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Tom Perrotta On The Evolution Of Tracy Flick

Hillary Clinton got Flicked. Sarah Palin and Kirsten Gillibrand, too. In fact, it's now fair to say that any ambitious female politician with the ability to make men see starbursts--or at least whose hair is blond--will invite comparisons to Tracy Flick, the hyper-driven and not a little bit demented student body president Reese Witherspoon made famous in Election.

Rare is the character who receives a second life as a cultural phenomenon--and that fate was particularly unlikely in Flick's case. The film made just under $15 million when it disappeared from theaters in the summer of 1999. And the book that inspired it, written by Tom Perrotta, went unpublished for a few years before finally coming out in 1998. But Flick, dogged as ever, gradually worked her way into the political consciousness. (Alexander Payne, the film's director, said that President Obama has told him on two separate occasions that it's his favorite political movie.) Now Perrotta is grappling with what Flick's resurrection means, and not all of it is good. He sat down with us to discuss.

What's it like seeing a character you created 15 years ago take on a new life?  

Well, there's certainly a flattering aspect to it--not a lot of characters become a cultural shorthand. The thing that strikes me is that Tracy really has become an all-purpose point of comparison for a certain type of female politician: She's either an all-inclusive character, or people aren't thinking hard enough.

Right, there isn't a Tracy Flick equivalent for male politicians.

There is a slight worry that references to her are colored by a certain type of sexism, that she's become a cudgel. But I also think that there were already a number of other cultural references points for men. What I was responding to with Tracy was new: a generation of hard-charging women, the daughters of first-generation feminists and unapologetic achievers. This was the late 80s and early 90s, and they were different than the girls I had grown up with, more willing to compete. The only other cultural reference points for women like that then were movie stars and entertainers. People like Madonna. Who was it going to be in politics? Golda? Indira? Thatcher? By default, there are few female political touchstones.

So how can you be a rising female politician without being stamped as Flick-ian?

No one would dream of saying it about Condi Rice. There's something very soft-spoken and serious and academic about her. The fact that she's black may also put her into a different category for people. And no one would ever say that about Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. But to your question about how they can avoid it, I don't know. It's hard. Let's see who the allusions are to in 15, 20 years.

Did you make the Hillary Clinton-Tracy Flick connection in your head before the famous mash-up?

You know, it didn't completely occur to me until I saw it. Hillary is mentioned in the book, and so much of it has to do with what I was seeing out of the Clintons during the '92 elections: that politics is personal, the "character issue." So, she was definitely in my mind, but I didn't see her as the politician then. Much more than Tracy, I think it's the character Lisa [the girlfriend of Flick's main rival] who thinks of herself as the Hillary-like behind-the-scenes weapon and player in the game.

Do any of the Tracy comparisons seem reasonable to you?

I see the storyline similarities with Hillary last year: There's the hard-working, doggedly ambitious female character being challenged by the affable guy who seems to have just waltzed in and claimed it by being. But that's not entirely fair to either Hillary or Obama. As far as Palin, her accent really connected people back to Reese Witherspoon's character, I think. And like Tracy, she has a perkiness that masks some real aggression. On the other hand, Tracy would've been someone whose resume looked more like Hillary's: Ivy-league track, always at the top of the class. Especially with Palin, I don't feel as if Tracy Flick was the best comparison. I just think people are made uncomfortable by ambitious women.