She’s got the smarts. She’s got the tenacity. And she’s got the sweater vests.
Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) charts the gloves-off race for student body president at Carver High in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a vicious and corrupt campaign, marred by personal vendettas, shameless electoral fraud, and even more shameless hissy fits. Leading the polls (because she’s initially unopposed) is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), a little-miss-perfect eleventh-grader who plots her presidency with megalomaniacal resolve and a giant box of homemade buttons. Bossy and cunning—though still strangely cute—Tracy hides her self-interest behind good grades and very bad outfits. But the dorky knitwear isn’t just a sartorial manifestation of Tracy’s obnoxious moxie—it also encapsulates the contradictions in her characterization as a female figure of authority. Carver’s election is a popularity contest. But for Tracy, the crusade to win over her peers is intrinsically linked to her outsider status. This is Election‘s paradox of female leadership: although Tracy competes for school-wide approval via her own one-woman political party, her authoritative position also represents her exclusion—both from her classmates and from textbook forms of female identity. Tracy’s sweater vests may be symbolic of her unique competence and drive. But they also brand her as a pariah.
A quick flip through Carver’s yearbook chronicles Tracy’s experience as a pathological goodie-two-shoes. She was in Spanish club. She was on the yearbook staff. She starred in Fiddler on the Roof and served as a reporter for the student-run TV station. She was a proud member of the Future Business Leaders and the Student Government Association. Tracy is everywhere—yet she belongs nowhere. When she approaches the mic for her campaign speech, Tracy isn’t met with cheers or quiet respect, but class-clown slurs: “Eat me raw!” some dude yells from the crowd. “You’d think as student body president, I’d be the one surrounded by friends,” Tracy says after winning the election, “but it wasn’t like that at all.” Even Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), her seemingly well-intentioned (but actually somewhat Machiavellian) civics teacher, harbours secret resentment against her. He tries to ruin her campaign.
So at plot level, Tracy’s ambition translates to rejection. But being an outsider is not necessarily a curse: Tracy’s power also allows her to break outside limiting teen-movie tropes. Just think of the tension between Tracy and her rival Paul (Chris Klein), the goon-with-a-heart-of-gold who gives up football for politics after injuring his leg in a skiing accident. Although Paul’s campaign capitalizes on his popularity, he’s not so much dumb jock as ditz: his persistent—if numbskulled—amiability takes more cues from Legally Blonde than locker-room dick-wagging. And though Tracy is aggressively nerdy, she’s also straight-up aggressive. When her campaign is threatened, she tears down Paul’s posters without remorse. Paul and Tracy’s contrasting levels of aggression suggest a subversion of the traditional gender expectations inherent to their assigned stereotypes: the geeky girl is actually the bully, while the hunky QB assumes the role of well-meaning airhead. Being a nerd may exacerbate Tracy’s day-to-day exclusion at Carver—but being a nerd-in-command also excludes her from prescriptive classifications as the victimized, undesirable dork.
Flick is no ostracized wallflower, waiting for the popular guy to pull off her glasses and plant her a kiss. She approaches her nerd persona with clear-eyed determination, assuming a forceful role in both the election and her love life. That is, Tracy’s conflicted characterization as both leader and pariah is also reflected in her sexuality. Tracy doesn’t attract the boys in her class—she attracts the men at the front. First in line is Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), her geometry-teacher-with-benefits, who calls attention to Tracy’s solitude when he first hits on her during an after-hours celebration for the yearbook team. “You seem to be kind of a loner,” Dave says, noting that special people must sometimes pay a price for their greatness. “And that price,” he adds, brow furrowed earnestly (and pervily), “is loneliness.”
Although Tracy is the student and Dave is the authority figure—”He made me feel so safe and protected,” she explains in a voiceover—the power dynamic ultimately flips. Dave is fired after he gets caught writing Tracy a “mushy” note and blubbering a confession to the school principal. Tracy, months later, says he acted “like a baby.” The shift in Tracy’s romantic attitude is significant. Flashbacks to her relationship with Dave show her acting sweet, almost meek—her eyes are filled with good-girl apprehension as he guides her by the hand to his bedroom. But when it ends, she turns cold. This fallout can be read as a reversal of conventional romantic roles: the older male is the one gluing cut-out pictures of sunsets to a homemade love letter, while the teenage girl has no patience for tears. Once again, Tracy’s authority offers her freedom from the traditional performance of teenage femininity. In this case, however, her power also accompanies a return to loneliness. An analogy can be drawn between Tracy’s sexual authority and her political authority: in both sex and politics—two realms that hinge on her ability to attract others—Tracy’s solitude is a function and a consequence of her power.
Mr. McAllister, meanwhile, outwardly disapproves of Dave’s fling with Tracy. “It’s immoral and it’s illegal,” he tells his friend. Mr. M is not subtle about his contempt for Tracy: he actively tries to undermine her campaign, first by convincing Paul to run against her, then by tossing her winning votes in the garbage. Yet one night, as Mr. M snuggles into bed next to his wife, a huge vision of Tracy’s mouth fills the upper left-hand corner of the frame. “When I win the presidency, you and I are going to be spending a lot of time together,” Tracy’s mouth says, “lots and lots and lots of time.” Minutes later, Mr. M is in his basement, jerking off to a VHS from his hidden porn stash. On another occasion, Tracy takes a more active role in his sexual imagination. While having intercourse with his wife, Mr. M sees a vision of Linda, Dave’s ex. “Just like that,” Linda says, deep-voiced and sultry. But she’s promptly interrupted by another vision—of Tracy, who barks orders with military exactitude. “Fuck me hard, Mr. McAllister,” Tracy commands over a marching-band soundtrack. And he obeys.
These libidinal reveries indicate Mr. M’s attraction to Tracy’s specifically authoritative sexuality: in his dreams, she’s huge and in charge. The interplay between Tracy’s sexuality and her large-scale physical dominance is also invoked in Election‘s poster design, which depicts Mr. M’s tiny head trapped between her giant smiling lips. He may be a small, petty man, but from his perspective, she is freakishly big. And while Mr. M’s nighttime visions are enticing, he also captures Tracy at her most off-putting: on three occasions throughout Election, Tracy’s face is freeze-framed on an unflattering expression, giving Mr. M the chance to elaborate, via sincere-sounding voiceovers, his disdain for her behaviour. Mr. M sees Tracy as a series of disconnected parts or unappealing, two-dimensional moments. She is not a woman but a mouth—commanding him, attracting him, and repulsing him. Her distinctively forceful sexuality might send him on a mid-night wank, but it’s this same characteristic that inspires him to act against her. He is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by her power.
But while Mr. M remains peevishly anti-Tracy—years later, he gets his revenge by throwing a Pepsi at her limo then running away—Election invites much more equivocal interpretations of her authority. Tracy’s power makes her an outsider: although her peers elect her, they don’t accept her. However, Election also suggests that being an outsider is itself a source of power. Tracy’s authority provides an opportunity to resist formulaic representations of teenage femininity and sexuality. Attractive and icky all at once, she is neither in-the-shadows nerdy nor loved-by-all cool. But she is aggressive. And even more than being aggressively ambitious, Tracy is aggressively herself. “I’ve come to accept that very few people are truly destined to be special—and we’re solo flyers,” Tracy says during her final voiceover, immediately after bursting into the hallway of her Georgetown dorm, hair in fifties-housewife curlers, to yell at the kids chatting outside her room. This is an outsider with no desire to be anything or anyone other than who she is. And that on its own is powerful. Tracy has formed a one-woman political party, and it is—unintentionally yet unapologetically—a party for one.