Reading The Harding-Kerrigan Scandal

The fall of Portland's skating star through the eyes of ’90s academics

By Marty Patail and Alexandria Bordas January 2, 2014 Published in the January 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Twenty years ago, a hired goon clubbed figure skater Nancy Kerrigan’s knee as she left a Detroit practice facility. The “whack heard ’round the world” sparked a firestorm—especially after the attack was linked to Tonya Harding, Portland’s skating hero. The uproar became fertile ground for academic theorizing. Highlights from the 1995 book Women on Ice: Feminist Essays on the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Spectacle (edited by Cynthia Baughman):


Theory: Harding was a “white trash” woman who attacked the middle-class Kerrigan, bringing the country’s class structure to the surface. Reminders that class exists always anger Americans.

Explanation: “Harding satisfied the stereotypes of the undisciplined lower classes...Consider, for example...the image of a breathless Tonya sucking on an asthma inhaler...connected to images of her smoking.” (Sam Stoloff, Cornell University)


Theory: Harding was the “male” counterpoint to Kerrigan’s traditional female—more aggressive (she was the second woman to land a triple axel in competition) and more masculine in her costumes—allowing media to dismiss her. 

Explanation: “Kerrigan was the ‘goddess of good,’ Harding the ‘consort of thugs.’...[R]eactions to ‘bad girls’ often seem disproportionate to their actual deeds.” (Diane Raymond, Simmons College) 

Film Studies

Theory: Spectators primarily watch figure skating to see skaters fail. The Harding-Kerrigan scandal provided a figurative fall from grace, giving the audience what it wanted in the first place. 

Explanation: “[O]ne begins to suspect that part of the appeal of the sport for women viewers is less the exhibition of femininity than the exhibition of femininity as a performance fraught with danger....” (Judith Mayne, Ohio State University)

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