I, Tonya and the Representation of Female Ice Skaters

Female ice skaters face unique expectations and double standards.

As more focus has been directed towards ice skating after the release of the film I, Tonya (2017) and the 2018 Winter Olympics, the harsh scrutiny that female ice skaters face has been highlighted. Ice skaters are not only judged for their athletic ability and routine, but also for how they dress, talk, and present themselves as people. This allows for possible bias from the judges that affects how highly the skaters are scored, and these biases can be especially prevalent for women.

The film I, Tonya portrays the events that led up to the disqualification of Tonya Harding from ice skating competition. It sympathizes with her story and suggests that she is not to blame for the assault of Nancy Kerrigan, but also shows how Harding was disadvantaged by the strict rules and ideals that female ice skaters are forced to follow. She was raised in a low income family and experienced repeated abuse from her mother and husband, but was still expected to present herself as a picture-perfect woman who was happy, healthy, and kind-hearted. This background gave a massive disadvantage to Harding, even though her athletic ability was exceptional.

Joan Ryan, author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, agrees that there are many disadvantages for female ice skaters that limit their potential. She notes that many are “comfortable with female ice skaters because the sport is all about showcasing femininity and isn’t seen as aggressive,” creating a problem for Harding as she didn’t tend to focus on presentation as much as training to improve her strength and overall athletic ability. Ryan states that while she felt that I, Tonya “was very sympathetic and may not be entirely accurate,” it still provides a representation of unrealistic expectations that female ice skaters face and how difficult things can be if “your community isn’t in your corner.” She enjoys the aspects of figure skating that are focused on presentation including “the costumes, music, and makeup” which “add to the magic,” but wants people to recognize how stigma about an ice skater’s background can prevent them from being successful. “These women are forced into a box in order to accomplish their goals,” states Ryan.

These unrealistic standards become more and more prevalent and continue to affect female ice skaters. Erika Decklar (12) participates in competitive ice skating and has experienced some of the strict expectations for women in this sport. “We are supposed to be seen as delicate, instead of strong and independent,” states Decklar. This creates problems for female ice skaters because they are forced to distract people from their power and determination—the goal is to look effortlessly fragile. Skaters, such as Tonya Harding, who are muscular and seek to improve their strength, are judged for being too masculine and tough. Decklar recognizes these disadvantages and wants to move forward toward a more empowering experience for women in ice skating. “Harding is an important figure in ice skating, but we need to move on.” She knows that this story needs to be remembered but urges people to work in order to change these ideals instead of living in the past.

As we reflect on some of the unrealistic expectations that female ice skaters are forced to fit into, we need to look ahead to see how we can change these injustices. Women can be just as athletic and strong as men, even in sports like ice skating that value grace and finesse. This fact must be taught to the young women of this generation in order to move towards greater gender equality in every aspect of society.

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