Such Little Babies: On Tom Perrotta’s “Tracy Flick Can’t Win”

September 26, 2022   •   By Annie Berke

Tracy Flick Can't Win

Tom Perrotta

TOWARD THE END of Tom Perrotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win, a lonely divorcee named Diane says to herself, “This is my life […] It’s the only one I have.” What a crystallization of the Perrottaverse — its lonely suburbanites, its lost young men, its unraptured “remainders” — in all its quiet desperation. Perrotta’s characters do the best they can with the mediocre hands they’ve been dealt, trying to conduct their personal lives with dignity, to execute their jobs honorably; as beleaguered assistant principal Tracy Flick repeats in her meditation mantra, they strive to “be the flame.” Why, oh why, does it have to be so damn hard? In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, as in his other works, Perrotta is open to rewarding his characters with happy endings, provided that the dimensions of their contentment remain modest.

But Perrotta’s pages are not the only life that Tracy Flick has lived. In fact, her cinematic one far eclipses her literary legacy. The 1999 film adaptation of Perrotta’s Election, directed by Alexander Payne, provided the breakout role for 23-year-old Reese Witherspoon as the young Tracy, a neatly coiffed high school politician with more than one secret. You might recognize that maniacal glint in her eye from that girl in high school who you always hated — or from looking in the mirror every morning.

Election is set in high school, but don’t hold your breath for a prom scene or a hunk dating a nerd on a bet. There is not an ounce of nostalgia to be found in the novel or its adaptation, only unflattering chinos and hatchback vehicles as far as the eye can see. For the restless students and the miserable faculty and staff, high school is a purgatory from which few are promoted upstairs.

This sharp distinction between Perrotta’s Tracy Flick and Payne’s has everything to do with genre: the novels are comic treatments of real life, while the film is a stone-cold satire. Where Perrotta offers reconciliation, Payne opts for ugliness; where Perrotta is compassionate, Payne is merciless. Payne co-opts Perrotta’s multiple first-person narrators, not as an act of narrative generosity, but as a trick to expose the fissures between what people say and what they do. He foregrounds the characters’ inability to tell the truth about themselves to themselves, never mind to their peers — or to us.

This is to say, if, at the end of the film, you think you know enough to pass judgment on Tracy Flick, you’ve missed the point. You might even be as bad as Mr. M.

“Pick Flick,” her campaign buttons blare. Don’t mind if I do.

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Tracy Flick Can’t Win reflects on the #MeToo movement, on the recovery of adolescent trauma and the misguided glorification of high school athletics, on the toxic culture of tech bros, on the myth of meritocracy. But at its heart, the book is a referendum on all its characters, conducted in-house by the characters themselves, and on Election.

Like its predecessor, Tracy Flick opens with a slice of sociopolitical context, a literary equivalent of cinema’s establishing shot. Where Election begins with a mention of Anita Hill’s allegations against Clarence Thomas, Tracy Flick does so with the fall of men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Matt Lauer. Not much has changed, in other words, except for the ways the capital-C Culture thinks and talks about these things. In revisiting his initial foray into gender politics, Perrotta sometimes comes off as the one hoping to explain himself — though he gently mocks that instinct, presenting a series of proxy male characters insistent they are, in fact, “one of the good ones.” Principal Jack Weede in Tracy Flick, for example, muses how “[g]uys like me are the old guard; we’re presumed guilty whether we’ve done anything wrong or not, though many of us have sinned, I’m not denying it.”

Election centers on one of these dead men walking: Mr. M, a discontented middle-aged man who rigs Tracy’s race for class president. Mr. M hates her for sleeping with his friend, a fellow teacher, who was fired for the violation. But his impulsive decision to hand the election to Tracy’s opponent, cheerful jock Paul Metzler, is inspired by watching her react to the news she had won: “The sight of her at that moment irritated me in a way I can’t fully explain. […] You’d think she was just a sweet teenage girl who deserved every good thing that had ever happened to her.” He is too much of a gentleman — in his own mind, that is — to tell us what he sees when he looks at her.

