In the dark 1999 comedy Election, the overachieving student Tracy Flick—played by an up-and-coming Reese Witherspoon—dreams of political domination, starting with the race for class president at her suburban high school. For years afterward, viewers remembered Tracy as “abrasive” and “unpleasant,” in the words of her creator, the author Tom Perrotta. Her name became shorthand for female politicians—especially, during 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 attention isn’t limited to real-life figures, either, as sequels and reboots pull well-known characters into the present day. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the follow-up to the 1998 novel on which the movie was based, Perrotta imagines a middle-aged Tracy whose life hasn’t quite measured up to her teenage ambitions. “It just felt right to say that there’s a Tracy Flick in every high school and not everybody ends up being, you know, the senator from New Jersey,” Perrotta said. In a conversation at The Atlantic Festival with the Atlantic staff writer Sophie Gilbert, Perrotta discussed the particular brand of ’90s feminism that animated Tracy and how the treatment of powerful women has changed—or hasn’t—since then. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sophie Gilbert: What made you want to revisit Tracy Flick at this moment?
Tom Perrotta: Well, I had the very unusual experience, as a writer, of creating a character who really took on a life of her 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 made its way into the culture. Almost every ambitious national politician who was a woman was compared to Tracy Flick, and not always nicely. Tracy got this reputation for being abrasive and unpleasant. I think, particularly, those attributes were applied to Hillary Clinton. After that, I think some critics rediscovered Tracy and said, Wait a second, Tracy’s not a villain. In fact, she’s a victim. It was a kind of feminist revision 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 anyone who’s read the book Election or seen the movie knows that Tracy had a sexual relationship with a teacher. She’s very defiant about it in the book. And I wondered, as a writer, if I had been fair to her. I know that I think about issues of consent and power relationships very differently now than I thought about them in the 1990s. And I wondered if Tracy did, too. That was part of what Tracy Flick Can’t Win was about: a middle-aged Tracy Flick, looking back at her life and thinking about things that happened to her in high school and how they had affected her in the long run.
Gilbert: What was it like as a writer, having created this character who you then see on-screen in this really enduring and powerful performance? Did that change the way that you thought about Tracy at all?
Perrotta: Well, it certainly made me respect the power of film. I’d always dreamed of writing books that would be part of a cultural conversation. It seemed like one of the reasons to be a novelist, and the fact was that until my work was made into really good movies and TV shows—I think it connected with individual readers, but it was not a subject of a cultural conversation. Some writers don’t care about that as much, maybe, as I did, but I wanted to reach a wide audience, and it felt like I could do that more through these adaptations than I could have through just writing my books.
Gilbert: When you returned to Tracy, did you reread Election?
Perrotta: I had to in this case because I knew that Tracy Flick Can’t Win was going to be in a conversation with Election. One of the things that was actually a little bit of a relief to me was I thought maybe I had written these sex scenes in a way that would make me cringe. And they didn’t. It felt like I really gave Tracy some vulnerability in those scenes. I realized Tracy was getting her energy from a certain kind of feminism that was really strong in the early ’90s. When you think about feminism now, it’s very focused on trauma and, you know, protecting women. I think, back then, there was a much bolder and powerful current in feminism, which was: You could behave like a man. You can get whatever you want; you can do whatever you want. Tracy was plugged into that kind of “power feminism.” But in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tracy is a middle-aged assistant principal. She hasn’t fulfilled her dreams of a political career. And she’s looking back and starting to realize that she wasn’t as extraordinary an individual as she believed. That she was a kind of representative woman rather than a unique superhero.
Gilbert: Why did you want to place her in that context? Because I think at the end of the movie, which differs from the book, she’s working in Washington. She’s working for a Republican senator. She seems to be on this powerful path, this girlboss-y trajectory. What made you want to not have her on that 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 a kind of universal human experience. It just felt right to say that there’s a Tracy Flick in every high school and not everybody ends up being, you know, the senator from New Jersey. She’s got a Ph.D., she’s a professional, she owns a home, she has a child. By every ordinary human standard, she’s a success. But her goals weren’t ordinary. And so she feels like a failure. Like many middle-aged people, she’s looking at her life and saying, How do I account for the discrepancy between what I dreamed of and what I got?
Gilbert: As you mentioned, we’re in this period of revisionism, thinking about women in the ’90s in the public eye who were not treated fairly. And certainly the reception of Tracy, at the time, particularly of the way that she was played in the movie, was quite hostile. So it was interesting to me, reading Tracy Flick Can’t Win, to see that, in some ways, the culture has not evolved that much. She’s still not in a world that appreciates her talents, that appreciates women who are powerful, ambitious strivers.
Perrotta: With Tracy Flick Can’t Win, it’s in the title. I mean, it really was a reaction to the 2016 election. There was just that sense that the culture did not have a paradigm for what a female leader would look like, to the point where the most toxic version of a male leader was able to win. This was one lesson to me about Tracy: One of the reasons she became an archetype was that there were not fictional representations 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 it may be something that some of us may not like. Margaret Thatcher certainly exists, and that’s a very old paradigm of the woman who has eliminated a certain kind of femininity.
Gilbert: You have the most amazing, abiding sympathy and empathy for all of your characters, even the really, really crappy ones. But you seem particularly attuned to how much harder life can be for your female characters. How do you get inside their heads, and do you think there are common threads 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 lit.” Election was the book that changed that for me. I wanted to tell this story from a multitude of perspectives in first person, so that meant I had to create believable women characters. Now there’s a very fraught discussion in literary circles about who can tell what stories and when you can step outside of your own identity. It wasn’t fraught in that way when I did it, but it was fraught as a literary challenge for me: Can I, as a man, create a believable woman character? And I think I just did what actors do, which was try to find some part of me that connected with some part of that character. So for Tracy, I was connecting with that part of me that was ambitious and felt like I was coming from nowhere and had to fight for everything. For years after, I would do 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 who was trying really hard. I was the one who was president of all the clubs. I believed I could conquer the world.” I thought, Okay, I wrote a character who people felt seen by, and it gave me a certain kind of confidence to start to write these women characters.
What I’m really, I think, writing about is the way that feminism has been sort of making its way through our intimate lives over the past several decades. I remember being in college, and my generation was this post–Roe v. Wade generation. We thought we could remake marriage into a more fair institution. Women could join the workforce and have careers. And in many ways, these things have happened over time, but they’ve happened slowly and imperfectly. Equality is always this thing that’s shimmering over here just beyond our actual lives. How feminism has empowered women, destabilized marriage, forced men to change or not, has really been the subject of a lot of my work.
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