A World Full Of Nancys

Published on January 7, 2018 by   ·   No Comments

Note: this post might be considered to contain spoilers for the new movie I, Tonya and the Netflix series Stranger Things…though Barb is so season one and that shit with Tonya Harding happened like 25 years ago, so if you consider these spoilers you need to get your life.  Read on at your own risk. XOXO – Miss Jaye

Even though you know that the story doesn’t really have a happy ending, there is something about the end of I, Tonya that feels triumphant.  The movie is funny and heartbreaking at the same time, and it serves as a reminder that Allison Janney is a fucking national treasure.  It also highlights the way in which the world mistreats certain people and we, the audience, whether we like it or not, are complicit in it.

I, Tonya was a special treat for me because when “the incident” went down, I was in a phase of being completely, totally obsessed with figure skating.  The rhinestoned costumes, the gracefulness, the alchemy of athleticism and poise spoke to my little closeted queer self.  I remember almost crying watching Katarina Witt skating a long program to “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” in a tribute to Sarajevo – I didn’t know anything about Sarajevo or what people there might have suffered, but watching her lithe limbs twirling and seeing that look on her face, both wistful and sad, it spoke to me.  I had never realized that something athletic could be…moving.

I remember “the incident,” and all of the news coverage.  Tonya Harding hadn’t really been on my radar up to that point (my obsession started after her historic triple axel at the national competition in 1991), but as I watched the press hounding her and saw all of the coverage of her and rival Nancy Kerrigan, I was immediately drawn to her.  She was rough around the edges, not particularly polished, and she seemed to stand out from the sea of perfectly coifed swans.  Even though I felt for Nancy Kerrigan, the scene of her hysterically crying and screaming “Why?!” played on repeat on every news channel, and I recognized that she was a victim in this situation, I just felt that if you dug down deep enough you would find that she wasn’t the only victim.  There was something about Nancy that reminded me of the popular girls in my class, the ones who could harass you to the breaking point and then when you told, they would cry and resentfully accept their punishment, and somehow the whole thing would become your fault.  She didn’t deserve what happened to her – no one does – but I also understood the way in which the world was designed to make things easy for the Nancys and difficult, often painful, for the Tonyas.

When the Olympics in Lillehammer arrived, I was Team Tonya all the way.  She was the first American woman (and the second woman worldwide, after Japan’s Midori Ito) to land a triple axel jump in competition so she definitely had some natural talent, but all anyone would talk about was how she didn’t fit in, that she was known “more for her athleticism than her artistry” (which even I could read between the lines and see was skating industry snob-speak for her not being pretty or rich enough).  I was hoping that she would come out onto the ice and land the triple axel and put all of those people in their places.

Of course, things worked out differently than that.  Things usually do, if you’re a Tonya and not a Nancy.

Tonya Harding was never going to go to that Olympics and come out the winner.  No matter what you believe about her involvement with the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, what she might have known or not, this story was never going to end with her as the winner.  She’s the villain, and even though our culture likes a good villain, we still don’t want them to win.  Tonya hadn’t fit into the sport before the attack, and then you added on all of the scandal and the lurid details about her family life and her troubled marriage.  Tonya Harding wasn’t at the Olympics to be a champion, she was there to be a spectacle, so people could watch her fall as Nancy Kerrigan rose up through her challenge to claim her golden reward.

KerriganExcept…she didn’t.

In another twist to the story, Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul edged out Kerrigan for the gold by one tenth of a point from the German judge and had to settle for silver.  And despite all of her polished interview soundbites, the look on her face on that medal podium made it very clear that she felt she was settling.  This was supposed to be her moment, her victory, and yet the narrative didn’t play out that way.  In the news coverage, you’d think the ladies’ figure skating competition in Lillehammer was the latest political move in a return to the Cold War – commentators pointing out that Baiul was giving top ratings by “former Eastern block” countries and mentioning that the German judge was a “former East German.”  And Nancy Kerrigan looked sour as fuck standing up there with the silver around her neck as if she were entitled to the gold just because bad things happened to her.

And it’s almost understandable.  We live in a world that bends over backwards to keep Nancys safe from bad things.  If you’re pretty enough and rich enough and white enough, you have plenty of advantage and privilege that keeps you away from a lot of the bad things that could happen, and the ones that you do wander into are usually those that are unavoidable (death and the passage of time) or those that you actively sought out when your cocoon of protection got a little too restrictive or uneventful.  But if you don’t have those layers of protection, if you don’t have the right skin color or the right bank balance, bad things have a way of tracking you down.  Bad things are just an accepted part of life if you’re a Tonya.  Or if you’re a Barb.

Barb 06One of the surprise standouts from the hot Netflix original series Stranger Things was Shannon Purser’s Barb Holland.  She’s the best friend to popular girl Nancy Wheeler and she only sticks around for a couple of episodes before her narrative hook kicks in and she becomes the impetus for oblivious Nancy to wake up to the world around her.  Barb isn’t a villain, she’s a victim; most notably, she’s the victim of a narrative that requires her to die in order for Nancy to develop and change.

