Women's Figure Skating
Women's Figure Skating
Class, the Beauty Myth, and Women's Figure Skating Coverage
Department of Communication
2020 Frieze Building
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285
Tel: (313) 769-6819
Email: [log in to unmask]
Running Head: Women's Figure Skating
The author gratefully acknowledges Christopher Martin for helpful comments on
this article. The author is an independent video producer and a
the Communication Department at the University of Michigan, Ann
Class, the Beauty Myth, and Women's Figure Skating Coverage
This paper analyzes coverage of the 1994 Olympic women's figure skating
competition, and explores how the mass media negotiates, interprets, and
reinforces a middle class value system based on (1) socially imposed
roles and (2) middle class behavioral expectations. The
skater Nancy Kerrigan is an example of the media's constant search for
middle class icons. As soon as these icons err from the middle
narrative, however, they are easily replacable.
Class, the Beauty Myth, and Women's Figure Skating Coverage
In January, 1994, 24-year-old figure skater and Olympic favorite Nancy
Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee and cried her infamous "Why Me? Why
the US National Championships in Detroit, Michigan. Her
filled the covers of every national news magazine, countless special
publications, every national newscast, and nearly every
television program. The attack first was described as a typical case of
violence, particularly Detroit-style urban violence. Then it was
that a "crazed" fan was experiencing rejection or wrath, like the
man who had
attacked tennis star Monica Seles months earlier. And finally it
that associates close to rival figure skater Tonya HardingDand
Harding herselfDwere implicated in the attack. CBS saw the beginning
publicity for its upcoming Winter Olympics coverage than the
have possibly hoped for. Kerrigan, an instant media favorite,
endorsement contracts from corporate sponsors as the country
steady recovery, and the investigation of Harding's suspicious
Here was a story about greed, sportsmanship, stupidity, and female
Here was story about two skaters who represented the two sides of
discipline: artistic (Kerrigan) vs. athletic (Harding). But in
what began to
be the underlying narrative in the many newscasts and articles and
to follow, here was a story about two women who came to represent
social backgrounds, two different classes. Here was a story,
championing the American middle class.
This paper is an analysis of how the mass media negotiates, interprets, and
reinforces a middle class value system that's based on (1) largely
constructs of gender roles in our society and (2) middle class
expectations. The intense glamorization and idealization of Kerrigan,
contrasted with the demonization of Harding, conveyed a wholesale
of Kerrigan as a media-created star. She was cast as a star
class female identity, and she (with her family) was cast as a
championing middle class values.
A year later the story was rated first among all sports stories and fifth
among all stories in 1994, according to an Associated Press poll.
popularity, however, dwindled drastically only three months after
In March 1994, Kerrigan complained in an interview with Jane Pauly
(March 3, 1994), "I'm living in a fishbowl. It's not fair that they
put me up
on that pedestal. I didn't want to be there. I don't understand
why the same
people that put me there want to take me down so fast." Why was
she so easily
discarded by the media after being so highly esteemed? The
post-Olympic media backlash against Kerrigan suggests the ultimate
the middle class value system and its continuous expectations of
principled behavior, once class boundaries are overstepped. On
the last day of
1994, the USA Today sports section published a list of who was
"IN" and "OUT"
that confirmed the sentiment surrounding the persona of Nancy
Today, 12/30/94, pg. 1C). The skater once described as "the goddess
Kerrigan, was in the OUT column. And who was IN for 1995?
skater, Olympic gold medal winner, and new American middle class
Media Representation and the Middle Class
Because the American middle class is most visible and dominant in areas of
education, the mass media, and politics, it has had the unique
control much of American culture(from what we see on television to
policy(and determine the direction of its own (and other classes')
representation. In doing so, the middle class' cultural ubiquity is rarely
questioned, even though this class only comprises no more than 20%
population, and represents only a slice of overall American experience
(Ehrenreich 12). Middle class characters dominate American television
and Miller 263), and characters who are coded as working class or
are not only under-represented, they are represented as less
and Callahan 186 ; Thomas and LeShay 98). "In our culture,"
Ehrenreich, "the professional, and largely white, middle class is taken as
social normDa bland and neutral mainstreamDfrom which every other
class is ultimately a kind of deviation" (3). "Its ideas and
everywhere, and not least in our own minds. Even those of us who
very different social settings often find it hard to distinguish
views from what we think we ought to think" (5).
While the middle class' control over American culture is significant, its
power base, unlike that of the upper classes, can be described as
The more financially secure upper and upper middle classes can pass
in the form of property or trust funds from generation to
middle class' greatest resource -- knowledge and skills -- is much
tangible, however. It's a kind of wealth, what Bourdieu refers to as
capital, that requires constant renewing and relearning, making
class perpetually insecure and giving them a strong compulsion for
[The professional middle class] is afraid, like any class below the most
securely wealthy, of misfortunes that might lead to a downward slide.
the middle class there is another anxiety: a fear of inner
growing soft, of failing to strive, of losing discipline and will.
affluence that is so often the goal of this striving becomes a
threat, for it
holds out the possibility of hedonism and self-indulgence.
Whether the middle
class looks down toward the realm of less, or up toward the
realm of more,
there is always the fear of falling" (Ehrenreich 15).
The middle class, then, through all forms of mass media outlets (and political
agendas), has the power to convey its own determination for
and stability. Our culture is consequently saturated with middle
morality tales that admonish those who are slothful, imprudent or
self-indulgent, and praise those that do everything in their educational and
financial means to "get ahead" and gain security. "They [the middle
drawn to novels, dramas, and biographies of individual achievement
mobility," says Herbert Gans. "Their fictional heroes are more
the ability to achieve their goals in competition" (Gans 82).
tales of cultural dos and don'ts, then, ultimately describe the goals
requirements necessary to maintain or reach upper middle class or
status and the realm of tangible stability. In the news coverage
surrounded Nancy Kerrigan, Kerrigan's looks, behaviors, and life
represented all the "do's" according to middle class sensibilities.
make the message more clear, Kerrigan was compared to Tonya Harding,
represented all the "don'ts."
By analyzing CBS Olympic figure skating coverage, television news magazine
spin-off coverage, newspaper articles, editorials, and feature
popular, mainstream magazines like Time, Newsweek, People and
Illustrated during the nine week period from the Kerrigan assault to the
Olympics, the Olympics itself (the KerriganDHarding face-off) and the
after (the new Kerrigan), this paper will explore the perspectives
middle class, and the middle class media. By looking at how class
interpretation is mediated by this perspective, it will ultimately illuminate
how limiting this perspective is. With Kerrigan cast as the
middle class values, positively positioned in terms of image,
to sacrifice, strive, be authentic, and encourage family unity,
simultaneously and advantageously compared to those who are portrayed as
meeting those expectations and requirements (Harding). Her image,
both affirmation and warning to audiences of all classes because
Kerrigan conveys both access for some and boundaries for others. The
goal, we learn from this coverage, is to achieve wealth with all
means; beauty capital, cultural capital, and perseverance. But
wealth is achieved, never reject or abandon the middle class values
get you there.
