Skating on Thin Ice:

Why Tonya Harding Could Never Be America's Ice Princess

Elizabeth Arveda Kissling

Eastern Washington University
E-mail to the author

On January 6, 1994, while in Detroit preparing for the U.S. National Figures Skating competion, skater Nancy Kerrigan was struck on the knee by an assailant. Within ten days, he was identified as Shane Stant, an amateur hit man hired by competing skater Tonya Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, and ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding, who went on to win the Nationals, claimed she was not involved in the attack. With two other men, Eckardt and Gillooly were charged with racketeering, conspiracy to commit assault, and assault. On February 1, 1994, Gillooly plead guilty to racketeering; he was sentenced to two years in prison on July 14, 1994. On March 17, 1994, Tonya Harding entered a plea of guilty of conspiracy to hinder prosecution. She has remained steadfast in her denial of having any prior knowledge or involvement in planning the assault on Kerrigan.1

By mid-February, Tonya Harding and this tale of amateur intrigue had been the top news story every day for weeks, as well as the subject of numerous jokes and other forms of folk communication. Never having been a follower of figure skating, or truth be told, of the Olympics, I was nevertheless fascinated by all this--not fascinated by the escapades of Tonya and her pals, but by the fascination of others. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were headlines not only in sports magazines such as Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News , but in national and local newspapers and in news weeklies such as Time and Newsweek. They were on ESPN, CN N, and the network news programs. By mid-February, according to Sports Illustrated (Rushin, 1994), many of these journalists were no longer covering the Harding-Kerrigan story, but claimed instead to be covering the coverage of the story.

Why, I wondered? Why was I hearing jokes about Tonya Harding not only from David Letterman and Jay Leno but from students and from colleagues on electronic mail Listservs? Why was this story of scandal and conspiracy so intriguing? Is there som e greater social significance to this story, or are the folk and the journalists just captivated by dirty laundry? Was it because the lead players were (inter)national caliber athletes, and women athletes at that? Tonya Harding has referred to herself as "the Charles Barkley of figure skating", but even Barkley's outrageous and sometimes violent behavior has never generated this kind of press.

Of course, the scandal of trying to alter the outcome of a major national sporting event is always newsworthy. But apparently this is especially so when those involved are:

  1. Olympians, presumably athletes who best embody the principles of sportsmanship;
  2. figure skaters, members of an elite, aristocratic sport in which competitors do not normally even face one another;
  3. and women, who are expected by social norms to be neither corrupt nor violent, nor athletic.

As numerous sport historians and sport sociologists have pointed out, sport reflects the values and beliefs of sociocultural system in which it occurs (Coakley, 1994; Creedon, 1994a). This of course includes values and beliefs about gender. Because sport in the U.S. is typically associated with aggression, competition, and self-assertion, sport is often seen as antithetical to femininity.

The perceived contrast between athleticism and femininity places women athletes in a double-bind; they cannot meet both the ideals of femininity and the norms of sport. Given this sociocultural context, Mariah Burton Nelson (Nelson, 1991; Nelso n,1994b) has argued persuasively that for women, participating in sport is an inherently feminist act; sport teaches women to enjoy and take pride in their bodies and their physical capabilities, plus it fosters solidarity with other women. For an increa sing number of North American women, participation in sport is also an inherently pleasurable act.

In the face of this perceived contrast, what Jan Felshin has called an apologetic develops (Felshin, 1981). The woman athlete must emphasize her womanhood, her femininity (and by implication, her heterosexuality), and minimize the importance of her sport in her life. To do this, she often wears ultra-feminine cl othing and hair-styles (off or on the playing field), and avows the importance of her appearance and her desire to marry and raise a family (Felshin, 1981). Another form of apologetic is to choose a sport that is considered socially acceptable for women , that is, "female" sports which avoid contact, and instead display grace, and focus on aesthetic (rather than athletic) exhibition, such as gymnastics, swimming, and figure skating. Traditional "male" sports tend to be those that require strength and power, such as football, boxing, and hockey.2 The apologetic functions to affirm femininity in the face of the absence of femininity evidenced by participation in athletics.

