Olympic figure skater and Dancing with the Stars contestant Adam Rippon recently made critical comments concerning former Olympic figure skater and DWTS contestant Tonya Harding. The comments, while understood to critique Harding’s participation in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan resulting from being banned from Olympic figure skating, have, in my opinion, set our work to prevent intimate partner violence back decades, if not centuries. As a man who works with IPV agencies, toxic masculinity, and gender-based oppression I find that Rippon’s comments were not only insensitive but carry many of the stereotypes that have further contributed to the oppression of women, abuse survivors, and those trapped in intimate partner terrorism.
My wife and I recently watched the movie I, Tonya last week. Both of us discussed that the movie, while a valuable narrative on a woman misunderstood by media and the United States, also reflected many of the stories we have heard from IPV survivors. The production’s use of humor, first person narrative, newscasts, and simulated interviews portrays the story of a woman caught in intimate terrorism who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Bonding, or (as some have labeled it) Battered Woman’s’ Syndrome.
This became clear as Harding returned to her abusive husband multiple times throughout her life. Her controlling and abusive mother also added to her PTS as she began life mistreated, humiliated, and verbally, emotionally, and physically abused. The movie should have created a sense of empathy for audiences who had the opportunity to peek into the life of one of many women living daily in intimate partner terrorism. I’m guessing that Adam Rippon did not watch this movie.
Second, as with many victims in IPV, Harding learned that this lifestyle was normal. Since she had experienced it from birth and had come to expect this treatment, she found familiarity with men and women who also promoted a climate of disrespect, abuse, control, and humiliation of others. Rippon’s comments that she surrounded herself with these types of people suggests that victims of abuse enjoy this treatment; a belief that further shames those in intimate terrorism. Even more, Harding had little opportunity to escape. Neighbors, law enforcement, and even family blocked her way out of these relationships.
Third, Harding’s narrative, is not unlike the stories we hear on a daily basis. In addition to the physical abuse, threats with firearms, neighbors who chose not to intervene, police officers who chose not to intervene or report, friends who try to help but do not confront the oppressor, family who blame the victim, and judgment toward an individual who continues in an abusive relationship; her story included her violent husband’s illegal activity going unreported. None of this surprised us, because it is the reality of one living in intimate terrorism. If the man who says he loves you puts a gut to your head (and his own), what would he do to you if you threatened to report him to the police. To assume that Harding was a co-conspirator, attempted murder, or supported this illegal activity places blame on the victims, not the individual terrorizing others through violence, threats, or intimidation.
Finally, the story was not simply the story of a “fallen skater” but another woman living in the United States whose legal system, community, and family fails to protect. I, Tonya is not a comedy, it is a commentary on what millions of women have experienced in the “Land of the Free.”
My wife and I had an interesting discussion the next day after watching the movie. We realized that if Tonya Harding had retained a lawyer who understood IPV she may have been able to fight the verdict that banned her from skating. If she had an audience that understood Battered Women’s Syndrome she would not have been labeled an accessory to the attack on Kerrigan. If she had a community that did not see the humor in those trapped in poverty, IPV, and addiction—we would have understood that she is a survivor, rather than, as Rippon is quoted “avoiding her,” or reminding us that she was “one who was banned from skating for a reason.”
I believe Rippon offers us a commentary on how males, especially white males, view females who are vulnerable, oppressed, and terrorized. Rather than confronting offenders and understanding that victims and survivors suffer tremendous psychological and emotional damage, we males make insensitive statements and judgments. These do not empower others but create an environment of shame, humiliation, and silence. Instead of listening to others or welcoming narratives of survivors we verbally shut them down without understanding their suffering.
As an old guy who has been working in this area for a few decades there are times when the #MeToo cause advances in a positive direction. Then there are those incidents when insensitive and hurtful comments and judgments are made which sets the cause back a few decades, or even a few centuries. As a male I understand that my words can have an effect on the movement to end Men’s Violence Against Women—and my hope is that they are a positive contribution. I am sad to write that Rippon’s comments do not help us in this movement.
Adam Rippon is a young and influential man and has made positive contributions to our world, and I believe that he will do much, much more good in the future. However, it is my hope that he will take the opportunity to “not avoid” Tonya Harding and hear the story of a survivor who, like many, many women today, needs acceptance—rather than judgment. It is also my hope that Adam Rippon will offer apology for his statement and join us in the #MeToo movement by supporting survivors, rather than humiliating them.
Janice Williams, “’DWTS’ CONTESTANT ADAM RIPPON SLAMS TONYA HARDING: SHE WAS BANNED FROM SKATING FOR A REASON,” Newsweek, May 7, 2018 (link: http://www.newsweek.com/adam-rippon-tonya-harding-skating-912892).
Britt Lawrence, “Adam Rippon’s Honest Feelings About Tonya Harding And DWTS,”Cinema Blend, May 9, 2018. (link: https://www.cinemablend.com/television/2417082/adam-rippons-honest-feelings-about-tonya-harding-and-dwts).