In the 2008 Democratic Primary race, the roles were just as clear as they were in Alexander Payne’s excellent 1999 satire Election: charismatic newcomer Barack Obama was Paul Metzler, and Hillary Clinton was the perky yet terrifying Tracy Flick. There was no doubt that the latter had put in the years necessary for the role, but something about her down-to-business ways did not sit right with the voters. They opted for change instead of experience, for the ex-quarterback with new ideas and a disregard for how things have been done in the past because, well, he hadn’t been adhering to the rules for very long before he was in the position to break them.
Hillary, meanwhile, endures, as does the Tracy Flick archetype to which she’s been pegged practically since the release of Election, 15 years ago today. Alexander Payne’s film (and the Tom Perrotta novel from which it’s adapted) has never felt more relevant now, as 2016 looms in the distance as Hillary’s Last Viable Shot. Despite announcing nothing, Clinton already has a super Pac in waiting, called Ready for Hillary. And, of course, she’s spent four years as Obama’s Secretary of State, a role in which she’s generally fared well, with the exception of Benghazi and the failed Russia Reset initiative. (This doesn’t mean the Right aren’t going to try to keep tarnishing her legacy anyway).
But then again, performance issues have never been Clinton’s problem. If she wins in 2016, the victory will likely have at least something peripheral to do with the fact that she’s at last managed to shed the Tracy Flick persona. She’s enjoying a newfound pop-cultural appreciation, because she’s more apt to joke (Texts From Hillary helped with that big time). She’s taken a breather career-wise, which not only keeps her out of the TV news shit-storm but appears humanizing; she is, after all, going to be a grandmother soon — something Bill said Hillary “wants more than she wanted to be president.”
Regardless of who wins the next presidential election, the Tracy Flick persona will live on each time an ambitious woman rises — in politics or elsewhere. Some are — and will continue to be — Tracy Flicks, which is to say that they’re ambitious to a villainous level, scheming and stopping at little to obtain power. There are plenty of male politicians like that, so why wouldn’t there be female counterparts? But not every ambitious woman is a Tracy Flick, despite its shorthand usage on blogs and cable news the New York fucking Times in reference to current female politicians like New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
In his original review of Election, Roger Ebert compared the character to Elizabeth Dole, former cabinet secretary for the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations, and a North Carolina senator. Despite her lack of political experience, even Sarah Palin got the Flick comparisons, based solely on her ambition. It’s a little troubling, considering Flick’s can’t-stop-won’t-stop attitude, intelligence, impeccable hygiene, and experience are the only redeeming qualities keeping Witherspoon’s character from being a sociopathic villain. Forget the redemption — any intimidatingly striving female is a Tracy Flick, and yes, that’s an insult.
For those who haven’t recently revisited Election (which you absolutely should), Tracy wins in the end — in multiple contexts. After it comes out that Matthew Broderick’s character, student government advisor Mr. McAllister, fudged the results of the election in her rival Paul Metzler’s favor, Tracy gets him fired and shines in the role of president.
“Tracy, you’re a very intelligent girl. You have a lot of admirable qualities, but one day maybe you’ll learn that being smart and doing whatever you need to do to get ahead and yes, stepping on other people to get there… well there’s a whole lot more to life that that,” McAllister tells Flick as he tries to take her down the first time, referencing her affair with (and subsequent destruction of) fellow teacher Dave. “And in the end you’re only cheating yourself.”
Later we see Flick keeping focused at Georgetown, and ultimately working alongside a seemingly powerful politician while still quite young. As the film comes to a close, McAllister becomes the villain, and in doing so, makes us feel for Tracy Flick, who spends the last few minutes of the film philosophizing about why overachievers are “solo fliers.”
“Who the fuck does she think she is?” McAllister asks no one, before throwing a Pepsi at her limo. The girl whose first line in the film is, “some people say I’m an overachiever, but I think they’re just jealous,” suddenly doesn’t look so crazy. Maybe the same will be said of Hillary in 2016.