Let me tell you about the only film I think I might actually hate. Certainly, Alexander Payne’s Election is the only film that has left me with such a morbid sense of horror after viewing it. Payne is a gifted film maker and screenwriter. But in Election he’s made a film that somehow manages to parallel the 2016 election in some really uncomfortable ways.
Those of you who’ve seen Election are probably wondering what bugbear some nobody internet writer could have against it. Hell, the great Roger Ebert himself gave the movie three and a half stars out of four. I’ll get to you folks in a second. First, let me explain Election to the uninitiated.
Flick for President
Election follows the shenanigans of a student election at a Nebraska high school. The film’s protagonist, at least in theory, is teacher Jim McAllister. But the character Election will forever be remembered for is type-A ‘overachiever’ Tracy Flick. She’s the girl in your class who always knows the answer to every question, and she’s in so many school clubs the teachers are probably sick of seeing her.
Tracy Flick is our antagonist, or so the film would have us believe. She’s duplicitous, scheming and masks insincerity with political politeness. Also, the weekend before school election day she gets so frustrated she tares down all the election posters. She’s how Trump supporters see Hillary Clinton, right down to her heartlessness and corruption.
The problem? Tracy is not a character. She’s a caricature, a one dimensional construct of a man who feels threatened by her smarts and ambition. Jim McAllister, the film’s central narrator (three other characters share this job, including Tracy, but Jim is the only one afforded any depth), is that man.
See, at the start of the film Jim tells us he’s a good teacher. He’s never wanted to do anything else and he gets a kick out of helping kids through their teenaged years. Only, I’m not sure that’s really true. Jim McAllister might well be a living, if fictional, embodiment of what happens when toxic masculinity is rendered impotent by a changing world.
Who’s the real hero?
Here’s a few things you need to know about Jim: his best friend and fellow teacher Dave had an affair with Tracy, convincing a largely friendless teenage girl that he was her only real friend. Once this came out Dave was fired. We’re meant to feel sorry for Dave. Jim tells us: ‘Basically he was a good guy.’
Also, Jim reacts to his struggles to conceive a child with his wife by having an affair with his wife’s best friend Linda. Oh, and when Tracy wins the student election he rigs it so that the ballot count says she lost. Such a swell guy.
What does any of this have to do with the 2016 presidential election? I think you might have guessed already.
As much as Tracy gets to narrate portions of the movie, it’s hard not to feel that her words are being spoken for her by men who put them there only to knock them down. Tracy Flick is an egregious construct of one dimensional straw-mannery, a manipulative and dishonest cardboard cut out. Nothing she says feels genuine and everything she does is calculated. Her occasional bursts of pseudo-feminism are there only to be discredited by her sheer surface level duplicity.
I’ve tried to understand why Election condemns Tracy Flick for every flaw and mistake it lavishes on her, while overlooking the deeply dishonest actions of Jim McAllister. There’s a small part of me that wonders whether we’re secretly supposed to think Jim is the bad guy, but there are scenes in the film that make me believe otherwise. And why wouldn’t Jim absolve himself of his own mistakes? We already live in a world where the first woman to come close to the US Presidency has been dubbed ‘Crooked Hillary’ by her opponent while his own myriad of scandals and controversies are ignored or dismissed by his white male voter base.
Now before every Trump supporter who reads this accuses me of being ‘Hillary’s stooge’ I should probably mention that I’m not a Clinton supporter. Hell, I’m not even an American citizen. Were I a voter though, I don’t think I’d be particularly fond of Clinton’s Wall Street connections or her support for the TTIP trade agreement. I can’t help but feel, however, that much of her vilification derives from her being a smart ambitious woman.
Perhaps she’s shrill, or doesn’t feel genuine, or maybe she looks too frail and sickly to hold office. She’s part of the establishment, the Washington elite out of touch with the common man. The media seems to dance between each excuse depending on the hour. The secret truth is that a lot of dudes don’t like her because she’s a woman with high goals and the talent to pull it off. Women aren’t meant to be President. They’re not meant to be in charge. They’re meant to be wives and daughters and runners up in High School presidential elections.
‘Crooked Hillary’ and Tracy Flick feel to me like the same thing: a villain constructed by men to justify their lack of success. Jim McAllister never needed to take ownership of his own mistakes because he had Tracy to blame for them. Donald Trump has given every guy ever to have been outdone by a harder working woman an excuse for their failure: it wasn’t their fault, the game is rigged and the woman cheated – just like Crooked Hillary.
If you’re reading this on election day, please don’t be one of those guys.