As Perrotta’s Election toggles between the voices of Mr. M, Tracy, Paul, and others, Perrotta extends charity to all but the most two-dimensional supporting players. Mr. M regrets his spiteful decision to conspire against Tracy, and not just because it precipitates his professional downfall. Meanwhile, Paul is revealed to be a surprisingly astute observer of human behavior, and Tracy, seemingly self-sufficient and sexed-up, is in truth neither. The novel ends with Tracy visiting the disgraced Mr. M at his new job at a local car dealership. They forgive one another, with Mr. M gearing up, in the book’s final moments, to sign Tracy’s yearbook. For many, high school is the site of much embarrassment and trauma, but for Perrotta and his characters, it might just be where imperfect people can get a little grace. Has Perrotta gone too easy on all the wrong people? This question haunts the sequel.

Fast forward to the present, where Tracy languishes — competent but stuck — as a mid-tier administrator at a New Jersey high school. She is surrounded by a new cast of characters: former Silicon Valley executive and current head of the school board Kyle Dorfman, star student Lily Chu, and “Front Desk” Diane, among others. When Kyle proposes that Green Meadow High School establish a hall of fame for its most successful graduates, the story launches into an examination of shared values and collective memory, mired in a world married to the idea that there are winners and there are losers.

The most useful figure for these purposes is Vito Falcone, the Green Meadow quarterback-turned-NFL-player. An alcoholic estranged from his ex-wives and kids, Vito seeks to make amends through his 12-step program while enduring the brutal onset of CTE. He wanders through his old haunts, sites of his greatest victories and most shameful behaviors. Vito’s arc offers a fresh angle on an old archetype, both a grade-A jerk and a victim of the football-industrial complex. His memories of crimes against others are not just skewed but, sometimes, absent, even as the consequences make themselves obvious. His journey toward redemption, however hazy, matters, because it requires that people come together and rebuild a reality they can live in together. The characters in Tracy Flick Can’t Win are all living in the past, but rarely the same one.

Where the sequel surpasses the original is in how the author keeps faith with the reader’s emotional intelligence on abstract notions of memory and culpability. In Election, the characters are too self-aware, too insightful when it comes to their own ethical shortcomings; they call themselves out so we don’t have (or get) to. Tracy Flick Can’t Win offers no such moral clarity. Here, the novel’s multiple points of view underscore just why closure remains out of reach.

Ironically, one of the great disappointments of the novel is Tracy Flick, who, in Election, is an unsentimental, insecure young woman who knows how to dress her curvy body but not how to make a friend. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, she is a middle-aged single mother with a decent support system who still suffers from the loss of her beloved mother. It was her mother’s cancer that made Tracy quit law school, return home, and work in secondary education.

Grown-up Tracy is not the ambitious teen we met in Election. But when we are reintroduced to her, she is distracting herself from ruminating on this arc with a predictable inexhaustibility. She worries over the downfalls of men in the #MeToo moment, because they make her think about her statutory encounter with a teacher at her high school — and that she doesn’t feel bad about it. Did she manage to truly escape unscathed, or is the damage so deeply buried that she can’t access it? She describes #MeToo as “a satisfying spectacle […] but it was […] as if I were being asked to explain myself to the world, though I wasn’t exactly sure who was doing the asking.” This new Tracy Flick will arouse your sympathy, not your ire or bloodlust. After a particularly egregious professional betrayal, Tracy snipes at her adversary, “I won’t allow it,” before thinking to herself: “I won’t allow it. The truth was the opposite, of course. They would do whatever they wanted. And they would crush me, the way they always did.”

But why can’t Tracy Flick win? This is fiction, after all. To slow the progress of an unstoppable force just to make her likable is an uneven trade; “sad victim” or “toxic girlboss” need not be the only two options. And the loud, violent sexism that “crushes” women like Tracy is not the only game in town. What if, as a thought experiment, Tracy Flick was allowed to keep on winning, while the men around her continued to flail and fail and cry? Why tell the story of a meditation candle when you can read about a house on fire?

Reading Perrotta, with his mentions of predators past and present, made me yearn for the savage, unrepentant, uniquely cinematic vision that Payne’s film offers and that Witherspoon’s performance summons into being.

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The same year that Payne’s Election was released, so too was the soft-softcore teen drama Cruel Intentions, a Manhattan millennial retelling of Dangerous Liaisons. In many ways, these films are inverses of one another: Cruel Intentions glossy and titillating, bathing consent issues in sexy lighting, Election showing the world as it might look beneath overhead fluorescent bulbs. The manipulative teen sexpots of Cruel Intentions are bored, the students and faculty in Election plain stuck.

