In the 1999 dark comedy Election, overachieving student Tracy Flick, played by a rising Reese Witherspoon, dreams of political dominance, starting with running for class president at her suburban high school. For years, viewers have remembered Tracy as “abrasive” and “unpleasant,” in the words of her creator, author Tom Perrotta. Her name has become shorthand for female politicians, especially in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton.
More than two decades later, American culture is revisiting the maligned women of the past (think Monica Lewinsky, Pamela Anderson and Tonya Harding). The focus isn’t limited to actual characters either, as sequels and reboots bring well-known characters into the present. In Tracy Flick can’t win, the sequel to the 1998 novel on which the film was based, Perrotta imagines a middle-aged Tracy whose life hasn’t quite lived up to her teenage ambitions. “It was fair to say that there’s a Tracy Flick in every high school and not everyone ends up being, you know, the senator from New Jersey,” Perrotta said. During a conversation at the Atlantic Festival with the Atlantic Writer Sophie Gilbert, Perrotta discussed the particular brand of ’90s feminism that drove Tracy and how the treatment of powerful women has changed — or hasn’t changed — since then. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sophia Gilbert: What made you want to see Tracy Flick again at that time?
Tom Perrotta: Well, I had the very unusual experience, as a writer, of creating a character that really took on a life of its own. Tracy existed on the page, and then Reese Witherspoon played her in the wonderful movie in 1999. And she was so good that I think she created an archetype that caught on in the culture. Almost every ambitious national politician who was female was compared to Tracy Flick, and not always kindly. Tracy has a reputation for being abrasive and disagreeable. I think, in particular, these attributes were applied to Hillary Clinton. After that, I think some critics rediscovered Tracy and said, Wait a second, Tracy is not a villain.. In fact, he is a victim. It was kind of a feminist overhaul of Tracy, which was interesting, because I don’t think Tracy herself, as a character, would like the idea that she was a victim. But then #MeToo happened, and everyone who read the book Election or seen the movie know that Tracy had sex with a teacher. She is very provocative about it in the book. And I wondered, as a writer, if I had been fair to her. I know I think about issues of consent and power relations very differently today than I did in the 1990s. And I wondered if Tracy did too. It was part of what Tracy Flick can’t win was about: a middle-aged Tracy Flick, looking back on her life and thinking about the things that happened to her in high school and how they affected her in the long run.
Gilbert: What was it like as a writer, creating this character that you then see onscreen in this really enduring and powerful performance? Did it change the way you thought about Tracy?
Perrotta: Well, that certainly made me respect the power of the movie. I always dreamed of writing books that would be part of a cultural conversation. That seemed to be one of the reasons for being a novelist, and the fact was that until my work was turned into really good movies and TV shows, I think it was tied to individual readers, but it was not the subject of a cultural conversation. Some writers may not care as much as I do, but I wanted to reach a wide audience, and I felt like I could do more with these adaptations than I could have just by writing my books.
Gilbert: When you came back to Tracy, did you re-read Election?
Perrotta: I had to do it in this case because I knew that Tracy Flick can’t win was going to have a talk with Election. One of the things that actually relieved me a bit was that I thought maybe I had written those sex scenes in a way that would make me cringe. And they didn’t. It was like I really gave Tracy some vulnerability in those scenes. I realized that Tracy was getting her energy from a certain type of feminism that was very strong in the early 90s. When you think about feminism now, it’s very trauma-focused and, you know, protecting women . I think at the time there was a much bolder and more powerful current in feminism, which was: You could behave like a man. You can get what you want; you can do what you want. Tracy was into that kind of “power feminism.” But in Tracy Flick can’t win, Tracy is a middle-aged assistant manager. She did not realize her dreams of a political career. And she looks back and begins to realize that she wasn’t such an amazing person as she thought she was. That she was a kind of representative woman rather than a unique superhero.
Gilbert: Why did you want to place it in this context? Because I think at the end of the movie, which is different from the book, she’s working in Washington. She works for a Republican senator. She seems to be on this powerful path, this girlboss-y trajectory. What made you want to not have him on this course?
Perrotta: I’m really interested in ambition as a subject. I feel like even for people who have achieved a lot, dissatisfaction with where you are is some kind of universal human experience. It was fair to say that there’s a Tracy Flick in every high school and not everyone ends up being, you know, the senator from New Jersey. She has a doctorate, she is a professional, she owns a house, she has a child. By any ordinary human standards, she is a success. But his goals were not ordinary. And so she feels like a failure. Like many middle-aged people, she looks at her life and says, How to explain the gap between what I dreamed of and what I got?
Gilbert: As you mentioned, we are in this period of revisionism, thinking about the women of the 90s in the public eye who were not treated fairly. And certainly the reception of Tracy, at the time, especially the way she was played in the film, was quite hostile. So it was interesting for me to read Tracy Flick can’t win, to see that, in some respects, the culture has not changed so much. She is still not in a world that appreciates her talents, that appreciates powerful and ambitious women.
Perrotta: With Tracy Flick can’t win, it’s in the title. I mean, it was really a reaction to the 2016 election. There was just this feeling that the culture didn’t have a paradigm for what a female leader would look like, to the point where the most toxic version of a male leader could win. That was a lesson for me about Tracy: one of the reasons she became an archetype was that there were no fictional portrayals of female politicians. There are a few outliers in American history, but when I wrote Election in the early 90s, I’m not sure I had read a book or seen a movie about a woman who was a political leader. We have to find that paradigm. We have to build it. And maybe that’s something some of us don’t like. Margaret Thatcher certainly exists, and it’s a very old paradigm of women that has eliminated a certain form of femininity.
Gilbert: You have the most amazing and enduring sympathy and empathy for all of your characters, even the really, really shitty ones. But you seem particularly sensitive to the difficulty of living with your female characters. How do you get into their heads and think there are commonalities between them?
Perrotta: When I started, I was often grouped with Nick Hornby. [My novels] would be on a table at the bookstore called “lad bed”. Election was the book that changed that for me. I wanted to tell this story from a multitude of first-person viewpoints, which meant I had to create believable female characters. There is now a very tense discussion in literary circles about who can tell which stories and when you can step out of your own identity. It wasn’t heavy that way when I did it, but it was a literary challenge for me: can I, as a man, create a believable female character? And I think I just did what actors do, which is to try to find a part of me that connects with a part of this character. So for Tracy, I was connecting with this part of me that was ambitious and felt like I came out of nowhere and had to fight for everything. For years after, I was doing book groups and women would come up to me and say, “I was Tracy. I was the girl with her hand up. I was the one trying really hard. I was the one who was president of all the clubs. I believed that I could conquer the world. I thought, Alright, I wrote a character that people felt seen byand it gave me some confidence to start writing these female characters.
What I’m really writing about, I think, is how feminism has kind of crept into our intimate lives over the past few decades. I remember being in college, and my generation was that post–Roe vs. Wade generation. We thought we could make marriage a fairer institution again. Women could enter the labor market and build a career. And in many ways, these things happened over time, but they happened slowly and imperfectly. Equality is always that shimmering thing here just beyond our real lives. How feminism has empowered women, destabilized marriage, forced men to change or not, has really been the focus of a lot of my work.
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