The Thread: The Stories We’ve Been Told

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Maybe it was her blonde hair. Maybe it was the headline: “Kirsten Gillibrand Speaks Mandarin. But Everyone Is Talking About Pete Buttigieg’s Norweigan Instead.” Maybe it was just that it’s election time again. Something summoned the ghost of Tracy Flick, ferocious protagonist of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Election, and the movie of the same name.

Tracy Flick, I thought, boarding the train to work. Every female politician no matter who she is or how she runs, gets framed as a Tracy Flick.

In the 1999 film adaptation, Tracy Flick is the qualified, ambitious teenage girl played by Reese Witherspoon. Tracy Flick tries so hard. Tracy Flick listens to student concerns, and quotes them in her campaign speech. Tracy Flick has everything a student body president should have except that Tracy Flick is a very, very annoying teenage girl. Or at least, that is how I remember her.

Initially, Tracy runs unopposed. Then Paul (played by the affable Chris Klein) decides to run. Paul is popular, a jock, handsome. He is also utterly clueless about what a student body president does. But I remember he’s charming and hard to hate. He is the perfect foil to Tracy’s grating ambition and tireless work ethic. Where she tries harder, he barely tries. Where she is “shrill,” he is charismatic. Where she knows everything, he knows nothing at all.

When I was in middle school, I ran for student body president. I was not quite Tracy Flick, but I was smart and dorky and cared about my college applications. I understood that being involved with student government was the name of the game if I wanted to go to a good college.

“Fuck the patriarchy,” I wrote, as I posted the Gillibrand/Buttigieg piece to my social media. Can’t we do better? Can’t we learn anything from 2016? Couldn’t it be different this time, with so many qualified women running, at least three of whom would make fine presidents, at least one of whom was touted by the 2016 brogressives’ as the Woman They’d Totally Vote For?

For me, and probably for any woman who lived through the 2016 election as a Hillary Clinton supporter, this election cycle, though barely begun, is starting to feel like a plot line we know all too well. This time, because of the large number of candidates, the sexism remains, but our enthusiasm is diffuse, at least for now. I worry about the day when our choices dwindle, when the primaries get tight, when there’s only one woman or two, and all the misogyny that is currently being flung at the field of them gets targeted at one or two. I also fear that a woman won’t make it that far.

I decided to re-watch Election. I realized that in the twenty years since I saw it last, I had unsurprisingly forgotten quite a bit about the story. I had forgotten that the protagonist, Jim (played by Matthew Broderick), is a mediocre high school teacher out for revenge. His target is Tracy Flick, who had an “affair” with a teacher who was fired after she broke up with him. Jim, our anti-hero and the best friend of the fired teacher, becomes so obsessed with retribution, and with putting Tracy in her place, he’s willing to leverage other children against her, convincing an injured football player (Paul) to run for president. Paul’s younger sister, Tammy, also decides to run after her girlfriend dumps her. Tracy delivers a barn burner speech where she promises that if she’s elected, she’ll disband the student government. In the end, Tracy wins by one vote, and Jim is caught destroying two votes for Tracy and loses his job. Rather than seeing his downfall as the result of his own misguided breakdown, Jim blames Tracy for once again ruining a man’s life.

“What happens to a man when he loses everything,” Jim’s voiceover asks us during the opening credits. This is the tip-off, the giant clue I missed as a teenage girl, that this is not a story about a powerful teenage girl; it’s about an adult man’s perceived victimization at the hands of said girl.

I graduated high school in 1999, the same year Election was released. I sympathized with Jim’s raging impotence. I laughed at Tracy’s fall. I cheered for that middle-aged man trying everything to put her in her place. I never thought the film was driven by a mediocre white man’s feelings until I watched it again, and the film became a misogynist stew of himpathy. Jim’s pathetic man-child behavior stands in stark contrast to Tracy’s driven dedication. He spends the whole film trying and failing to punish her for daring to be more than he thought she should be: too smart, too sexy, too powerful in her own right.

