Docudrama in the Post-Truth Era

Curator's Note

“There’s no such thing as truth. … Everyone has their own truth,” “Tonya Harding” (Margot Robbie) insists near the end of I, Tonya (2017, Craig Gillespie). The docudrama blends verifiable events with dramatizations, blurring the boundary between truth and fiction. In a moment in which emotional appeals are more persuasive than objective facts, I, Tonya functions as a post-truth docudrama, calling attention to the role likeability (or lack thereof) plays in casting cultural heroes and villains.

 I, Tonya announces its post-truth status in the intro card, which states that, although the interviews upon which it is based are “wildly contradictory,” they are also “totally true.” For this to be the case, truth must no longer correspond to fact. The film asserts as much with commentary that contradicts the image, for example, when an abused “Harding,” chasing her husband “Jeff Gilooly” with a shotgun, breaks the fourth wall and asserts, “This is bullshit. I never did this,” then defiantly cocks the gun.

Instead of asserting a verifiable truth, the film asks us how we feel about “Harding.” Lee McIntyre, in his 2018 book Post-Truth, claims, “post-truth is when one thinks that the crowd’s reaction actually does change the facts about a lie” (10). The film elicits such a reaction through repeated scenes of physical abuse, juxtaposed with scenes of how “Harding’s” socioeconomic status detracted from her athletic skill. “Harding” claims that what she knew about the Nancy Kerrigan “incident” is irrelevant, because “the press” had already pegged “Nancy to be a princess and me to be a piece of crap.” “Harding” appears for the film’s “interviews,” opportunities to restore her reputation, sitting before a sink full of dirty dishes, cigarette in hand, lending credence to the media’s casting.

Nevertheless, when “Harding” asserts, “I was loved … for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too,” we feel for her. “Harding’s” poverty made her atheticism irrelevant, and she was abused by her mother, lover, and the American public. Within the film’s diegesis, “Harding” insists, “people still wanted to see me,” leading to her boxing career. Outside of the diegesis, “the crowd,” demonstrated by reviews of the film, is largely sympathetic to “Harding’s” plight. And that, in a post-truth docudrama, makes guilt or innocence irrelevant.

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