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I, Tonya and the crucifixion of female public figures

The biopic on the figure-skating scandal zones in on the world’s love of a woman’s vicious fall from grace

The sardonic Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya, tells the story of Harding’s public fall – or rather, shove – from grace. While Harding was prosecuted in the nebulous 1992 attack against Nancy Kerrigan, I, Tonya argues that Harding wasn’t involved in the actual crime, but was still crucified by the public and the courts (Harding was banned from the United States Figure Skating Association as a result). At the end of the film, the titular Tonya (played by Margot Robbie) looks into the camera and accuses us, the audience, of inflicting the same calibre of abuse that her husband and mother did. The demonisation of female public figures isn’t new or surprising – it’s run-of-the-mill in modern media.

Contrary to Donald Trump’s cries of a “witch hunt” and social media clamours of men being picked on lately, it’s not a “scary time” for men. The experience that men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey are having is the way female public figures have always been treated for slip-ups, spun words, or even being associated with monstrous men. The phrases “But her emails” and “Crooked Hillary” originated as slanderous, anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda, but after being circulated ad nauseam, they’re now ingrained in our vernacular, ever-present in our memes. Out of context, the phrases don’t seem like gendered criticisms, but they are. The nitpicky censuring of Hillary Clinton in 2016 was veiled in misogyny and a deep-seated resentment toward women.

Whether Hillary or Tonya were guilty of their alleged crimes is irrelevant; what matters is how eager American media was to burn them at the stake – but willingly forgive male public figures whose allegations are less innocuous. Donald Trump has been accused of everything from sexually assaulting a child to colluding with a hostile foreign government, but the public couldn’t stomach Hillary’s offenses. Similarly, Monica Lewinsky’s image was desecrated, and while Bill Clinton suffered politically, Lewinsky was slut-shamed to the ends of the earth. Today, we know her name because of what she did – not for what Bill Clinton did to her.

I, Tonya argues that Harding’s involvement was limited to covering for her husband and his friend, who organised the attack on Kerrigan. But Harding suffered worse consequences: while the guilty parties received minimal jail time, Harding lost everything. She was legally stripped of her ability to compete in competitive figure skating. Her public image was desecrated. She was forced to seek alternative employment, first dabbling in professional boxing, then racecar driving, and today works in landscaping. Tonya Harding was a two-time Olympian and an accomplished young woman, yet today, we remember her for her scandalous link to Nancy Kerrigan.

But women with less noxious accusations are denigrated, too. Some women arouse polarising views for being simply insubordinate. While male musicians have historically been praised for their lawless rebellion and rockstar lifestyle, Courtney Love has been dubbed anything from a shitty mom to a murderer. All uncorroborated, of course.

Often, we demonise famous women for off-colour comments but extricate male celebrities for much worse. Last week, Taylor Swift was lambasted for her photo on Time’s Person of the Year cover. Despite her $250,000 donation to Kesha’s lawsuit against Dr. Luke, or the fact that she counter-sued her sexual harasser for $1 to prove a point (which encouraged many others to speak out too), we still call her a political pacifist. Sometimes, we reduce Swift to just the snake emoji, a reference to her dishonesty about a confrontation with Kim and Kanye. Swift somehow emerged as the enemy versus Kanye West, who has publicly compared himself to Hitler and tweeted “BILL COSBY INNOCENT,” while Swift has never said anything nearly as contentious. It’s confusing, because Swift has been criticised for her white feminist praxis, which is totally valid, but does that mean we should erase all her good deeds?

In November, Lena Dunham attracted yet another scandal when she defended Girls writer and long-time friend, Murray Miller, who was accused of sexual assault. Dunham was trashed on social media and later apologized, but The New York Post eviscerated her further, publishing a hit-piece on the writer and actress and calling her an “empty vessel.” Dunham has long been a punching bag for bad feminism (and not without reason). Like Taylor Swift, Dunham isn’t innocent, and I’m not saying she shouldn’t be held accountable for toxic behavior. But for perspective, the same week Dunham was reviled on social media, the major studio comedy Daddy’s Home 2—starring Mel Gibson— hit theaters and was pasted across every bus stop, billboard and online ad. Gibson has been recorded making jaw-dropping, vituperative, anti-Semitic and racist remarks. Yet, The Hollywood Reporter published a headline that same week calling Gibson “family-friendly.”

Lena Dunham is a drop in the bucket of female media figures who have been picked apart and mobbed by the public. In 2016, Kurt Metzger, a writer on Inside Amy Schumer, made fun of rape victims in a Facebook post, and the disgusting incident engendered a social media firestorm against Amy Schumer. The comedian and her show were smeared as “bad feminism,” and suddenly she was grouped into a category with Metzger – the actual offender. Women shouldn’t be held equally accountable for the vile actions of garbage men in their life. Further, no one is wholly good or wholly bad – Schumer campaigned for Hillary Clinton and advocates daily for a breadth of social issues on her social media accounts. I’d rather we allow women to learn from their mistakes than write them off forever.

