We’ve been on a dark path for a long time, and the signs were already pretty clear in 1999—now two decades ago—in two seemingly very different films. Election and Dick warned us in no uncertain terms that politics is a racket and that young women should never be underestimated.
Election was the first of the two to come out, and despite solid reviews, didn’t do particularly well at the box office. Marketed as a quirky teen comedy for the MTV generation, director Alexander Payne’s darker political edge probably surprised a lot of theatre goers.
The film has two competing narrators: Mr. McAllister (played by Matthew Broderick), who teaches civics and other related courses at an Omaha high school, and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an overachiever running for class president.
Mr. McAllister is instantly recognizable as the generally likeable, bland teacher with an inflated ego—he prefers “Mr. M” and boasts about how “involved” he is.
Mr. M goes through the motions of being a good teacher, but mostly gets off on the thought that he’s important and that his students look up to him.
In reality, he’s bitter, arrogant, and not particularly invested in his students’ success. He wants to feel needed, as evidenced by his irritation at Tracy for already understanding the course material. She’ll thrive with or without him, and he can’t stand it.
At the outset, you almost get why he doesn’t like Tracy. We see her showing up early to collect student signatures to run, setting up a table in the school atrium with the kind of A-type keener energy that might drive one up the wall.
But Tracy’s actually pretty great. She doesn’t have any close friends, but most of the other kids seem to like her just fine. She gets the signatures she needs in a single day, and she does it by genuinely caring about the student body. She knows everyone by name, and remembers details about them. And it doesn’t come off as an act. Tracy is interested in politics, it seems, for all the right reasons.
It quickly becomes clear that Mr. M is the problem here. He’s a mediocre husband overly invested in a job he’s just OK at and that doesn’t offer the status he’s after. But worse than that, he’s a cheat in every sense of the word. When things don’t go his way—in his marriage or in a high school election—he still manages to worms his way to what he wants, at least temporarily.
In recent years, many have astutely identified a Hillary Clinton prototype in Tracy, whose presidential campaign was waged when Clinton was still First Lady and still over a decade away from being scrutinized for crimes like being “over-prepared” for a debate, or just being pushy and unpleasant—code words, in most cases, for being a woman who doesn’t “know her place.”
One of Mr. M’s strategies for knocking Tracy down a peg involves recruiting an opponent in the school election. His choice is Paul Metzler, a handsome, popular athlete with zero political ambition or ability. Paul is incredibly likeable, though. He cares as much about his fellow students as Tracy does, and even secretly votes for her in the name of good sportsmanship.
The sad reality of Election 20 years later is that it assumed the Tracy Flicks of the world would need someone like Paul to stand in their way. It’s still mind-boggling that someone as unlikable, petty, and vile as Donald Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton at anything, let alone a presidential election.
Looking back to 1999, Tracy would have been more accurately symbolic of Monica Lewinsky, who just a year before Election’s release had been revealed to have had an affair with then-president Bill Clinton.
While the scandal was one of a married man—and the president no less—having an affair with one of his interns, Lewinsky quickly became the target of horrifying abuse from the media and Washington political circles, and a slanderous reputation which she’s only managed to rein in in recent years. Looking back at the coverage of the incident in retrospect, one might feel pushed to overlook the crucial fact that a man in the highest position of power in the world took advantage of a woman in his employ who was more than 20 years his junior.
Mr. M similarly holds Tracy’s “affair” with his colleague Mr. Novotny, revealed early on in Election, against her. He punishes her for her role in his friend’s perfectly appropriate dismissal by ignoring her efforts in class and as a school council candidate, but he also uncomfortably sexualizes her by reading come-ons in her everyday speech and behaviour, even fantasizing about her while he sleeps with his wife. It’s not clear how much of Mr. M’s attitude toward Tracy is misogynistic vengeance and how much is just plain misogyny. The two tend to walk hand in hand.
The fact that Tracy now fits the mold not only of Lewinsky, thwarted in her political career for the misdeeds of a man who held power over her, but also for Hillary Clinton and the many capable women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar who face absurd backlashes to their every moves for not being old white guys, as dictated by tradition, speaks to Election’s broader relevance to the shitshow we call American politics.
Dick, released three months after Election, takes a lighter route, injecting the Watergate scandal with some revisionist comedy and offering a farcical theory on the identity, or identities, of Deep Throat, the anonymous informant who helped Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein crack the case of an American president trying to steal an election.
The film’s theory: that two teen girls accidentally walked in on the Watergate break-in while entering a contest to win a date with pop idol Bobby Sherman. From there, they became President Nixon’s dog walkers and exposed the political crime by which all other political crimes are measured. Borrowing the title of a landmark porn film when one of their brothers was caught sneaking into it, they became some of the most famous whistleblowers in history. (Six years later, former associate director of the FBI Mark Felt was revealed to have been the real Deep Throat.)
It’s a wonderfully goofy premise that allows Dick’s stars, Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams, as Betsy and Arlene, respectively, to shine as 70s hippie teens who aren’t particularly sharp. They mostly stumble through history with a Forest Gump-y ability to constantly be in the right place at the right time to leave their fingerprints all over history.
While the film veers towards dumb-blond, ditzy girl tropes, it also paints everyone else in a harsh light, from the bickering, childlike Woodward and Bernstein, to the criminally inept president and his staff.
The girls may not be skilled sleuths, but they uncover crimes by virtue of being underestimated at every turn, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that Nixon’s cruelty to his dog Checkers is what puts them on his scent. Betsy and Arlene are good people. They know war is wrong. They know cheating is wrong. They know kicking a damn family pet is wrong. It hurts them to see cruelty in the world, and that’s more important than most other considerations in politics.
Contemporary American politics are marked by a shocking amount of unbridled cruelty, from bullying journalists, to validating hateful violence, to abducting and locking migrant children in cages. Donald Trump is a bad man. A crook, even.
And not for nothing, Trump is openly and almost comically averse to the overwhelming and undeniable charm of dogs. We don’t deserve dogs, but Trump doesn’t even want them? That’s movie villain shit right there, and would tip off Betsy and Arlene immediately.
In 1999, the premise of two hot teen girls cozying up to the political elite of Washington and then taking them down was hilarious and over-the-top. But now, after 29-year-old, gun-loving, all-American girl Maria Butina proved to be a Russian agent, bluntly infiltrating first the NRA then the Republican party, Dick feels oddly prescient. Young women can be hounded by politicians if they reach higher than deemed appropriate, but they can also apparently cozy up to Don Jr. without so much as a background check. Misogyny is a helluva drug.
The idea that high school politics and girls trying to win a date with a pop star can help unpack our sad political realities is a little on the nose, but sadly even more on point than it was 20 years ago. We’re surrounded by corruption and bad faith, and it’s not even subtle or smart. It’s the kind of thing a depressed social studies teacher would try to orchestrate, or the kind of conspiracy two teenegers sneaking around might unravel by accidentally opening the wrong door or giving pot brownies to the wrong person.
Election and Dick told us how absurd our political situation was back in 1999, and it’s only gotten worse. Now it’s time to listen to their solutions, or just not be garbage on the most basic levels.
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