This time last year, at a producer’s conference in Hollywood, a member of the audience asked Reese Witherspoon whether she’d ever consider playing Hillary Clinton in a movie.
She already had, Witherspoon responded: One of her earliest roles in film was Tracy Flick, the teenage villain of Election, 1999’s dark satire of high school politics. And: She was only partially joking. “When I did meet Hillary Clinton,” Witherspoon recalled, “she said, ‘Everybody talks to me about Tracy Flick in Election.’”
It is supremely strange, on the one hand, that the American public would associate the former lawyer and First Lady and U.S. senator and secretary of state—and also the mother, and the grandmother, and the woman whom the American media once spent years chastising for an expressed preference against cookie-baking—with a cupcake-wielding adolescent. On the other hand, though, the association makes perfect sense: Election is all about the layered strifes of, well, elections. It revels, in its sardonic way, in the lingering martial framework of the “campaign.” The story of Tracy Flick’s effort to win the presidency of Carver High School’s student government is a broader meditation on political ambition—and on the pitfalls and punishments that can result, in particular, when that ambition has the audacity to be realized by a woman.
Americans, who are subject to a mess of rules when it comes to self-assertion (confidence: good! arrogance: bad!; hard work: good! overeagerness: sad!), have, by extension, a generally awkward relationship with political ambition—one whose awkwardness extends across genders and generations. For women, though, the self-assertions required of political candidacy are particularly fraught. And that’s been reflected not just in news media reactions to Hillary Clinton’s runs for office, but also in broader cultural treatments of (necessarily fictional) lady presidents. Pop culture has long offered depictions of women in positions of political power; ambition, however, is another matter. People compare Clinton to Tracy Flick, the stateswoman to the organization kid, for a simple reason: Hollywood hasn’t given them anyone better to compare her to.
That’s not to say that TV and movies haven’t, in the many years leading up to a woman’s clinching of a major-party presidential nomination, provided the American public with a host of fictional female leaders. In the high-heeled footsteps of Leslie McCloud in 1964’s Kisses for My President and Julia Mansfield in 1985’s Hail to the Chief have come Kathryn Bennett in Air Force One, Elaine Barrish in Political Animals, Mackenzie Allen in Commander in Chief, Caroline Reynolds in Prison Break, Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Sally Langston in Scandal, Elizabeth McCord in Madam Secretary, Selina Meyer in Veep, and many more. These characters have been the stuff of (political) science fiction: They have been framed, self-consciously, for the future. They have been evidence of Hollywood, whose products have claimed partial credit for marriage equality and the presidency of Barack Obama, recognizing its great capacity for world-expanding, and then attempting to use that power for good—one Madame President at a time.
And yet, despite all the accomplished women who have occupied Hollywood’s various West Wings, it’s Tracy Flick, the manic pixie scheme girl—the perfectionist, the know-it-all, the girl whose hand was perma-raised—who has persevered as a metaphor. It’s Tracy Flick—not Elizabeth McCord or Mackenzie Allen or Selina Meyer, but Tracy Flick, whose ambition makes her a menace—whom Hillary Clinton is (still!) asked about. And that’s likely because of things that have, in the end, very little to do with who Clinton is and much more to do with the work she has been engaged in this year. Election is unique, and uniquely resonant, because of the premise its title suggests: It depicts a woman who is not just passively occupying political office, but actively striving for it.
Campaigning, much more than simply governing, demands a whole host of things that Americans tend to view with a mixture of resentment and resignation: Running for office requires—at all levels, but especially at the highest—bragging and smarming and compromising and pissing people off and, in all but the best of circumstances, making promises you will almost certainly be unable to keep. Fictional worlds have long recognized that significant bug of the non-fictional, generally treating campaigns either with overt disdain (see: Wag the Dog, Bullworth, The Good Wife, Veep), or, even more commonly, with a kind of muffled embarrassment. (See: The West Wing, which morally ratified its fan-fictional presidency by making clear that President Bartlet was plucked from relative obscurity—the governorship of New Hampshire—to ascend to the White House. Josiah Bartlet, Cincinnatus by way of Sorkin, did not seek office; office, the show made clear, sought him.)
And for women candidates, in particular, the calculus becomes even more difficult, since the things campaigning requires—the assorted forms of swaggering—are particularly frowned upon when they’re exhibited by women. Clinton, doing the basic campaign-trail work the American electorate demands of its would-be executives, has been accused of yelling and bragging. (Last time around, in 2008, the simple act of talking led some pundits to dismiss her as “shrill.”)
