Like seemingly most people, I found Alexander Payne’s dark comedy cult classic Election through home video well after its theatrical release. I didn’t see it in a movie theater until just this past weekend when a local revival house in my town ran it as part of a “Party Like It’s 1999” anniversary series. The chasm between what I thought of the movie back then versus what I think about it now is far wider than I expected.
Back then, Election gifted unto the world the readymade punching bag that is Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon’s breakout role – or at least one of her many breakout roles – as an ultra-determined teenager running for high school class president during her senior year. In modern parlance, we would call Tracy a try harder: She participates in every school club and quotes Henry David Thoreau in speeches. She’s the first to school in the morning and last to leave in the evening, sacrificing any hope of a social life in her larger pursuit of greatness. She, in short, cares so much about politics and power that she makes everyone else look bad by comparison, but underneath her “me vs. the world” psyche is a razor sharp bite you won’t see coming until she’s taken your head clean off.
The movie, which was adapted from Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel and is told in alternating viewpoints between the major players, makes a joke out of her determination:
She is routinely belittled in the voiceovers provided by faculty advisor Mr. McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick. Flashbacks reveal that buried in her past is a little-known sex scandal involving her and one of her now-fired teachers, which contributes to McAllister’s grudge against her since that fired teacher was his best friend. (They had a garage band and everything!) Hilarious, war cry audio cues tease that Tracy’s actually hiding plenty of pent up rage, and when she finally snaps and pulls down all of her opponent’s banners the night before the election we laugh because the whole movie has been building up to it. Plus, Reese Witherspoon is just so funny and Payne so clever about how films the sequence and its aftermath.
Post-Election, “Tracy Flick” became dismissive shorthand for so many things we should want in society – like drive and ambition – but not-so-secretly resent. We, as the New York Times’ AO Scott just argued, need more people like her, though.
Election is an argument that the politics we experience in high school are ultimately repeated with minor variations all throughout our political lives. The cool kids (represented by Chris Klein’s Paul Metzler, a former football star goated into running) forever battle the try harders (Tracy Flick, obviously) and occasional let’s-blow-it-all-up wild cards (represented by Jessica Campbell’s Tammy Metzler, who runs on a campaign of promising to disband student government entirely). The system is built to weed out the wild cards but can’t always do so. Impartial third parties often turn quite partial. The try harders might seem like idealists, but in reality they’re not above getting blood on their hands, or, in Tracy’s case, red ink. It ultimately comes down to choosing between apples and oranges, but should a pear ever got on the ballot we’re all screwed.
All still true and actually quite prescient. It was easy to see Hillary Clinton as a “Tracy Flick” figure in 2016, going up against an opponent in Donald Trump who didn’t even prepare for debates and just instinctively felt his way through, in stark contrast to her tried-and-true-politician demeanor. Trump was like Paul and Tammy Mexler rolled into one, both failing upward and building support through “let’s burn this fucker down” ranting.
The difference is in Election, Tracy wins, albeit by a single vote but she wins nonetheless. (Of course, Tammy – who is expelled after taking the fall for Tracy’s actions with the campaign posters and is thus no longer an eligible candidate – wins the plurality since her name was still on the ballot.) Mr. McAllister tries to steal the election for Paul by throwing two of Tracy’s votes in the trash, but his duplicity is discovered by a student who really cares about integrity and, in one of the film’s best gags, a custodial worker with a quiet, long-standing grudge.
Tracy is named class president and proceeds to rule with an iron fist while Paul happily parties through senior year. They both get into good colleges, and straight out of Georgetown she lands a gig working for a Republican Congressman in DC, that much closer to whichever seat of power she has in her sights. In the real word, Clinton lost, and though this may have happened even if she had won our government is now so non-functioning The Washington Post wonders if we are simply too stupid to know how to govern ourselves anymore.
So, ya know, not great.
What’s more clear to me now, however, is how much Election is about male impotency. Its entire plot is owed to Broderick’s actions. He can’t get his wife pregnant, has an affair after mistaking a single mother’s co-dependency and loneliness for love, and, as we later learn during the memorable “Fuck Me, Mr. McAllister” fantasy, mixed in with his resentment of Tracy is a bit of subconscious sexual attraction
It is the bitterness – a bitterness he’s not even consciously aware of – Mr. McAllister feels about his own station in life combined with his confused resentment and grudge with Tracy which inspires him to talk Paul into running since no one else has thrown their hat in the race. The kid, though awfully sweet-natured and adorably played by Klein, is as dumb as a rock, but even he recognizes Tracy is more qualified
Yes, Paul, and she’s super nice, but she’s also the reason that Mr. McAllister’s best friend no longer works at the high school. As AO Scott broke down so eloquently, the flashbacks we see to Tracy’s relationship with her former teacher/lover Dave plays a bit differently today:
It’s a textbook case of predatory grooming. Dave undermines Tracy’s self-esteem and separates her from her peers by telling her how lonely she seems to him, and offering himself as a special friend, someone who understands her in a way nobody else can. He swears her to secrecy, takes her to his house, puts “Three Times a Lady” on the stereo and drags her into the bedroom. Right before that happens, she’s shown sitting on his sofa sipping root beer from a can, her posture and facial expressions decidedly childlike.
When Mr. McAllister finally says the quiet part out loud and confronts Tracy about her role in Dave losing his job, wife, and home, she unfurls a surprisingly callous response, characterizing the relationship as far more transactional and belittling the love-stricken Dave for “acting so mushy.” By all rights, Tracy should be the victim of the scenario, groomed by an older man who should have known better, but it doesn’t seem to register with her as something emotional, instead more a potential political liability to be snuffed out. Mr. McAllister doesn’t know what to say, and it’s certainly a moment which has greatly contributed to why “Tracy Flick” became an insult.
McAllister, of course, is eventually given the final words of the film, wrapping up his story with voiceovers explaining what happened to him after losing his job and how he ran into Tracy in DC one time and impulsively threw a Pepsi at the back of her limo. Back at his new job at the American Museum of Natural History, he’s reminded there’s a new Tracy Flick born every time there’s that one student who raises his or her hand in class while everyone else looks off in the distance. There will always be Mr. McAllister figures who secretly hate calling on those kids, but what’s so funny about ambition, drive, and understanding?
Source: NY Times