Figure skating, however, has the apologetic built right in; costume, make-up, and gesture "feminize" and soften the athletic ability required for jumps and spins (Feder, 1994), as does the structure of a sport that never requires competitors to face one another. The apologetic is also incoporated into the structure of figure skating in the form of two sets of scores:one for athleticism and one for artistry. "The technical mark (for required elements or techinical merit) is supposed to reflect the difficulty of the program and the clean execution of the elements. The artistic mark (for presentation or composition and style) is supposed to reflect the choreography, music interpretation, flow, and balance of the program, and other factors such as making good use of the ice surface and skating with speed and sureness." (Loosemore, 1994)

Often, those other factors include assessments of the skater's physical beauty, as the mark of her femininity (Feder, 1994; Knisley, 1994; Rounds, 1994). To be competitive on ice and off in the competition for commericial endorsements, women figure skaters (still officially referred to as "Ladies" under U.S. and ISU rules) must meet popular ideals of feminine beauty (Feder, 1994). Sports journalists frequently describe skaters by appearance first, performance second (Feder, 1994; Knisley, 1994), and ironic as it may sound, both appearance and performance are more highly valued when "artistic" rather than "athletic." Muscular women like Midori Ito, Debi Thomas, and Tonya Harding have frequently been criticized by skating judges and journalists for displaying too much athleticism (Rounds, 1994).

The dimensions of artistry and athleticism are not inherently dichotomous, but quickly become so in the evaluation of skating performance, and were vividly portrayed as such in the journalistic descriptions of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan last winter. "Nancy Kerrigan, 24, the most accomplished and graceful of the current crop of figure skaters . . . Kerrigan is easily the most beautiful woman in the competition, with auburn hair and Hepburnesque cheekbones . . . " Time (Duffy, 1994a) "Blessed with long, slender limbs and a natural elegance, she also reaps the rewards of a photogenic beauty that last year won her standing as one of People magazine's "50 most beautiful People in the world." Time (Smolowe, 1994) "Harding is a powerful skater with a mighty jump. Just as impressive to a connoisseur is the forceful way she strokes along -- almost into -- the ice. It's sheer, thrilling athleticism. But Harding's body is not ideal; she has thick thighs and forearms." Time (Duffy, 1994b) "[Fans and television viewers] want an international duel in which good sportsmanship, staying within type and fair play are triumphant; where intact families, modest costumes, chemical-free hair and good teeth are rewarded." Time (Carlson, 1994) ["[Kerrigan] is lovely to look at, with a lean musculature, sculpted features . . . " Time (Duffy, 1994b)

Of course, figure skating's dichotomy of artistry/athlecticism (or beauty and the beast, as is sometimes seemed in the tabloids) did not begin with Kerrigan and Harding; as Kate Rounds reminds us, the same kinds of contrasting physical descriptions were applied to Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas in the 1988 Olympics. As Thomas herself says, "Once you get labeled athletic, with big triples, it's hard to get unlabeled" (quoted in Rounds, 1994).

Figure skating judges apparently have a long memory for many things. Figure skating competition has been described by several insiders as a wait your turn world, where skaters who pay their dues and best represent the ideal of the sport, not necessarily those who turn in the best performance, are rewarded (Knisley, 1994; Luciano, 1993; Rounds, 1994). For instance, judges often evaluate practices as well as performances; if a skater does her jumps successfully while training, she may not be penalized if she doesn't perform them as expertly in competition. The judges know she can do them (Knisley, 1994; Luciano, 1993). "For figure skaters, the Olympics isn't one moment in time. It's an entire career coming to fruition or failure, where everything you've done before counts at least as much as everything you do on the day you actually compete. . . . . It's a sport where the pecking order, once established, doesn't change much . . ." (Knisley, 1994, p. 13) Or as sportswriter Michael Knisley summarizes: "The only difference between life and figure skating is that life doesn't't wear so much makeup" (Knisley, 1994, p. 12).

