In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.
In 1999, as the black-hearted comedy Election slunk its way onto movie screens across America, the film critic MaryAnn Johanson made a prescient prediction. This was going to be one of those movies, Johanson wrote, that would see a huge generation gap in the way audiences responded to it.
Election, directed by Alexander Payne and based on the 1998 novel by Tom Perrotta, stars Matthew Broderick, the slacker Gen X hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Here, Broderick plays a high school teacher named Mr. McAllister, or Mr. M. He’s scheming to foil the plans of go-getter Tracy Flick, played by a young Reese Witherspoon with her chin thrust permanently, belligerently forward.
Tracy, who dots the i in her last name with a gold star, wants to be president of the student body, is qualified to take on the role, and moreover, is running unopposed. But Mr. M. finds her so annoying that he ends up ruining his own life in his quest to take her down. Adultery, voter fraud, and 200 personalized cupcakes ensue.
While Mr. McAllister is the point-of-view character, Election doesn’t exactly take a side in his epic battle against Tracy Flick. Still, film critics at the time sided almost universally with the erstwhile Ferris and against good-girl Tracy. “One wonders if this Tracy might not really be a monster, a kind of Hitler in the crib,” mused the SFGate, speaking for the crowd.
Johanson wasn’t so sure that consensus would stand the test of time. “Tracy’s not actually a bad person,” Johanson reasoned. “It’s only in McAllister’s head that she’s dangerous, and as a fellow misanthropic Xer, I see his point — Tracy is annoyingly eager, determined, and devoted to her school to the point of self-sacrifice.” Yet everything that made Tracy seem so annoying and even malicious to McAllister could, Johanson pointed out, be considered heroic — especially by the generation that was at the time just beginning to be called millennial.
More than 20 years later, Johanson has been proven correct, up to a point. As Tracy makes her return to pop culture in the form of Perrotta’s new Election sequel, the novel Tracy Flick Can’t Win, she’s being greeted with the form of pop culture mea culpas that we have become used to rolling out for most of the prominent women of the Y2K eras: think piece after think piece about how we were wrong about Tracy Flick way back when. She has become a sort of fictional amalgam of all those wronged women, Britney and Hillary and Monica rolled into one obstreperous package.
“How despicably does a man have to behave before he forfeits our sympathy?” asked New York Times film critic A.O. Scott in a 2019 reevaluation of the film. Scott found himself appalled by his old instinct to read Tracy as a villain and Mr. M. as a monster. “How much does a woman — a teenage girl — have to suffer before she earns it?”
Perrotta asks a similar question in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. In this new sequel, Tracy is once again thwarted by those who would deny her the honors she deserves, and once again she suffers enormously in the process.
Contrary to the title, Tracy does, in the end, win the day. But her win is vexed, fraught, and shaded with ambiguities. It seems ripe for nearly as much misinterpretation as Election itself was.
Tracy Flick is a Rorschach test for how we think about women, ambition, and the power dynamics of sex. To understand how Tracy transitioned from baby Hitler to symbol of wronged women everywhere, we’ll have to go all the way back to 1998. We’ll see what led audiences to read her as a villain then, what makes them think of her as a hero now — and what biases might still be hiding in the way we read Tracy Flick.
“Tracy Flick is one of the most complex female characters to run riot through an American movie in memory”
There are two things about Perrotta’s Election that have largely been discarded or ignored in its cultural legacy that are crucial for understanding Tracy Flick.
The first is that the events of the novel take place in 1992, and are explicitly framed as an analogue to the 1992 presidential election and Bill Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers. Election’s high school student body president race features a George H.W. Bush candidate, an establishment figure who should be a lock for the presidency but who isn’t exactly popular: Tracy. There’s an affable Bill Clinton figure, the popular jock Paul Metzler, whom Mr. M. manipulates into running against Tracy. And there’s a Ross Perot, a third-party candidate who runs on a platform of nihilism and ends up picking up massive amounts of support. That’s Paul’s sister Tammy, who runs against him as an act of revenge after he steals her girlfriend.
The big twist in Election is that Paul, the Bill Clinton, isn’t the one who has the dark secret. Tracy does.