IMAGE AND CLASS ACCESSIBILITY
Naomi Wolf writes, " Since men have used women's "beauty" as a form of
currency in circulation among men, ideas about "beauty" have evolved
Industrial Revolution side by side with ideas about money, so that
the two are
virtual parallels in our consumer economy. A woman looks like a
dollars, she's a first-class beauty, her face is her fortune. In the
marriage markets of the last century, women learned to understand
beauty as part of this economy" (Wolf 20). If beauty can be defined
culture as a "legitimate and necessary qualification for a woman's
power" (Wolf 28), then for those women who fulfill cultural standards
beauty, class accessibility and advancement seems a perfectly natural
Popular narrative story lines, like Cinderella, explain class access for women
with the necessity of beauty capital. No matter how poor and
Cinderella is before she tried on the glass slipper, her beauty permits
instant inclusion into the upper class of castles and glass
Doolittle, a working class flower seller with a cockney accent in
My Fair Lady,
has the beauty capital but lacks the right diction, which,
mercifully, can be
corrected. Julia Robert's character in the movie Pretty Woman, a
also suddenly enjoys upper class privileges because she looks the
real-life fairy tales, like the rise of Grace Kelly from middle
Philadelphia native to princess of Morocco, reinforces our cultural
that all women need is beauty to achieve stability and wealth.
Alger-type rags-to-riches stories (re-popularized during the
Reagan era) dwell
on men's uncommon savvy and determination to explain their class
(ie: Lee Iacocca, Steven Jobs, Bill Gates, David Geffen, Steven
Bill Clinton), women's rags-to-riches stories focus on a culturally
and endorsed image of beauty to explain their class advancement.
Nancy Kerrigan, too, was characterized as a beautiful princess-in-the-making
(she was compared to Cinderella, Snow White, and Grace Kelly), and
described as somehow naturally entitled to "the crown jewel" or the
gold medal. The Olympic coverage surrounding Kerrigan took pains to
her in terms of a working class beauty who would some day get the
crown and her
prince. Idealized because Kerrigan is of Northern European
physically resembles the fair-skinned, western-oriented princess image
media (and the United States Figure Skating Association) has imposed
Women's Figure Skating Competition (and culture at large), she was
embody everything an ideal woman should be: white,
artistic lines, charm, and grace to compensate for a lack of
Approximating a New England Cinderella with a welder father and a
mother, Kerrigan, more than any other skater, was a rags-to-riches
was all too ready for a prince (Fabos, p. 10,11). And in the
world of figure
skating competition coverage, winning the event through grace and
having the right body type and image), and being characterized as
feminine ideal, has also been translated into commercial success.
International Management Group spokesman Yuki Saegusa, "A gold medalist
figure skating is marketable for 10 or 20 years." (Muller &
Competitive skating makes it easy for the media to celebrate women's beauty as
a means for success because it is even geared towards the success
artistic (thin, long-limbed - code "feminine") skater rather than the
(muscular, compact - code "masculine") skater. The sport's focus
changed in the early 1970s when mandatory figures --like figure
minimized in favor of a longer free skate. In 1972, when figures
determined 75% of the skater's score, "plain" Beatrix Schuba of Austria,
expert in figures, disrupted the beauty order by winning the Olympic
instead of "pixie" American Janet Lynn, who shone during the free
(QUOTE from TAPE) . Scores for artistry have also been designed
scores for technical merit. Consequently, media narratives can now
conveniently spun around the sport's prettiest skater, who could skate
more and more reliable gold and use her beauty capital for material
In 1992, Kristi Yamaguchi, an Asian-American not fitting the American beauty
ideal, exhibited enough long-legged grace and perfection to win
gold medal, but was not awarded princess status. That honor was
given to Nancy
Kerrigan, at the time a mediocre bronze medalist, who was vaulted
numerous high profile advertisement appearances, and was voted into
of People magazine's "50 most beautiful people in the world."
successful image of a rags-to-riches Cinderella, based on beauty
in sharp contrast to Harding's image of reckless, shattered,
sexually tainted. The mass media identities of Harding and
Kerrigan had been
two years in the making by the time Kerrigan was clubbed on the
knee in 1994.
During the 1994 coverage, while the media embraced Kerrigan's continuous climb
from working class Stoneham, Massachusetts to the ultimate crown
eternal marketability, it also grabbed every opportunity this time to
sense of her character in terms of all middle class values and
Beyond the logical path to access and stability based on women's
beauty, Kerrigan was additionally framed in terms of her hard work, her
sacrifices, her modesty, and her authenticity, all of which are
(male and female) for middle class advancement. And as the
hopelessly crass, working class, "unattractive" and non-advancing
Kerrigan could be successfully positioned as the model the media
would all be. Says Thomas Cottle, a clinical psychologist, "The
thing is actually made for us: she's clearly good, she's clearly
Snow White, she's the wicked witch. Isn't life great. Everybody
has this one
innocent, this one guilty. It solves all our moral problems"
Glory," Jan. 20, 1994).
In an effort to mask the uncomfortable notion of beauty favoritism in our
culture, the story line the mass media chose in its coverage of
Harding was based on individual struggle and perseverance. Rather
identifying the idea of beauty capital as a root of female class
the media identified the individual attributes of personality and
the underlying causes of inequality between Kerrigan and Harding.
That one was
tacitly considered more beautiful became a side bar, with
discussions of beauty
coded in terms of femininity, personality, and behavior.
According to Richard Campbell in his analysis of the magazine style news
program, 60 Minutes, if one central myth exists on American Television
mass media in general that suspend conflicts and contradictions,
it is the
"fierce affirmation of American individualism" (Campbell, p. 138).
media narrative shows Kerrigan in binary opposition with Harding
in terms of
their individual class characteristics, middle class vs. working
American myth of individualism is the story line in which both women
Behind the traditional assumption in American culture that the individual is
sacred lies the ideologically-based theory that in America,
work is objectively rewarded by individual success. American
success were widely distributed as part of the (middle class)
identity, and as evidence of American equalityDevidence that it was up to
individual to pull up the bootstraps and succeed, not the
responsibility of a
larger society. Racism, feminism, and classism don't exist in
because everybody, even Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, is
Treatment of the two skaters, as coverage persisted, assumed initial equality.
Kerrigan, despite all the middle class accoutrements that constituted her
media identity, was not couched as middle class, but as, along with
working class. "Both come from working class families," Adler of
wrote, "but the similarities more or less end there" (Newsweek,
Winter, p. 20).
"If there were ever to have been a bond between Kerrigan and Harding" penned
William Plummer of People, "it might have been forged by their
backgrounds" (Plummer, p.60). Time went as far as describing
Kerrigan as an
intimidated outcast when she trained at the "snobby," "affluent"
of Boston. "There was a wealthy membership and social patina
unknown to her.