Jim’s raging failure is best summed up in his final moment of the film, when he sees Tracy as a young woman getting into a limo in Washington, DC.

“Who the fuck does she think she is?” Jim cries, throwing his soda cup at the back of the car. And yet, when the car stops, Jim doesn’t confront Tracy. He turns and runs away. He hates her because she scares him, and she scares him because she challenges the story that men have comforted themselves with for generations: that intelligent girls and women are unattractive, while desirable girls and women are dumb. It’s a convenient myth that allows for consistent male dominance, and is utterly laughable in its simplicity. But in stripping away that myth, by asserting and redefining themselves, women have thrown down the gauntlet, challenging men to step into a new masculinity narrative that they still (twenty years after Election) haven’t found.

Before my body became visible to male desire, it was my brain that got all the attention. At some point, I learned that appearing smarter than the boys I desired was a death knell to desire’s reciprocation. I saw it happen and had it explained to me multiple times. So I played down my own intelligence, pretending I didn’t understand things I did.

I cringe writing that, remembering the false tip of my head, the plastered-on furrowed brow, the little head shake. It was a dumb-blonde act I cobbled together from movies and television shows. I hung Marilyn Monroe posters on my wall and read every biography of her that I could find in the library. The thing about Marilyn was she wasn’t dumb; she just played it on the screen. I loved that. I used to tell people that I loved to be underestimated.

Eventually, I got tired of pretending I didn’t understand things. I kept the blonde hair, but dropped the ditzy routine. Instead of making myself appear less intelligent or engaged, I changed who I was comparing myself to. Instead of going after boys my own age, I went after men. I had an “affair” with a teacher at my school.

This was my story, but it was also the script I was given. I was making decisions about how to present myself, but my decisions were made within the parameters of patriarchy. I couldn’t see it because it was the lens I was looking through, the water I swam in. To be desired and to be intelligent was subversive and scary, so I made sure that I desired people who were smarter, in some way, than I was. By pursuing grown men, I kept myself safely in a weaker place without having to pretend I was intellectually lost.

Perotta claims his novel was inspired by the 1992 election, when Ross Perot spoiled the George Bush/Bill Clinton face-off by running as an independent third party. Bill Clinton was in his second term as president during my own coming-of-age affair with my high school drama teacher. The Monica Lewinsky story broke in the same month that my teacher was reported to my high school. I have always felt a kinship with Lewinsky—and Flick, for obvious reasons—because of that timing. I felt badly for her, but I barely dared admit it at the time. She was labeled a homewrecker, a vixen. The story was that she, like Flick, had gotten exactly what she deserved.

In a 2009 interview with The New Republic, Perotta addressed how he conceived of Tracy Flick. “What I was responding to with Tracy was new: a generation of hard-charging women, the daughters of first-generation feminists and unapologetic achievers. This was the late ’80s and early ’90s, and they were different than the girls I had grown up with, more willing to compete.” That middle-aged male anxiety drives the plot of Election is unsurprising, given the author’s point of view.

Lewinsky, Flick, and I shared the girl-power ambition that seems to bother men like Perotta and his teacher character, Jim. We were 1990s girls, raised on you-can-do-anything feminism. I remember Barbie commercials that chanted it, story books that reinforced it. I had the sense that the fight was behind me, that my mother’s and grandmother’s generations had challenged the norms and changed the world for women. I don’t even think I heard the word patriarchy until college, and even then, the concept seemed outdated. I was told I could be president from the time I could read. I was assured I was no different and would not be treated any differently because of my gender.

I believed the story. I thought I could be anything. I might have believed it all the way until the 2016 election, when I was thirty-five. I might have even believed it after that, when I heard people talk about their deep-seated hatred of Hillary in particular. It wasn’t women, per se, I heard. It was that woman. She was too much, too rich, too fake, too battered, too Clinton.

