Column: Why Tom Perrotta brought back ‘Election’s’ Tracy Flick after #MeToo
On the Shelf
Tracy Flick Can't Win
By Tom Perrotta
Scribner: 272 pages, $27
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Tom Perrotta did not want to write another book about Tracy Flick.
In this world of franchise mania, that seems a bit strange. The ambitious, hyper-organized, high-achieving 16-year-old at the heart of Perrotta’s 1998 novel, “Election” has been a cultural icon for more than 20 years, ever since Reese Witherspoon brought her to needle-sharp life in Alexander Payne’s 1999 film adaptation.
Tracy Flick galvanized Perrotta’s career and remains his most famous creation thus far. Still, even as he became a bestselling author with singular success at having his work adapted to screen— “Little Children,” “The Leftovers,” “Mrs. Fletcher” — Perrotta had never thought of following up “Election” with a sequel.
Not when “Tracy Flick” became politicized, made into shorthand for a certain kind of female politician, or even when #MeToo forced the country to question many misguided assumptions about gender power dynamics and the role sex plays in them.
Those issues lie at the heart of “Election”: History teacher Mr. McAllister (played by Matthew Broderick in the film) is frustrated that his colleague has been fired for having “an affair” with Tracy, from which Tracy has — so he thinks — emerged unscathed. And so he attempts to sabotage her campaign for student president.
In both versions, Tracy triumphs and McAllister is fired, but in neither version does anyone question whether a 15-year-old can actually “have an affair” with her high school teacher.
In recent years, Perrotta has, like many people, experienced a new level of awareness about the often tragically blurred line between consent and abuse. That gave him a few second thoughts about “Election.”
“In the #MeToo moment, there were a bunch of stories about teachers who had these relationships with students,” he said during a Zoom conversation. “Some women said, ‘That teacher ruined my life’; other women said, ‘I didn’t think about it as abuse until much later.’ It did make me think about how I had written about Tracy; it nagged at me.
“In the years since I wrote that, the paradigm shifted completely,” he added. “There’s no way a girl of 15 could choose that.”
But Perrotta’s career had moved far away from Tracy. What he wanted to do next, after publishing “Mrs. Fletcher” in 2017, was a book about a former high school football player “with a head injury who came back to his high school to be honored.”
Yet when he began writing that book, centered on a man named Vito Falcone, Perrotta found himself using the same sort of multiple-viewpoint, oral history-style narration that he used in “Election.” Before he knew it, he “felt Tracy poking up her hand, saying, ‘Let me in on this.’ Because in a way, Falcone is one of those guys who were always getting in her way.”
So Tracy being Tracy wound up not only in the new book but headlining it. Falcone’s story is told in “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” but the novel is a sequel to “Election” in that it sends both Perrotta and Tracy back to high school, albeit Green Meadows High rather than Winwood.
There Tracy, now middle-aged and a bit cowed by life, serves as assistant principal. When her boss decides to retire, she seems to be on track to advance, but only if she can once again avoid being thwarted by some of the same sexism she faced back in the ‘90s.
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Along the way, Tracy, like her creator, realizes that her infamous “affair” was more a case of grooming and abuse than she had ever let herself believe. This is not the point of the book; there is no enormous revelation after which everything falls into place, no decades-old accusation made or retribution sought. But from its very first page, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” takes a much harder look at the toxic male culture that was taken for granted in “Election.”
For decades, feminist deconstructions of literature have reframed female characters and excavated the ways they have been used by mostly male authors. Was Lady Macbeth the author or the victim of her husband’s ambition? Was Bertha Rochester truly mad or just unwilling to submit to the confines of marriage?
More recently, film and television have also begun reexamining the mythology surrounding women previously reviled and/or lampooned for their part in famous scandals, crimes and court cases. Tonya Harding, Marcia Clark, Pamela Anderson, Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky and Martha Mitchell have all emerged from cinematic stories as misunderstood — if not heroines then certainly multifaceted humans, victims on some level of cultural forces beyond their control.