Pop-cultural products, which tend to prefer inspiration and aspiration to more pragmatic depictions, have reflected those anxieties through a kind of negative space: Their depictions of women politicians have largely spared those women (and, by extension, their audiences) the various indignities associated with campaigning. They often present their female protagonists in medias res: Their productions simply start with them in positions of power, their origin stories only eluded to. Or, more commonly, they take a Bartletian path, elevating the women through fate (or some extension thereof) to the lofts of power, with minimal striving required of the loftee. Commander in Chief’s Mackenzie Allen ascended to her show’s titular role after a coincidental promotion from vice president. Veep’s Selina Meyer, similarly, became president through the fluke of political scandal; Scandal’s Sally Langston, through the fluke of political violence. Madam Secretary, a show the Clintons have said they watch together, began with its protagonist, the former CIA agent Elizabeth McCord, becoming secretary of state when her old friend—the U.S. president—appointed her to the role.
Chosen to serve: It’s the most common and self-delusional of tropes in American politics, the result of tiara complexes and culturally enforced passive aggressions and George Washington’s insistence that, all things considered, he really would have preferred to be a gentleman farmer. And it leads, as far as depictions of women in power go, to things like Vice President Kathryn Bennett, in Air Force One, embodying her role as the film’s moral compass by resisting every chance she has to become president herself, ensuring that the executive authority of President Marshall (Harrison Ford) will never be in doubt. It leads, even, to Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope—one of the most delightful lady-pols in pop-cultural history—repeatedly confirming her worthiness for public office by demonstrating that her desire to serve comes from selflessness (rather than personal, and therefore more stereotypically masculine, and therefore more fraught, ambition).
In America, you prove your worthiness for power by proving your lack of desire for that power. If you are a woman, you have an added challenge: You must prove that you will use the power you want-but-don’t-want to act on behalf of everyone but yourself.
These assumptions, combined, have led to a series of fictional women who are generally powerful but not, you know, awkwardly powerful—women who, by way of the writers who created them, know their place. Women who, despite their occupation of the White House, end up exemplifying more regressive notions of what feminine leadership is all about: soft power, cheerful submission to the social order, the strident desire not to strive too far.
The exceptions tend to prove the rule. Commander in Chief’s Mac Allen, having obtained the presidency by default, decides to run—actively run—for a second presidential term. Selina Meyer, in Veep, does the same thing. Alicia Florrick, in The Good Wife, runs for State’s Attorney. Claire Underwood puts herself forward for U.N. Ambassador, in a way that is typically and shamelessly Underwoodian. And the women are each, in various ways, punished for it. Claire is humiliated for her hubris. So is Alicia. Campaigning brings out the worst in Selina, highlighting, even more than office-holding does, her moral vacuities and her political ineptitudes. That other Reese Witherspoon political vehicle, the decidedly non-dark comedy Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, suggested that the high-powered Congresswoman Victoria Rudd was corrupt not because of who she was, but rather because of the many compromises, personal and ethical and otherwise, demanded by the permanent campaign. Commander in Chief, in the end—the show was cancelled after a single season—prevented Mac from engaging in a campaign that would be fully her own.
That narrative (non-)turn of events was the stuff of external coincidence, but it also neatly highlights the problem: Even a series that wanted to show a woman running for president, and to do so earnestly, devoid of judgment and exoticism … could not. With the overall result that, despite all the depictions of female leaders on TV and in film, pop culture has yet to grapple, in a deep and realistic way, with the women who defy cultural conventions in order to star in political ones. It hasn’t yet considered the political implications of the discrepancy between notions of female ambition (which is often pathologized and mistrusted and feared) and its masculine counterpart (celebrated, rewarded, normalized). As The Huffington Post summed things up, elegantly, in 2014: “Ask a woman if she’s ambitious and she’ll look at you as if you just asked whether she sticks pins in puppies for fun.”
That’s true, in its way, for even the most powerful women in the country. Rebecca Traister, in her recent (and excellent) profile of Hillary Clinton, also ended up profiling, basically, all women:
It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it? Though those on both the right and the left moan about “woman cards,” it would be impossible, and dishonest, to not recognize gender as a central, defining, complicated, and often invisible force in this election. It is one of the factors that shaped Hillary Clinton, and it is one of the factors that shapes how we respond to her. Whatever your feelings about Clinton herself, this election raises important questions about how we define leadership in this country, how we feel about women who try to claim it, flawed though they may be.
It does. It will keep doing so. And some of those questions will come back to one Tracy Flick—who’s remembered as a villain, cold and calculating, but who is also, you have to admit, probably a pretty good leader. She does her homework. She prepares. She gets things done. She cares, about her own interests and those of everybody else, so insistently, and so aggressively—indeed, so ambitiously—as to blur the line between the two. She strives and she wants and she works so, so hard. That is the source of her villainy. It is also the source of her particular charisma.