Tracy is a good girl with a squeaky clean reputation and unstoppable forward drive. She empathizes with a pundit’s description of George H.W. Bush as a man whose “fire-in-the-belly” is “all he has.” Her smoldering sexuality leaves Paul incapable of thinking straight around her. “She’s got this ass,” he confides to us.
Tracy’s secret, the Gennifer Flowers peccadillo waiting in the wings to come out and destroy her, is that she had what she describes as “an affair” with her English teacher, Dave, a close friend of Mr. M.’s. (Confronted with the term “sexual harassment,” she says simply, “I don’t think it applies,” on the grounds that Dave never threatened her GPA.) And although Mr. M. never comes right out and says so, it’s clear that he decides to go after Tracy as a way of punishing her for this affair: for looking like a good girl and acting like someone else.
“Looking at her,” he complains, “you’d think she was just a sweet teenage girl who deserved every good thing that had ever happened to her.” In fact, he considers Tracy guilty: first of sleeping with Dave, then of dumping him and letting her mom tell the principal about their relationship, so that Dave lost both his job and his marriage. Tracy, in Mr. M.’s eyes, has displayed a failure of character.
Contemporary critics had no trouble picking up on the tension between Tracy’s good-girl image and her jailbait actions. The contrast was delicious, and part of what made Tracy such an instantly iconic character. “Tracy Flick,” ran the New York Times book review, “is a self-conscious overachiever who defies labeling as a goody-two-shoes: she once had an affair with a teacher — ‘even if he did turn out to be as big a baby as any 16-year-old.’”
The contrast was only heightened a year later, when Payne’s version of Election hit theaters. As played by Witherspoon, Tracy’s no longer a charismatic sexpot. Now she’s prim in her headbands and Peter Pan collars, and pointedly childlike. When we first meet her, she’s sitting in a chair and swinging her legs because she’s so short that her feet don’t quite touch the ground. When we see her seduction by her teacher — now renamed Dave Novotny — she’s perched on his couch, guzzling root beer through a straw, eyes giant.
Still, the film treats Tracy’s perky precocity as something seductive in its own right, and an object of intense fascination for Mr. M. In Mr. M.’s head, Tracy’s lips are red and luscious as they hover over his ear and whisper about how excited she is to be working very closely with him. When he has sex with his wife, he sees Tracy’s head superimposed over hers, headband and all, and hears her say, “Fuck me, Mr. M.”
There’s a vast, dizzying divide between the prudishness of Tracy’s looks and the raunch shown both in her relationship with Dave and in Mr. M.’s fantasies. For most critics in 1999, that divide was key to the layers of her character.
“Tracy Flick,” LA Weekly declared, is “one of the most complex female characters to run riot through an American movie in memory. The character is so rich, so contradictory and so deeply, enduringly unsettling that it’s almost a shock — if she weren’t so obviously homegrown, Tracy Flick could be French. (In some scenes, she comes across like a slightly sturdier Lolita, though one as shanghaied by her own ambition as she is by men.)”
The idea that Tracy carries as much responsibility for her relationship with her teacher as Clinton did for his adultery with Flowers, and that this relationship should be a source of shame for her, is embedded in the text. But it would also be contradicted by the second forgotten plot line of Perrotta’s Election.
“It was easier than you might imagine to forget she was 15”
Mr. M’s trusty current events class doesn’t only discuss the 1992 election. It also discusses a horrific local news story. The football stars of a neighboring high school, we learn, have sexually assaulted a girl Mr. M. describes as “mentally retarded” with a broomstick. Their defense in court is that the assault was consensual.
Mr. M.’s students overwhelmingly side with the boys. So does much of the rest of the town, which we see gossiping over the girl’s “major pair of hooters.” Mr. M., disgusted by the town’s response, prides himself on knowing better than the high schoolers when it comes to this case. But the rest of Election makes it clear that he doesn’t, really. While Mr. M. doesn’t want to admit it, the football player rape case and Dave’s seduction of Tracy are analogous: both sexual abuses of power. Tracy is a child, her teacher takes advantage of her, and Mr. M. blames Tracy for it.
Mr. M. is even prone to gossiping about the bodies of his teenage students, including Tracy’s, in the same way that the rest of the town gossips about the football players’ victim. “It was easier than you might imagine to forget she was 15,” says Mr. M. of Tracy and her much-discussed ass. “Spend enough time in a high school, and you forget what 15 means.”
