Of all the teen comedies made in the 90s/early 00s, Election is often overshadowed by bigger hits like Clueless and Mean Girls. But the Alexander Payne-helmed high school election movie has clawed out a pop culture legacy through its maniacally driven female lead, Tracy Flick, the type-A striver epitomized. Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a new type of high school mean girl: The wholesome-looking overachiever, uninterested in social climbing but ruthlessly fixated on success.
Flick is all chin-out grit, a querulous, hyper-competent terror, the ultimate Ambitious Girl. Don't get me wrong: She is a sociopath in this movie. Election is a fizzy, bitter comedy about bad people. But like any good anti-hero, her pathos and misdeeds are compelling:
Flick has become a sort of cultural shorthand for ambitious female politicians, something Flavorwire pointed out last year. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were both compared to Flick during the 2008 elections, besides being polar opposites as political opponents. Even in his original review, Robert Ebert compared Flick to Elizabeth Dole.
These are not overt compliments: Flick, as I said before, is a sociopath. But they're also not overt insults. There are so few cultural touchstones for unbridled female ambition that Flick's clawed political ascent is probably the best example we have of a woman who will do whatever it takes to win. And she is always, always competent, more so than her male rivals. So yes, calling a female pol a "Tracy Flick" type is not saying nice things about her personality, but it's certainly paying tribute to her ability and drive.
"Who the fuck does she think she is?" her former teacher muses at the end of the film. While Tracy's striving machinations are never forgiven in the film, it's clear that the implicit follow-up question is "Who the fuck do you think you are?"
Flick is a character near-and-dear to my pestilent heart. Election came out when I was in 7th grade. That year, I ran for student council president. I was the first candidate and running uncontested, but still insistent on printing candidacy posters and practicing a speech where I meticulously outlined my campaign promises. I had been on student council since 4th grade, and this would be my third election. I had glasses, braces, a forehead devoted to excreting oil, and a well-earned reputation for being a dork.
I lost the election to a late-entry candidate: A popular basketball player named Luke who wore a tie ironically. Shortly after the election, I was at a charity car wash with people in my grade and their families. Some parents were talking about the student council election. "That Knibbs kid is like that Tracy Flick," one of the dads said to another dad. (Fuck you, that dad! But also, much respect to your taste in movies.) They dad-chuckled at my earnest ambition while I pretended to wash a tire that was already clean just so I could keep crouching.
Now I take that as a retroactive compliment. Plus, to be fair, he could've just been talking about my chin and not my latent sociopathy. While completely side-stepping sentimentality with a script committed to portraying viciousness, Election still manages to find empathy and admiration for Flick. Plus, beyond the fascinating main character's lasting role in pop culture, it's simply a dark, funny film, and it's available on Netflix.
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