'Sometimes it seemed like they thought they were better than
[Kerrigan] recalls. 'And I'd say, like why? We're good people.
skaters.' A gutsy response, but Nancy hardly understood that some
snobbery was a cover for envyDwhich was to cast a deeper shadow later
(Duffy, Feb. 21, p.56). Since both women begin at the low end of
financial status, the framing of Kerrigan and Harding as equals not
positions Harding as someone who just couldn't get her act together
personality, and image), but disguise the boundaries in which the
Kerrigan are groomed for advancement, and the likes of Harding are
to the middle class, via the middle class media, is a highly
In some cases the media began to position Kerrigan in terms of her "middle
class Boston suburb" (Starr, p.44) or her family's "home in suburban
Mass" (Adler, Jan. 24, p.70a position that reflected the
corporate endorsement phase of her life and emerging class status
golf" (Adler, Winter 94, p. 20). CBS' Hard Copy compared the
women as "the
two skaters who came from the opposite ends of the rink" (Jan.
other times coverage resorted back to "her parent's wood-frame
blue-collar Stoneham, Mass" (Duffy, Jan. 24, p.55). While the working
aming had its genesis during the 1992 Winter Olympic coverage,
squarely positioned Kerrigan in terms of a rags-to-riches
father, blind mother who would never know just how beautiful her
skating in the shadows, gets the bronze- crown jewel) (Fabos 13),
subsequent corporate endorsements (e.g., Reebok, Northwest, Seiko,
Soup, Chadwicks of Boston) shifted Kerrigan's persona from
Cinderella to Snow
WhiteDthe princess who had arrived but was tormented by a wicked,
rival. Kerrigan's status became slightly more problematic after she
of the middle class all together, adopting, at least as the media
saw it, an
upper class set of attitudes that rejected middle class values, and
rejected the media.
The Middle Class Enters the Skating World of Privilege
It is important to understand the skating world as a logical place for middle
class pursuit, and for a narrative focusing on Kerrigan's upward
working class, through middle class, and to upper class status.
skating world easily works as a metaphor for the privilege and
upper middle and upper class society. In a sport where coaches wait
sidelines wearing furs, commentators sport tuxes, and "serious
easily cost $40,000 a year in coaching fees, costumes, skates, and
expenses" (Duffy, Jan. 24, p.55), "the high style world of skating"
Jan.24, p.69) has long been a sport associated with wealth, high
inaccessibility; "a mink coat world of fame and celebrity" (60
1994). To confirm figure skating as a coveted realm, CBS Olympic
great pains during "lull" periods between events to inform us just
and coveted it is to skate at the competition level. CBS figure
commentator Scott Hamilton visited a skating rink and talked to little
who were just starting out, dreaming openly about the castle in the
inhabited by 1976 U.S. Olympic ice-skating gold medalist Dorothy Hamill.
related coverage we learned how much a skate costs, we were told
designer costume, like the one Kerrigan wore in her Olympic long
cost a staggering $13,000. And we were introduced to the affluent
spectators in the Olympic stands of the Northern Lights Hall in
who had not only paid for airfare to Europe, but had managed to
privileged figure skating tickets ranging between $100 and $700 for
event. While television coverage captures and builds on skating
extravagance at live figure skating competition venues, fictional
skating life paint a similar picture. The 1994 release Cutting
portrayed a snotty, spoiled daddy's girl figure skater, illustrates a
where the supremely wealthy naturally dominate. The idea that only
rich can spare the endless hours of skating practice, in rinks that
year-round maintenance is proliferated, and contributes to skating's
as a sport for the secure and entitled.
Despite its consistent upper class attachments, however, an endeavor that was
until recently an upper middle or upper class pursuit has become
more and more
plausible for middle class children of middle class parents who
work forDthe hefty payoff in the end. As skating coach Sonya
on CNN & Company, "There have been changes in the sport, that it
into a big money league that it wasn't 20-30 years ago" (CNN &
20, 1994). The most money amateur skaters could win for a
performance in 1974,
according to pairs champion Randy Gardner, was $75 (Sally Jessy
20, 1994). Now, corporate endorsements are handed to young amateur
who not only medal but are considered marketable. These
transformed the sport from a past-time for the privileged into a
sport suddenly worthwhile for middle class skaters, who are willing
hard and accumulate the necessary skills to compete and succeed. As
articulated by Pete Wilson of NBC News, 1994 is the year when television
discovered the money possibilities for skaters from corporate
"There's more to having relatives in the Olympics than medals and
pride," he says. "Champion skaters can earn up to $10 million in
endorsements."(NBC News, Jan. 13, 1994). "The dreams for skaters is
to win a medal," speaks Brian Rooney of ABC, "it's also the
millions of dollars
in endorsements money that can follow Olympic fame" (ABC News,
Jan. 13, 1994).
According to Wendy E. Lane of the Associated Press, "more training
the U.S. Figure Skating Association means you don't have to be
participate. These changes, [skating agent] Rosenberg said, are
diversity to the sport. 'The sport of figure skating has a higher
of well-educated, intelligent, nice people from nice families in
it,' he said.
'With the big TV money and big federation money, that means a
of people in it.'"
Perhaps even more lucrative than endorsements, ice shows like the Tom Collins
tour(a post-Olympic extravaganza featuring Olympic finalists and
favorites(promises huge dividends for skaters. "The pay [per
variesDreportedly $5,000 for an Olympic bronze winner ascending to $15,000 a
gig for a gold medalist," wrote Duffy of Time. "For the skater who
professionalDan evaporating distinction nowDthere are ice shows too.
top performer, endorsements can pay for all the years of
Jan. 24, p.56). With the possibility of such golden futures, ice
"careers" are no longer cost-prohibitive for the middle class, they
understood as rational investments for the years ahead.. A sport that
all the associations of class mobility and eventual security,
media have claimed figure skating and embraced it as an arena where
class identity can continue to be defined and reinforced. Ice
accessibility then, has made the sport an attractive cite for the
explore stories about upward mobility.
The idea of sacrifice so commonly associated with the arduous world of ice
skating competitors fits nicely into the middle class value system
strict regimen, physical, emotional, and financial sacrifice, and
amassing of cultural capital for future gain. We learned, through
and other media spin-offs, that championship-level skating
four-hour training sessions in the wee early hours of the morning,
five or six
mornings a week. We were told that private tutoring,
situations, and a non-existent social life are just a few of the
hardships skaters endure. "It's well before dawn at seven below
Threlkeld announced for CBS News, "at the outdoor rink in New
Connecticut. If you want to grow up and be famous in the world of figure
skating, this is what it takes...What they [the young skaters] don't
is what is not so pretty, the life of struggle, sacrifice, and
competition that those who hope to be champions must endure" (CBS News,
31, 1994). "If you stop for two or three weeks, it's grueling to
shape again," a skater was quoted in Time magazine. "Then comes
training to strengthen the upper body. Finally, there are ballet or
classes," (Duffy, Jan. 24, 1994, p.56). "How many hours a
6 hours a day, 5 am to 8 am, go to school, 5 to 8 in the evening,
weekly weigh-ins, and if you don't have a body type that's a long
type, it's a lot more difficult to deal with" (Sally Jessy Raphael,
Without beauty capital, the skater is implying, future success in
that much more evasive, but one must work harder all the same.
Like the rigors
of journalism, law, or medical school, figure skating training is
seen as tough
work, but it's pragmatic work if the young skater is talented,
pretty enough, and if the parents can keep their eyes fixed on the
While the supposed Olympic ideal in figure skating (among other
sports) is to
"do one's best and have fun" according to CBS figure skater
former gold medalist Scott Hamilton, (Hamilton 24), that smiling,
model is being replaced by the middle class ideal of working hard and
all the monetary accoutrements that come with a gold medal:
mobility, and above all, security.