These movies do not belong together — except, of course, for the presence of an apple-cheeked Reese Witherspoon. In both, her character is marked as a target, as the weakest in the herd; accordingly, she is misjudged, lied to, and blatantly objectified. And, in both, her character triumphs, each story ending with her character departing in a luxury vehicle, leaving her nemesis in the literal and figurative dust. (“It’s a bittersweet symphony — that’s life,” the Verve reminds us as Cruel Intentions cruises to its conclusion.)

This is what we have come to expect from Witherspoon, who achieved true superstardom with the 2001 comedy Legally Blonde and whose production company is cutely titled Type A Films. Don’t underestimate Witherspoon, sure, but it’s more than that: be afraid. As the critic Wesley Morris describes her performance in Election, “[T]he usually sexed-up or underused Witherspoon is born-again as an actress of fierce, head-turning revelation in a hell-for-leather funny incarnation of snappy drive that finally releases her from the remuda of her pony-actress peers.”

But with all this specialness and difference heaped upon this petite firebrand, Payne’s Election isn’t really about Tracy Flick. The heart of this rotten little film is Matthew Broderick as Mr. M, living proof that every teen actor dies a Ferris Bueller or lives long enough to play a teacher. Mr. M kicks off Payne’s illustrious toxic masculinity oeuvre (see: Sideways, The Descendants, Downsizing, and probably all the other films too). Notably, Election anticipates contemporary conversations about grooming and incel culture decades before social media mainstreamed them. The movie ages painfully well.

What too many critics missed at the time — but what nearly every woman I know grasped, instantly and instinctually — is that “Tracy Flick” is imaginary, filtered through the male gaze and constructed through a locker-room-talk mode of storytelling. The multicharacter narration from the novel functions differently from the voiceovers in the film because, in Payne’s version, these voices are sometimes oblivious, other times dishonest. Paul, as played by Chris Klein, is sweet and simple, while Tracy’s insight is often harsh. (When she tears down all the campaign posters in a pique of rage, her voiceover is conspicuously absent — this being a crime that she will never confess to.)

But Mr. M is far and away the most unreliable narrator, publicly self-deluded but privately miserable. In the film’s opening shot, we are introduced to his bleak routine through the image of a sprinkler — dull, repetitive, phallic. He immediately drops his lunch on the floor of the faculty lounge, to the chagrin of the school’s beleaguered janitor. Every house in Election has low ceilings and dingy carpeting; every social gathering is laced with discomfort; even the most transcendent sexual encounter is filmed from the point of view of an apathetic bystander. We witness Mr. M’s existence — his passionless marriage, plagued by infertility and infidelity, his uninspiring work — and laugh when he declares, “So, like I was saying, things were going pretty well in my life.”

In the wake of perpetual disappointment, what better scapegoat than perky, pesky, “going places” Tracy Flick? Mr. M says he knows that that his disgraced teacher friend was to blame for seducing young Tracy, that their affair was not so much a love match as it was a violation. That is what he says. But in practice, he resents and blocks Tracy in her pursuit of the presidency, and the antagonism between them heightens when Mr. M — admittedly, correctly — accuses Tracy of sabotaging all the school’s campaign posters. Hostile subtext having become text, Mr. M references Tracy’s secret relationship to his friend, suggesting he had been generous to keep this scandal quiet (thus far). Cornered, Tracy turns the tables, sharply responding: “I don’t know what you’re referring to, but maybe if certain older, wiser people hadn’t acted like such little babies and gotten so mushy, then everything would be okay.”

Mr. M’s drive for revenge (or something like it) culminates in his ensuring that Paul “wins” by a single vote. In an act of karmic retribution, Mr. M sets in motion the ruination of his own shitty life, presaged by a terrible bee sting that causes his eye to swell. Greek tragedy meets MTV-generation meanness, as this hideous display of literal blindness is just a marker of his colossal blindness. He sees Tracy as a villain, not as the sensitive, lonely young woman who asks the teacher who will go on to take advantage of her, “What kind of person am I?” Neither Tracy nor Mr. M can see themselves clearly, but Tracy, at least, seems to know her limitations.

