Review -- Women on Ice: Feminist Essays on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle
edited by Cynthia Baughman

by Lorrie Kim
Originally posted to on December 26, 1995

If you like academic writing, feminist theory and popular culture theory (yes to all three, for me), you will enjoy this book. I just read most of it, and I think most of the contributors wrote beautifully, and very many of them knew their skating technicalities -- not all, but more than you'd expect from a bunch of academics.

The full title is Women on Ice: Feminist Essays on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle. As you can see from the word "spectacle," the book is heavy on theoretical jargon, and expects you to be familiar with your Laura Mulvey, Mikhail Bakhtin, and postmodern notions of desire. Fortunately, it is grounded in the actual facts and realities of Harding and Kerrigan, so almost all of the essays make good reading and get to the point.

Part of the reason I like the book so much is that I miss Tonya Harding. Yeah, I know, the whole thing was disgusting. But I admire how far she got despite who she was, and I loved her skating -- I loved her big strong body. The book re-examines her, rescuing her from the laughingstock trash heap. Good or bad, she was important.

My favorite essay, "Pure Desire" by Laura Jacobs, notes that "Harding is the only skater who 'reads' at top tape speed." Jacobs is the only person I know of who doesn't laugh at Harding's choice of Jurassic Park music: "its eerie opening and glacial lyric line might have buoyed rather than tired her.... We might have seen the creature Harding thought she could be when she chose that music: high tech, dominating, and larger than life."

I evilly enjoyed this book, too, because it slammed Nancy Kerrigan both for her snippy stupidity and deeper reasons, as well. Jacobs says, "By presenting herself in the Peggy Fleming lineage of figure skating, she set herself up for risky comparison. For though no one said it, Kerrigan is an example of a skater who has worked doggedly, who has pared away to her essential self and revealed there a personality that doesn't sustain interest. 'I was flawless,' Kerrigan repeated in frustration, not quite realizing that there are finer, more definitive achievements to reach for." Delicious!

At the end of Jacobs' article, she tops Nancy's annoying star spiral in an absolute academic coup: "Dipped down into alongé (elongated), the torso drops and the back leg shoots up even higher. And so the arabesque becomes anxious, a picture of narcissism -- as if the skater seeks her reflection in water -- and a posture of desire, a lengthening reach. Kerrigan's beseeching expression in alonge, arm out as if for a tip, was the American-accented leitmotif of Lillehammer: 'give me' (the flip side of 'Why me?')."

I whooped. Poor Nancy Kerrigan and her $10 million.

Other good or interesting moments:

Ellyn Kestnbaum's discussion of what "feminist skating" might look like;

Judith Mayne, suggesting that falls in a skating performance are eruptions of the female subconscious, and they are important because they demonstrate how difficult it is for everyday women to keep up an act of idealized femininity;

Marjorie Garber's essay, "Viktor Petrenko's Mother-in-Law," which discusses how skaters' nuclear families are packaged on TV, and how the way we hear all about the heterosexual skaters' love lives makes any closeted silences really, really loud;

Melanie Thernstrom's reading of Tonya, Nancy and Oksana as the Cinderella tale, which might come across as pretentious, except that it works.

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