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Representations of Domestic Violence in Movies: Analysis of I, Tonya

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In March 1994, Tonya Harding a U.S. Olympic figure skater’s career came to a tragic halt after pleading guilty to conspiring with her ex-husband and bodyguard in a premeditated assault, targeting her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Biopic ‘I, Tonya’ illustrates a confronting depiction of the domestic violence Tonya Harding sustained throughout her life. Harding first fell victim to her brash and foul-mouthed mother and later at the hands of her violent ex-husband. The opening title sets the mode for the entire film with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly narrating contradictory interviews, reminiscing on the abusive marriage which leads to the rise and fall of her career. The film’s representation of domestic violence (DV) was delivered with a comical edge to contradict the serious nature of their relationship. From a sociological standpoint, it can be argued that gender roles were negatively reinforced, emphasising traditional values, whilst conceptualising and misrepresenting violence against women. Firstly, this paper will discuss how DV has been represented historically and presently through modes of media. It will then critique how DV has been exemplified in I, Tonya’ whilst providing examples to connect key concepts from a theoretic perspective. Definitions Definitions of Domestic Violence tend to differ depending on the context in which the act that is being investigated, although numerous studies indicate that these behaviours are predominantly perpetrated by men against women (Kimmel, 2002). In Australia, terms intimate partner violence (IPV), domestic violence (DV) and family violence are used interchangeably to describe various abusive behaviours within intermate relationships. DV indicators comprise of physically violent or psychologically behaviours which involve deprivation of liberty by means to threaten, control or coerce. With particular relevance to violence against women, the United Nations definition is most commonly adopted. This definition states that any act of gender-based violence resulting in psychological, physical or sexual harm or suffering to women constitutes as violence against women (United Nations, 2010). ‘Gender-based’ violence suggests that violence is reliant upon gender inequality, which it further means to enforce.

It is widely agreed upon in sociological research that the portrayal of gender roles is most pervasive and influential through modes of media. Men and women are commonly represented to reflect and sustain socially endorsed perceptions of gender, while the depiction of relationships has emphasised traditional values. Historically, modes of media were managed and executed exclusively by men. Images were tailored to men, therefore media presented idealised images of men and women that were desirable in reality (Macnamara, 2004). Newbold et, al. (2002), states that media representations are constructions of reality; a production connecting ideological and real representations of society. Feminist criticism has influenced remarkable change to contemporary media discourses. Gender discriminatory attitudes in news media, movies and tv are steadily straying from traditional values as we see more films depicting independent and respectful women in power (Sutherland et al., 2015). Social issues are also being addressed in films, widening the scope to the public sphere. Media representations of women have become a subject of criticism since the 1960s as it is argued that images and information reflecting on gender roles are often distorted and unrealistic (Macnamara 2004). Men were commonly portrayed as domineering, powerful in status, authoritative and wilfully driven and women as submissive and dependent caretakers in the home. Alternatively, women were also depicted as decorated sexualised objects (Wood, 1994). Domestic violence has been far less conspicuous. Representations of DV in films commonly depicted men beating partners, lovers and children in a comical manner justified by a drunken outburst or in a moment of passionate rage (Frus, 2001). Although media and films are not a credible source of information, the media undoubtedly manipulates public perception and reflections on social issues.

