“Sign up for tomorrow today!”
Such is the prescient slogan of Tracy Flick, the perky, preppy, headstrong heroine of Tom Perrotta’s seminal 1998 novel Election, which was adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon in one of her most defining roles the following year.
At the time, Tracy wasn’t much more than a cult favourite, but since then she has served as inspiration for countless type-A women of a similar brand – fictional and otherwise – including everyone from Rachel Berry to Paris Gellar and Amy Dunne to the real-life Samantha Bee. But more than anything, Tracy has become a face for the relentless rise of female ambition in a man’s world.
This dynamic plays out through her high school’s election for student president, where Tracy finds herself not so much pitted against her classmate Paul Metzler (a.k.a. “Mr. Popular”), but against Mr. M (played by Matthew Broderick in the film), the disgruntled history teacher who seems to have it out for her. For reasons even he doesn’t quite understand, he works hard to manipulate the election against her by convincing the much more lovable Paul to run.
Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick.
But what makes Perrotta’s novel almost infuriatingly prophetic is that, while Tracy is by all rights the antihero of the novel and Mr. M very much the villain, because she finds her own ambitious personality constantly foiled by Paul’s winning persona, Tracy very rarely wins the heart of her audience.
On paper, there is no question Tracy deserves to win the election. She’s an A student, and has been dreaming of this her whole short life. But while she is post-Clinton, she is also post-Lewinsky. She likes to wear short, tight dresses because she knows the effect they have on men. She even has an affair with Jack, her English teacher, who finds himself out of a job after he can’t take no for an answer and she outs him to the principal, a scenario she believes is partially why Mr. M is irked by her. In other words, she is not only proudly ambitious, but sexual and possibly promiscuous – every bit the confident woman, but also, a man’s worst fear.
In a 2017 interview with Vox, Perrotta said of Tracy’s genesis, “I was writing about my own generation of women. I went to a working-class high school, and then I went to Yale, and I met all these women who had been empowered in a way that a lot of the girls I had grown up with hadn’t been. They felt that the world was wide open for them. They were powerful figures, and I was both fascinated by them and a little intimidated. And then I went and I taught at Yale and Harvard for 10 years after that. I was just teaching freshman comp but meeting all these powerful young women, and I did have this feeling of, this is something new. I didn’t know that these sort of superwomen existed. They were scary to a lot of men, I think, …read more