The Poverty of Truth, the Truth of Poverty

By Daniel Fraser, 23 August 2018
Image: Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017).

I, Tonya, the recent biopic on the figure skating phenomenon from Portland, Oregon, appears to offer little beyond the familiar Hollywood spectacle of the white working class. But, through its problematically white lens, Daniel Fraser argues, the film stages an unsettling interplay between the indeterminacy of truth and the true violence of poverty.


Depictions of the white working class, more specifically the struggles of working class women to survive the oppression of poverty and the patriarchal structures of society, are nothing particularly new in Hollywood. In recent years such portrayals have also often garnered critical acclaim and awards, with films such as Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003) and Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) earning Leading Actress Academy Awards for Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank respectively. 

In terms of critical acclaim, a filmic genre that has proved time and time again to be successful come awards season is the biopic. The film form categorised by its dramatisation of biographical events has a long awards history: since the year 2000 there have been seven Oscar-winning Leading Actresses and, including most recently Gary Oldman, nine Leading Actors who have earned their gongs through inhabiting historical figures. [1] Despite Margot Robbie missing out on the Leading Actress award at the 2018 Oscars ceremony the strong awards record for the biopic remains intact and I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie, 2017), succeeded, with Alison Janney taking home the Best Supporting Actress award for her electrifying performance as Harding’s mother LaVona.

The story of Tonya Harding, the working class figure skating phenomenon from Portland Oregon, and her eventual downfall following ‘the incident’ (an attack on fellow figure skater and fellow Olympic hopeful Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly, that ended Harding’s career though the extent of her knowledge of the attack remains unclear) is a familiar one and one seemingly ideally shaped for the biopic mould. Harding was prodigiously talented and the first US woman (and second woman in history) to land a triple axel jump in competition. Coupled with which, the incident itself was global news in the 1990s and has subsequently provided fertile ground for a variety of modes of analysis, investigation, parody and interpretation, including several films, TV programmes, and academic essays; as well as the inspiration for a musical and even a rock opera. 

In this regard I, Tonya (for good or ill) appears to offer little beyond the confines of the familiar spectacle of the Hollywood biopic. However, all is not as it appears. The film contains an unsettling undercurrent, one that questions the status of the biopic-as-form and opens up a dark cavern beneath the surface of the narrative, a cavern that can best be explored through the interrelated mechanisms of truth and poverty. 

The biopic always entails an act of translation, transposing events from the biographical register to the fictional one, from memory to fantasy. In fact, it is this act of translation which defines its very form. Aside from its traditional adoption of a structure that provides an ideal vehicle for an actor to demonstrate their prowess (a human focus, defined protagonist, a ‘real’ set of mannerisms and gestures that may be accurately mimicked etc.), what gives the biopic its power, its aura, is the unspoken presence of this translation in the fabric of the film itself. That is, the spectator’s continual (sometimes even unconscious) relation of the events portrayed in the film to ’real’ life, the re-translation of the fictional back into the biographical, a life which they too are subsumed within, and to which they return after the credits have rolled.

Another attempt at this reinscription can be seen in the much-overused and now-pretty-much-redundant horror trope ‘based on a true story’. This attempt to inscribe the events of horror into the world outside the cinema seeks to heighten the impression of fear and to leave a residual terror in the memory long after the film has ended. For the biopic the effect is, rather, one of wonder, wonder at both the uniqueness displayed by this particular life being illuminated on screen and wonder at life in general. This wonder is entirely reliant on the spindle of truth, the thread of veracity, woven into the process of translation.

From the outset I, Tonya explicitly dispenses with any fixed concept of truth. One of the opening intertitles informs the viewer that what they are about to be shown is ‘based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly’. This contradictory fragmentation of truth is mirrored in the film’s mode of narration, or rather its rejection of narrative progression, whose structure is one of radical superimposition and interruption. Time skips back and forwards, from the fictionalised ‘interviews’ of the purported present, to the ‘narrated past’: a past which is itself purposefully disjointed and distorted. Here narrative segments are interrupted by their participants giving asides to camera (‘this never fucking happened’ Robbie’s Harding informs the audience as she attacks her husband with a loaded shotgun), characters overlay one version of events with another until the viewer is left unsure whose eye/I the camera is displaying, and the intertitles which try to ground us and fix the key events of Harding’s story in place only serve to emphasise this unstable narrative terrain. 

