Sarah Marshall on Tonya Harding, Laura Palmer, and the relative value of female victimhood

Sarah Marshall is “interested in where we draw the line between tragedy and comedy in spectacles of crime.”

This month her meditation on the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan affair, which kicked off with “the whack heard around the world,” was published in The Believer. In her piece, Marshall questions our collective public memory of the events and their aftermath. She takes a close look at Harding’s very tragic life before, during and after the spectacle, and she considers how, why, and with whom the public chooses sides.

Marshall recalls that Harding was raised in a chaotic and abusive household and left it to marry into a very similar domestic situation. In a 2008 interview, Harding reported being both repeatedly beaten by her ex-husband and eventually gang-raped by him and two of his friends. Despite her superior skating prowess, she was sold by the press as a white trash harlot.

This is a truncated version of our conversation. We discussed the public memory of the incident, the media spectacle that followed, and why she has a “sense that the most valuable you can be as a girl or woman in American society is as a victim.”

And we discussed Twin Peaks.

I was surprised reading your piece to find that I haven’t really thought about any of this since it happened and yet it is still very much engrained in my mind. And now it is interesting to watch it reenter the public consciousness.

It has been 20 years so it is an Olympic year again and there is a lot of 90s nostalgia right now. What I wanted to try to combat was this bandwagon where people remembered “that fun and tacky thing that happened.” It is my job to be the mean, serious 8th grade teacher who says, “No, this is about domestic abuse. We have to talk about it and don’t make jokes.” I mean, do if it makes you feel comfortable, but I wanted to talk seriously about it as well.

What you have written isn’t only about domestic abuse, it is also about a lot of things about the way our media covers things that are still very real. There is always a very particular narrative that is sold, which we internalize as true. Once it is internalized as true, we generally refuse to accept any other truth.

For example, you write about Nancy Kerrigan’s image as this sort of ladylike princess savior, how that helped her in a number of ways, and how the reportage of Tonya Harding’s life details hurt her. And I don’t give a shit about Nancy Kerrigan at all, but when you were setting up the fact that she had gotten her teeth straightened—which I didn’t know about—and you mentioned her crooked teeth, I felt defensive of my image of her. I was thinking, “What? Nancy Kerrigan didn’t have crooked teeth.” It was like my truth was being threatened in some way. But I have no idea why I felt attached to it enough to care.

It’s just there, and I have had such amazing responses to this article so far. My editor has been forwarding emails from people who feel differently about Tonya now, and who are thanking me for changing their mind. That makes me happy because that was what I set out to do. And I have been receiving some hostility. When I did a radio interview yesterday, pretty much all of the comments on that—and of course I read the comments because I am a masochist—were people saying things like, “Why would Oregon Public Broadcasting waste time on this? There are starving children in the world and this is just tabloid trash. It is horrible to try to make it seem important.” I think that hostility comes from the fact that when we have a narrative we have become attached to, we get angry when someone tries to take it away from us.

For many, it was this fun story that we enjoyed it. It was supposedly about this shameless woman who tried to ruin everybody’s fun and we all shamed her for six weeks and then it went away. Revisiting that and thinking, “maybe it was more complicated than that” can be hard.

Even if you believe all of the allegations against Tonya Harding, the worst thing you can say about it is that the incident was her idea and that she helped to gather material that would lead the attackers to Kerrigan… And it is funny hearing people recount this later on because you ask someone what happened and they say that Tonya Harding broke Nancy Kerrigan’s let in the Olympics or something like that. They put the two women together and leave out all of the middlemen. Very few people remember the name of the man who actually clubbed Kerrigan (Shane Stant), which is lucky for him. But even if you believe all of the allegations against her, you don’t have to look hard at the punishment that Tonya received at the hands of the media and public to see it as absolutely heartbreaking. You don’t have to be as biased as I am to see that she was a girl who had grown up in a really troubled home. She had dealt with abuse and sexual assault while she was growing up. Everything in her life pretty much conspired to tell her that she was worthless. She had this one thing that she thought she could use to make the public loves her and to become financially independent and to be loved. And even if it didn’t bring her the fame that she wanted, it was something she could count on or like about herself and we took that from her. We took it away.

