“I, Tonya” and the Preponderance of Trauma

By Morgan Roberts

When you watch the trailer for “I, Tonya” (2017), you get the tonal sense of the film.  It is a dark comedy about infamous skating figure Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie).  I can yammer on all day about I am still not over Robbie losing the Oscar; her performance is magnetic.  She was captivating from start to finish.  It was a career-defining performance, one that demonstrated her innate talent…but I am seriously digressing.  Robbie is incredible in the film, which is why I think the abuse and trauma we see in the film makes it all the more difficult to watch.

I have my Master’s degree in Professional Counseling.  One of the courses I took was on trauma-informed therapy.  Trauma is everyone.  Trauma is, in essence, completely defined by a person.  Typically, we define trauma as the perceived or factual evaluation of a situation that one will be harmed or killed.  It is car accidents, seeing someone else get hurt, physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, it is horrifyingly unlimited.  Trauma happens over our lifetime as well as before our lifetime.

I tonya child
Allison Janney and Mckenna Grace in I, Tonya (2017)

There is this theory of historical trauma, where one inherits trauma from parents or guardians.  A common example is survivors of the Holocaust having children, and their children, while not survivors, have similar thoughts and feelings as their parents and have the same behavioral reactionary responses to triggers.  Slavery, internment camps, genocide of indigenous people, 9/11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and more and more are all examples, just in an American context, of historial trauma.

“I have my Master’s degree in Professional Counseling.  One of the courses I took was on trauma-informed therapy.  Trauma is everyone.  Trauma is, in essence, completely defined by a person.”

“I, Tonya” is pretty traumatic.  Harding had an extremely abusive childhood.  We see that with her interactions with her mother LaVona (Allison Janney).  LaVona is domineering, dismissive, abrasive.  She physically beats Tonya from childhood into adolescents.  There is one scene where getting into a verbal tiff, which Tonya feels empowered to engage in, LaVona quickly turns the argument physical.  Stuff flies.  Tonya ends up with a steak knife in her arm.  She pulls it out and subsequently moves out to be with her boyfriend/future husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan).

i tony
Allison Janney and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017)

Jeff is no saint though.  Like LaVona, he gets his point across with yelling and throwing and hitting.  He is manipulative of her feelings, always promising to never do it again, and then goes right back into his patterns.

I remember talking about this film with a friend, and they pointed out just how commonplace the abuse is in the film.  It is true, between the jokes and the skating, the film finds plenty of time to show Tonya being battered by either her parent or her partner.  It makes sense.  We know that people in abusive relationships take, an average, of seven times to leave their abuser.  Abuse is not just hitting and throwing and yelling.  It is all-encompassing.  Tonya experienced that.

“What “I, Tonya” does so well is not sugarcoat the abuse.  It is not used to condone or condemn the behaviors of other characters, specifically Tonya, but it gives a strack, harsh look at the reality for many people.”

LaVona did a great job of limiting her daughter’s access to education.  She put a lot of pressure on skating.  And we know that Tonya Harding was a phenomenal skater.  But skating is so individual.  You don’t really build a friend group when the other skaters around you are your constant competition.  To compound that, Tonya grew up in poverty.  Economically speaking, she was not supposed to become a skater.  That class, “us versus them” mentality made Tonya keep people at arm’s length.  But by doing that, Tonya was essentially void of a social support system to get out of her abusive house.

margot and seb
Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017)

That is until Jeff arrived.  That was her one out, but that out was also full of abuse and trauma.  She went from being abused by a parent to being abused by a partner.  She found back.  She was not innocent at all times.  But, that kind of abuse was how her family operated, that she did not quite know that threatening to physically harm your partner is not the healthiest way to solve a problem during an argument.

“Your trauma is your own.  How you decide to share (or not share), how you decide to frame it, display it, live with it, is your own.  And there is power in that.”

What “I, Tonya” does so well is not sugarcoat the abuse.  It is not used to condone or condemn the behaviors of other characters, specifically Tonya, but it gives a strack, harsh look at the reality for many people.  If you are uncomfortable about the abuse, maybe you will be a little more in-tuned and sympathetic to the people around you experiencing it.  If it is triggering to you, definitely talk to someone about it.  There are people you want to help you suss out that stuff.  Not normalize anything but certainly give you the tools to live with what you’ve endured.  It makes me wonder if Tonya had someone more vocal about the abuses in her life, who really tried to give her resources outside of skating, what would her career and life been like.

i ton
Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017)

The film ends after Tonya is given a life-long ban from United States Figure Skating.  But, then she talks to us, as an audience, who have ridiculed her, who have mocked her, who have paraded her life judgingly.  And it starts to make you realize that we’ve been culpable of abuse too.  We have allowed the mocking and the public shaming, and while there are no physical scars, the public has certainly left its mark in her trauma history.  And it is kind of hard to fully escape in a film when it is calling you out on your shit.

Trauma is inherently bad, but there are two things we must remember: Do not compare your traumas to others.  The worst thing to ever happen to you is the worst thing to ever happen to you.  I am sorry that it happened and I hope you’ve gotten support through it.  Secondly, when I saw “trauma is inherently bad,” I want it noted that trauma shapes us.  It is awful but out of the ashes of trauma rise strong, incredible people.  Your trauma is your own.  How you decide to share (or not share), how you decide to frame it, display it, live with it, is your own.  And there is power in that.

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