The privileged skating world also offers an ideal arena from which to
negotiate and embrace another middle class aspiration: status. The
becoming not a leisure sport for the affluent, but a sport that
class athletes to attain prestige and affluence, is a rational
addition, with its unique mixture of sport and artistry, figure
long been elevated into the prestigious realm of artistic spectacle
an opera, a ballet) rather than competitive spectacle (a football
hockey). It is the glamour sport, the sport that is positioned
viewing pleasure, and the sport that still upholds signifiers of
culture," culture enjoyed primarily for the upper and upper middle
These assertions are supported in Pierre Bourdieu's discussion of class
habitus in the realm of sport. Bourdieu relates working class sports
elements of risk, bodily strength, and competitiveness, while
more privileged class sports (e.g., figure skating) with
developing the body
and learning specific skills geared towards a more rational,
Gymnastics or strictly health-oriented sports like walking or jogging,
which, unlike ball games, do not offer any competitive
highly rational and rationalized activities. This is firstly
they presuppose a resolute faith in reason and in the deferred and
intangible benefits which reason promises; secondly, because
generally only have meaning by reference to a thoroughly theoretical,
abstract knowledge of the effects of an exercise which is itself
reduced, as in gymnastics, to a series of abstract movements,
and reorganized by reference to a specific and
.....Thus it is understandable that these activities can only be
in the ascetic dispositions of upwardly mobile individuals who
prepared to find their satisfaction in effort itself and to
is the whole meaning of their existenceDthe deferred
will reward their present sacrifice. (Bourdieu 354-5).
Unlike contact sportsDfootball, hockey, basketballDfigure skating competitors
(as well as gymnasts) perform at individual intervals, isolated
other. The sport is characterized by a series of abstract
lutz, double toe loop, camel spin, and spiral, for example, that
make up the
technical elements of many programs. Figure skating is also
"deferred satisfactions" in terms of waiting for the scores after
and waiting for a medal order after all the skaters finish their
CBS' Verne Lundquist suggested every time he remarked that these
"alone, on the ice," more emphasis was placed on these women skating
their own internal demons than skating against each other in the
working class competition (Fabos 7).
While figure skating upholds and represents the standards of "high culture,"
it also, due to a new class accessibility, allows middle and
athletes to attain prestige and affluence through skating. However,
lower classes are able to enter and influence the sport, figure
according to the US Figure Skating Association and its media backers,
risk of "sliding." Indeed, part of the discourse in figure skating
adheres to the notion that the "high culture' standards of figure
deteriorated due to an influx of difficult and elaborate jumps.
axle, for instance, is a jump that has been mastered by only two
competition, one of them being Tonya Harding.
Oddly enough, the increase in jumping came as a direct result to the
abolishment of technical figures, which finally happened in 1988. The
to get rid of the figures was intentionally meant to push skating
into a more
television-friendly, artistic-favoring, and spectacle-oriented
the sport did gain a huge viewing audience, it also grew to
jumping. These jumps were not only abstract in movement, they came
a sort of courage and the development of the body in such a way
that, as far as
the media (and figure skating world) understood it, abused the
in the sport, and was evidence that figure skating was riding the
fine line between high and low culture. Jumpers were first
understood in terms
of an intrusion of masculinity/lesbianism, as with the virtually
portrayal of athletic skater Debi Thomas in 1988 (Fabos, p. 6). Four
later, jumping was further interpreted as an intrusion of working
culture. Since more and more championship-level skaters, male and
also challenging the stringent "high culture" musical standards of
competition, which reward routines set to nineteenth century musical
over popular tunes, there is tension that punchier musical choices
promote more jumps. Comments from skating coach Sonya Dunfield
nostalgia for an earlier, less tainted time when the sport was
more pure and
without lower class infestation:
The fact that we don't do any school figures, it's just jump jump jump jump
jump now, we've forgotten part of our sport...the grace of figure
not really there anymore...Just because we don't go over a
finish line we
should still try to do a rounded sport and not just barrel and
going to do one jump and you're going to make it...So that I
think that it is
changing...and I came from Brooklyn too so I have a
background from where I was
brought up and I don't think that should have anything to do
with my thoughts"
(CNN & Company,1994).
As Dunfield implies, even working class skaters, like herself and Nancy
Kerrigan once upon a time, can embrace upper class aesthetics if they
if they try, and if they have the right body type. The ultimate
are reassured, is that if artistic skaters continue to be rewarded
as they have
been in the past, then the skating world is safe as a bastion for
class and for middle class aspiration.
Apart from the sport's philosophical battle, the assault on Kerrigan has also
made figure skating, for the first time according to the media, a
sport. Competition and bodily strength were employed in what was
overwhelmingly characterized as an extreme example of sport rivalry, and
commentators feared that the pristine image of figure skating was
smeared, again, by a working class affront. While other examples of
physical harm towards skaters, tripping, torn costumes, and other
skate sabotage crept into the narrative (Sally Jessy Raphael,1994;
Glory," 1994), Tonya Harding was continually used as the first
invasion and corruption; an example of what can happen if access to
is extended down the class ladder. Just as the skating world
realm of middle class ascension, it also mirrors the same anxieties
class experiences in its process of affirmation and determination
not to fall,
not to indulge, and to remain pure, secure, and constantly intent
Middle Class Ideals and the Iconization of Nancy Kerrigan
As a privileged(and contrasting(world, the Olympic women's figure skating
competition and the space of the ice rink easily work to symbolize
pursuit, and provide a domain from which to negotiate middle class
Everything we read, watched or heard about figure skater Nancy
her last Olympic freestyle program positioned her with glowing
"doing everything right" in her middle class pursuit of ascension and
affirmation. On one level, as noted earlier, Kerrigan, a feminine ideal,
already slated for upper class status and financial security
because she looked
the part. In addition to an upwardly mobile image, however,
characterized in terms of her upwardly mobile personality. Kerrigan
hard, (2) sacrificed, (3) was modest and authentic, (4) and was
constant in her
ability to relate to common sense nuclear family values (the
family being a
traditional middle class possession). Through these portrayals,
became 1994's icon for middle class values.
Before she was knocked on the knee, we were told that Nancy Kerrigan had, up
to that fateful day, been "training harder than ever. Brimming
confidence than ever ...She's
never worked this hard before...she's never done the run-throughs she's doing
now. Double run-throughs. Going for perfect run-throughs"
p.17). "Those close to her are worried because Nancy Kerrigan
to be the best, to the point where she can be as fragile as the
ice she skates
on" (Inside Edition, Jan. 7, 1994). "She's very determined.
She's got a
mission in life. She's absolutely certain she's going to get that
(Duffy, Feb.21, p.56).
If skating wasn't enough, Kerrigan, we came to know, "earned a two-year
associate degree in business at nearby Emmanuel College," reinforcing
middle class drive for education (Plummer 61). Embodying the fear of
People magazine further described Kerrigan as "always being
motivated not by
the possibility of success but by the fear of failure.... "'It's
kind of scary
giving everything you have," she is quoted as saying, "...what if
you're not as
good as you think you are?'" (Plummer 62). We learned that
Kerrigan was not
only striving to avoid sloth, but also to prevent being soft and
if she made it. In effect, the audience discovered that Kerrigan
was not in
jeopardy of abandoning her middle class perspective.
Kerrigan's ultimate testament to striving and sacrificing, we were told, was
her tenacity after the vicious attempt by the rival faction to
career, her "life work" (Starr 41). She had to face physical pain,
stress, and a potentially broken career path to a virtually
medal ("a shoo-in for the Olympics"DAaron Brown, ABC News). The
as a perfect example of overcoming extenuating circumstances
perseverance and a positive attitude. "Nancy's not a victim," fellow
and Harvard graduate (an important upwardly mobile detail) Paul
Wylie wrote in
a Newsweek column. "She's a survivor. Nancy's not a worrywart.
someone who dwells on things. She's a strong individual, and she's
lotDand that helps a great deal" (Wylie 21).