Wearing makeup, however, is a necessary part of the feminine apologetic for figure skaters -- especially for those known for athleticism. As the only American woman to successfully complete a triple axel in competition, Tonya Harding's embodiment of the apologetic was as over-the-edge as her skating. Harding was known for flashy, somewhat revealing costumes, which she frequently designed herself. The Oregonian reports that judges marked her down for the "trampy costume" she wore during the national championships in Detroit: "The deep purple dress was sleeveless, trimmed with gold sequins. Her coaches were appalled. The flesh-colored net in the front not only plunged to her navel, it stretched from armpit to armpit. The illusion was not elegant; the curves of the underside of her breasts were clearly visible. It looked obscene." (Vader, 1994)

Her makeup also portrayed an exaggerated femininity, from her thick eyeliner down to her brightly colored nail polish. In addition to these superficial markers of femininity and heterosexuality, Tonya Harding has the distinction of being the only married woman ever to free skate in the Olympics (Rounds, 1994).

Yet in spite of these markers of femininity, Tonya Harding was perceived as not feminine enough. This lack of femininity was often directly tied to the portrayals of Harding in terms of her working-class background -- especially her professed enjoyment of such proletarian pastimes as shooting pool and drag-racing. "She is neither politic nor polished, sociable nor sophisticated. Instead, she is the bead of raw sweat in a field of dainty perspirers; the asthmatic who heaves uncontrollably while others pant prettily; the pool- playing, drag-racing, trash-talking bad girl of a sport that thrives on illusion and politesse." Time (Smolowe, 1994, p. 51) ". . . the scrappy girl from the trailer parks, who has climbed so high and suffered so much . . . . " Time (Smolowe, 1994, p. 52) "She may be a two-time national champion, but Tonya is better known for her public scrapes, her taste in pool halls and her troubled family background." Newsweek (Starr, 1994, p. 69)

"She comes by her lack of charisma honestly; she may be a brat, but not a spoiled brat. Kerrigan had an underprivileged childhood by the genteel standards of the skating world -- her father was a welder -- but she was Gloria Vanderbilt next to Harding, the daughter of a night waitress and her fifth husband, an occasional laborer and truck-driver . . . . Her father, Al, taught her to hunt and fish and fix up old cars and split wood for the stove . . . "
Newsweek (Adler, 1994, p. 71) "Doesn't fit any sort of American ice-skating princess template: She hunts, knows her way around a spark plug, looks sorta like she hangs out at the rink to smoke, talk smart, and pick up guys. She's a white-trash poster child, someone who would normally be waiting tables at a truck stop or posing topless for Easy Rider Magazine." New York Daily News (Beale, 1994) "She was wearing a stretchy black sleeveless catsuit over a stretchy gray tank leotard. Every contour of her body was outlined in black -- her meaty back, her strong upper legs, with their blocky muscles. . . . She didn't look happy, but she also didn't look rattled or embarrassed or shy" New Yorker (Orlean, 1994) "An ice princess who has her own pool cue -- Harding's the name, nine-ball's the game -- an interloper in the realm of pixies and queens who's as at home doing a brake job as she is performing an arabesque. Aspirant to the throne of some of the most elegant women in the sport -- Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hammill, Katarina Witt -- who can curse like a sailor, bench-presses more than her weight, and drag races in the summer for kicks." Sports Illustrated (Swift, 1992)

These activities are perceived as both working-class and masculine -- and therefore "unfeminine." Harding's muscular and "too athletic"" physique has also been mapped onto these cultural biases. Until very recently, muscularity has been culturally coded as masculine and proletarian. The racial and class biases of North America have associated muscles with animality, and with lack of sensitivity and of intelligence (recall, for instance, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire or Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (Bordo, 1993). An undercurrent of violence is also present in these biases, in the implicit assumption that the muscular, unintelligent working class relies on violence to settle disputes. Harding's display of the feminine apologetic was rendered cartoonish in the context of these cultural codes, her persona, and her background, and especially so in the genteel, ultra-feminine context of the world of figure skating.