This instability and agglomeration of cinematic and narrative techniques is accompanied by an overlapping and splintered temporality that disrupts any attempt to empathise with any of the protagonists for a sustained period of time and questions any notion of ‘solving’ the riddle of the investigation, of gathering evidence from the varying accounts and reaching a satisfactory conclusion. This latter futility can be seen most explicitly in the ‘crime’ itself, which is so badly thought-out, so ludicrously half-brained, and yet so elusive, in terms of the precise intentions and knowledge of those involved, that the perpetrators of the crime are almost immediately apprehended while the question of who is to blame remains forever unanswered. 

As a result of these dislocating forces, I, Tonya is not in any way a ‘period piece’. Its structural components make little effort to effectively recreate the atmospheric experience of the incident as global news event. Instead, we as viewers are locked inside the ‘story’ being told and retold from the present, the fantastical recreation of a half-remembered past. The visual make-up of the film accentuates this narrative uncertainty most effectively. Suffused with colour, the film stock (Kodak 2-perf 35mm) glows with the warmth of recollection. [2] The costumes and interiors are so weighted with the feel of the 1980s and ’90s as to give the impression, not of verisimilitude, but of spectacular fabrication. 

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (2017).

The overall effect is dizzying, and one which tears at the material composition of I, Tonya and the biopic form to the point of absolute distortion. ‘There is no truth,’ Harding explains as the film draws to a close, ‘everyone has their own truth’. The film then seemingly extols the primacy of the surface phenomena of existence, of ‘what happens’ (by which one means the image that is presented to us), over ‘the truth’, with which the former may never be reconciled. There is no hidden interior to be discovered. Its sensibility in this regard is distinctly post-truth. This displacement from any stable veracity reaches its parodic apex in a training montage of Harding carrying sacks through the forest and throwing logs, as her trainer Diane (played by Julianne Nicholson) repeatedly informs us: ‘she actually did this’… ‘and this’… ‘and this’.

Despite all this, somewhat (un)surprisingly, several reviewers, particularly those who have given the film a lukewarm reception, have lined up to say that the film does not do justice to its subject, the ‘real’ Tonya Harding or to the ‘real story’ of the incident with Nancy Kerrigan (but then ‘the haters always say “tell the truth”’), when in fact the film is an implicit critique of this method of interpretation. Rather than merely re-tread the same boards of unreliable narration, I, Tonya destabilises the truth to such an extent that the film is unmoored from any claim to authenticity and calls into question the fibres of veracity from which the narrative framework of the biopic, a reciprocity of translation between life and fiction, is constructed. 

One must be careful in this frame of analysis. The destabilising of truth is of course one ever present in the current western socio-political climate. From the accusations of ‘fake news’ that permeate much polemical discourse on both ‘sides’ of the neoliberal coin to the sub-Nietzschean proud boys of the alt-right, cartoonish rejections of truth surround our everyday experience of contemporary capitalism. This has led to some equally ridiculous and reactionary backlash including a group of ‘doomsayers of postmodernism’ who place the blame for the degeneration of society firmly at the feet of poststructuralism and its questioners of truth. [3] Consequently, it would be relatively easy to align I, Tonya with this rather uninspiring rhetoric of ‘a biopic for the post-truth age’ or something similar, and, if this was all the film did, it would be interesting but only in an ephemeral, relatively superficial way – one like last season’s fashion, ready to be forgotten as a consequence of its own contemporaneity.

