The Power and Pitfalls of Narratives

I love going to big-screen movies! Last weekend I dragged my husband to see I, Tonya-a movie I hadn’t been aware I wanted to watch until I started reading the reviews. It wasn’t Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan, or even the chance to see some amazing figure skating that drew me to the theater on a cool rainy day. It was the teaser, a point made that I kept turning over and over in my mind. Had the American public been misled? Could it be true that the narrative we had constructed about what had happened that fateful year wasn’t the whole story? That in fact, the incident was more multifaceted, and the characters involved in it more complicated, than we’d given them credit for?

Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the narratives we construct about others lately. Have you ever had someone, a friend, family member, or colleague create a narrative about you? Sometimes they can feel like compliments like “She’s such a saint. Always puts others first. She’d do anything for anyone.” Other times narratives are not so kind. “I always tell him to meet me half an hour before the real time. That way I won’t have to sit around waiting for him.” They can feel patronizing too. “It’s amazing what she has accomplished, given the family she grew up in.” Or “What did you expect from him? He’d never get into a good college.” It’s so much easier to categorize someone than it is to get to know them in all their complexity, isn’t it?

Truth be told, I had completely forgotten about the whole Harding/Kerrigan scandal until I happened to catch the recent ABC special, Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story. Watching it made me realize how many preconceived notions I had filed away about what had “really” happened between the two skaters. In my mind one was clearly the vulnerable victim, the other the villainess extraordinaire.

What was it that had made many of us elevate Nancy and vilify Tonya? As the movie points out, Nancy looked, and acted, like the ice princess we all expected would represent America in the Olympics. Tonya was rough around the edges. She was a force of nature, like nothing any of the judges, coaches, or other skaters had ever seen before. But she was also an amazing athlete, who practiced relentlessly and was determined to succeed as a figure skater, no matter what the odds or how much she was labeled a redneck or “trailer park trash”.  And she did succeed, as the first American woman to perform the nearly impossible triple axel jump.

She succeeded despite being raised by a verbally and physically abusive mother (who Allison Janney nails in the movie!) being married to a man who alternately loved and beat her, and having extremely limited financial and emotional resources. Interestingly enough, Americans are renowned for rooting for the underdog; but in this case they didn’t.

What happened to Nancy Kerrigan was terrible. No professional athlete should ever have to go through that type of vicious and pointless attack. However, I believe that the media in general, and journalists in particular, have a responsibility to portray the people they write about from all angles, to find their humanity, not to simply reduce them to a tagline or soundbite. Tonya Harding’s assigned narrative clearly changed her life trajectory. Hat’s off the filmmakers who dared to challenge it several decades later. It’s a timely reminder to all of us in the writing profession that words can have powerful and long-lasting effects. Tonya Harding had nothing but skating and a chance to change the narrative bestowed upon her at a young age. When those two things were stripped from her, she had nothing.

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