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Margot Robbie defends I, Tonya’s controversial portrayal of domestic violence

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Kayleigh Dray
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Margot Robbie has been nominated for Leading Actress in a Motion Picture thanks to her standout role in I, Tonya – but the film has since come under fire for “trivialising” domestic violence. 

Based on the life of disgraced skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), I, Tonya focuses on how Harding overcame her relationship with her cruel and dismissive mother (Allison Janney) – and, later, her husband’s violent, bullying behaviour – to rise among the ranks at the US Figure Skating Championships.

Of course, the film also shines a light on the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s biggest skating rival and Olympic teammate. However, instead of focusing on the “whacking” itself, the film digs deep to find the real human story at the centre of a scandal which saw Harding’s career completely destroyed – and reminds us of our complicity in her downfall.

“It was like being abused all over again, only this time it was by you,” says Robbie-as-Harding, describing what it felt like to find herself at the centre of the resulting media storm. “All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”

However, while I, Tonya has received rave reviews from critics all over the world – and Robbie has been nominated for Best Actress at the 2018 Oscars – the film has since drawn fire for presenting domestic abuse a “flippant and sensationalised” manner

“I did not like I, Tonya,” wrote one viewer on social media.

“I found it entirely flippant and condescending, especially in its portrayal of domestic violence.”

Another agreed, adding: “I feel Tonya being perpetually involved in physically abusive relationships, and what that does to your character as an adult, was an important story to tell.

“Making an occasional punchline out of man-on-woman domestic violence though…? Not cool, movie. Not cool at all.”

Now, in a new interview with the New York Times, Robbie has defended the film’s depiction of domestic violence. 

When asked about the criticisms that the movie “makes light” of domestic abuse, the actress said: “Something that struck me most about watching all the footage [of Tonya Harding] was the documentary made about her when she was 15.

“She’s very candid and vulnerable, and insecure. She’s just looking at the camera, saying, ‘My mom’s an alcoholic, and she hits me, and she beats me.’”

Robbie added: “The worst thing [about] a domestically abusive relationship is that it’s a vicious cycle. And you see her go back to [her first husband, Jeff Gillooly] time and time again. We wanted to emphasise that this is a cycle and this is so routine for her, because it’s happened her whole life.

“She can emotionally disconnect in that moment and speak to the audience, completely matter-of-factly.”

In a separate interview with Vulture, director Craig Gillespie said each scene featuring domestic violence was carefully considered, and they ultimately decided “breaking the fourth wall” was the cinematic way they could show how desensitised Harding became to the abuse.

“It was part of trying to get into the mindset she’s in,” Gillespie said. 

“The idea of breaking the fourth wall – which wasn’t scripted – I thought, ‘Let’s try this in this violent moment. It reinforces that she’s not connected.’”

Of course, it’s worth noting that the film has received praise from some quarters for this tactic.

“Seriously, go see I, Tonya,” writes one viewer. “Even if you don’t give a crap about the story, you’ll walk away with at least a better understanding of the cycle of domestic violence.”

Whether you agree with the portrayal or not, there’s no denying the fact that the film is encouraging people to talk about abuse – which can only be a positive thing.

One woman in four experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales.

It can be difficult for many people trapped in toxic and abusive relationships to spot the warning signs.

These can include (but are not limited to) the following:

• Your partner constantly criticises, humiliates or belittles you

• Your partner checks up on you or follows you

• Your partner tries to keep you from seeing your friends or family

• Your partner has prevented you or made it hard for you to continue studying or going to work

• Your partner unjustly accuses you of flirting or having affairs with others

• Your partner has forced you to do something that you really did not want to do

• Your partner has deliberately destroyed any of your possessions

• You have changed your behaviour because you are afraid of what your partner might do or say to you

• Your partner controls your finances

• Your partner talks down to you

• Your partner has strong opinions on what you should wear and your appearance

• Your partner has tried to prevent you from leaving your house

• Your partner has forced you or harassed you into performing a sexual act

• Your partner has threatened to reveal or publish private information

• Your partner threatens to hurt him or herself if you leave them

• Your partner witholds medication from you

• Your partner makes you feel guilty all the time

• Your partner blames you for their bad moods and outbursts

• You are afraid of your partner

If you are worried that you might be the victim of emotional abuse, it’s quite likely that you are. If these signs of an abusive relationship sound all too familiar to you, then get out of that situation as soon as possible.

Visit womensaid.org.uk or call 0808-2000 247 for more information about coercive control, domestic abuse, and the help available for those affected.

Images: Rex Features

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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