Along with reports of Kerrigan's tenacious striving, she and her family are
aligned with the common sense, middle class conviction of
sacrifice. We come
to know that when Kerrigan was a child and her skates were too
small, she was
commanded to "suffer in silence," and she did (Plummer 59). When
she was in
her teens, she would rise at 4 a.m., skate before school, do her
crash at 7 p.m.. She had few friends, her life was full of
regimen to the
point of being monastic, and sexual flirtations or any other
vices, we learn, were out of the question. Kerrigan had no time, for
to cruise the malls (Plummer 61).
The importance given Kerrigan's monastic regime overlooked one detail
scrupulously absent from all but a few reports on Kerrigan's life:
those who have found love not on the playing fields but at
Kerrigan, the beautiful blue-eyed brunette figure skater who won a
at last year's Olympics," reports William Sherman in a 1993
article. "She spurned the attentions of a National Hockey League star
instead became engaged to accountant Bill Chase, who works near her
Stoneham, Massachusetts, and is an old friend of her brother's"
Preferring a profile of abstinence and sacrifice (in this case,
and all but the rarest of media coverage chose to keep Kerrigan's
monastic schedule intact.
After the attack left her injured, Kerrigan's apparent ability for sacrifice
was systematically enhanced during CBS's coverage of the U.S.
Championships, where she was videotaped through the tinted glass of a
box, watching the event instead of skating. The coverage returned
to the shot
as a point of juxtaposition after every skater finished her
routine and each
time the program cut to a commercial break. We were guided to feel
and yearning of Kerrigan's inflicted and resolute point of view,
identification that came to dominate the event's media narrative.
Beyond Kerrigan's personal sacrifices, her family was also described in terms
of their stoic, middle class ability to "do without."
re-mortgaging their family home and taking out loans to finance their
daughter's "life work," Kerrigan's family was applauded for their
sacrifices, which made them likable and 'normal,' despite Kerrigan's
number of endorsements. "'Since Nancy started skating,' says Dan,
hasn't been on a real vacation. We go to skating events'"
The ultimate sacrifice, in many ways, seemed to come from Dan, the father, who
viewers were continuously reminded was a welder, a job that firmly
him as blue collar patriarch. Besides Dan Kerrigan's many jobs,
included opening the ice rink in the early mornings where his
trained, we also learned that he actually did the "household
cooking, laundry" because his wife, Brenda, was legally blind.
Dan was thus
presented as sacrificing his "proper" role within the family while
hours in the public sphere; a double sacrifice. "Hard work and
become our punitive "values," writes Ehrenreich," setting us
against all those
who have not yet made it (the young, the poor) and even against
desires" (Ehrenreich 262).
Modesty and Authenticity
Kerrigan was assigned a virginal, girl-next-door status that cornered on her
modest appearance, and, according to the media, modest behavior.
fear of completing a full run-through was attributed to her
down-to-earth middle class modesty: "she didn't want to think she was
than she actually was" (Plummer 62). With her striving checked by
unpretentiousness, Kerrigan also was captured in terms of her shy and
approach to money and fame. "Part of Nancy's problem, apparently,
was that she
simply couldn't stand prosperity. In the five years before the
she had always skated in the shadow of othersDmoving from 12th to
nationally. But now she was expected to win" (Plummer 61). As
striving, we were told, she did best quietly, and in the shadows.
press conferences after the knee-bashing, Kerrigan was described
as silent and
serene, with commentators wondering how she could operate with so
lack of pretension, and a seeming unwillingness to articulate a
outward competitiveness and revenge. Reports celebrated Kerrigan's
perseverance, lack of petulance, and optimism that her knee was getting
Kerrigan would grin and bear it. "Kerrigan's only comment,"
marveled ABC's Bob
Jamieson, "was that the attack could have been worse" (ABC News,
Media coverage compared Kerrigan to Grace Kelly, Jaqueline Onassis, Katherine
Hepburn, and in a stretch, John F. Kennedy for her "disciplined
image that simultaneously linked her to Boston blue blood and a
originally from middle class Philadelphia, both celebrated beauties].
essence, Kerrigan was applauded for behavior that could just have
designated bland (Vescey, p.26). "Asked about her possibility of
millions of dollars from commercial endeavors as a result of being
again, Kerrigan gave an answer of an innocent. 'I'm not worried
about any of
this [money]...I'm not even thinking about any of this,' she said.
'My job is
skating, and what I love to do is skate'" (Madden, P. 51). Cast
unpretentious, disciplined and untouched, the media attributed her character
her family. "Kerrigan's sturdy life and stable upbringing imbued
her with a
manner so authentic and unassuming that even last week's media
not to faze her," wrote Margaret Duffy of Time magazine (Duffy,
p.55). "The most important thing is to be happy and healthy," Nancy
was reported as telling the news cameras. "Amazingly, through
[Coach] Evy's prize pupil found time to laugh" (Channel 2, WJBK,
That Kerrigan's personality was described as 'authentic" socially identified
her as upwardly mobile and linked her again to middle class
affirmation. As a
product of middle class virtue, Kerrigan was described as real,
status. Her natural hair color and natural hairstyle were seen as
uncomplicated, honest, and pure. Reports that Kerrigan's skating costumes
original designs from prestigious designers (e.g., Vera Wang) also
another luster of authenticity. "The middle class uses consumption
establish its [educated] status, writes Ehrenriech, "especially relative
working class. Typically, this has meant an emphasis on things
"natural," and "frequently imported" (Ehrenreich 14). In contrast
who was lambasted for her cheap, homemade, immodest costumes and
styles of dress, Kerrigan shone as the desirable alternative.
Margaret Carlson of Time: "The millions of people who have followed this
want an international duel in which good sportsmanship, staying
within type and
fair play are triumphant; where intact families, modest costumes,
hair and good teeth are rewarded" (Carlson 58).
Nuclear Family Values
In America's postwar years, according to Lynn Spigel, "popular media
participated in the cultural revitalization of domesticity, taking the
middle-class suburban home as their favored model of family bliss"
But "by the end of the 1980s," says Coontz, "there was a widespread consensus
that the past two decades had seen an erosion of civic commitment
responsibility in America...middle class parents had been too busy
to help their children with their homework, and urban teens had
murder for a pair of jogging shoes" (93). Coontz further explains
Middle class Americans, seeking a way of distancing themselves from such
extravagant behavior without abandoning their resistance to
below, found an answer in a 'turn toward home.' Anticipating
Schlafly's contention that America is a two-class society, divided
between rich and poor but between those who hold decent family
those who do not, middle class spokesmen lumped the upper and
classes together as lacking proper family values. The rich and the
they argued, were immersed in materialism and
the middle class worked for family betterment. (106-7)
If there ever was an intact family that turned toward home and worked together
for family betterment, it was, we were told, the Kerrigan family.