In The Tonya Tapes, her memoir that never was, she described it repeatedly as having her life taken from her and it really was. She had a rough period for 10 or so years following that incident where she had some DUIs, had some weird behavior and made some bad life choices. That’s what you do when the only thing you used to form your identity or livelihood is ripped away from you. I really don’t think that I am going out on that much of a limb by suggesting that she didn’t deserve what happened to her.

While I feel like a lot of what you discussed with regard to how media narratives are formed and shape public perception are timeless, this incident feels like it is from a very particular era.

It was a weird time in America for female oriented scandals. There is a Saturday Night Live sketch that I love. Immediately after Kerrigan was attacked they reported it on Weekend Update. They didn’t know that it was connected to Harding’s husband Jeff at that point so they made some sort of joke about hockey. And the next week they realized Tonya was getting involved and they had to tackle that. Instead of just writing a sketch, they had a cold open where John Wayne Bobbitt—played by Mike Myers, of course—was testifying at his wife’s trial and without any explanation Tonya Harding runs in and starts hitting him with a club. I love this kind of hysterical sense that everything is kind of happening at once and we don’t even have time to write a joke about it. And then there was Lorena Bobbitt and the O.J. Simpson trial right after it.

That trial was so fascinating because it became a locus of humor and so much narrative and focus of American culture. We really began to see it as this hysterical, comedic opera but when you really peel back all of the layers it was about something horrible happening. It was about a woman who was abused for years and murdered by her ex husband in one of the most violent ways imaginable. The fact that it became high comedy says something about that time period, and about our culture today as well.

Why do you think the Harding / Kerrigan scandal in particular was so ripe for continued national attention?

Through the Tonya Harding scandal, I think Americans were able to say “We’re not like this. This is not what America is like. This is a demographic that we hate.” And this goes to the way her behavior was looked at as “shameless,” which was a word that came up a lot. It suggested that she had a choice in the matter, and that she knew what the right thing to do was and she just cared about herself and wanted to make money and wanted to be famous. A lot of people who disagree with me suggest that she did all of this just because she wanted fame. No one wants that kind of fame, even absolutely insane people.

I was reading this novella length article called Angels & Demons which was written by Thomas French. It was about a murder case in Tampa that went unsolved for several years where a mother and two daughters vacationing met a guy and went out on a boat with him. He bound, gagged and raped them and threw them overboard. They eventually found the man who did it and it took years and years and they didn’t have any leads for a long time. In the way a lot of true crime narratives do, this article details this huge task force assigned to the case and the nation was very aware of it. French describes the case and his thinking of the pain they went through and how he wanted to do right by them.

This reminded me of what I think I learned from an adolescents’ wasted youth spending lots of time reading true crime. You get this sense that the most valuable you can be as a girl or woman in American society is as a victim. When you are raped and still alive, you are problematic. When you are raped and murdered, they can’t say that something didn’t happen to you and obviously justice needs to be brought. That’s when you are least troublesome as a woman. You can’t be seen as misbehaving and you become faultless. Your identity becomes sort of defined by the crimes against you. You can mobilize a nation to care about you and to love you and to pass legislation or put in incredible amounts of efforts to find the person who did this to you.

Even reading about lesser cases, like the assault on Nancy, she was much more valuable as a victim than she was as an athlete. The way that the body of a dead white girl can just mobilize so much in America, so much more than a living white girl, or a living girl of color, or any dead girl can do, that’s something that I want to write more about.

We were talking about Twin Peaks before this interview, and I think David Lynch is a smart guy. Basing a whole soap opera, what was to be an epic narrative, around the death of a girl… That’s the kind of engine that a big narrative needs. What would the show have been like if it was about Laura Palmer when she was alive? We find it pretty repellant to see her walking and talking and being a troubled prostitute. Laura Palmer alive is this strange, very troubled, very alienating woman who is not too dissimilar from Tonya Harding, really. She has a history of family abuse and sexual abuse. She has been raped. As a living woman, she is very troublesome to encounter. As a dead girl, she has this unifying power to motivate an entire community and entrance a nation. That was another artifact of the early 90s, which I think is really fascinating.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.