Many months ago now, I watched Alexander Payne’s Election for the first time. I bloody loved the film — with twenty minutes left I was desperate to go on to Wikipedia and find out the ending, a sure sign that the film had me hooked. It’s sharp, funny and for me at least portrays the teaching profession and being a teenager brilliantly.
If you watch a John Hughes coming of age film, teachers and authority figures are figures of cartoon evil and villainy, willing to break rules, cast aside basic morals and ignore child protection laws just so they can give some punky teenager more after school detentions.
Well, in my experience, teachers aren’t evil. They’re not inherently bad people. They’re just apathetic and useless. I hated school mostly, a lot of that stemming from the sheer apathy generated by members of staff who were no smarter than me but who we were told we had to respect. I felt like teachers became teachers because they weren’t good at anything else.
Now Matthew Broderick’s Mr McAllister portrayed those things beautifully — while he isn’t apathetic and is in fact a decent teacher, he drives a shit car, wears dull clothes and lives in a plain house. That’s the sort of teacher I knew. Not some sharp suited villain who tries to start fights with his students ala Vernon and Bender in The Breakfast Club.
My allegiances while watching the film were radically different to those of seemingly most of the viewers. It’s main protagonist is Tracy Flick, played wonderfully by Reese Witherspoon. She’s an extraordinarily driven character — desperate to get A’s in every class and wins every seat she can on the all of the student committees. Winning is everything. To her, second place is simply being first of the losers. Her bedroom is covered in motivational posters. Her stare when her status as Achiever-In-Chief is threatened could crack pavements.
She should be the villain. But for me, my reaction was different. Throughout the film, I wanted her to win. I wanted her to crush the opposition. I even did a small fist pump when it turned out she had won. I was properly pleased for her.
Tracy doesn’t have many friends. She’s extremely lonely. Paul Schrader, the chap who wrote Taxi Driver (Travis Bickle reputedly wasn’t far off who Schrader was in real life at the time. Robert De Niro’s jacket in the film was Schrader’s own), said once that you only experience true loneliness in a crowded atmosphere. Like a school. It’s apparent throughout the film and is noticed by Mr Novotny, a teacher at the school, who stays behind with her after a School Council meeting and points out to her her lack of companionship. Her excuse for the lack of companionship is that she’s ‘real busy’, which is probably true up to a point.
What really rings true though is when Mr Novotny tells her that because of the ‘way she is’ i.e. determined, hard working, with a win at all costs attitude, it must be hard for her to have anyone to talk to. That the price she has to pay for her ability and drive is loneliness.
On a personal note, I empathise so much with this. Being autistic, I’ve spent a lifetime longing to talk to more people on my wavelength. I’ve always felt very different to everybody else. I feel fairly alienated from society. Not in a Tracy Flick way, in a Mark Corrigan way, but the inherent feeling of alienation is the same for the three of us, fictional and non-fictional. It’s often felt like the price I pay for being autistic is loneliness.
Tracy evidently yearns for affection behind the ultra-competitive facade. This is proven by the fact she has an affair with this Mr Novotny, a Steve Albini-lookalike dweeb. The film, from Mr McAllister’s perspective at least, seemingly portrays Tracy negatively for getting involved in this.
My reaction could not be different. For one thing, Mr Novotny is a teacher. There is no excuse for a teacher to cop off with a student. However hot the student is, however short her skirt is, whether she’s got her tits out or not. You’re a teacher, it’s your job to keep your fucking dick in your pants, however flirty or sexually suggestive the student may be.
Yes, some fifteen year olds look older than fifteen. Men do fancy schoolgirls, it happens. But do you act out on this? Of course you don’t.
One of the things that makes it worse is Mr Novotny telling Tracy ‘I’ve been watching you for three years now’ before showering her with compliments. That means he’s been ‘watching’ her since she was 14 or 15. This portrays him as a genuine nonce, especially given how childlike Tracy is — she looks younger than 17 or 18. Plus her competitiveness to be honest is pretty childish, it’s only a student election and when she first believes she’s won her celebration and facial expressions resemble Marco Tardelli after his goal in the 1982 World Cup Final.
