Out of the Celluloid Closet

When Election’s sad lesbian arc meant everything

Is Tracy Flick a villain? It’s a point that we’re still, somehow, debating.

In 1999, there were a lot of ambitious girls like Tracy onscreen. They were played, often, by Reese Witherspoon, or Selma Blair, or even Sarah Michelle Gellar in the brilliant Cruel Intentions. They were Cher Horowitz and Cecile Caldwell and Tracy Flick: girly, determined, and unforgettable.

They were also—as films of this era like to point out—bitches. To be an ambitious woman or girl at the height of 90s college admissions paranoia was to be, in the eyes of the world, a huge, stuck-up bitch. And even though such films make clear that these girls needed to be bitches to rise in the world, we haven’t had as clear a reckoning about how the movies failed these girls and women in the realm of academia as we’ve had in the worlds of big business, where sexual harassment has just started to become a national topic of conversation.

Alexander Payne’s Election is the kind of movie that you need to be a little bit smarter than to understand. There’s just so much going on inside of it. It’s a story about queerness in a certain, peripheral way, and it’s as much about mid-life discomfort and denial as a movie like American Beauty, which came out the same year. It’s also one of our first true cancellation narratives.

Jim McAllister is a long-suffering high school civics teacher in Omaha, Nebraska. He can’t get his wife pregnant, and he doesn’t seem that upset about it. He’s also pining for his neighbor Linda, who just threw her husband out for cheating on her with a high-school-aged girl.

That girl is Tracy Flick. She’s ambitious, hard-working, and autistically focused on achieving at all costs.

For some reason, Jim is resentful of Tracy for being sexually taken advantage of by his friend Dave, Linda’s ex-husband. And while he tells himself it’s absurd for him to be angry at her, the victim, rather than Dave, the predator, (“how could I?”) he clearly has a problem with Tracy. Something about her incessant will to thrive gets under his skin. He makes up his mind then, quietly, to sabotage her bid for student council president. He gets a more popular candidate, Paul Betzler (the excellent Chris Klein, whatever happened to him?) to oppose her, leading to a tight race that becomes even more bizarre as new rivalries build up around the now-contentious election.

The film is great at switching perspectives: one of the things I remembered vividly about this movie, which I hadn’t seen in probably 15 years, is that each character, even the ones you assume will play a minimal role, get their own voiceover. You hear what they’re thinking, the way they’re thinking it. Their choice of words, the conclusions they draw, and the ways they tend to minimalize extremely dramatic or obvious events give you a sense of being a bit more aware than they are and even a little bit smarter, even though we’re not. It’s just that we know more. In Election, the audience gets to know and see everything, as if there’s some permanent truth entity sitting at the top of the narrative, pulling the strings of each character in ways that are guaranteed to make them look stupid, absurd, or doomed.

The character I most remember, in regards to this effect, is Tammy Metzler, Paul’s adopted younger sister. The first time we see Tammy, she’s being broken up with by her girlfriend Lisa. It’s a heartbreaking scene because it’s so familiar. Lisa says to Tammy, “I’m not like you. I’m not a dyke. We were just experimenting,” and leaves. You’re then transported into Tammy’s mind. The first words we hear from her are: “It’s not like I’m a lesbian or anything. I’m attracted to the person. It’s just that all the people I’ve been attracted to have been girls.”

This is meant to be funny, and it is. It’s also an extremely familiar dynamic. In movies of this era, there’s always the girl who’s actually gay, the “true” dyke who looks more the part and is interested in emotional relationships with women, and the “false” dyke or bisexual, who is implied to only be experimenting with girls until the right guy comes along. It was painful to watch then, and it’s painful to watch now, because we’re still very much trapped in this idea of the true vs. false lesbian, even though we know by this point that if you’re a woman who f*cks women, you’re a dyke, sweetie.

The first time I became aware of this movie, it was by wandering into the back room while my parents were watching it, shortly after it had been released, on VHS. I walked in on this exact scene and was entranced. When Tammy has a flashback of her and Lisa sharing happy lesbian moments, I was moved by it. We see the two girls on a swing, happily laughing together. “We did experiments, like eating asparagus and seeing how long it took for our pee to smell,” she says as we watch the girls giggling over cups of their own urine. “It was very scientific.”

Lisa then goes on to date Tammy’s brother Paul, torturing Tammy, who gets back at both of them by running for student council president. It’s her only bid for power, and she’s taking it. She wants to blow the whole thing up—the whole homophobic charade of student politics. And she does, kind of.

Back then, I didn’t know what the movie was really about. I just knew I loved that scene. I would reference the movie for years afterward by calling it “that movie with the asparagus lesbian pee scene” even though my parents tried to convince me that that was only a tiny part of the movie, what I’d seen, and that it really wasn’t actually about that.

Guess what: Election actually is about that. Although Tammy’s gayness doesn’t factor in largely, she’s one of the film’s only realistic characters, and her decisions and emotions are responsible for much of the action. Sure, it’s largely about how Matthew Broderick’s McAllister hates women in this weird, punitively sexual way, and how he believes women ruin men’s lives. It’s about Tracy, sort of, and how she has to work twice as hard against the rich Metzler family because she’s poor and has a single mom. But it’s a lot about how we delude ourselves in the boldest ways possible, especially when it comes to politics. “It’s not like I’m a lesbian or anything,” Tammy tells us precisely two seconds after making out with a girl. It’s the same way McCallister tells himself he’s not upset with Tracy for Dave’s downfall, or that he intended not to fudge the election results originally, had it not been for Tracy gleefully showing up outside the vote count, pushing him to discard the two votes it took to push her win over the edge. Sure, maybe these characters don’t think they are what they are, but we can see everything. We can see just how much they truly are the things they profess not to be.

The writer and educator Laurence J. Peter once famously said: “Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small.” It’s absolutely true: some of the most fucked-up decisions are made when, perhaps because, the stakes couldn’t be smaller. Nothing really matters in the world of Election: not for Tracy, not for McAllister, not for Tammy. As we can see at the end, (one of the best parts of the movie) Tammy is sent to a Catholic school where the nuns are lax, and she finds a new lesbian soulmate—one who actually seems accepting of her gayness. High school here—Omaha itself—functions the same way Chinatown does in that movie: you can essentially forget it, because you’re not going to change it, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. All the characters, including McAllister, get out. He finds a new life in New York, and Tracy finds one in Washington.

It’s only at the very end that their paths cross again, and the same animosity flares up in McAllister. He can’t help throwing his Pepsi at the back of the limo she’s driving away in. A final ejaculation. Male rage might always be present when you’re an ambitious woman, but in the end, does it matter?

I guess it can, if you let it. Tracy never did.

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