That Barb serves as a convenient narrative device is no surprise; these types of characters have always existed: the awkward best friend, the tragic lover, the wise council.  What was surprising is the way that the fans really embraced the character and wanted her to be more than what the confines of her storyline would allow.  People started posting the hashtag #JusticeForBarb, hoping that season two would bring some sort of closure to her tragic story.  Fan fiction proliferated, giving Barb a backstory and a life outside of her brief appearances – even creating a simmering lesbian attraction between the two best friends.  Even merchandise celebrating the doomed teen, my favorite being a tshirt emblazoned with the words, “In a world full of Nancys, be a Barb.”

Barb 01

I love the idea of it (mostly because I’ve spent my entire life being a Barb or a Tonya or anything else that wasn’t a Nancy), and I want to believe that we’re moving to a place where the people on the margins will get the attention and the compassion and the storylines that they deserve, but you can call me a cynic – I’m not buying it.  Even though I know that being a Barb or being a Tonya gives you a fundamentally different perspective on how the world works, and hopefully makes you a more compassionate and thoughtful citizen in that world, I know that being a Nancy is just easier.  A lot of the Barbs would trade places with the Nancys if they could.  It’s great to have a broader worldview and all that, but sometimes you just want to have perfect hair and have Jonathan Byers and Steve Harrington fighting over you.  You want to live past episode 3 and go on adventures and get drunk at a party and tell Steve that “It’s bullshit, it’s all bullshit.”

The problem is that you know it’s all bullshit because you’re a Barb.

Barb 10Barb nags you about the new “cool kids” you’re starting to hang out with, but she shows up at the party and she shotguns a beer because maybe life would be a little bit easier if she could figure out a way to become a part of that crowd the way that Nancy has.  She knows that you’re making a terrible mistake with this douchey guy and his 80s party hair, but even after you yell at her and tell her to go away she waits by the pool because she knows it’s all going to go wrong and you’re going to need her.  And for her trouble she gets dragged into an alternate dimension, killed by a nightmare creature, and used as a host for its offspring, triggering Nancy’s growth and development as a character.

And the fucked up thing is that we should all want to be like Barb – we should want to be loyal and caring and considerate.  And some people do, and if you have one of those people in your life you should treasure them.  But until the world recognizes the Barbs and rewards them for their contributions, most of us (myself included!) are probably going to secretly yearn for ways to become the Nancys in our own stories.

Maybe the world can change.

Maybe the fact that we’re yearning for #JusticeForBarb and that we’re making movies like I, Tonya to show a broader perspective on people who don’t have all of the advantages, to make our villains more sympathetic, means that we’re shifting in some way.  Maybe we are finally ready for more authenticity, more understanding an compassion so that we can understand people like Tonya Harding in new ways.  Because even if you’re a Barb and you know that the world is mean and cruel to anyone who isn’t a Nancy, when shit goes down we shy away from looking at the full dynamics of the situation for fear of being accused of victim blaming.

Think about the Columbine shooting.  This was before mass shootings were just a part of our everyday life; it was a huge deal.  No one would ever say that what those two kids did was justified, but if anyone tried to expand the discussion and say, “Maybe there’s a larger lesson in here about how we treat each other,” people went in for them and they went in hard.  Obviously it is never justifiable to pick up a gun and shoot your classmates, but we as a society had a lot of missed opportunities to have real talk about bullying and harassment and how it’s also never justifiable to treat someone so horribly and break them down to a point where they feel that their only option is to pick up a gun and shoot their classmates.  That’s not victim blaming; it’s looking past the dominant narrative and trying to understand the lives and perspectives of people on the margins, people who sometimes make terrible choices and do awful things because they’re trying to take control of their own narratives.  People who know that they aren’t a Nancy, they’ll maybe never be a Nancy, but they don’t know any other way to show people that their perspectives, their contributions, their lives matter too.

Barb 11

I wish I had some easy answers about how to help that shift happen.  For every story that tries to expand the narrative, there will be backlash and people trying to remind you that Tonya Harding was a monster and she deserved to see her Olympic dreams go down in flames and be banned from the sport she loved – and maybe she did.  That’s the thing about I, Tonya: it attempts to create Tonya Harding as a real, multidimensional human being, and it gives her a chance (through Margot Robbie, staring straight into the camera) to say that people took a perverse sort of pleasure in her suffering that wasn’t entirely fair, but it never completely absolves her from wrong-doing.  The movie takes on a number of perspectives, using the words of Tonya and her mother LaVona, of Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt, to bring together a wash of differing perspectives and allowing the audience to find their way through it all as best they can.

What the movie doesn’t do, and this is perhaps why some critics dislike it, is consider Nancy Kerrigan.  Although the film deals with a moment that had in immense impact on her life, Nancy Kerrigan barely appears in the film at all, and she’s certainly not developed as a character.  And that’s perfectly fine – Nancy Kerrigan already got to be the star of her own narrative and, in some ways, the star of Tonya’s narrative.  She got to be the hero of the story for 20 plus years.  This film is accomplishing something different, and it doesn’t need to consider Nancy Kerrigan’s perspective to be “complete” or “fair” any more than there needs to be a Straight Pride or a White History Month.  This film is all about giving priority and privilege to a narrative that exists in opposition to the dominant one, and it’s a story that deserves to be told in all its complexity and messiness.

(UPDATE: The New York Times piece about Tonya and the film is fantastic – check it out HERE!)

Tags:  , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Readers Comments (0)

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

a href=