“I’d rather we allow women to learn from their mistakes than write them off forever”

The #MeToo campaign is finally giving male media figures the same treatment, but it’s not enough. Men like Mel Gibson are being given a free pass to revitalise their careers. Chris Brown’s career took a blow after he violently assaulted Rihanna, but we ultimately forgave him. R. Kelly is currently on tour and a top-selling artist in R&B, despite having been arrested on counts of child pornography, being accused of “enslaving women,” and sleeping with 15-year old girls.  Just last year, Amber Heard accused her then-husband Johnny Depp of domestic violence, but Depp, too, was exonerated publicly. This year, Depp starred in blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Murder on the Orient Express, and is set to star in Fantastic Beasts 2 in 2018. If we can forgive convicted domestic abusers and statutory rapists, why can’t we forgive women who were accused of less vicious crimes?

Like Tonya Harding, athletes are commonly acquainted with scandal. But the ways in which these cases are handled are muddled and asymmetrical. Hope Solo, the defamed U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team goalie, was suspended and later terminated in 2016 for calling the Swedish Women’s soccer team “a bunch of cowards.” The comment came after two other Solo scandals: an arrest for assaulting two family members, and a 30-day team ban for her involvement in her husband’s DUI.

In February, Matt Bonesteel of The Washington Post tore into Solo, indignantly scorning her for “intemperate comments” and insisting she’s “learned nothing.” Meanwhile, he cites zero evidence to support this claim. He upholds that the league was justified in suspending her, yet she continues to lob unfounded accusations at them, which is untrue: her “accusations” were valid criticisms of the league’s issue with gender parity (Solo is an advocate for equal pay on the men’s and women’s US Soccer Teams). But Bonesteel maintains, “It’s nothing new for Solo, an act that got old long ago,” a harsh criticism for one mild, unsportsmanlike remark.

Conversely, NFL player Michael Vick was indicted in 2007 on felony charges of operating an unlawful dogfighting ring, an unthinkable and heinous crime. Vick served prison time for his crimes, but was only suspended by the NFL—a punishment less severe than Solo’s. When he was released, he signed to the Philadelphia Eagles, and all was seemingly forgiven. Today, Vick once again is an adored, star athlete. Celebrity gossip sites even fawned over him when he and his wife welcomed a baby. Has Vick “learned nothing,” and what evidence do we have to support that? As of yet, it’s unclear whether Solo will ever play again, but she said she hopes to play in the 2019 World Cup.

“Celebrity media has always been notoriously vicious toward women. Paparazzi are bloodthirsty for a nip-slip, a crotch shot, a sloshed Lindsay Lohan pouring out of a club, a nude leak from a Disney star, an Amanda Bynes-like decline”

Zooming out, even famous women who haven’t been accused of anything are treated similarly. Jennifer Aniston was famously branded as the sad divorcee, and disparaged for a decade after Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie. In 2016, Aniston opened up about the media attention she received, noting feeling shamed and “whittled down to a sad, childless human.” But Brad Pitt, the cheater, was left unscathed. Celebrity media has always been notoriously vicious toward women. Paparazzi are bloodthirsty for a nip-slip, a crotch shot, a sloshed Lindsay Lohan pouring out of a club, a nude leak from a Disney star, an Amanda Bynes-like decline. And who can forget the public crucifixion of Amanda Knox, the American student wrongly convicted of murder in 2007? The media branded her as “Foxy Knoxy,” and her titular documentary argues that the conviction was largely influenced by the fake, pernicious story being sold in magazines. Today, Knox is a public figure as a result of our propensity for vilifying women in media.

Fortunately, I think the tides are changing. After millions of women tweeted along with #MeToo and dozens of Hollywood men were rightfully besmirched, I’m hopeful. And while I agree that we need to push each other and our public figures to do better, it’s also important to recognise patterns of veiled sexism and gendered criticism. Trump has been accused of everything from sexually abusing minors to colluding with a hostile foreign government, yet the public couldn’t stomach Hillary’s offenses. While Lena Dunham was being roasted online, Broadly released a list of 44 NFL Players who have been accused of sexual assault, and have yet to suffer consequences professionally. We should be able to criticise powerful women, but if we’re going to punish Hope Solo, then we sure as hell need to punish accused rapists, too.

The most heartbreaking moment in I, Tonya is when Robbie breaks down in the courtroom and tearfully begs the judge for jail time instead of a USFSA ban. At the end, the washed up, post-scandalised Tonya jeers to the camera, “America, they want someone to love, and they want someone to hate.” She’s right, America loves a fall from grace – but those falls should be evenly distributed, with the appropriate degree of punishment.