It is, of course, possible to read in Tonya Harding's self- presentation a reconceptualization of gender, one that defines "femininity" more broadly, with greater depth and variety than convention allows. Is it truly inconceiveable for a woman to know how to change spark plugs and know how to skate, after all? By enacting alternative possibilities for women (and for figure skaters), Harding calls into question the established gender categories. But the contrast with Kerrigan, known for beauty, grace, and a certain passivity, and the implied contrast with revered ice princesses of the past such as Sonja Henie and Dorothy Hammill, forced a reading of Tonya Harding as "unfeminine" and therefore not within the image of the skating queens," as one sports marketer phrased it (quoted in Rounds, 1994). Instead of being praised for reformulating limiting categories, Harding was measured against them and found wanting.

The positioning of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan as opposites, as naughty and nice, sugar and spice, virginal good girl and trouble-making tramp, reflect not only a long tradition of stereotypical representation of women athletes (Kane & Greedorfer, 1994) but of stereotyping of women in general. There is already a great deal of excellent feminist work on these topics (see, for example, Creedon, 1994a; Feder, 1994; Felshin, 1981; Kane & Greedorfer, 1994; Lenskyj, 1986; Nelson, 1991; Nelson, 1994b) and much has also been written about these issues in the popular press as they relate specifically to Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (see, for example, Connell, 1994; Nelson, 1994a; Pollitt, 1994; Rounds, 1994).

Yet this tradition did not predominate in the Tonya Harding joke cycle -- not explicitly, anyway. Few jokes about Harding focused explicitly on her femininity, and none of the dozen I collected contrasted Harding to Kerrigan. 3 Yet if humor, and jokes in particular, are based on the idea of appropriate incongruity, as Elliott Oring and others have argued (Bauer, 1989; Clements, 1986; Oring, 1987), one schema of interpretation is to read "Tonya Harding and/or her behavior" and "norms of femininity" as incongruous. Another interpretive schema is the incongruity of violent behavior and behavior appropriate for an athlete (or just generally socially appropriate behavior).

  1. What do Tonya Harding and Bob Packwood have in common?
    They're both skating on thin ice and they both like to hit on women.

  2. Why did Tonya Harding break up with her husband?
    He was hitting on other women.

In these folk texts, the strategy of double-meaning is employed first, in the use of "hit" in its violent sense, and in the colloquialism of "hit on" as "make sexual advances towards." The incongruity of a husband hitting his wife is a false one, given both the alarming frequency with which this occurs in the U.S. and the well-publicized history of violence between Harding and Gillooly. "Beat" has a similar double meaning in (3) below, implying Harding can win only by literally beating her opponent.

3. Have you seen the new Tonya Harding T-shirt?
It says, "If you can't beat 'em, beat 'em."

Double meanings with a violent undercurrent are also the source of humor in the T-shirts sold in Portland (circa February 1994), which read "HARDING-KERRIGAN" on the front and "NORWAY '94, BREAK A LEG!" on the back.

The contrast of genteel, feminine figure skating and violent men's sports provides the incongruity in (4). Once again, Harding is criticized for being "too athletic" a skater.

(4) The Olympic Committee said it's OK for Tonya Harding to skate in the Olympics -- as long as she also agrees to play on the U.S. hockey team.

This incongruity of figure skating and violence is also apparent in (5).

(5) Rumor has it Tonya Harding has decide on a new musical accompaniment for the Olympics and will now skate to
"If I Had a Hammer."

Incongruous violence and double-meanings provide the humor in a joke that conflates Tonya Harding with another woman's newsworthy scandal in (6).

(6) Have you heard they're serving a new drink at the Olympics called the Tonya Bobbitt?
It's a club soda with a slice.