We first got
to know the Kerrigans two years prior to the 1994 Winter Games
during CBS' 1992
Winter Olympic coverage, through constant images of Kerrigan's
parents, Dan and
Brenda, cheering her on or waiting anxiously while Kerrigan
awaited her marks,
and through feature stories about how Kerrigan's mother thankfully
away from tomboyish pursuits like hockey and into the appropriate
figure skating (Fabos 13). This family, we were told early on, has
were not too busy to help their children with their homework. The
coverage of Kerrigan's assault exploded with defining shots of (and
to) Kerrigan's family: Her father gently scooping her
attack, shots of her family standing stalwartly by Kerrigan's
press commentary on how Kerrigan's "close family has always been
the lump of gold Harding never had" (Duffy, Feb. 21,p.53), and
interviews with the Kerrigan family in their home, including shots
carefully arranged in the background, and scenes where the
Kerrigans ate cake
with Connie Chung. The Kerrigans were shown to embody then,
seemed to be right with the "intact American family."
The Kerrigan home was also described as a "sanctuary" (Plummer 56) where
Kerrigan came home to mend, where it is warm and comfortable, and
were led to assume, everybody gets along. The family, we learned,
connected that they all watched the unfolding of Harding's implicated
involvement together on their living room television. "Even the Kerrigan
family, holed up in their home in suburban Stoneham, Mass., was
tale of low-rent mesmerizing"(Adler, Jan. 24, p.70). The media also
aunts, uncles and cousins who supported her with unconditional
Highlighting Kerrigan's dependency on her family network, we learned that
everyone helped, despite all the endorsements. "Even now, when the
Campbell's Soup and Reebok is starting to flow, the Kerrigans
still pitch in,
ironing their daughter's fancy dresses: Brenda, barely able to
see, wields the
iron, Dan guides her on where to place it" (Duffy, Feb. 21,p.56).
Kerrigans would not, we were assured, lose or forget their middle class
While the sacred image of the middle class "nuclear" family has been
complicated by the economic necessity of dual-income families (feminism
notwithstanding), the figure of Brenda Kerrigan, made treatment of the
family (as a panacea for all social ills) blessedly easy. Because
legally blind, we were led to understand her disability more in terms
husband Dan having to take over the housework (double sacrifice)
than in terms
of Brenda's yearning to work outside the home. Her job was clear
non-controversial: be the emotional support for her young daughter,
while Dan was responsible for financial security. What was never
the fact that Nancy Kerrigan worked the most, but her "life work"
was seen not
as "work" but as the fulfillment of a "dream" while her intact
by the patriarch, was entirely responsible, financially and
take credit for Nancy's success. As Connie Chung said just before
the wholesome Kerrigan clan, "The attack on Nancy Kerrigan did
more than injure
a brilliant athlete: it wounded an entire family. Nancy's
and Dan Kerrigan are at home in Stoneham, Massachusetts, still
trying to figure
out why" (Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, Jan. 20, 1994). Even
was present at the interview, it is troubling that her thoughts
included in the equation.
Understanding Class Conflict Through Individual Conflict
It is not difficult to compare middle class Kerrigan to working class Harding
because their comparison is the basis for CBS' and all mass
skating narrative of 1994. Without Harding in the gritty shadows (as
symbolically illustrated by the Time cover featuring Kerrigan in the
foreground, dressed in white, leaping lightly over a darkened, grainy
enlargement of Harding's face)(Feb. 21, 1994), Kerrigan wouldn't have
resolute, so perfect, such an ideal embodiment of everything that
is right and
good with America. Comparing the two figures is to safely
and class differences on the level of the individual rather than
broad social currents in the larger, more complicated context. Fiske
clearly the news is peopled by real individuals, but in representing events
through people the news is following conventions of classic
realism, for it
assumes that the way to construct an understandable and
authentic version of
the real is through the actions, words, and reactions of the
involved. Social and political issues are only reported if they
embodied in the individual, and thus social conflict of interest is
personalized in the conflict between individuals (Fiske 284).
Consequently, if there are social, historical, or political contexts, Fiske
continues, they are limited and glossed over because "the social
origins of the
events are lost." By personalizing conflict, difference, and
by letting these stories represent the broader realm, the media
can make sense
of the conflict while vigorously maintaining and defining what is
be "normal"Dthe middle ground.
The class lines between Kerrigan, as upwardly mobile middle class, and
Harding, as immobile working class, were not only clearly defined, they
defined viciously, openly, and with the moralistic implication that
contrasts, exalted for Kerrigan, punitive for Harding, make perfect
sense. "Enlightened people," Ehrenreich writes, "who might flinch at
slur, have no trouble listing the character defects of an
'underclass,' defects which routinely include promiscuity, and sloth.
is, if anything, even less inhibition about caricaturing the white
working class: Its tastes are 'tacky;' its habits unhealthful;
and its views
are hopelessly bigoted and parochial" (Ehrenreich 7).
The class comparisons between Kerrigan and Harding seem endless:
Kerrigan's smile was dazzling even in her press conference the day after
the beating, while Harding's expression is a wolfish grin.
taken up the hobby appropriate to her new station in
Harding has pursued interests including auto repair, hunting and
Kerrigan's first scheduled public performance after the attack
was at a
benefit for her favorite charity, the Lion's Club SightFirst
(her mother is legally blind). Harding, afforded an opportunity
something inspirational on her return home from Portland,
the Nationals, ringingly declared that "what I'm really thinking
are dollar signs." In Detroit Kerrigan dressed in a demure white
Harding posed in an eye-catching, lavishly spangled purple costume.
Kerrigan swoops across the ice with the effortless grace of a
sapling in the breeze, while Harding hurls herself into her jumps
steeple chaser. At 5 foot one, three inches shorter than
cuts a powerful but not especially elegant figure on the ice
Both Nancy and Tonya are soap opera fans, though only Harding's life
resembles one (Duffy, Jan. 24, p.55)
While Kerrigan has become the sweetheart of the skating establishment,
Harding is its hellionDCharles Barkley on ice, as she recently
to herself. (Plummer, Jan. 24, p.60)
Nancy was seen as wholesomeDthe girl next store. Tonya was different.
She began to display and continues to display a lot of attitude
talent. She's a kind of renegade princess ("Shattered Glory,"
Nancy Kerrigan has already cashed in as the girl next door. But Tonya
Harding, who can fix a pickup truck, has struggled with an image
toughness, not quite the one advertisers would bring back home (ABC
Jan. 13, 1994).
For every characterization underlined as positive in Kerrigan's image of
beauty, hard work, sacrifice, modesty, authenticity, and strong
values," a parallel negative characterization was meticulously
Harding. Even though their pursuits were the sameDskate well
enough to win a
gold medal and hope for payoffs in the form of publicity and
media mocked, rather than rewarded Harding's desire to work hard
and succeed in
the upper class skating world. Instead of striving and
consistently used for Kerrigan, Harding was described as struggling
surviving. "A different person," wrote Adler of Newsweek, "handed
autobiography could have fashioned an inspiring story of transcending
but somehow Tonya's personality keeps getting in the way" (Adler,
p.23). While it was granted that she, too, had to "work hard" to
expenses, ["she has worked so hard, tried for so long, wanted so bad"
Jan. 24, p. 52)], her inability to get beyond her "personality,"
or her "turbulent background" was never questioned, but seen as a
consequence. That she was described to be destined as the heroine of
shopping mall, a place for mass-consumerism and teenage sexual
illustrated the limitations assigned to Harding's endorsement image and,
consequence, to her skating career.
