In our world today there appears to be a considerable anxiety surrounding the idea of greatness.[i] Specifically there is a fear of being great; that is, a weariness towards people striving after greatness or declaring others great.
This hesitation, I believe, is due to recent populist uprisings that have associated their improbably successful campaigns with the re-establishment of greatness. US President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra belongs most powerfully to this movement. His claims to rejuvenate the country through new attitudes of strength returned the idea of greatness to the forefront of people’s minds. But along with it came Trump’s own arrogant and disrespectful attitude, as well as his policies that promoted fear, deception and hostility. By association, greatness came to mean something abrasive and malicious that needed to be guarded against.
Moreover, the encounter with Trump reminded the world that this connection between greatness and abuse is neither circumstantial, not coincidental. The affinity, in fact, is deeply rooted in the reality of greatness itself whereby one individual’s elevation above others leads to powers and privileges that often result in violence and exploitation.
The effect has been to mistrust and subvert greatness lest it lead to demagoguery and oppression. This reaction, however, raises the question of whether greatness has any positive place in human life. In other words, is there some goodness involved in being great or is it always an expression of power or self-interest? Is it ever right to rejoice in human greatness or will doing so necessarily tear our communities apart?
To tackle these questions and attempt a reconsideration of greatness, I propose the case study of Tonya Harding, or rather the song “Tonya Harding” by indie artist Sufjan Stevens.[ii] His track, like the recent biopic I, Tonya, paints Harding in a dynamic and sympathetic light. But Stevens also goes further, working to emphasize Harding’s greatness. Her importance, and her resurgent relevance, he believes, belong to the fact that she was exceptional; that her skating ability and her personality challenged individuals to re-think their notions of conventional excellence. Harding’s private life, and the actual events of the Nancy Kerrigan disaster—which the film is most concerned with—are secondary to her great talent and bold character.
Stevens’ song, then, eulogizes Tonya Harding as a great figure; that is, one who inspires astonishment and engages with sorrow. He shows how her life and story correspond to these conditions of greatness, thereby vindicating her designation and separating her from the likes of Trump. Furthermore, in detailing his recognition of her greatness, Stevens demonstrates how one ought to respond to greatness itself, countering his approach with those of the skating world and the media in Harding’s time. Stevens identifies, through Harding, the virtue inherent in greatness and shows how the proper recognition—and celebration—of great individuals is necessary for human beings to live well with one another.
Stevens begins his classification of Harding’s greatness with her self-evident superiority over the other skaters. As he sings, she could “[jump] farther” and skate “faster” than her competitors (11), and her “[t]riple axel on high” was the first of its kind in U.S. women’s history (9). Simply, at the prime of her talent, Harding was the best figure-skater around. In Stevens’ words, she was “the brightest” (29).
Beyond mere talent though was Tonya Harding’s bold and unique personality which made her stand out from among her peers. She did not have the “red carpet poses” of Kristi Yamaguchi (23-24), nor was she blessed with the “charm” of Nancy Kerrigan (25). Instead, Harding was brash, vulgar, obnoxious and, as suggested by the violent events of 1994, “not above cheating” (27). To the figure-skating world, she was “Portland white trash” (5) who had no place winning their competitions. But win she did. And she won with daring moves and unconventional music and choreography. Harding was “always so full of surprises” and this both astounded and terrified the figure-skating world (12).
For Stevens, this quality of being extraordinary is fundamental to greatness. The ability to push the status quo, challenge codes of conduct, and separate what is arbitrary from what is genuine is the work of something truly great. Indeed, greatness is not a term reserved for the unoriginal or the predictable. Thus, greatness is by nature offensive. It makes people uncomfortable and forces us to question our convictions. Harding’s bold routines and audacious charisma reminded the skating world that its ideals of personality and character did not have the final word on talent and excellence.