Payne is not a subtle humorist, and Election is one of his broadest comic showings. Still, even within this noisy parade of khaki callousness, the film’s leads turn in surprisingly delicate performances. Broderick can convey disdain, fear, and arousal all at once while keeping his face entirely blank; it must be seen to be believed. And Witherspoon’s Tracy, the villainous vixen of Mr. M’s sexual nightmares, displays a tenderness entirely appropriate to her age and stage of life. When she explains to Mr. M that, when she becomes class president (at this point, she is running uncontested), she hopes their relationship can be “harmonious and productive.” Mr. M clearly sees her anxious body language and widened eyes as flirtatious, but I see these tics as Tracy’s feeble attempts to win over a man dead set against her. Upstanding Mr. M and too-cool teacher Dave see Tracy Flick very differently — in ways that ultimately serve their own ends. It falls to Tracy to accommodate these visions of her, or at least to try to. Witherspoon captures the painful, fruitless contortions of seeking male approval and dismantling male resentment. It’ll never work; it’s the only way.

The film cannot accommodate the warm, gentle ending of the novel, though Payne did film a version of it, which found its way onto YouTube almost a decade ago. Thankfully, the movie opted for a funnier, feel-worse ending that caps off the film’s worldview rather than undercutting it. In the theatrical ending, Mr. M’s life has changed — he is living in New York, working as a museum educator. His life is more cosmopolitan: we see him browsing a bookstore, even dating a new woman. (He is — shocker — divorced). His apartment is comically small, with a bathtub in the kitchen, and he describes the space as having “a lot of character.” “I’m cozy enough,” he tells us, tells himself.

But do not doubt it: He is the same guy. When Mr. M goes on a work trip to Washington, DC, he spots Tracy, wearing a skirt suit and, of all things, a pussy-bow blouse. She is entering a limo with a Republican congressman. Though older and more sophisticated, Tracy’s earnest expression is unaltered, while Mr. M stands a distance away, dumbstruck, clutching a large Pepsi cup. In voiceover, Mr. M claims he isn’t mad at Tracy anymore; he only feels sorry for her in her desperate pursuit of her “pathetic little dreams,” measly next to his “exciting […] new life.” But as he watches the limo drive away, he veers off-script: “I mean, where is she really trying to get to anyway? And what is she doing in that limo? Who the fuck does she think she is?” He throws his drink at the receding vehicle and runs away when it comes to a screeching halt in response.

Payne, a sadist to the last, ends Election not with the humiliation of Mr. M but with a gleeful glimpse into his perpetual torment. In his new place of work, Mr. M poses a question to a group of students. A fair-haired girl in overalls shoots her hand up, her expression the essence of intellect and ambition. Any whisper of humor or generosity evacuates Mr. M’s face, and the film cuts to black before we can see if he will call on her. But we know already, don’t we? Mr. M threw everything he had at Tracy, tanking his life in the process (and dirtying a limousine’s rear window), only to find that the world is a veritable Whac-A-Mole of girls just like her.

The Tracy Flicks of the world will always come up against the Mr. M’s; some will be destroyed, while others will triumph. But, departing from Perrotta’s sympathetic portrayals, Payne flips the narrative, asking: what if it is the self-proclaimed nice guys — and closet misogynists — who can’t win?

Tracy Flick, on page and on screen, remains complicated, embattled yet entitled, steely and tender. She can be blunt or, at least, ill-tempered, and anyone can see she is lonely. Like Mr. M, she knows how to play her part. During graduation, we watch her melancholy expression shift into her signature sunny, open-mouth smile when her name is called. She maintains contradictions, but that women are people too should be old news. What the film grasps, and the novels do not, is that Tracy Flick has always been a composite of multiple gazes, grudges, and sets of expectation, a portrait of a performance rather than a person.

I never wanted or needed the softer side of Tracy Flick, and I wonder about those who do — those who, in luxuriating in her disappointments, just want to watch her lose. At the end of Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Perrotta gives Tracy the recognition he believes she deserves, complete with a personalized plaque that calls her “A True Hero and an Inspiration to Us All.” Tracy cries at her desk, “so touched by the praise,” adding that “it was impossible to ask for more.”

But I want more for Tracy Flick, and not more inner peace, more collegiality, more hygge moments around the fire; I want her to win. Big. And it’s not because I like her or because she’s nice. (Honestly, the pussy-bow blouse gave me more pause now than it did in 1999.) I root for Tracy Flick at her worst, because I like watching her self-important, aggrieved detractors lose.

Such little babies.

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Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, a host for the Film channel of the New Books Network podcast, and the author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022). Her scholarship and criticism have been published in Camera Obscura, Public Books, Feminist Media Histories, Ms., and Literary Hub.