Cards on the table: I am not a fan of AMERICAN CITIZEN Reese Witherspoon. I have not been a Reese Witherspoon fan since 1999, when I saw her get snarky with a reporter who wished her well on her upcoming wedding. I don’t trust people who portray themselves as balls of cotton candy and light when they let that level of utter contempt for others fly out in the open; it’s manufactured and fake. Which means that Reese is the perfect person to play the perky-yet-conniving Tracy Flick in Election (1999). Election sees Tracy square off against teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a man who snaps and decides to undermine the ho-hum class president election of the resident go-getter. Normally, I’d be rooting for Jim all the way, but there’s something sly in the script that makes me go Team Tracy on this one: Jim’s motivation is slut-shaming in nature, and he threatens Tracy via implied blackmail.
Early on, we learn that Tracy is fresh off an affair with another teacher, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik). Dave used his position at school to get some alone time with Tracy, who he describes as a “loner” — Tracy, for her part, acknowledges that she doesn’t have much time for friendship. Right off the bat, there are warning signs on both sides: she’s a vulnerable kid from a workaholic single parent household, and he’s seeking to appeal to a lonely 16-year-old via praise and flattery. From there, they embark on a sexual relationship, which meets an abrupt end when Tracy’s mother discovers a note from Dave asking the teenage girl to run away with him. Dave winds up losing his job, his marriage and his access to his child. Jim’s voice over lets us know that Dave had to move in with his parents. At the tail end of the film, we get an update on Dave: he’s working at a grocery store, and looks completely miserable.
Now back to the scene at hand: Tracy is accused of meddling in the election, and Jim attempts to extract a confession from her via guilt tripping and saccharine lecture. During this interaction, he tells her, “there is, for just one example, a certain former colleague of mine, who made a very big mistake,” then follows that statement with, “I… think that certain young and naïve people need to thank their lucky stars and be very, very grateful that the entire school didn’t find out about certain indiscretions that could have ruined their reputations and their chances to win certain elections.” Let’s stop there for a moment, because Jim throws up some major red flags. Internally, I always scream, “Bitch, you did NOT!” at Jim because of the way he deflects blame. While Tracy participated in the affair, she was a teenage girl in the care of a teacher. Currently, age of consent in Nebraska — where this film takes place — is 17, which means Dave was in massive legal trouble for screwing around with her… legal trouble that went away when he resigned (I’m side-eying the hell out of that school district because every school district has those skeletons, and it’s gross. As someone who worked in a school district, I can attest.). This girl was placed in a situation where she was manipulated by an individual in a power position — the onus rests on the adult who should have known better, not the vulnerable teenage girl who got tricked and groomed into developing feelings for and fucking a man that was a good 20 years her senior (and for the record, if this was gender-reversed, I’d be just as angry). And yet Jim brushes off his buddy’s horrible, calculated course of action by calling it a mistake on Dave’s part, making it sound like Dave accidentally face planted onto Tracy’s cooch. As if that’s not enough, he then goes on to deliver a thinly-veiled threat to Tracy: he can make her life a living hell by letting everyone at school know about her illegal affair with a teacher. That’s even more disgusting because he’s essentially telling her that she’s lucky he didn’t go blabbing that his friend committed a sex crime against a teenage girl, thereby leading to harassment by her peers for being the victim of a sex crime. Let’s be clear: ordering a chalupa when you meant to order a quesadilla from Taco Bell is a mistake; transposing numbers on a cheque is a mistake; wearing black underwear underneath thin white pants is a mistake; buying a Nickelback album is a mistake. FROSTED TIPS ARE A MISTAKE. Grooming and sleeping with a 16-year-old girl and asking her to run away with you isn’t a mistake — that’s being a predatory creep. You can’t call those actions a mistake and then threaten the victim into being quiet because you’re still angry that your garage band buddy lost his job where he had access to more teenage girls he could try to fuck.
However, this is where Tracy gets back into the game: she does not take this shit lying down. After Jim’s little smile-filled, After School Special-style speech to her, she fires back the following:
And I think certain older people, like you and your colleague, shouldn’t be leching after their students, especially when some of them can’t even get their own wives pregnant. And they certainly shouldn’t be making slanderous accusations, especially when certain young, naive people’s mothers are paralegal secretaries at the city’s biggest law firm and have won many successful law suits. And if you want to keep questioning me like this, I won’t continue without my attorney present.
Damn, Skippy. Here we have Jim, smiling while trying to coerce a teenager into silence via sexual blackmail with dulcet, paternal tones, and Tracy throws right down. She metaphorically takes off her earrings, removes any valuables, and sucker punches Jim without a second thought. Now at this point in the film, the audience already knows that Tracy is a backstabbing, fake-as-hell, conniving person, but in this instance, we cheer for her. We cheer because it’s the realization that Jim wants to see her fail as a form of revenge for his friend committing a crime and having to go away. We cheer because — while a complete phony and a total pill that’s written in a way we’re not supposed to fully embrace — we recognize that Tracy was not only the victim of an adult who took advantage of a young girl, but someone who showed way more drive to achieve things than most adults. And we cheer because she calls his bluff. She isn’t about to take shit from Jim McAllister, who is busy defending the actions of a sexual predator and teaching the same crap year after year while holding on to the vestiges of his youth. Tracy won’t be blackmailed – if you try to take her down, you’re all going down with her. If I had to pick someone to be in my corner, you bet your ass I want methodical, unsentimental Tracy Flick kicking the shit out of my opponent.
There’s no scarier thing sometimes than a person who owns their scandal. The act makes attempting to manipulate or control the person far more difficult. That’s precisely what Jim tries to do, and he fails miserably at gaining the upper hand. Sometimes, you don’t get to throw around that you have very private information that could hurt someone’s reputation; sometimes, you have to be prepared that the person you’re trying to control via sexual blackmail has no fear about firing back at you. The real fun starts when the wild card owns it.