchline. When she was finally convicted of hindering the investigation, one of her punishments was that she could never again skate professionally. It was the final blow of defeat from the institution that she had spent her life fighting to be a part of. As a culture, we take things such as a final judicial verdict that our personal belief systems and moralities are superior to others.
This is not to say that I believe that Tonya Harding was innocent of wrongdoing. She confessed to the verdict of which she was convicted. But when you look at the crime of hindering an investigation vs. the crimes of many, many other professional athletes and their consequences, it becomes clear that her story and its impact on our culture was not about committing a crime.
I can extrapolate from my life in the ballet world the kind of connoisseurship that could dismiss the unique talent in Tonya Harding. A world like that can become so codified that the intent of the sport gets lost and it becomes a list of rules and prejudices. The ballet world is only just now somewhat significantly addressing its lack of diversity in dancers, choreographers, and even administrators.
But even more so, the malaise of bored critics, judges, and other industry professionals who are looking for something new and something special, is repeatedly and essentially a longing for an idealized version of what they already picture in their minds. They are often unready to perceive or accept something new. Connoisseurship is about class, not art.
Tonya Harding was accomplishing things as an athlete that no one had ever done before. Her excellence was indisputable. It was the things about her self and how she presented that that were literally judged as less than, and there was not room for something different. To be lower in class was seen as a step backward and an embarrassment to the industry.
The notion that someone could just walk away from their upbringing, the things that have indelibly shaped the person they are today, and become something more palatable is a perspective of entitlement. Thinking one’s own experience and worldview must be the only or the right worldview is an oppression of other’s experiences. And I think this even extends to her crime. Considering the culture of violence and abuse and poverty that colored her entire life, just the fact that she made it to the olympics should be a remarkable and revered accomplishment. With all of the cards she had stacked against her, it is remarkable that she only was guilty of hindering an investigation. Of course there should be consequences for a crime, but taking away her ability to skate was not about her crime, it was about showing her once and for all that she did not belong.
main image: dancer Melissa Anduiza