Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election gave us one of the more unique and recognizable villains in film: the overachieving and manipulative Tracy Flick. She’s intelligent, ambitious, hard-working and is presented as the nemesis and focus of rage for the nominal protagonist of the film.
Her crimes? A married teacher is fired for sleeping with her and in a fit of fury, she rips down her opponent’s campaign posters. The film has the sheer balls to present a thirty-five year old married teacher who has an affair with a friendless sixteen year old as the victim and to present the defacement of high school election paraphernalia as a crime on par with Columbine. Mr. McAllister, our protagonist, is the popular history teacher, the guy who hates the smart kids and is best friends with the dumb ones. Real teacher of the year material this guy, he’s the sort who will plot revenge against a high school girl for turning in her statutory rapist.
The brilliance of the film is in telling the story from exactly the wrong angle. You think Tracy is manipulative? Election manages the feat of making the audience root against the unpopular, intelligent and hard working kid in favor of the popular idiot football player backed by a teacher rigging student elections and trying to screw around on his wife. The film is either a fantastic exercise in irony, or a propaganda salvo for idiocracy.
Tracy’s motives are not pure, but she is not evil, let alone some symbol of a particular type of terrible person. If anything, she is the paragon of what a warped system can do to its most gifted children. Straight A’s, endless extracurriculars, the kid in the front of class who always knows the answers, hand launching up like a missile before the teacher finishes asking the question. Wants to go to Georgetown, work in government. Ceaselessly cheery, masking a simmering anger, unable to understand why she has no friends, why her successes ring hollow even to herself. Of course she is manipulative and vicious, that’s not exactly an outlier among friendless teenagers.
That moment when Tracy snaps while hanging her posters, is not the monster coming out, it’s the best part of the person. She broke herself making posters, doing all of the legwork for her own campaign, no adoring little cheerleaders and underclassmen doting over her whims. No one automatically voting for her on the basis of last year’s touchdown passes. Her opponent, Mr. Gosh-aw-shucks himself never lifts a damned finger, he doesn’t even care about running for the office in the first place, just cajoled into it.
There are three candidates for president. Tracy runs on the platform of competence, hard work, and a set of ideas for how she can help the school. Her two opponents run on the platforms of “just happy to be here” and “fuck the system,” respectively. Horrified that Tracy tore down all the posters? Schools have been burned down for less than she endured.
In the final scenes of the film, we see the saintly Mr. McAllister reduced to museum docent, pointedly ignoring the raised hand of the only kid in his tour group who knows the answers to his questions, a spiteful slap at an eager girl just like Tracy. That right there is why Tracy is the way she is. Smack down the intelligent, the outspoken, the ambitious. Use petty authority to shut them up, cultivate an environment that poisons their peers against them, encourage the ostracization of those who actually try. And if they succeed anyway, just rig the vote. Yet we should react with horror that Tracy is manipulative and angry? The world Tracy lives in is why Ayn Rand appeals to certain teenagers.
The reason that we don’t get to have Leslie Knopes is because the real world beats those people into Tracy Flicks.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.