Our figure-skating obsession: Why America loves watching women fall

American media culture loves watching women torn apart, and figure skating is no exception

Topics: Yulia Lipnitskaya, Olympics, sochi olympics, 2014 Olympics, Figure skating, yuna kim, winter games, tonya harding, nancy kerrigan, ,

Our figure-skating obsession: Why America loves watching women fallYulia Lipnitskaya of Russia falls in the women's short program at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Credit: AP/Darron Cummings)

Yulia Lipnitskaya, the Russian figure skater who stole the hearts of viewers around the world during last week’s team competition, was poised to become the darling of this year’s Olympic games. At 15 years old, Lipnitskaya has been hailed by the media as a child prodigy, barely old enough to qualify for competition. She beat the cutoff by just 26 days. 1998 gold medalist Tara Lipinski predicted that Lipnitskaya would be the surprise of this year’s Olympics, but Lipnitskaya’s rise to prominence proved little shock for Russia, where she has become a symbol of the country’s figure-skating renaissance. Credited for her form and flexibility, Lipnitskaya balances the elasticity of youth with a mature professionalism and reserve.

However, predictions of Lipnitskaya’s dominance proved premature, as the young skater suffered a devastating tumble in yesterday’s short program, dashing her hopes of a gold medal. After a characteristically flawless routine, Yulia Lipnitskaya capped off the contest with a botched final jump that sent her crashing to the ice. Lipnitskaya’s coach chalked it up as a “technical error,” and the skater finished in fifth place in the competition, while South Korea’s Yuna Kim nabbed first.

Lipnitskaya is hardly the first media darling to come up short in the women’s skating competition. Michelle Kwan struggled for years to live up to outsize expectations, settling for a silver medal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. 2002 would prove her last chance at redemption, and Kwan suffered a devastating slip during a routine triple flip. Kwan became a punch line, the moment remembered as the fall heard around the world.

If it’s any consolation to Michelle Kwan or Yulia Lipnitskaya, neither can hold a candle to France’s Laetitia Hubert, who fell four times in 1992’s Albertville games. The clip is available on YouTube and it’s torture to sit through, like watching “Jaws” take place on the skating rink. At the end of her routine, Hubert bows in a moment of resignation and despair, knowing that she’ll go down in history — but for all the wrong reasons.



At the Winter Olympics, figure skaters rule the games, dominating press coverage and media attention. Female figure skaters become household names, whether due to victory, as in the case of the aforementioned Lipinski, or infamy, like Tonya Harding, whose scandal proved irresistible tabloid fodder, dominating gossip rags for years. The details are Olympic legend: The 24-year-old Olympic hopeful allegedly hired her ex-boyfriend and bodyguard to attack competitor Nancy Kerrigan, bruising her leg with a baton. After healing from the injury, Kerrigan would go on to place second, while Harding finished in eighth. Despite not actually winning the event, both women are more widely remembered than Kristi Yamaguchi, who actually won gold in 1992. The two short program broadcasts in 1994 pulled in Super Bowl-size viewership, averaging over 70 million viewers.

Harding and Kerrigan were the perfect example of our national obsession with watching pretty young women fall from grace. Figure skaters are so mesmerizing to American audiences in part because they’re consummate athletes whose sport also performs traditional femininity. A skater is everything a woman is taught to be, graceful and elegant, an ethereal figure reduced to the very fact of her body. She can seem more than human, almost angelic, until the moment she is brought down to earth. Ashley Wagner’s “bullshit” reaction to her lower-than-expected score last week perfectly broke that fourth wall. In that moment, she became human again. The result lives on in GIF form for all eternity.

The fall from grace was literal in the case of Yulia Lipnitskaya, who dealt with her own underperformance not with outrage but tears. Our fascination with her spill, and others like it,  embodies our complicated relationship with women. From “Revenge” to the “Real Housewives” series, our media culture revels in seeing women torn apart, whether relieved of their hair extensions or exposed for their flaws. A figure skater executing a perfectly graceful routine until the moment she slams into the ice satisfies this obsession perfectly.

On Thursday, Lipnitskaya will be fighting an uphill battle during the finals, almost 10 points behind Yuna Kim in the standings. As USA Today’s Christine Brennan predicts, the two women will have a “few more skaters between them when the evening is over,” and Ms. Lipnitskaya is a long shot for a medal. But she’s already secured herself a place in our collective memory of these Olympics, perhaps as much for what she symbolizes as for what she does.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Yuna Kim’s nationality. She is competing for South Korea.

Nico Lang is a contributor at the L.A. Times, Huffington Post and Thought Catalog as well as the co-editor of BOYS, an anthology series featuring the stories of gay, queer and trans* men. Lang's debut novel, "The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses," was released earlier this year.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...