“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” may be the first instance of such a thing being done by the same man who told the original story.
Perrotta, who taught for many years at the college level, including stints at Yale and Harvard, admits he did not initially consider whether such a relationship could be truly consensual; he had created what he considered a strong female character capable of making such a choice.
“I don’t want to absolve myself,” he said. “My thinking at the time was that these girls who grew up in a post-feminist moment realized that they could do and be anything. Suddenly there was a whole new squad of competitors that was formidable and they scared men. When men are scared they can do some nasty things. I know how men think about these women.”
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Tracy, he says, was a powerful person within her school. “She is objectively not a powerful figure, but for Mr. M this girl is a destructive force. He’s hit his plateau in life. And he looks at this student and sees that she has all this potential, the way you can be an adult in a teaching environment and feel judged by the students.”
As anyone who has seen or read “Election” knows, Mr. M is not depicted as heroic or even reasonable, in any way.
“The book was about looking at the private life of all these people involved in this school election,” he says. “At the time I thought, ‘Tracy has a secret too.’ Operating under a feminist paradigm that a woman could do what a man can do, she has an affair and she ends it. It’s the man who couldn’t walk away.”
But neither, as it turns out, can she. In “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” she has not become the political superstar of her imaginings. Her mother’s illness put an end to her law school career, and now she is working as a temporary principal, a position that she hopes will — and in an equitable world would — become permanent. She has ended her most recent romantic relationship, has few friends and is questioning how the woman she thought she would become turned into the woman she is.
“I wanted to show’s Tracy’s diminished stature in life,” Perrotta says. “In ‘Election,’ she’s such a powerful figure that Mr. M says, ‘I‘m going to stop her.’ In this one she’s just invisible.”
One of the reasons Perrotta had such a hard time publishing “Election,” he says, is because it did not fit neatly into either adult or young adult fiction, particularly in the 1990s. The novel’s multivocal structure gives each narrator equal weight; the collective theme that no one can ever know what another person is thinking or experiencing comes at the price of never seeing the whole truth. Because, as Perrotta says, “no one thinks they are the villain of their own story,” the story is in the subtext.
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“Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” on the other hand, is very much an adult novel, grappling with middle age crises and revelations. For Tracy the trauma of the events of “Election” includes the knowledge that some men attempt to thwart her ambition simply because they believe a woman should not be openly ambitious.
The use of the term “Tracy Flick” to describe a woman in a derogatory way is, says Perrotta, just a way of saying, “You are being irritated by a woman who is smarter than you. When I started as a writer going out and meeting with book groups that are mostly always women, every time someone would say, ‘I was Tracy Flick.’ These women were not in Congress or running for president.”
In another world, Tracy might become a Hillary Clinton or a commentator on Fox News, but, Perrotta says, “a lot of ambitious young people do not always get there. So how do people like that get derailed? Tracy has economic issues and no safety net. She has a very close relationship with her mother.”
Like Falcone, who spends much of the novel attempting to make amends for the damage he has done, Tracy is coming to grips with her own reality. “I like the idea of seeing this hard-charging person being stopped by the most ordinary things,” Perrotta said. “She is working toward that acceptance that is middle age. For a long time it’s, ‘Who do I want to become?’ Now it’s, ‘This is who I am.’ And she’s caught between ‘You’re a failure” and ‘I did my best.’”
As so many are at certain ages and in certain times. Just as “Election,” with its references to Madonna and its Bill Clinton-era views on sex, was a reflection of its time, so is “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.” And Tracy is not the only one who’s looking back at the choices she made when she was younger; Perrotta is too.
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Unlike the entitled woman she played on the Hulu limited series “Little Fires Everywhere,” Witherspoon possesses a self-awareness about her privilege and position, knowledge forged through 30 years of working in Hollywood.
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