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“I, Tonya”: A Study of Virtue

by Fr. Damian FerenceFebruary 06, 20180 Comments

Virtue is an acquired habit of excellence at something. Virtue is not something that comes naturally to us, but something that becomes second nature through practice, habit, and good instruction.

Language is a virtue. None of us came out of our mothers’ wombs with the ability to speak, read, and write the way that we were born with the natural ability to see, taste, smell, hear, and feel. We learned language by hearing others—most often our parents—speak it to us and to others, and our mastery of language was a process. The first words we spoke were simple, and it took us some time to string a sentence together and to come to understand the meanings of words. The same is true of our ability to read and write. Although reading and writing are second nature to us now, we all started out by simply learning to write one letter or reading one word at a time before we were ever able to write an entire word or read a complete sentence, let alone an entire paragraph. Yet if you’re reading this review, chances are that you have mastered the English language; you have acquired the habit of excellence of speaking, writing, reading, and understanding English, which is to say that you possess virtue.

I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s new film on the rise and fall of American anti-hero Tonya Harding, is both a wonderful display of virtue and the lack of it. Harding, played by Margot Robbie (who ought to win an award for her performance) was arguably the best figure skater in the world in 1991. With her great speed, power, and athletic ability, she was the first American woman to attempt and complete a triple axel in competition.

From a young age, Harding spent hours upon hours training on the ice while most of her peers were still in bed. Constantly encouraged and often threatened by her chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), who was also her harshest critic, Harding quickly stood out in the world of regional figure skating as a champion. Figure skating was her life and she was excellent at it. Harding wanted to make the Olympic team, so she made all kinds of sacrifices, including dropping out of high school, so that she could dedicate all her time and attention to figure skating and to reaching her goal, which she did in 1994. So as far as the art of figure skating is concerned, we can confidently call Tonya Harding a model of virtue. (If you are a bit confused, keep reading, because I’m about to make an important distinction.)

Just as we can call someone virtuous who is excellent at reading, writing, and speaking the English language or at figure skating, so too can we call one virtuous who is excellent at being human. To be a morally good man or a morally good woman is to be morally virtuous. One who practices the virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance is one who morally virtuous. And in the same way that one becomes excellent at English or figure skating by practice, habit, and good instruction, so too does one become morally virtuous. 

Tonya Harding was not morally virtuous. Most of us already know that. But what I, Tonya does so well is to illustrate why Harding lacked moral virtue by showing what kind of childhood she endured. Tonya Harding was the fifth child from her mother’s fourth marriage. She grew up poor and described herself as a redneck. Her father left her just as she was entering adolescence, and because she was so busy with her skating career, she didn’t have any friends. On the night of her first date with the man she would eventually marry, her stepbrother groped her as she was putting on her make-up in the family bathroom. Although Harding’s mother was financially supportive and worked hard to pay for her skating lessons, she was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive to her teenage daughter. One of the hardest scenes for me to watch in I, Tonya was when Harding’s mom calls her a, “f---ing whore” and throws a steak knife across the kitchen table and into her right bicep, never even thinking to apologize or to ask for forgiveness from her daughter.

The abuse that Harding suffered at the hands of her alcoholic mother in her own home made her think that the beatings she would eventually endure from her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) were normal and were her fault. After one of the many scenes of Harding suffering violent attacks from Gillooly, she reasons, “My mom hits me; she loves me.” Harding didn’t know any better because she had no model or living example of a healthy family living. She married Gillooly when she was nineteen without knowing what a good or virtuous marriage looked like. Without good models of marriage and marital support, Harding’s marriage to Gillooly was bound to fail, and it did. And since her mother had been married five times, divorce seemed like the normal option for Harding.

Did Tonya Harding want to be abused? Did she hope to get divorced? Did she choose to be without friends? Of course not. When Harding recalls completing her first triple axel in a competition in 1991, she smiles from ear to ear and says, “I was loved!”

We all want to be loved. We all want to love. God is love and we are made in His image and likeness, so wanting to be loved and wanting to love is the deepest desire of every human heart. But if we haven’t experienced that love in our own homes as children, and if we haven’t witnessed first-hand what married love and love of family looks like, and if we’ve never known the love of real friendship, it’s very difficult to know how to love God, others, and especially ourselves. There’s no indication that religion played any role in Harding’s upbringing or adult life, with the one exception of a gold necklace with a cross she wears near the end of the film. And the only really virtuous person in Harding’s life throughout the film was her skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) who was never concerned with Harding’s ability to skate, but was “worried about how she’s growing up.”

If you see this film—and if you’re a mature adult you should—you’ll note that one of the major themes running through I, Tonya is truth. If you are old enough to remember the incident between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, then, like me, you probably already have your mind made up about who was the good girl and who was the bad girl. Chances are, after watching I, Tonya, not much will change in regard to that judgment, but you will be forced to think long and hard about the role that free will and culpability play in regard to this bizarre moment in American history. You’ll also have to admit that as a figure skater, Tonya Harding was a model of virtue, but in human living she was the anti-model. But you’ll be left wondering how much of that was really her fault. And that’s the truth. 

About the Author

Fr. Damian Ference

Fr. Damian Ference

Father Damian Ference is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland.  He serves at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio a...

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