Competing Characters in Election
The 1999 film Election follows the election for student body president at a small high school in Nebraska. The story follows the teacher responsible for organizing the student government, Jim McAllister, as well as the three candidates for president, Tracy Flick, Paul Metzler, and Tammy Metzler. The central conflict is between Jim McAllister and Tracy Flick, with Paul and Tammy only serving in the proxy war between the two, as Jim attempts everything in his power to keep Tracy from becoming student body president even to the point of falsifying the election results.
The character Jim McAllister is a disaffected high school teacher who jumps at the opportunity for revenge against a student, Tracy Flick, who caused his friend to be fired. Tracy is a know-it-all and overachiever, and uses manipulation and coercion to get her way when simple overachieving will not do, including in her run for student body president. Paul Metzler is a well-liked football player who is unable to play due to an injury, and so is convinced to run for student body president by Jim McAllister. Paul is not especially bright, but he is popular and well-regarded. Paul’s younger sister, Tammy, decides to run for office as well, after being dumped by her girlfriend. She is perhaps the most self-aware character of the entire film besides Jim, who although self-aware lacks a corresponding sense of self-control. Aside from Tracy, Tammy is the only character who can be said to get what they want.
In the film, Jim attempts to give the election to Paul by getting rid of two of Tracy’s ballots, because she had won by only a single vote (a vote cast by Paul, who felt guilty voting for himself). Jim wants to get revenge on Tracy because her affair with his friend caused him to be fired, but he also seems to dislike her personality through and through, and so over the course of the film he becomes more desperately committed to ensuring her downfall. Throwing the election so Paul would win is only one of the ways in which Jim hopes to trip up Tracy, but it ultimately backfires as Tracy is declared winner and Jim resigns, having been caught falsifying the election. Paul is shown to be neither as manipulative as either Jim or Tracy, and his generally wholesome character serves as a contrast to the scheming of the other characters involved in the election. Because of this, he is the perfect opponent for Tracy, and Jim selects him for precisely this reason without ever benefiting from Paul’s good-natured demeanor.
Paul’s sister, Tammy, decides to run for office because her former best friend and sweetheart Lisa breaks up with her and starts dating Paul. Tammy signs up to run in retaliation for Lisa and Paul’s relationship, but her candidacy briefly takes off when she proposes to dissolve the student government. Tammy is really only motivated by her hurt feelings for Lisa, and does not mind about being disqualified from the race or being sent to an all-girls Catholic school so long as Lisa realizes “what a bitch she is” and how much she hurt Tammy. Because Tammy has no real interest in winning the presidency, she does not campaign in the traditional sense but instead gives a rousing speech about the pointlessness of the election, winning herself support but precipitating her own expulsion from the race.
Jim thinks that others will suffer because of Tracy because he is one of the few characters in the film to fully understand the extent of Tracy’s character. Part of Tracy’s skill lies in her ability to appear innocent, but Jim understands how easily she manipulates people to get what she wants, and so he is afraid of giving her any more power. On a more personal level, Tracy has already helped get Jim’s fellow teacher fired by the beginning of the film, so Jim has immediate experience with the collateral damage caused by Tracy’s machinations. Furthermore, Jim struggles with the idea that someone as manipulative and cold-hearted as Tracy can be so successful, and so he hopes to knock her down a peg or two as a means of tempering her personality. Jim seems to have a grudging respect for Tracy, but believes that if elected she would cause undue harm to people.
Tracy thinks she deserves victory because she has worked hard on her campaign, and she believes herself to be one of the “strong,” deserving of destiny’s rewards. Put simply, she believes she deserves to win because she wants to win, and her self-absorption is so total that she cannot consider anyone else and anything other than an obstacle. This can be seen most clearly in her voiceover, when she tells God, “I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn’t, as you well know. I realize that it was your divine hand that disqualified Tammy Metzler and now I’m asking that you go that one last mile and make sure to put me in office where I belong.” Her self-aggrandizement continues to the point of instructing God as to his role in the plot, and she is unable to consider why Tammy may have been disqualified other than how it relates to her own chances of success. Furthermore, Tracy continuously makes a distinction between the weak and the strong, identifying herself with the latter and proposing that a propensity for manipulation and strategy are what separates the two.
Election examines the occasionally combative relationship between students and teachers, and through the character of Jim McAllister, deals with a rivalry between teacher and student which ultimately ends in Jim’s resignation. Jim’s initial problem with Tracy is that she escaped punishment while his colleague was fired, and the film seems to suggest that this injustice can never be rectified, because the students always ultimately have more power than the teachers, as evidenced by Tracy Flick’s continued success. In fact, the film can be seen as arguing against the kind of personal investment Jim commits to the school, because his investment in school is only the result of his own personal problems and so ends up being corrupted by his own failings and fanaticism.
Payne, Alexander, Dir. Election. Paramount Pictures: 1999, Film.
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