Domestic violence is commonly studied in relation to media inferences. Findings have demonstrated that violence against women was positively skewed toward event-based reports or ‘episodic framing’. Media reports have predominantly focused on an incident or event while ignoring the social context that the event had occurred. Episodic framing in media is not uncommon in discourses on domestic violence and violence against woman. Research on media representations suggest that illustrations would highlight specific factors of an event whilst ignoring criminological patterns and risk factors that are associated with domestic violence, that would better explain the contextual meaning to an event (Chesney-Lind & Chagnon, 2017). Episodic framing generally draws focuses upon individualistic responsibility rather than societal and social attributions that brought an incident about. The way in which an event is framed can potentially impact how an audience assigns responsibility. In contrast, thematic framing will provide context to social factors associated with the crime (Scheufele, 1999). Episodic frames focus on an individual and a singular event, whereas thematic framing aims to focus on the issue and trends that have resulted in an event (Benjamin, 2007). While there are multiple ways to thematically frame an event related to domestic violence, modes of media rarely provide statistical inferences or provide accurate information on the social phenomena behind domestic violence (Sutherland et al., 2015). According to Flood and Pease (2009), social explanations for DV include, gendered inequalities (structurally and socially); socially constructed norms (sexist, patriarchal and sexually hostile attitudes); Social architecture (lack of DV resources), community violence, history of IPV, DV or family violence and access to support systems (socioeconomic factors, substance abuse). Media discourses additionally fail to demonstrate patterns of violence and contextualize accounts whereby relationship dynamics and methods of abuse are overlooked or simplified (Chesney-Lind & Chagnon, 2017). Patterns associated with DV goes beyond expressive violence whereby an abuser engages in violent behaviour whilst angry or intoxicated. Behavioural patterns frequently exemplify control, isolation, degradation and intimidation, coercive control and domestic terrorism. This may be achieved instrumentally by means to gain control, benefits and resources through ongoing and strategic coercion, dominance and fear (Dutton, Goodman & Schmidt, 2006). These patterns are rarely communicated through modes of media specifically in news media and film. For this reason, it is important to distinguish between the two types of framing as they have opposing effects on how the public perceives the issue, whether that be from an individualistic view of the event and abuser/victim responsibility or rather from a broader socially contextual outlook on DV and the patterns and behaviours that have resulted in incidental violence. 

Biopic I, Tonya, was a theatrically distributed film on the infamous 1994 attack on US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Director Craig Gillespie’s Oscar-nominated mockumentary reached a universal audience with a narrative revolving around domestic violence. It was very cleverly constructed, detailing Tonya Harding’s Tapes (The Tonya Tapes) early on in the film to stimulate a shock response to the violence Tonya experienced from at a very young age. Although Margo Robbie’s characterisation of Tonya Harding was indeed powerful, the theatrical portrayal of the abuse was concerning. To an audience who are unfamiliar with Harding’s story, the brutality depicted within the first 15 minutes may be confronting, however, violent scenes are represented with a contradictory comical undertone. Gillespie’s use of music and cinematic framing techniques manipulate raw realities of domestic violence and lighten the mood through humour and juxtaposition. In reflection to her relationship with Gillooly, Harding stated, “He was the first boy I ever loved… The only catch was, he beat the living hell out of me.” At this moment Romeo and Juliet, ‘Dire Straits sombre’ plays while Harding is being hit repeatedly. Imagery moves through a cycle of physical brutality to passionate reconciliations between the pair; an accurate representation of reality in an abusive relationship and the complexities of cycles consistent with domestic violence. As she describes her marriage in a matter of fact manner, she reflects on a time when Gillooly purposely jammed her hand in the car door in an attempt to escape him, Supertramp’s melodramatic song ‘Goodbye Stranger’ softly plays. This is a consistent theme throughout the duration of the film. Later, after another conflict, Gillooly forces her into his car drives away only to be pulled over by officials. With Harding’s face obviously injured and covered in blood, Gillooly sweet talks his way out of trouble and drives off without suspicions or detection. In this scene Al Green’s ‘How you mend a broken heart’ plays. This juxtaposition of imagery and music may communicate to an audience that spousal violence is normal, reinforcing a stereotype that passionate love and abuse in a relationship is mutually exclusive. It is apparent that Gillespie has utilised a combination of episodic framing and thematic framing in this film as contradictory themes, frames and music could potentially alienate an audience and alter ideological positions on a very real social problem. 