At the same time, greatness, according to Stevens, must also share in some quality of goodness. Offense and astonishment are not enough; true greatness means being beneficial and upbuilding as well. Here, Stevens marks a divergence from Trump. Like Harding, his campaign and character were extraordinary: his proposal to build a wall and his illicit comments about women and immigrants challenged narratives about national identity, equality and minority rights. But Trump shows that one can be extraordinary without being great as his approach—which called for the rejection and removal of others—was hostile and fundamentally divisive.
Alternatively, Harding is a “delightful disaster,” one who desires to please and works to inspire “mythical” wonder (10, 19). Her greatness offends for the sake of deeper inquiry and, ultimately, consensus. Indeed, she calls us to question our presumptions but in an attempt to reveal a larger truth about human excellence that all—not just some—can come to recognize. Hence, Stevens’ imagery involves Harding overcoming destruction and division:
. . . you rose from the ashes
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights (30-32)
For Stevens, greatness is not related to schism nor does it inspire violence or injury for neither allow human beings to bring about something lasting and meaningful. The offensive character of greatness does not involve nor seek harm, but rather shocks individuals to open them to new instances of appreciation and unity. Only such a person (or moment) that simultaneously offends and brings together can receive the proper designation of greatness.
Now, this classification is centered around Stevens’ suggestion that Harding desires recognition so as to witness to a greater instance of truth. Admittedly, this is a lofty sentiment. More often it seems that great individuals seek attention for the praise and power it brings them. What makes Stevens think that Tonya Harding is concerned with pointing beyond herself and not simply victory or self-gratification? His answer lies in her experience with sorrow.
Stevens says about Harding: “You confronted your sorrow / Like there was no tomorrow” (6-7). And throughout the song he repeatedly identifies her with emotions and images of fragility and loneliness. The bold and brash Tonya Harding is also the one liable to “end up in a ditch” (39) or not have her skates tied (13) or be made “fun” of by the “world” (33).
Stevens reveals that alongside the quality of astonishment there also belongs to the experience of true greatness an isolating reality. On one hand, the great individual is separated from the community by their talent. To be stronger or faster than others means being set apart from them. Furthermore, to go against the status quo, as greatness demands, makes her an outsider.
On the other hand, greatness also separates an individual from herself. By this, Stevens means that greatness emphasizes one part of an individual (or perhaps several) over and above the rest of their person. Harding’s skating ability and charisma were captivating, but that did not mean she was perfect. She had legitimate flaws and inconsistencies as a human being which, in the light of failure, became sources of ridicule (14). And yet, Harding ‘fought on as she was,’ refining her unconventional style and bearing her weaknesses alongside her superior gifts (41). In doing so, she received both praise and humiliation. Unlike Trump, who allows mockery to re-enforce his status—drawing the ire of his critics to use as fuel for his supporters—Harding’s mockery comes entirely at her expense; she gains nothing from it and is made visibly lesser. As Stevens sees it, this willingness to risk sorrow and humiliation prove that Harding is not concerned with greatness for her own sake, but for the sake of being great itself.
From this understanding, then, comes Stevens’ response of compassion and support. He acknowledges Harding’s isolation and imagines comforting her when he asks, “Are you lonely at night?” (17). As well, he prays for her and vows to ‘watch’ her “close to the end” (43, 40). This is not to say that Stevens condones her violent behaviour nor that he forgets her mishaps. He acknowledges both but refuses to hold it against her and pronounce judgment. As he sings, “God only knows what you are” (4). Rather he leaves open the opportunity for relationship and inclusion. Harding is, at once, his “star” and his “friend”; someone whose success he will defend, whose mistakes he will criticize and whose heart he will not abandon (1, 37).
Stevens’ offer of care is presented in the song amidst two other responses to Harding’s success. One is anger from the skating community and the other is laughter from the media (5, 8). These two groups were offended by her boldness but unwilling to make sense of her. The skating community saw Harding as an insult and refused to find any goodness in her ability, while the media regarded her as another disposable “hassle” not to be taken seriously (34-36). This labeling made Harding safe in their eyes and allowed them to precipitate her downfall, confirming her lack of importance and satiating their fears.