Tracy, talking about the affair, says the thing she most enjoyed with Mr Novotny were their ‘talks’. Again, I can empathise with this. When you’re lonely, you value company that much more. Tracy was so eager to have these talks with an adult, someone more on her level than the kids her age, perhaps also so desperate to be lavished with love and affection, that she developed feelings for this dipshit and endured him fucking her. And I wouldn’t blame her one iota for her teacher taking advantage of her, both physically and mentally. As Morrissey says, we are human and we need to be loved. Even if it’s from a pervy scumbag of a teacher.
Tracy is from what may well be a single parent home (her dad isn’t seen, heard or mentioned at any point in the film) and gets the school bus while others drive to school or get driven by their parents, indicating there isn’t a great deal of income at home. Her mother, as hardworking and studious as her, is a paralegal for Omaha’s biggest law firm — a good job, but hardly one that will provide a life of luxury.
Her opponent in the student elections, Paul Metzler, has a rich dad who owns a cement firm. He was the quarterback for the football team until he suffered a broken leg. He’s white, athletic, wealthy — he has it easy. He’s never had to work for anything in his life. He got a truck for his 16th birthday. Tracy memorably rants about her opponent being born with the proverbial silver spoon down his gob.
While Paul Metzler is portrayed as a mostly decent guy in the film, he’s dopey as hell and happily accepts a blowjob from Lisa Flanagan, the girl his lesbian sister is in love with. Then he goes out with Lisa Flanagan. What a cunt!
Paul’s sister, Tammy, puts herself up for election on a ticket of ‘this whole election is a charade and I’ll abolish all student bodies if I win’. When she prays the night before the election, she reveals herself to be an atheist, that she’d like some expensive leather pants and that she could be one day be good friends with Madonna. She’s cool. Hip. Trendy. In another film she’d be depicted by some sexually frustrated Woody Allen wannabe director as the manic pixie dream girl of teenage virgins’ dreams. As it is, she’s the most likeable character in Election.
In spite of that — I’m glad Tracy won, because to me, she is the underdog. She overcomes her wealthier opponents, the teacher who fucked her, Mr McAllister, who judging from how thinking of Tracy rushes him to an orgasm while having sex with his wife, would quite like to fuck her, not to mention Mr McAllister trying to rig the election contest. She overcomes all this to win by one vote. It’s a victory for the underdog. A victory over patriarchy.
Tracy plainly isn’t a very nice person. She exhibits no warmth, very little humanity. The only humanity that comes from her is when, at the end, she talks of how few people signed her yearbook and that university was a disappointment, not being full of like minded people like she hoped and expected.
She also cheats, ripping down her opponent’s election posters in a fit of pique after accidentally ripping her own poster down. The Oakland Raiders NFL team used to have a sign that hung above the locker room. It had two self titled ‘Raider Rules’ on it: “#1 Cheating is encouraged; #2 See Rule No.1”. Plus, there’s the old maxim that if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
They’re the sort of slogans Tracy would adopt. But given, all the disadvantages she endures, I’m almost glad she cheats. She does deserve to win. She has to work harder than everyone else to get what she wants. A few posters, to me at least, is fair game. She is extraordinarily lucky Tammy owns up to doing it, presumably because she’s past caring about getting into trouble.
Tracy does ultimately win in Election. Mr McAllister ends up in a tiny flat in New York working in a museum. Mr Novotny leaves town and is seen putting price tags on food cans in a convenience store. Paul Metzler gets dumped by Lisa Flanagan. Tracy gets a cushy job working for a Republican Senator.
To conclude — the fact there is an element of humanity in Tracy Flick is due to an astonishingly good performance by Reese Witherspoon. The acting in the film is superb, but she is on another level. She nails the character so perfectly. And she provides the character with the merest sprinkle of compassion and a longing to be liked, which turns what would be a pure villain into something more complex, more human.
Brilliant character, brilliant film.