However, something dark does lurk under the film’s surface. There is a constant shadow beneath the frenzied activity above, one rendered all the more disturbing by the distorted and uncoordinated form it is forced to take. It is the shadow of class, of the fundamental social relation of exploitation that is the basic relation of capitalism, and of the poverty, monetary and existential, generated by that relation. Amid the tumult of falsehood, I, Tonya exposes a ‘truth’ or rather a moment of honesty [Ehrlichkeit] that lies at the dark heart of American working class existence. This exposure is not contrasted by the web of contradictory regimes of truth that overlay it but is a very product of them. Further, it will become apparent that the divulgence of this class shadow is one inextricably linked to and problematised by the question of race.

In order to sufficiently elucidate this disturbing depiction of American capital, class must be considered both from the standpoint of cultural phenomena, the sociological experience of cultural disadvantage as a result of financial hardship, and at the level of the class relation, of which the cultural phenomena are an interrelated product. This twofold distinction, between the sociological mechanisms of class and the Marxian conceptual one, has a fundamental role in the narrative of the ‘American dream’ which is predicated on an idea of the temporality of the former: that is on the existence of striated class fractions through which one can rise through hard work and courage in the face of opportunity. In the case of Harding, the enactment of this dream would be the opportunity that her talent for the performative labour of figure skating would grant her, the opportunity to escape the servitude and domesticity that circumscribe the identity her class and gender would ordinarily assign her, to vindicate LaVona’s investment and be ‘made a champion’.

For Marx, conversely, the class relation (whose historically specific instantiation in the capitalist mode of production is the capital-labour relation) is the basic social relation of production in capitalist society. Class here is a structural category: individual capitalists and workers are ‘merely personifications of economic relations’. [4] The components of this social relation are the capitalist class and working class. However, class is not merely a structural category but a relationalone. Class only exists in a historically specific mode of production. In other words a class isa class relation: a social relationship of struggle that is in continuous motion with the ‘sheer unrest of life’. [5] Commodity production, the prevailing production process in capitalist society, thereby entails the reproduction of the social relations which are its precondition, i.e. the reproduction of capitalist as capitalist and of worker as worker [6] LaVona presents the viewer with a ‘classic case’ in this regard. She is a lifelong service industry worker, who must ‘freely’ sell her labour-power to one in possession of the means of production in return for a wage, allowing her to purchase the means of subsistence and reproduce herself as a service industry worker. Harding similarly engages in the same form of labour, working as a waitress throughout much of her skating life. Harding’s other, performative labour, for which she is particularly gifted, is what the narrative of stratified social progression would proffer as a pathway to a better life. However, it becomes startlingly clear that this mode of existence is equally riven by the imposition of social relations and the presence of an embedded bourgeois framework of values, which mean that, like the antagonistic cycle of labour engaged in by more typical modes of work, the means by which one is able to rise up are open only to those who are already there.

The outward phenomena of working class experience, its cultural manifestations, are everywhere in sight in I, Tonya. Harding herself is a self-confessed ‘redneck’. The shadow of class hangs beneath each and every fragment of her story. From the skinned-rabbit fur coat and hand-sewn costumes, to her language, her broken home, her encounters with the two men she is closest to (her violent husband from whom she is unable to distance herself, and his delusional, conspiracy-theorist friend Shawn), the effects of working class existence are there to pervert her chances time and time again. And her unquestioned devotion to the one thing that she, and even more so her mother, hopes can change this situation, figure skating, does not make these things easier to overcome or cope with, in fact it only makes them worse. She is frenetically pursued by a media whose impersonal adoration and acrimony are raised by the arbitrary need for ‘someone to love and someone to hate’; and no matter how fervently she perfects her performance she is condemned to be lacking. In this regard, the most explicit character masks the film uses for the gatekeepers between poverty and success, between labour and capital, are the figure skating judges, whose snobbishness, snide classist remarks and low scores based on a suspect category of ‘presentation’, rule Harding out before she even sets out over the ice. Skating is Harding’s whole life, as she informs the judge about to permanently ban her from the sport, but success can never be ‘just about the skating’ as she so fervently desires. The class structures of capital in the form of wholesomeness, of presentation and the nuclear family, are there to ensure that.

