Reading The Harding-Kerrigan Scandal
The fall of Portland's skating star through the eyes of ’90s academics
Twenty years ago, a hired goon clubbed figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee as she left a Detroit practice facility. The “whack heard ’round the world” sparked a firestorm—especially after the attack was linked to Tonya Harding, Portland’s skating hero. The uproar became fertile ground for academic theorizing. Highlights from the 1995 book Women on Ice: Feminist Essays on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle (edited by Cynthia Baughman):
Theory: Harding was a “white trash” woman who attacked the middle-class Kerrigan, bringing the country’s class structure to the surface. Reminders that class exists always anger Americans.
Explanation: “Harding satisfied the stereotypes of the undisciplined lower classes...Consider, for example...the image of a breathless Tonya sucking on an asthma inhaler...connected to images of her smoking.” (Sam Stoloff, Cornell University)
Theory: Harding was the “male” counterpoint to Kerrigan’s traditional female—more aggressive (she was the second woman to land a triple axel in competition) and more masculine in her costumes—allowing media to dismiss her.
Explanation: “Kerrigan was the ‘goddess of good,’ Harding the ‘consort of thugs.’...[R]eactions to ‘bad girls’ often seem disproportionate to their actual deeds.” (Diane Raymond, Simmons College)
Theory: Spectators primarily watch figure skating to see skaters fail. The Harding-Kerrigan scandal provided a figurative fall from grace, giving the audience what it wanted in the first place.
Explanation: “[O]ne begins to suspect that part of the appeal of the sport for women viewers is less the exhibition of femininity than the exhibition of femininity as a performance fraught with danger....” (Judith Mayne, Ohio State University)