Additionally, it can be argued that Gillespie’s film primarily focuses on the physical element of DV whilst overriding behavioural patterns consistent with DV, thus relationship dynamics are overlooked and simplified. The imagery draws focus to the brutality of each event, rather than drawing upon the undercurrents of control while the instrumental means of abuse are lost in translation. Viewing women through the scope of incidental and specific injury-based violence has concealed the major underlying components that indicate violent behaviours (Palazzolo & Roberto, 2011). Behavioural patterns of control that Gillooly characterised in the film were; victim blaming, use of male privilege, sexual abuse and post-separation abuse (Bagshaw & Chung, 2000). For example, consistent with victim blaming, Gillooly told Harding that she provoked him while refusing to share the responsivity for the violence. He executed male privilege by expecting sex on demand and when denied sexually assaulted her, demanded that she does all the domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning and demonstrated jealous and possessive tendencies. After Harding made multiple attempts to leave, he exercised post-separation abuse, by means of emotional manipulation, demonstrated remorse, crying and repentance after an incident and threatened to kill himself. Although these are accurate representations of DV, these scenes are overshadowed by violence and brutality. In combination with contradictory framing, romanticising violence through the use of music and comical discourse, the contextual meaning of the event is clouded. 

The manner in which media represents the issue of domestic violence can influence the attributions of blame and who is perceived responsible for conflict resolution and ultimately a solution to the issue. Stories have the ability to arouse an emotional response to an issue, manipulating the way in which information is received (Kosicki, 2002). Research suggests that arousing specific emotional stimuli can affect preferential judgments on an event. The way in which media stories represent domestic violence can have a significant effect on the public’s assessment of an incident, responsibility of the crime and consequently the support or disapproval of the outcome (Palazzolo & Roberto 2011). The way in which a victim is represented in a film is likely to influence attributional blame. It is commonly questioned why victims of DV don’t leave their abusers. With consideration to Harding’s character, she personified a strong, opinionated woman who ultimately had a lot going for her professionally and is capable of holding her own. Due to the predominant focus on the violent interaction between the couple, it may very well beg the question of why she tolerated the abuse for so long. 

The dynamic of Harding and Gillooly’s relationship may be explained by Dutton and Painter’s (1993) ‘Traumatic Bonding’ theory. The term exemplified the strong emotional attachment between victims and their abusers where there is a clear power imbalance. The victim is intermittently abused, resulting in a repentant expression of love, adoration and remorse by the perpetrator. The victim bonds to the expression of love and belonging to someone and feels that bond more intensely after a traumatic incident. A cycle of violence ensues whereby the victim relays upon their abuser for emotional support only increasing their bond. This is common among victims who have been previously abused, especially in childhood (Walker, 1979). Thematically, Gillespie demonstrated contextual relevance to a degree by providing background information, personal history and potential reasons as to why violence was a reoccurring event, however, this was only provided on account of Harding. Contextual information lacked in regards to Gillooly, his history and potential reasons as to why he engaged in violent behaviours. By providing historical context about the perpetrator and the victim allows to affective attributions to be made. It is made evident that Harding was abused by her mother and lacked any emotional support throughout her life. Therefore, contextual inferences may be formed in terms of attributional assessment. 

The way in which domestic violence is represented in popular media discourses deserves greater attention. As an academy award film, it can potentially provide a social platform for discussion concerning domestic violence and violence against woman and gender discourses. This was accomplished to a degree through thematical framing, demonstrating contextual and behavioural inferences concerning the realities of DV. The episodic techniques utilised however overshadowed the contextual meaning of the film through the juxtaposition of music, comical discourse and imagery. Although the majority of media discourses struggle with the portrayal of abuse, it is unfortunate that I, Tonya was painted with humour, consequently undermining the seriousness of the issue. Equally, I, Tonya provides greater insight into Harding’s story and sets an appropriate platform for awareness and change.  

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Representations Of Domestic Violence In Movies: Analysis Of I, Tonya. (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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