Books

How #MeToo Brought Back Tracy Flick

Author Tom Perrotta explains why he went back to his most famous character.

Tom Perrotta and the cover of Tracy Flick Can't Win.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan and cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, David Plotz spoke with author Tom Perrotta about why his most famous character needed to return in his new novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win.

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz:  When did you decide to revisit Tracy? Was there a single moment that prompted you to come back to her? Because she’s so indelible to so many people. When did you realize you needed to check in on her again?

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Tom Perrotta:  Well, like most things that happen in novel writing, for me anyway, it wasn’t so much a decision as a kind of realization. I wanted to write about a football player with a traumatic brain injury who is brought back to his high school to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. And it was, to me, a really interesting image or emblem of where American masculinity is right now. We’ve had our golden boy days, and now we’re suffering the hangover and the culture is no longer quite so reverential as it used to be, for lots of good reasons.

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And when I started to write this book about this high school Hall of Fame and this football player, I found myself writing it as if it were Election, with these small chapters from different perspectives. And I felt like I was copying myself and I felt uncomfortable, but I seemed compelled to do it that way. And then at one point I just said, “Wait a second, is Tracy Flick here?” Because Election just brings Tracy to my mind. And suddenly I saw it, that she was there in this high school. And I know that sounds maybe a little naive when a writer says that, but that’s how it feels sometimes. Like, oh, that’s what I was doing.

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So that’s my writing story. The other story though, I think, is that Me Too happened in the years before I started this book, and it made me think about Tracy and the way that I’d portrayed her in Election. Because in Election she has an affair … a sexual relationship with a teacher. And she is very much defiant about this. She says it was her choice to start it, it was her choice to stop it. And she’s fine and she’s going to continue on with her life. And it’s the teacher who is the big baby.

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And it sounds now, I think, like … I don’t know. I felt like, was that a fair representation? And I wanted to see what Tracy would think about it now in the light of an entirely different cultural framework, because it really was. I think in the early ‘90s when I wrote this book, people were still trying to figure out, “well, what … is this always wrong?” I mean, now we say “yes, it’s always wrong.” We all know it. But at that time, I think there was a little bit of this sexual revolution hangover that basically said, “well, two people consent…” We didn’t have the same sense of power, relationships, and et cetera.

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I mean, that said, Tracy was 15. And I think I wanted to go back and look at that again and see how she would feel about it. So, I think this book is an attempt to revisit the events of Election from this particular, very changed moment in our cultural history.

I’m sure you’re so tired of answering this question I’m about to ask, but so it goes. That’s what you get for creating somebody this memorable. So, you created Tracy Flick out of your head in the book Election, but the culture gives life to characters, lives of their own. And Tracy Flick is now also Reese Witherspoon. And she is also, more weirdly, she’s also Hillary Clinton.

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So, when you’re writing Tracy Flick now, are you writing your Tracy Flick or do you feel like she has … pieces of her that come from Hillary Clinton or come from Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick?

Well, I think that I’m in conversation with those phenomena, because it’s a very unusual run for a character to have. To start out as a character in a small literary novel that didn’t get a lot of attention. It gets adapted into a film and the character is portrayed by this young actress that no one’s ever heard of. And it really puts Reese Witherspoon on the map. And it’s really an extraordinary performance that she gave for Tracy Flick.

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And then, I think because there just weren’t a lot of fictional models for women politicians and ambitious women, Tracy got adopted as shorthand. And at first, that shorthand was for an unpleasantly ambitious woman who alienated the men around her. She became a sexist stereotype, I think. And Hillary Clinton was sometimes labeled as a Tracy Flick, as you say. But so were almost every other woman politician out there. Kirsten Gillibrand was called Tracy Flick by other senators. Elise Stefanik is sometimes mentioned as a Tracy Flick. I think there are others if you want to go back and look.

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But I think, yes, Hillary was the most important there. And I would say that the title, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, is in a sense, at least tapping into that Hillary Clinton-as-Tracy association. I think because in Election, Tracy feels like what happens to her is very personal. There’s a teacher who has a grudge against her for very personal reasons. But in Tracy Flick Can’t Win, when Tracy suddenly realizes that she may not become the principal of this high school, even though she deserves it, she starts to realize that it’s not because anyone has anything personal against her. It’s just because the system is set up to admire and honor and place in positions of responsibility, people who are very different from her, men.

And that Tracy Flick can’t win because some guy is always going to win. And I think that was certainly one of the lessons of the 2016 election.

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