Imagine this: You have one of the most qualified candidates in history running for the presidency. The candidate is the stuff of dreams, coming to the campaign trail with years of experience, expertise, and know-how that no one else in the race can even dream of touching. The candidate is hard, focused, and yes, ambitious. The candidate is also female, which at times feels like it’s her ultimate undoing.
You think I’m talking about Hillary Clinton, right? But I’m not. I’m talking about a candidate that preceded her by seventeen years: Tracy Flick, from 1999’s Election, and her troubled run for high school class president.
Or maybe I’m just talking about ambitious women everywhere.
One day Will WE acknowledge that women are more than vaginas?
On to the film. When we meet Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), we’re almost immediately told that we shouldn’t like her. She’s pushy; she’s a know-it-all. She’s too eager to answer every question, to the point that teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is compelled to ignore her waving hand. That’s what she deserves, right? After all, Ron and Harry didn’t like Hermione right away either, for basically the same reasons. “She’s got to realize she has no friends,” right? But in Harry Potter, our beloved trio came together in the face of a troll. In Election, the only person rooting for Tracy is her mom (a similarly motivated woman who clearly feels powerless as a paralegal, and is treated with mild derision by the filmmakers for fighting for better for her daughter).
We soon learn that not only do we dislike Tracy for knowing everything, we also dislike her because a recently fired teacher seduced her, was caught, and was left by his wife… but not before talking in great detail about the wonders of her vagina to the ever-unhappy McAllister. Eventually we realize that, oh: the point of the movie is that Tracy is running unopposed for president of the SGA, and somehow it’s totally fine that this grown-ass man, this man who claims to love teaching and love motivated young people, wants to put himself between Tracy and her goal. Since a lot of the film is told from Broderick’s perspective, we start to learn a whole lot about Tracy through the lens of a man who isn’t happy with his life, or with Flick’s ambitions. And sure, it’s worth noting that it’s not like Tracy Flick is presented as a flawless individual—but like any anti-hero, she’s got her positive and negative qualities, and that’s what makes her compelling.
Like Tracy Flick, Hillary Clinton is defined by the sexual appetite of those around her. We’ve attacked her for being one way (the pantsuits, the haircuts), and then derided her when she tries to be the other. We measured her based on her husband’s affair(s), and we defined and categorized her based on the limited knowledge we had about how she did or did not respond to those affairs. Americans have spent a lot of time trying to whittle this ambitious, goal-oriented, extremely and even uniquely qualified woman down to the castaway shrew that Bill Clinton cheated on… but why?
do we punish ambitious women?
Much like George Washington Carver High School in Election, Americans are in a really cool moment right now. We have the first female nominee for president for a major party, and (hope against hope), we may just have the first female president ever (that or we’re starting a quick descent into fascism).
Before we can get there, we need to sit down and give ourselves a stern look and ask: can America deal with listening to a woman who isn’t weak, who doesn’t pander to make herself likable? After the debacle that was the RNC recently, I’m not so sure we can.
Both Tracy Flick and Hillary Clinton are accused of being robotic, but don’t they have to be? Sure, they can make “Pick Flick” cupcakes and tell anecdotes about dating their husbands in Oakland, but what options do they have? We make sure women know they’re best suited for the role of secretary (or paralegal). We penalize women when they’re fun and we penalize them when they aren’t (why can’t you just smile for me?).
Why do we demand more from ambitious women, even when we know we’ll automatically reject them when they give it to us? Why do we applaud Barack Obama (a man I happily voted for twice and love and would fully endorse a third term from, so don’t get it twisted) when he dances with children or celebrate him looking like a boss, but then tell Hillary she’s trying too hard when she does anything at all?
It concerns me to think it’s fully possible that this is a country where we would rather believe an ambitious woman is lying, cheating, and doing anything and everything to con the American public into believing her than just take her policies and personality at face value (love ’em or hate ’em).