The one joke I collected that does explicitly address Harding's status as a woman makes the implied norms of femininity incongruous with Harding. It seems similar in function to ethnic jokes in Clements' analysis, in defining the outsider as everything we are not (Clements, 1986). The joke which provided the title for our panel presents these three well-known American women as outsiders to femininity:

(7) Who's the most dangerous woman in America?
Tonya Rodham Bobbitt.

What do Hillary Clinton, Tonya Harding, and Lorena Bobbitt have in common? All three women are known for speaking their minds, acting autonomously, and in their own self-interests -- all dangerous behavior for women, in a society where femininity means nurturance of others, passivity, and dependence.

In his analysis of ethnic jokes as mirror of culture, William M. Clements pointed out that while folklore is usefully seen as a mirror of culture, it is not always a planar mirror; humorous folklore, in particular, is often an inverted mirror, reflecting what we are not (Clements, 1986). The North America reflected in scandal jokes is indeed a distorted image. The world reflected in these jokes is one in which violence against women is so rare that it is laughable, violence is incongruous with sportsmanship, and in which women don't resist and reject limiting and restrictive expectations of femininity.

Tonya Harding became the butt of popular jokes and an object of journalistic ridicule because she holds up a different mirror to our society. Tonya Harding's autobiography reflects images of us we'd rather not see. Harding reflects a femininity that includes aggression, competitiveness, and muscularity, without apology. As a so-called white trash poster child, she reflects a way of life marked by violence and poverty that stretches far beyond her Clackamas County, Oregon hometown. Her efforts to skate away from that life reflect a shattered ideal of a meritocracy, a real world in which it takes more than a dream and hard work to succeed -- a world where everyone is skating on thin ice.


1. For more details of these various hearings, indictments, trials, and convictions, see Brennan, 1994; Foster, 1994; "Ex-husband implicates Harding," 1994; "Gillooly sentenced in attack on Kerrigan," 1994; and "Harding plea keeps skater out of prison," 1994.

2. Once ghettoized into certain sports, women are then seen as lesser athletes because they play women's sports (Feder, 1994).

3. My sources for these jokes were various e-mail lists, including an archive search of FOLKLORE, and a specific request for Tonya Harding jokes that I placed on the AFS women list; print sources, such as weekly newsmagazines; and personal communication with students and colleagues.

4. In considering this theme of violence as abnormal and thus incongruous and humorous, I was struck by its similarity to another recent cycle of scandal jokes:the O.J. Simpson series. The incongruity in these jokes seems to lie in the assumption that family violence is rare, unspeakably abnormal. When more than 30% of murdered women in the United States are in fact killed by husbands or lovers (1993; McDermott,1992; Miller, 1989), there is no "appropriate incongruity."

A version of this paper was presented at annual meeting of American Folklore Society October, 1994 * Milwaukee


Adler, J.; King, P.; Collins, D.; Starr, M.; Cooper-Ramo, J. (1994, Jan, 24). Living on the edges. Newsweek, pp. 71-72.

Bauer, Dale M. (1989). The joke cure: Spectacle and subversive humor. Works and Days, 7(1), 91-101.

Beale, L. (1994, February 23). Whose corner will you be in? Spokesman- Review, pp. C1, C6.

Bordo, Susan. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brennan, C. (1994, January 20). Affidavit links Harding to plot. Spokesman-Review, p. A1, A6.

Carlson, M. (1994, Feb 21). Now for the skate-off. Time, p. 58.

Clements, William M. (1986). The ethnic joke as mirror of culture. New York Folklore, 12(3-4), 87-97.

Coakley, Jay J. (1994). Sport in society: Issues and controversies. St. Louis: Mosby.

Connell, Sally Ann. (1994, February 22). We love our bad boys, but not our bad girls. Los Angeles Times, p. B5:2.

Creedon, Pamela J. (1994a). Women, media and sport: Creating and reflecting gender values. In Pamela J. Creedon (Ed.), Women, media and sport: Challenging gender values (pp. 3-27). Newbury Park: Sage.