It cannot be ignored that, in the context of the film, this depiction of class existence is articulated almost entirely through the lens of whiteness. It is evident throughout that I, Tonya – true to the general makeup of the Hollywood biopic form – is a decidedly white tale, with only a handful of the cast coming from minority backgrounds. Of course, in the case of a biopic much of this can be (however dubiously) attributed to the ethnicity of the historical figures being represented, deflecting the question of race into more general territory. Here the question becomes one which is (rightly) being directed more forcefully at major studios these days, about the kinds of stories being told time and time again whilst others are being ignored. [7] One can thereby note the reliance of the film’s ability to articulate an internal critique the biopic, at the level of filmic production, on whiteness, in that if Harding were a working class person of colour the film would be less likely to have been made in the first place. One might wish simply to dismiss this on the grounds that I, Tonya merely remains (albeit not un-problematically) within the largely white paradigm of the biopic form of which it is a part. However, this becomes increasingly difficult when the mobilisation of whiteness the film relies on is elaborated more fully.

More pointedly, one might wish to highlight the fact that, as another white representation of the working class, I, Tonya partakes in the continual mythologisation of the working class as white, a process of myth-making common to both sides of the Atlantic. Here the myth-making relates to the mythologisation practiced by the sport of figure skating itself, its requirement for Harding to adhere to societal bourgeois standards is predicated on her being white. As others have noted elsewhere, the necessity of the ‘golden girl’ image was not a requirement for non-white skaters.[8] They were discounted, rendered already ‘other’ by their race; not required as exemplary role models as a result of lying outside the United States’ continual narration of its own whiteness. Harding, conversely, presents a distorted, unsightly double to the pristine princess, one that unsettles its logic all the more effectively for being subsumed within it. Harding’s whiteness is what allows the critique of the biopic form, and of the bourgeois categories of society that Harding continually fails to fall in line with, to be elaborated at all. This is not to seek to imbue I, Tonya with some kind of apophatic narrative of race, articulated in absentia, merely to highlight the ways in which the potentially problematic elements of the film work within the framework of its own critique. To clarify, the potency of the film’s criticism of both its own narrative form, and of working class existence within capital, is bound in an internal dynamic with its problematic racial composition.

Allison Janney as LaVona and Mckenna Grace in I, Tonya (2017).

The biopic is a narrative form to which an act of biographical-fictional translation, underwritten by an accompanying notion of truth, is foundational. I, Tonya radically disrupts this structural framing through a variety of filmic techniques including a frantic, interruptive temporality and a mutually implicated questioning of any stable order of veracity. However, amid the frenzy of competing truths lies a more fundamental honesty (albeit a determinately white one) which saturates every aspect of the narrative: the self-immolating, inescapable antagonism of class. What remains to be formulated then, is how this underlying class shadow is rooted within the fragmented sense of time, and the dissolute constellations of truth, which comprise the film’s critique of the biopic narrative form. In order to do so, the discussion must turn to the problem of violence. For I, Tonya is a film permeated with violence, from the of the hardship of the training process and physicality of performance to the domestic violence, most obviously presented in the violence Harding suffers at the hands of husband Jeff, and the psychological violence embodied by Janney’s foul-mouthed and frightening portrayal of Harding’s mother LaVona. Though violence is not specifically or necessarily related to class, the film’s articulation of the violence Harding suffers illuminates the horrifying, repetitive existence of working class life which underpins it.

The temporal and narrative fragmentation that cuts through the fabric of the film results in a depiction of violence that is continually tinged with absurdity and dark humour, its impact re- and over-written by another character’s intervention, often degenerating into an argument between the film’s protagonists in the present day interviews over differing articulations of the past. Time and violence here work to interrupt and undermine one another: the narrative fragments are ones whose edges are often sharpened by the punctuation of violence, edits rendered cuts in the most physical sense, while the violence itself is temporally truncated. This frantic construction of superimposed images that disturbs the narrative also destroys the possibility for any stable thematic content to be actualised within the film. Images of violence proliferate but are questioned and replaced before they can congeal and so the film can never be said to be one about violence. The effect of this depiction of violence is not, as some have commented, one of gratuity, of relishing in, exaggerating and nullifying the horror of violence but of normalisation, of pervasiveness. It does not matter to what extent the accounts of domestic violence and childhood trauma can be verified as accurate, they are things which are a continual presence, continual to the point of absurdity, in Harding’s life.