Harding's sacrifices, we learned, of gathering bottles on the side of the road
to afford expensive skating fees, of skating in homemade costumes,
at a Mr. Spuds potato stand in the mall, and of self-reliantly
together to make the smallest ends meet, paled next to the
sacrifices of the entire, bonded, striving, Kerrigan family. We heard
about Harding's penchant for pool, hunting and auto
vicesDthan we heard of her constant training, Olympic preparation,
"suffering in silence." Perhaps she trained, but not seriously.
media references to Harding's cigarette smokingDdespite her asthma!--
reinforced her lack of discipline but exposed what was seen as her
compulsion, spending her money on irrelevant, nasty habits. Unlike
Kerrigan family, who were imagined to be tucking it prudently away,
cast as unable to save money despite the reported help from
Steinbrenner, who "stepped in with support" (Plummer 60). Other
"facts" we learned about Harding: she met her future husband at 15,
a rampant, uncontrolled sexuality (anything but
virginal/monastic). She was
the main breadwinner in her family after her husband, Jeff
Gillooly, became her
agent. She couldn't decide if she was married or divorced,
returning to and leaving an abusive marriage. She threatened a woman
baseball bat during a traffic dispute, and parked in illegal
Sacrifice for Harding was not seen in terms of paying her dues, or suffering
now for a better payoff, but in terms of an endless struggle for a
commercial goal. Constant media references to Harding's
comment after she won the NationalsDof "thinking about dollar
implied impropriety in terms of etiquette but suggested an amazing
Harding's part of her belief in her own position in upper and
class territory. Compared to Kerrigan who didn't care about money,
castigated as an open competitor who talked franklyDtoo
and naively imagined her own success. "The high-profile title is
Harding craves," writes Jeffrey Ghannum. "I'm not coming home with
less than the gold," Harding said last week. 'I'm going there to
(Ghannum 7A). Somehow, while Kerrigan was allowed to strive and
same characteristics only smudged Harding's media reputation. As
the "middle class club" operated, Harding had no beauty capital,
capital, was not willing to embrace the proper value system, and
would never be
Perhaps the media's most revealing portrayal of class bias was in the
treatment of Harding's family. While the root of Kerrigan's glimmering
success came from her family's stability, Harding's hard times
came from her
family's instability. Add a husband that bordered on abusive, and
dreamed up the entire scheme to immobilize Kerrigan, and we are
family instability may have been at the bottom of it all. "Tough,
self-sufficient, and bruised well beyond her years, Harding has never known
stability either on the rink or home. She has moved between eight
houses in six communities in her first eighteen years...Did the
from the trailer parks, who has climbed so high and suffered so
plot to destroy her rival?....And if Tonya Harding turns out to be
how searing must it be that more than a few people could imagine
(Smolowe 53, 54). Harding was guilty on many levels, and in this
case she is
guilty of family immorality. Coontz brings this point home in her
of family standards and the working class in terms of cycles in
America's moral discourse, which returned again in the 1980s and
new emphasis on family relations and private morality," she
writes," led easily
to scapegoating and victim blaming. Poverty was attributed not to
or low wages but to lack of middle-class family norms....Abstract
of family and motherhood coexisted with condemnation of real
mothers in their imperfect day-to-day existence. An emphasis on
morality led to punishment more often than to prevention, to revenge
to relief" (Coontz 111-113).
Jimmie Reeves and Richard Campbell point out that while American middle class
morality is believed to be hinged on family stability, family
likewise believed to be dependent on good mothering. The term "bad
like "crack mother," somehow implies that every negative social
the mother's fault (Reeves and Campbell, 1994). Ascribing to this
stereotype of bad mothering, Harding's problem character was
to her recalcitrant mother, LaVona. A woman who had been married
six times and worked as a night waitress, we learned how she
instability as well as hostility. Harding's father, Al, served as a more
naturalizing function: he taught Harding how to hunt, play pool, and
her muscles. In another sense, he was held accountable for the
masculinization of his daughter, who had neither the body type nor
credentials to be considered a U.S. skating star. The typical
one-dimensional LaVona Harding as "evil mother" was momentarily
cracked in a 60
Minutes interview (done years earlier for a Yale student's video
LaVona Harding's comments briefly brought class issues back into
narrative: "She can't come up to their standards no matter how
hard she tries.
That gets to me. No matter how hard we try, we're always wrong. That's
normal" (Jan. 16, 1994, my italics.).
According to the mainstream media accounts, (as well as that of Harding's
mother) Harding could work as hard as she wanted, but her punishment
eventually be realized through her inability to medal, and her
inability to be
a role model for endorsement contracts. The social and cultural
these barriers, and the media's implicit storytelling devices that
overall image, style, behavior, family instability, and poverty as
aberration from middle class norms, were absent from all mainstream
Rather than discuss the root of Harding's exclusion, it was more
point out how obvious and normal it was, due to Harding's
personality and image
deficits, that she should be destined to suffer. The implication
that she may
have been guilty of planning the assault aside, her entire working
was positioned as a hopeless deviation from what should be
As Ehrenreich notes, "there are no models, in the mainstream media, suggesting
that anything less than middle-class affluence might be an
dignified condition, nor is there any reason why corporate advertisers
promote such a subversive possibility...the more the poor are cut
abandoned, the less they are capable of inspiring sympathy or even
interest" (Ehrenreich 250).
An interesting development in the intensely covered saga was the outpouring of
support Harding received from fans. Thousands of people stopped
by the mall
ice rink to watch Harding skate and hang "We love you Tonya"
above. By confrontingDor exposingDthe reality of working class
non-advancement, Harding became a hero for many people with
against poverty and inequality. The Comedy Channel also turned
five-minute, pro-Harding, anti-Kerrigan satire that twisted mainstream
mediaDimposed roles, positioning Harding as the honest striver and
a privileged brat. Brett Butler, the working class-associated
heroine of ABC
sitcom Grace Under Fire, also told David Letterman, while chatting
Harding, that "I've been secretly rooting for Tonya Harding," and more
ironically, "...yeah, I felt bad for Nancy Kerrigan and stuff like that,
know, when she said 'why me, why me.' I was just thinking that,
maybe it was some sort subconscious wish from everyone who never got
cheerleading...Tonya Harding, she's an idol. She's great. I love
Harding" (Late Show with David Letterman, Feb. 24, 1994). Pro-Harding
editorials were also printed in college newspapers ("Why I'm the last
Harding fan," Michigan Daily, Jan. 25, 1994, p. 4) and in local
alternative presses ("Getting tired of Kerrigan's image," Daily
Gazette, Feb. 14, 1994, and "Harding's luck," Village Voice, Feb. 8,
Although they were few, alternative sentiments (negotiated or
readings) did exist besides the homogeneity of mainstream coverage
readings) (Hall 90), most alternative readings reacted to gender
representation, but a few, along with Harding's fans, reacted to the media
portrayal of Harding's class.
In a revealing quote in Newsweek, however, the depth of Harding's fan support
was minimized: Quoting Oregonian sportswriter Abby Haight, the
printed that "They're really nice people, whose only shortcoming is
little too strongly that everything is against Tonya. Especially
(Adler, Winter 94, p.23). Peter Jennings of ABC News also
referred to her
fans as "loyal but zealous" (ABC News, Jan. 13, 1994), and ABC's
described them as "a devoted fan club of 400 followers. They
don't think she
has been treated fairly by reporters." Such characterizations are
to Kerrigan's "normal" fans, including Nancy and Ronald Reagan,
who were among
the thousands who could be described as loyal and zealous because
her letters of good luck (Eye to Eye with Connie Chung, Jan. 20,
lend scientific weight to the tone of their skating coverage (but
discussing the impact the extensive media coverage might have on
opinion), local and national newscasts, like CNN and NBC (Feb. 2, 1994)
broadcast phone poll results to the question "Do you think Harding
removed from the Olympic team?" The results were usually in the 70%
30%(yes) range, putting the majority of the public squarely on the
side of the
reporters. "Person-on-the-street" news interviews were also
consistently with the anti-Harding supporter always getting the last word.
