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High School Politics and a Woman’s Ambition: Female Power in “Election” (1999)


By Paula R. Stiles


Election (1999). Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell.

[Spoilers ahoy]


Election is a black comedy about a young woman (Witherspoon), Tracy Flick, who is running for school president for her senior year of high school. She is opposed by her math teacher (Broderick), Jim McAllister, who fears she will turn into some kind of female Hitler, or at least a Madame Defarge, so cold and manipulative and ambitious is she. I’d been avoiding it for a while, since I’m not really into teenage femmes fatales who ruthlessly take down hapless older men (and that’s precisely what the poster and tagline promise), but I figured, Well, what the hell, and gave it a try.

It’s not quite what I’d expected. I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.

You see, Jim was friends with another teacher, Dave Novotny, whom Tracy seduced to get ahead and then reported to the Principal when she was done with him, getting him fired via a note her ball-busting mother found. Since Tracy is running for Class President unopposed, Jim decides she needs a run for her money and persuades another student, affable Paul, to run against her. In the process, Paul’s closeted lesbian sister Tammy also decides to run and it becomes a three-way in which Tracy might conceivably lose. She doesn’t. In fact, she triumphs over Jim, and gets him fired and disgraced. He also ends up divorced and leaves for New York, where he sees her years later, getting into a car with a wealthy politician. He engages in one final act of defiance by throwing his soda at her car.

And that’s the way the film presents things (almost entirely from Jim’s POV, save for a few Tracy and Tammy and Paul voiceovers that could easily be the way Jim imagines they think), except that there are a lot of details that completely change things round from the above summary.

See, first of all, the reason why Jim hates Tracy is rather disturbing. Tracy was 16 when she had her affair with Dave, a guy played by an actor who was 48 at the time the film came out. Also, Dave was married with a new baby. So, Dave’s “indiscretion” was hardly without collateral damage and the idea of a 40-something married guy getting it on with a 16-year-old would be very off even without the statutory rape aspect and the fact that he’s her teacher.

Second, the way the “affair” is portrayed makes it look like a clear-cut case of statutory rape, which, in light of Tracy’s age, it is anyway. Tracy doesn’t seduce Dave. It’s the other way round. Granted, this film came out in 1999, but grooming by pedophiles (albeit Dave is technically an ephebophile) was known by then, largely thanks to the then-growing sex abuse scandals surrounding the Catholic Church, and he definitely is grooming her in those seduction scenes.

We get a voiceover from her in which she insists she’s not looking for a father figure and that what she likes about the affair is their “talks,” juxtaposed with Dave regaling a disgusted Jim with pornographic details about the affair that clearly show he’s thinking with Little Dave not Big Dave. We even get a scene where Dave slowly pulls Tracy through a door in a hallway. Her face is childlike and passive. Somebody’s in charge and it’s not her.

When she finally tires of it and ditches him, Dave goes full-on stalker and starts bombarding her with notes, one of which her mother finds and reports to the Principal, who fires a weeping Dave on the spot. Dave is spared prison, though, and gets to leave town to embark on his career as a box store employee without a criminal record.

Third, Jim is angry about Dave’s getting fired, but pretends he’s not. He decides Tracy is at fault because Dave was just chasing his youth or some such midlife crisis nonsense, but tells himself he’s going after her because she’s genuinely dangerous and must be stopped now and anyway, it’s not democratic for her to run alone. He talks about worrying about Dave, but never bothers to contact him. It’s his duty to report Dave’s behavior, but he never does (and is never called out for his inaction, either, even though he’s a mandated reporter of the abuse). He even has an affair with Dave’s wife, which is what actually blows up his marriage.

Oh, and he also likes to watch porn involving teenage girls.

And how does he blow up his career? Well, when the student in charge of counting the votes tells him that Tracy has won by one vote (despite Jim’s active interference all the way down the line), Jim makes sure to dump a couple of them in the trash so that she loses instead. Only, he’s busted because he’s managed to act like a jerk to the janitor, who rats him out to the Principal.

So, Jim, who is the narrator in the film, turns out not to be the protagonist but the antagonist. Sort of. And that right there is the problem with the film, because not only is this second narrative entirely subtextual, but the first narrative is presented as entirely valid, with Jim pathetic and sad-sack, and Tracy cold and vengeful. It doesn’t help that this is a black comedy, in which, if the Hero loses, it’s to be expected. So, when Jim loses, that just emphasizes that we are really supposed to sympathize with him. Never mind that he is a rancid, bitter man who perceives his students as pawns at best and enemies at worst. The best you can say about him is that he’s Ferris Bueller all grown up.

This isn’t the first film ever in which we are supposed to sympathize with a repellent male predator or dictator when he meets a young woman who is more than a match for him. Witherspoon plays Tracy, not as a seductive Lolita, but as a painfully awkward, earnest kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is just trying to work and think her way out of poverty. One might almost see her as having Asperger’s.

But the film treats her unsympathetically as cold and lacking in compassion. We are invited to mock her and see her least fault as something awful (which, in light of this recent expose about the creepy misogyny behind the scenes during the making of the film, is probably not unintentional). The film seems afraid of Tracy’s power and, especially, her anger.

She is also contrasted with the affable, totally unambitious, and profoundly stupid Paul, and not in a good way. Paul is a golden boy and a One Percenter. Until recently, he’d been a star athlete, but an injury blew his chances of a college sports career. His father is a rich contractor, making him town royalty, so of course he’s pleasant to everyone. He’s started out very well in life. Paul may be a “nice guy” on the surface, but he trails privilege behind him like a wedding gown train through mud. He’s totally oblivious, for example, to the reasons why Jim wants him to run, or why his sister’s opportunistic lover, Lisa, quickly switches to him. As long as she’s giving him blow jobs, it’s all good.

Paul would have made a horrible leader, but the film passes over that very lightly.

Tammy isn’t much better. She’s a lesbian, but insists she’s not. She sucks off her parents’ money every bit as much as her brother, only enters the election to spite him when her ex gets with him (Jim allows it, even though Tammy is technically too young to run for the office), and turns a bit stalkery on them both. Tammy’s lies eventually do let Tracy off the hook, but in no way is Tammy lying for Tracy. It’s all about her own ends.

Probably the character who gets the shortest shrift is Lisa. When the best thing you can say about a character is that she’s a thoughtless slut, that’s problematical. Yet, even though we see her do nothing but use her sexuality to get ahead (aside from a brief scene where she goes a bit Lady Macbeth on Paul’s “behalf”), the film implies that even she is a better person than Tracy. What the hell?

In case you hadn’t noticed before, the women in the story are treated much more harshly than the men, even though the men are just as bad, or worse. So much for equality.