Tracy Flick’s ambition is framed to be grating. She wanted to be student body president, and she did everything she was supposed to do to win. But the book and the film are both by men, and so she’s presented through the lens of her teacher, Jim, who also hates her for other misogynist reasons. Flick was presented as wholly ambitious and determined. Her character is grotesque because of that lens. I laughed as her teacher tried to bring her down because I was set up to laugh at it, to see it as amusing instead of horrifying. My sympathies flow toward Jim because they were orchestrated to.

Reese Witherspoon said she was haunted by Tracy Flick for years. People collapsed Witherspoon with the character. She’s talked about industry folks thinking that she herself was hard to work with based only on her portrayal of Tracy Flick. Twenty years later, people are still comparing Hillary Clinton to Tracy Flick as well, and both women have talked about the impact the role has had on their public perception. This role that was conceived of by men, in all their anxiety, to make women’s achievements seem terrifying, awkward, jarring.

I knew Election was a story from a man’s point of view: the novel and screenplay were written by men, and the movie was directed by one. But I had forgotten that Tracy is not the hero; she’s an antagonist for Jim’s anti-hero to try to take down. No wonder I forgot all of the misogyny. Because, from Jim’s perspective, Tracy deserves everything he does to her. Instead of seeing his fellow teacher as guilty of a crime, he finds Tracy at fault, the manipulative seductress who got his bro fired, ruined his life. She’s that annoying girl in the front row who keeps raising her hand. She’s the one you want to shut the fuck up. Someone has to tell Tracy that she can’t have everything she puts her mind toward getting. Someone has to remind her that girl power is a lie.

Of course, I have known dozens of male characters in film and literature, and real-life men, with Flick-level ambitious entitlement. Rarely did I feel they needed to be reminded of their insignificance. Why?

I had one teacher in my sophomore year of high school that seemed to delight in giving me low grades. I wasn’t a perfect student but I was a dedicated one. I was driven to keep my grades up, to get into a good college, to achieve the life I imagined that degree would provide. This teacher kept giving me Bs. I went to speak to her about why; it was baffling to me. I had done all the assignments and scored well on all the tests.

“It’s good for you to get a B every once in a while,” she said to me. “Nothing wrong with it. Knocks you off your high horse.”

I don’t think I’d encountered an adult who actively wanted me to feel bad about myself, and who unabashedly said so. It was unfair, and there was nothing I could do about it. It enraged me.

Perhaps that rage was the seedling of my current fury storm, watching Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand are glossed over for white men like Beto O’Rourke who feel entitled to say, “I’m just born to be in it.” The “it,” presumably, being the White House. The “it,” presumably, being the presidency. And yes, after many called upon O’Rourke to check his privilege, he apologized for his statement. But the truth is that white men, and particularly rich white men from powerful political families like O’Rourke, really are born to be in it. The system was made for them, built by them, and continues to reward them. It does so, in part, because as authors and directors (and journalists and pundits and others), men have authored the narrative of female ambition.

It’s just their story, and we don’t have to believe a word of it. It was written by men, proscribed by men, and designed to keep women complacent, out of the public sphere, and out of leadership. And, so far, the 2020 election coverage that erases the women and elevates the men is an echo of that same false mythology.

In the poster image for Election, Tracy grins cheerily, open-mouthed. Her red lipstick is perfectly applied and her teeth are pearlescent white. Inside her mouth, between her teeth, is Jim’s tiny, sulking face. We’re meant to feel badly for him, this poor little man being swallowed by a luminous monster. He’s supposed to have our sympathies. But, as with all art and mythology, we can change our interpretation; we can wrestle it out of the male author’s hands and take it into our own and see something different.

Women have always been capable of leadership. Women’s ambition and intellect are not in conflict with their beauty. Instead, we can claim our wholeness, write our narratives, reinterpret and reject the stories we’ve been told.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.v


Marissa Korbel's writing has appeared in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney supporting campus and minor sexual assault survivors. Marissa lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler. More from this author →