Because I’m not willing to assume that Hillary is guilty of half of what has been leveled against her, and I find the fact that so many wild accusations have been leveled at the first woman to have a chance to be president to be… disturbing. I don’t think she’s responsible for the death of Vince Foster. I don’t think Chelsea Clinton’s biological dad is anyone other than Bill Clinton. I don’t think her refusal to change her last name cost her husband “a few votes” in his landslide victory for the seat of governor. I don’t think independent voters base their vote on how a candidate looks. We now know the GOP was lying about the Benghazi affair, because they accidentally told us. (No really, they did.) People from the NRA didn’t really hold a fundraiser for her earlier this year. She’s not against raising the minimum wage. The fossil fuel industry isn’t actually funding her campaign. I don’t believe that she yells, that she’s shrill, that she’s bossy. (I do, in fact, believe she just gets shit done.)
Much like Clinton, Tracy Flick is a woman who is tirelessly working to attain the status of president. Much like Clinton, daring to attempt to reach that pinnacle inherently means that Flick will have to engage in some pretty negative stuff that will probably piss off a lot of people (the same way that every single US president—and probably SGA president—has). Unlike Clinton, Tracy goes all out in her madness, which culminates in an explosive three minutes spent ripping the campaign posters of her rivals off the wall. Has Hillary ever wanted to rip down You-Know-Who’s campaign signs? I’m sure she has. Will she? Probably not. Though she did launch Trump Yourself recently, and it’s kind of the same thing.
what doES any of us have to lose?
I’m sickened by our treatment of ambitious women because I, too, am an ambitious woman. I don’t want to run the United States (though my kid has repeatedly insisted that I should try), but I have Goals. And sure, life isn’t all about money, but I have consistently out-earned my husband our entire relationship with a combination of freelance work I have sought and a business I built myself—while also growing, birthing, nursing, and nourishing a child. But even while doing so, people have constantly assumed my freelance work online is just for fun. People—even members of my immediate family—think becoming a wedding photographer was a lark, that it was something I just happened to fall into without any intention or work. I have sat through countless discussions about how talented and incredible my husband is at his various jobs throughout the years, but until the last two or three years he a) didn’t really care about his work at all, and b) wasn’t doing anything that requires a particular skill set. I have cared about my work for as long as I’ve been doing it—and considering I started writing and publishing online at fifteen, that’s over half my life. So I deeply get this:
By 1999, even without having pursued her own political path, Clinton had learned what it might entail to be a woman who competed: She had taken her husband’s last name after his 1980 reelection defeat in Arkansas had been blamed on her independence; she’d done cookie-bake-off penance for her remarks about prioritizing career over domesticity; everything from her friend Vince Foster’s death to the wandering attentions of her husband had been tied to her purported ruthlessness.
When I asked her why she thinks women’s ambition is regarded as dangerous, she posited that it was about “a fear that ambition will crowd out everything else—relationships, marriage, children, family, homemaking, all the other parts [of life] that are important to me and important to most women I know.” She also mentioned the unappealing stereotyping: “We’re so accustomed to think of women’s ambition being made manifest in ways that we don’t approve of, or that we find off-putting.”
She also edged toward something uglier, harder to talk about. “I think it’s the competition,” she said. “Like, if you do this, there won’t be room for some of us, and that’s not fair.” I pushed her: Did she mean men’s fears that ambitious women would take up space that used to belong exclusively to them? “One hundred percent,” she said, nodding forcefully.
In my experience, it’s hard to simultaneously be a woman who has a goal and doggedly chases it and be a woman who is a wife, a mother, a partner, a friend. According to Rebecca Traister, this means that “Except for a few grandma references, [Hillary Clinton] presents herself as a resumé and policy brief.” This isn’t just Hillary, though. How many of us have to make sure everyone else in our lives is taken care of before we can find the space to be successful? Sometimes it feels like the only way to prove we’re serious is to present all of our serious cards first, #nofunallowed, and then wait to be made fun of… which is something both Tracy Flick and Hillary Clinton know all too well.
I know I do it.
H/T to Slate Political Gabfest for pitching this story concept. We picked up what you put down.