This is undoubtedly the case regarding the psychological trauma inflicted by LaVona. Harding’s mother is a woman that poverty has damaged beyond recognition; the violence she inflicts is a complicated mixture of her own mental illness, vengeance for the money she has had to put towards her daughter’s skating career, of ambition in the face of all the odds she faces as a working class mother, and, in some ways, love in the only form she is capable of: a possible pathway out of destitution. When she exclaims ‘I made you a champion knowing you'd hate me for it. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes,’ this is not just her own self-justification speaking but her experience. For the worker, whose only capacity to remain alive is through the reproduction of themselves as worker afforded to them by capital, to get out of the trap of this life requires sacrificing everything, and even then it may not be enough, and indeed it isn’t. Harding replies ‘you cursed me,’ and she did, they were both cursed from birth, that’s what the working class experience is, to bear the nightmare weight of generations of dead labour like a dark force that inhabits each and every facet of daily life, working to disrupt and dismantle anything, any coherent narrative you might seek to establish for yourself. The struggle for progress, to secure the reproduction of one’s life and family, to partake in the linear development that is everywhere proselytised by the advocates of capital, is repeatedly undercut by the confusing and violent matrix of overlapping truths, broken forms of existence and endless cycle of labour, which are the social characteristics of the ceaseless drive for accumulation that defines the capitalist mode of production.

The forms of community and consistency that are left open (family, matrimony etc.) continually being remodelled in the service of capitalism, rather than providing a bedrock for the founding of identity, of an unbroken narrative arc or place of security, often become so poisoned that they merely perpetuate the same nightmare. Harding’s need for a ‘wholesome American family’ requires her to return to the husband who beats her and to the mother who pushes her to the point of self-destruction. There is no escape. After her first Olympics she returns to become a waitress, just like her mother, another worker. After her second, and her dismissal from the sport, she turns to boxing because of her knowledge of violence. This latter career path is particularly disturbing, as it represents another mode of performative labour, another sporting activity, but one that, rather than adhering to her passion and talent (a positive culmination of her will and the desire to forge an extraordinary story for herself), is instead a product of the normalised violence that her working class existence has forced her to accept. In the end, no amount of image-making, of de-realisation of identity and destabilisation of truth, can dislodge the reproductive force of capital and its violence. 

This is why, for the film’s purpose, the establishment of truth, the apportionment of blame, the assignment of ‘victim’ or ‘conspirator’, are all irrelevant. There are stories of women overcoming the odds, of workers rising up and seizing the American dream that opens its doors to everyone. This is not one of those stories. It is not one where an unknown person, strong-willed and talented enough, can rise to the top and succeed. This is not a Nietzschean overcoming of the fractured society; a harnessing of the chaos of drives and wills. There is no story that can be told that can forge an escape from poverty, from the societal effects of working class existence. Working class lives resist biopic translation: rather than being able to participate in wonder they are left with broken and fragmentary moments from which no locus of truth can be adequately constructed.

It can never be just about the skating, ‘and that’s the fucking truth.’ 


Daniel Fraser is a writer and researcher from Hebden Bridge, living in London.



[1] The question of race makes itself present here too. Of the biopic winners mentioned above, only two (notably male), performances by black actors received awards (Jamie Foxx for Ray Charles and Forrest Whittaker for Idi Amin).

[2] For more information on the film stock used, see:, accessed June 2018.

[3] One wonders, somewhat churlishly, how nebulous a notion of truth one would be required to have in order to accept this drivel.

[4] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, London: Penguin, 1976, p.179.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p.27

[6] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, p.716

[7] In figure skating terms, one might ask why Tonya Harding and not, for instance, Debi Thomas?