Perrotta won’t let the reader forget what 15 means, though. When we see Tracy’s rendezvous with Dave, it becomes painfully clear just how teenage she really is.
“It’s a bad dream,” she tells us: “my English teacher is standing naked at the foot of this slightly lumpy bed, clutching a pair of not-quite-white underpants in his hand, studying me with this creepy look on his face, the one he gets when he’s reading aloud in class and wants us to think he’s moved by the passage.”
Tracy is very young, Dave is very middle-aged, and the whole situation is sad and gross. If Tracy thinks she’s consenting, the novel implies it’s only in the way the football players’ victim did: as someone powerless feeling obligated to do what someone stronger asks her to do.
There’s an ambiguity here that is fundamental to the way Perrotta approaches the world. Tracy’s relationship with her teacher is on the one hand a source of shame, a dark secret that threatens to negate all her hard work and render her unelectable. On the other hand, it’s also straightforwardly a case of sexual harassment.
This sort of double-think speaks to a vexed confusion of the era, a sense that sexual assault can on the one hand be very bad and something to be condemned, but on the other hand really is pretty shameful to the victim if you think about it. The critical response to Election shows that the first half of that idea wasn’t anywhere near as compelling as the second, especially when you’re looking for reasons not to like someone.
Tracy was already annoying: so self-centered, so ambitious. “Something in those flashing, sanctimonious eyes portends the worst,” the Washington Post mused. With critics already in an amenable frame of mind, it was easy to seize on the idea of her relationship with her teacher as one of many reasons audiences should consider her a villain. If her teacher preyed on her, well, didn’t she deserve it?
“I tried to turn it into a funny story, but no one ever laughed”
Perrotta’s new Election sequel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, turns on the question of which interpretation of Election is correct. Is it the interpretation of 1999, or that of 2019? Was Tracy the hero of the story all along? Or was she the villain?
Like Election before it, Tracy Flick Can’t Win is framed as an explicit response to a major cultural event. While the former took on the 1992 election, the latter is Perrotta’s Me Too novel.
As the book opens, Tracy Flick finds herself living in a world in which it’s now mainstream conventional wisdom that teenage girls who have relationships with their teachers are not the responsible parties. She finds the transition as jarring as many of the rest of us do.
“The thing you had to understand,” she tells us, “is that I wasn’t a normal high school girl.” Tracy saw herself as exceptional: smarter and more ambitious than any of her peers, a mini adult who deserved to be treated as such. So even after she became an actual adult, it still made sense to her that when she was a teenager, her teacher had instigated a relationship with her. Wasn’t he only doing what she wanted and treating her as the adult she thought she was?
Then Me Too arrived, and with it, story after story of girls who, like Tracy, considered themselves to be exceptional and who, like Tracy, were abused by an adult who took advantage of that belief. “You can’t keep reading these stories, one after the other,” Tracy admits, “and keep clinging to the idea that your own case was unique.”
To the adult Tracy, just as damaging as the memory of her relationship with Dave is the memory of Mr. M.’s betrayal. “For a while, in my twenties, I tried to turn it into a funny story, but no one ever laughed,” she muses. “I think it just made people wonder if there was something wrong with me, and I couldn’t help wondering that myself, because why else would a teacher hate me so much that he’d ruin his life just to stop me from getting something I desperately wanted and totally deserved?” Who, after all, could inspire such rage but an infant Hitler?
But that girl — who was so ferociously ambitious that she terrified her teacher — is gone in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Now chastened, Tracy has been stripped of much of her alpha dog swagger. Although she long planned to be the first female president, her dreams were derailed when her single mother developed MS while Tracy was in law school. Scholarship student Tracy dropped out to help, and eventually got a job as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. As the novel opens, Tracy’s mother is dead, and Tracy is now an assistant principal at a school not dissimilar to her old high school. Her great ambition is to take over as principal once the incumbent retires.
Tracy’s new position feels at once both redemptive and humiliating. For once, her status as an underdog isn’t up for debate: No one could feel the need to bring this version of Tracy Flick down a peg because she’s already been brought down so far. It’s a position designed to evoke the reader’s sympathies, not their rage.