Creedon, Pamela J. (1994b). From the feminine mystique to the female physique: Uncovering the archetype of Artemis in sport. In Pamela J. Creedon (Ed.), Women, media and sport: Challenging gender values (pp. 275-299). Newbury Park: Sage.

Davis, Tracy. (1994, March 24). RE: men, women, and stereotypical sports for both. WISHPERD Electronic Mail List.

Duffy, M. (1994a, Jan 17). Why? it hurts so bad! Why me? Time, p. 44- 45.

Duffy, M. (1994b, Feb 21). With blades drawn. Time, p. 53-58.

"Ex-husband implicates Harding. " (1994a, February 2). Spokesman- Review, pp. A1, A6.

Feder, Abigail M. (1994). A radiant smile from the lovely lady: Overdetermined femininity in "Ladies" figure skating. The Drama Review, 38(1), 62-78.

Felshin, Jan. (1981). The triple option . . . for women in sport. In Marie Hart & Susan Birrell <(Eds.), Sport in the sociocultural process (pp. 487-492). Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

Foster, D. (1994, January 14). 2 arrested, charged in skater's attack. Spokesman-Review, pp. A1, A11.

"Gillooly sentenced in attack on Kerrigan." (1994b, July 14). Spokesman-Review, p. A4.

Gramstad, Thomas. (1994, March 24). RE: men, women, and stereotypical sports for both. WISHPERD Electronic Mail List.

"Harding plea keeps skater out of prison." (1994c, March 17). News- Gazette, p. A1, A10.

Kane, Mary Jo, & Greedorfer, Susan. (1994). The media's role in accommodating and resisting stereotyped images of women in sport. In Pamela J. Creedon (Eds.), Women, media and sport: Challenging gender values (pp. 28-44). Newbury Park: Sage.

Knisley, Michael. (1994, March 7). In this sport, everything figures. The Sporting News, pp. 12-14.

Lenskyj, Helen. (1986). Out of bounds: Women, sport and sexuality. Toronto: The Women's Press.

Loosemore, Sandra. (1994). Figure skating FAQ (Frequently Asked Question) list, rec.skate (USENET Newsgroup).

Luciano, Lisa. (1993, December 5). Pandora's box of problems for figure skating. New York Times.

McDermott, James. (1992, October 2). Violence against women is a public health issue. Congressional Record, p. E2903.

Miller, George. (1989, September 28). National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Congressional Record, p. H6346-6347.

Nelson, Mariah B. (1994a, May). The sporting image. New Woman, pp. 140-144.

Nelson, Mariah Burton. (1991). Are we winning yet? How women are changing sports and sports are changing women. New York: Random House.

Nelson, Mariah Burton. (1994b). The stronger women get, the more men love football: Sexism and the American culture of sports. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Oring, Elliott. (1987). Jokes and the discourse on disaster. Journal of American Folklore, 100, 276-286.

Orlean, Susan. (1994, Feb 21). Figures in a mall. New Yorker, p. 48-54.

Pollitt, Katha. (1994, March 7). Subject to debate. The Nation, p. 297.

Rounds, Kate. (1994, May/June). Ice follies: Reflections on a sport out of whack. Ms., p. 26-33.

Rushin, Steve. (1994, February 25). As the world turns. Sports Illustrated, p. 33-37.

Smolowe, Jill. (1994, Jan 24). Tarnished victory. Time, p. 51-54.

Starr, M.; King, P.; Washington, F. (1994, Jan 24). Thin ice. Newsweek, pp. 69-70.

Super Bowl Sunday: A Wake-up call on domestic violence. (1993, March). EXTRA!, p. 7.

Swift, E.M. (1992, January 13). Not your average ice queen. Sports Illustrated, p. 54-63.

Vader, J., Hallman, T., Meehan, B. T. (1994, Feb 23). Fire on Ice. The Oregonian, pp. A1, A16.