Very often there were no Harding supporters edited in these popular
The question must be asked, how different would the working class media status
of Tonya Harding be if Harding fulfilled standard notions of
therefore, with beauty capital, had a place reserved for her in the
upper class realms? If Harding had high cheekbones, and the will
to change her
"rough" sides like Liza Doolittle, how would the story work
what kind of class access would Harding have had early on in her
Nancy Kerrigan, after being built up to middle class icon status, was then
poised to fall from grace. "Caught on tape" is the way Doug
Bruckner of Hard
Copy described it. "Could it be that American's sweetheart isn't
so sweet, or
is she finally buckling under pressure?" (March 3, 1994). With so
publicity confirming her $2 million deal with Disney, her continuous
endorsements and appearances, and her upcoming hosting of Saturday
Kerrigan's humble Stoneham beginnings were already paling next to
her (and her
family's) new and comfortable status as millionaires. While she
had arrived at
status, wealth and security, the American public felt responsible
her there. They had bought the story of Kerrigan's rise from next
they had supported her from victim to silver medalist, they had
the bashing of her rival. And they were about to feel abandoned
feathered middle class image of female identity that could no longer
Kerrigan's responsibility in this unspoken contract with her fans was to
continually serve as an icon for middle class values. Thus, when
snagged images and sound of Kerrigan complaining and looking sour at
Olympic medal ceremonies (she was awarded a sliver medal to Oksana
gold), she triggered the moralistic ire of the middle class.
scrutinized for more other acts of intemperance and indulgence.
Olympics before closing ceremonies to wave in a Disney parade
a $1 million contract with Disney) was interpreted as a selfish
snub to the
entire Olympic establishment. Sitting next to Mickey Mouse on a
commenting within the range of microphones and television cameras
that "this is
the dumbest thing I've ever done" was evaluated as a spoiled,
spiteful jab at her new employer. A new middle class lesson was in
"When you wish upon a star, maybe you should act like one," scolded Ann
Oldenburg in USA Today (Oldenburg 1). "Everyone is sick of it..."
think that she's a spoiled little itch with a B in front of it,"
on a radio show. "People who make billions have to be gracious,
and if you're
not gracious, people won't like you," warned Doug Bruckner of Hard
CNN Headline News' Judy Fortin said that "she said she was
satisfied with her
silver medal but questioned the Olympic judges who voted her
told reporters that gold medalists Oksana Baiul made a couple of
Kerrigan called her own performance 'flawless.'"
With concrete examples of Kerrigan slipping and "not working hard," Kerrigan
was chastised for her sudden lack of discipline, striving, and
sacrifice. With her post-skate comment that "she was flawless," her
modesty evaporated. As a "bitch," Kerrigan was compared to
so-labeled, hotel heiress Leona Helmsley, (Hard Copy, March 3, 1994)
as indulgent, haughty and unappreciativeDnegative associations for
class. Well beyond the boundaries that constituted her middle
Kerrigan no longer had the villain, Harding, to offer a comforting
...without Harding's magnificent working class glare, Kerrigan's
imperfections were now exposed. As Stacey D'Erasmo wrote in the
"Did Kerrigan's jaw get bigger overnight, or were we just noticing
it for the
first time? What big teeth you have, Snow White. No one ever got
without them, my dear," (40). In a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup nationwide
poll of 1,016 adults conducted in December of 1994, 53% had a
impression, down from 61% in March. "Solomon says Kerrigan's
the media "needs" to be rebuilt," USA Today reported, quoting
"They jumped on the bandwagon to build her up before the Olympics and jumped
even harder to tear down after the Olympics" (Becker, 2C)
Kerrigan's image was further smudged in when it became public knowledge that
she had become the sexual partner to her agent, Jerry Solomon.
divorced his wife, the media reported, and Kerrigan was cast as a
She had abandoned the safe environment of her stable family and disrupted
family stability elsewhere. She was no longer virginal and
sexually indulgent and independent. She was going to be Solomon's
(Terry, 1995). That Oksana Baiul was IN and Kerrigan was OUT came
surprise by the end of 1994. Baiul, as her story would be told and
had been orphaned when she was 13 and skated on inferior rinks in
environment of the Ukraine. She won the crown jewel at the 1994
edging out Kerrigan on artistic (feminine) merit while Kerrigan's
re-interpreted as "cold." Like Kerrigan, Baiul was skating on an
(injured by an accidental on-ice collision during warm up) but
only had one day
of recovery time compared to Kerrigan's three weeks. Her musical
Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, embraced high musical culture(her
routine was even
reminiscent of ballet. Fitting the mold of rags to riches princess
exactly than Kerrigan, Baiul was cast as a carefree, young,
next to her cold-as-ice rival; in effect, she was Bambi and
combined. Baiul, coming from a newly capitalistic Soviet bloc country,
came to represent success the "American" way and was shown to
middle class shopping culture, having been deprived for so long.
embraced and was shown to represent the American middle class values
work, sacrifice, modesty, authenticity, and family values. When
asked why she
was crying after she won her gold, the quote that her tears were
heaven, where her mother was looking down on her, was widely
warmly applauded by the media. Had her mother been alive, it was
she surely would have watched Baiul skate, cheered her on, held her
guided her. Baiul was even voted one of the ten most interesting
1994 by Barbara Walters, and interviewed in an ABC special that
December as a program packaged to "wrap up" the year. The media had
another champion, and the skating world had found another star.
It can't be overlooked that classifications in gender play a huge, if not
fundamental role in the character configurations of women in mass
coverage of women's figure skating. As there is a constant search for
icons to represent a middle class ideal, there is also a search to
feminine ideal, and in most cases what is "feminine" and what is
is not a contradiction. Skaters coded as having a "feminine"
were also coded in terms of their "artistic" approach, and couched
in terms of
middle class aspiration. Skaters coded as "unfeminine" were also
"athletic" skaters who could then be understood as undesirably
How much did Kerrigan being white, with Northern European features (e.g. high
cheekbones) and long, model-like legs have to do with her class
Five-time gold medalist speed skater, Bonnie Blair, who was 30 years
old at the
time of her many victories and beautifully muscular, was referred
to by CBS
Olympic commentators as "the kid sister," and not slated for class
although her hard work, discipline, and family cohesiveness were,
Kerrigan, celebrated in the media narrative surrounding her
How would the story change if Harding, celebrated for her athletic feats,
muscular body type, and hard-nosed sense of ambition, was given class
and endorsements from the onset? Perhaps such an act of
clubbing of a rival, wouldn't have been considered by those
Harding, and even Harding herself.
That there is a constant search for feminine middle class icons, as we first
saw with Kerrigan, then with Baiul, means that these women
expected to adhere to and exemplify almost impossible standards of
and behavior as they compete on and off the ice. Kerrigan's star
Baiul's star rises, but they are both just characters in the
narrative that defines the middle class ideal for women.
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