Still, in another sense the move feels as though it’s stolen Tracy’s Election-era win away from her once again. So what if she finally did manage to become student body president despite all Mr. M.’s worst efforts? She’s still seen her dreams dashed more thoroughly than Mr. M. could manage on his best day.
Tracy’s redemption does eventually arrive — but it comes in a way that is, within Perrotta’s low-stakes world, tonally pretty weird. I won’t spoil the details here, but I will say that the climax of Tracy Flick Can’t Win sees Tracy performing a highly dramatic, highly dangerous act of self-sacrifice that ends with her whole community lauding her as a hero.
When Tracy tries to explain her actions, she does so with an elevated tone that once again sounds foreign to Perrotta’s grubby, venal little world. “I still can’t tell you why I did that,” she says, “except to say that that’s me, that’s who I am, that’s how I’ve tried to live my life. Going where I’m needed, doing what I can to make things better, trying to be of service.”
For the most part, the critics of 2022 have both taken Tracy at her word and suggested that they are a little disappointed with Perrotta that they feel compelled to do so.
“Her exoneration thrilled me; I imagine that many readers will feel the same. But the effort of recuperation wears on the book,” wrote Katy Waldman in the New Yorker. “The aftertaste of a voguish feminism, one that casts all women as misunderstood saviors, lingers. Perrotta’s step seems surest when his characters’ saintliness — or, better yet, their miscreance — doesn’t lie quite so close to the surface.”
“You will not close this book commiserating with the likes of Mr. M. Nor will you wonder whether you missed the nuances,” declared the Atlantic. “Tracy Flick Can’t Win is frankly didactic.”
It is worth considering, however, that Perrotta’s narrators are all highly unreliable. When, at the end of Election, Mr. M. congratulated himself for knowing that sexual violence was bad, there was plenty of room to doubt his version of his self-image. Should we be so sure now that Tracy is right about herself?
There is plenty of evidence that the Tracy of Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a woman who “tries to be of service.” In this book, Tracy spends most of her page time attending to the minutiae of public school administration with a focus that borders on the maniacal. But in Election, part of Tracy’s charm is how little she cares about being of service, and how much she cares about her own furious and tremendous ambitions. As a teenager, the great object of Tracy’s fantasies is power: accumulating it, winning it, taking it for herself, and doing so unapologetically. There is something thrilling in reading it, watching it, in seeing this girl want so much so badly.
Perhaps Tracy’s assertion that “who I am” is someone who spends her time “doing what I can to make things better” is, in its way, as much of a piece of self-deception as Mr. M.’s laudatory self-image as the guy who knows you don’t mock the rape victim at the end of Election. After all, Perrotta’s books are peopled with characters who lie to themselves. And an ambitious woman has as much reason to lie as anyone else.
What made the critics of 1999 find Tracy Flick so villainous was not just her position as her teacher’s victim but her straightforward, cold-blooded ambition. It would suit Tracy’s purposes now to think of herself not as someone who wanted power for her own purposes, but as someone whose ambitions were always in the service of something bigger than herself.
Such a revisionist reading, like the reading of Tracy as a sexual harassment victim, makes her a character who’s much easier to sympathize with than the craven power-snatching teenager of Election. But we take Tracy at her word here at our own peril.
What Tracy Flick seems to understand instinctively in Election is that power will protect her. It will make it not matter that she is friendless, that no one likes her enough to write a genuine in-joke in her yearbook, that she can’t even get her cousin to ask her to the prom. It will make her a person who would not be targeted by a predator like Dave, who sees that she is lonely and weak and so considers her easy pickings. It will make her never again be the girl who is, as she discovers humiliatingly in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, exactly like every other precocious teenager whose teacher preyed on her.
The misreadings of Election of 1999 revealed a culture that was all too willing to despise a teenage girl, no matter how much she suffered, and pity a middle-aged white man, no matter how despicable his actions. Perhaps what the misreadings of Tracy Flick Can’t Win reveal is a culture that is still unwilling to let girls long for power enough to protect themselves. It reveals a culture that will celebrate an ambitious woman, as long as her greatest ambition is to be a high school principal.