In this context, Harding’s situation mirrors that of Trump who has also faced hatred and laughter from his critics. The opposing Democratic party reviled him as an enemy to democracy and a villain of the American people. This approach was bolstered by a media portrayal of Trump—and his campaign—as farcical, outlandish, and backwards. Trump was serialized into a source of entertainment and the concerns of those he stood for were rejected and declared illegitimate.
Sadly, neither Tonya Harding nor Trump were able to be dismissed entirely. Their respective opponents and the media only managed to reveal the underlying malice in their own hearts. This antagonizing approach, in both instances, led to greater hostility and even violence. The two cases prove that anger and condescending laughter, unlike Stevens’ compassion, do not consider the struggle of the other side and thereby always result in the betrayal of peace and community.
In this way, Stevens sees the proper recognition of and response to greatness as being essential to human beings living cohesively with each other. Honoring and defending the truly great individuals—who offends and uplifts—allows for brilliant exploits that draw people together in a moment of wonder and appreciation (10-12). It also creates space for sympathy and mourning as the ‘star’ comes up against the burden of imperfection and risk of failure (cf. 39-40). Indeed, greatness isolates so as to reinforce the fundamental human need for community. To not acknowledge or to subvert greatness is to defer these communal encounters and give a society nothing meaningful to hold its members together by.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), the emphasis on compassion also mitigates the effects of the Trump-like demagogue. As noted above, the latter shares in the quality of being extraordinary and thereby speaks to something profound and true about the human experience. But he is not great. Nonetheless, Stevens asks that he still be met with kindness. For the demagogue’s viciousness and cruelty, like Harding’s greatness, does not extend to his entire person. He too is complex and does not deserve to be hated or laughed at.[iii] One may speak out and fight against his malice, but one may not withhold the possibility of forgiveness and welcome. To refuse those is to play into his game of annihilation and leave behind the community one sought to protect.
Stevens sees in Tonya Harding a model of greatness that accounts for the ambiguity, offensiveness and wonder of its reality. He defends her excellence and show compassion to her person—at once defining true greatness and revealing the proper response to it. He calls us to do the same so as to help rebuild our fractured world by witnessing to the unifying capacity of humanity’s own awesome and fragile greatness.
Appendix: Tonya Harding (in D major) – Sufjan Stevens
Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are
Just some Portland white trash 5
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed
Triple axel on high
A delightful disaster 10
You jumped farther and faster
You were always so full of surprises
Are your laces untied?
What’s the frown on your face for?
And just what are the skates for now? 15
Tell me which is your good side?
Are you lonely at night?
Do you miss all the glory
And the mythical story
Of the Olympian life? 20
Yamaguchi in red
She had high rise and roses
And red-carpet poses
And her outfit was splendid
Nancy Kerrigan’s charm 25
Well she took quite a beating
So you’re not above cheating
Can you blame her for crying?
Tonya, you were the brightest
Yeah you rose from the ashes 30
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights
Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle 35
Then destroy it when they’re done
Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end 40
So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star
Shining American star 45
Shining American star
Shining American star
Shining American star
[i] I would like to thank my friends Kira Chisholm, Ethan Merrifield, Tamara LaPlante, Eric Ulgiati, Robert Lynn, Roberta Beer, Hannah Zamora, and Whitney Beals for listening to my ideas, reading drafts of this paper and offering much needed revisions. As well a special thank you to Dr. Vivien Zelazny for helping develop the idea and frame its argument from the outset of the project.
[ii] In December 2017, Stevens released two versions of the song, one in the key of D major and the other in the key of Eb major. All quotations from the song will be indicated by the line number in parentheses. See the appendix for song lyrics and numbering.
[ii] Indeed, one cannot forget to acknowledge the legitimate, good things that have come about because of Trump’s presidency such as the de-escalation of tension with North Korea and subsequent steps towards the de-militarization of the Korean border.