Tracy Flick returns: Gillibrand is latest female politician to be compared to film character

››› ››› LAUREN AUERBACH & HANNAH DREIER

Accompanying the appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate is the return of comparisons in the media between a female public official -- previously Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and now Gillibrand -- and the character Tracy Flick from the book and movie Election -- a character who has been described as "one of those people who manages to get very far in life while being thoroughly unlikable."

Tracy Flick is back, this time in the form of comparisons in the media between her -- a book and movie character described by Salon.com as "one of those people who manages to get very far in life while being thoroughly unlikeable" -- and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Several media figures -- including the Politico's Patrick O'Connor and Glenn Thrush, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and Fox News host Sean Hannity -- have invoked Flick when talking about Gillibrand, as some in the media did in the context of two other female public officials -- then-Sen. Hillary Clinton and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

For example:

Kirsten Gillibrand

  • A January 23 Politico article headlined, "Gillibrand unpopular among peers," reported that "[w]ithin the high school gossip circle that is New York's congressional delegation, Kirsten Gillibrand's nickname is 'Tracy Flick.' "
  • In her January 25 New York Times column, Dowd wrote, "So now we have an N.R.A. handmaiden in Bobby Kennedy's old seat? Kirsten Gillibrand, a k a Tracy Flick, accepting the honor with her Republican pal Al D'Amato beside her on stage? Gross." Dowd added: "The 42-year-old Gillibrand, who has been in the House for only two years, is known as opportunistic and sharp-elbowed. Tracy Flick is her nickname among colleagues in the New York delegation, many of whom were M.I.A. at her Albany announcement."
  • On the January 26 edition of Fox News' Hannity, Hannity said, "New York's newest senator is eliciting some less-than-flattering comparisons. Now Politico.com reports that Kirsten Gillibrand, the former New York congresswoman who today took Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, earned the nickname 'Tracy Flick' among congressional colleagues on account of her blonde locks and unquenchable ambition. Now if you're wondering who Tracy Flick is, well, just take a look." Hannity then played a clip from the movie Election.

Hillary Clinton

  • In January 2008, Slate produced the online video, "Hillary's Inner Tracy Flick," which combined clips from the movie Election with clips of Clinton during the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
  • In a January 10, 2008, Washington Times op-ed, Peter C. Groff and Charles D. Ellison wrote: "Sen. Hillary Clinton, her armor temporarily pierced by Midwestern working-class grit (with sudden redemption by middle-class Northeastern posh), is like Tracy Flick in the dark comedy classic 'Election' re-emerged."
  • On January 16, 2008, New York Magazine's Daily Intel posted an entry headlined, "Is Hillary Clinton Indeed Tracy Flick?" and wrote: "This week, Slate V has addressed an issue that we (and others) have been thinking about for a long time. That is: Is Hillary Clinton secretly the exact same person as Tracy Flick, the beloved Reese Witherspoon character from the movie Election? She's blonde, she's driven, she's oddly sexless (even as she is sexualized by others), she's competitive and ruthless, and sometimes you wonder whether she has the emotions of normal people."
  • In his February 24, 2008, New York Times column, Frank Rich noted Slate's comparison of Clinton to Flick, calling it a "persistent gripe among some Clinton supporters," but then went on to say, "There is undoubtedly some truth to this, however demeaning it may be":

The other persistent gripe among some Clinton supporters is that a hard-working older woman has been unjustly usurped by a cool young guy intrinsically favored by a sexist culture. Slate posted a devilish video mash-up of the classic 1999 movie ''Election'': Mrs. Clinton is reduced to a stand-in for Tracy Flick, the diligent candidate for high school president played by Reese Witherspoon, and Mr. Obama is implicitly cast as the mindless jock who upsets her by dint of his sheer, unearned popularity.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this, however demeaning it may be to both candidates, but in reality, the more consequential ur-text for the Clinton 2008 campaign may be another Hollywood classic, the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy ''Pat and Mike'' of 1952. In that movie, the proto-feminist Hepburn plays a professional athlete who loses a tennis or golf championship every time her self-regarding fiance turns up in the crowd, pulling her focus and undermining her confidence with his grandstanding presence.

  • Washington Post staff writer Libby Copeland wrote on May 16, 2008, " 'Poor Hillary' means Clinton finally is being brought low (she is forever being brought low, isn't she?), the know-everything who tries so hard but never gets enough votes to be class president. Eons ago, the smart folks at Slate likened Clinton to Tracy Flick, the hyperactively ambitious teenager played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie "Election." And it's true; somewhere in our collective gray matter, Clinton is still wearing those schoolgirl headbands from when Bill first ran for president."

Sarah Palin

  • In a September 6, Los Angeles Times column, Rachel Abramowitz wrote, "Yes, Palin reminds me of Tracy Flick. She's the ferocious overachiever Reese Witherspoon plays in the excellent 1999 comedy 'Election,' who despite her angelic face is vindictive, manipulative and would do anything to become president of her high school class."
  • On September 20, 2008, Anne Billson wrote in The Guardian, "For what is Sarah Palin if not a brown-haired Tracy Flick, 25 years on? Yes, the prom queens are taking over the asylum, and if America doesn't look sharp it really is going to find itself saddled with the cheerleader from hell."
  • On the December 3, 2008, edition of MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann compared Palin with Flick, saying, "Saxby Chambliss says Tracy Flick won him back his Senate seat." Additionally, during the September 3, 2008, MSNBC coverage of the Republican National Convention, Olbermann said of Palin's comments about small-town America that Palin was "[p]erhaps Norma Rae by the way of Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon's character from -- from Election."

From the January 26 edition of Fox News' Hannity:

HANNITY: And finally tonight, New York's newest senator is eliciting some less-than-flattering comparisons. Now Politico.com reports that Kirsten Gillibrand, the former New York congresswoman who today took Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, earned the nickname "Tracy Flick" among congressional colleagues on account of her blonde locks and unquenchable ambition.

Now, if you're wondering who Tracy Flick is, well, just take a look.

TRACY FLICK (played by Reese Witherspoon) [video clip]: I had to work a little harder, that's all. You see, I believe in the voters. They understand that elections aren't just popularity contests. They know this country was built by people just like me who work very hard and don't have everything handed to them on a silver spoon.

Not like some rich kids who everybody likes because their fathers own Metzler Cement and give them trucks on their 16th birthday and throw them big parties all the time. No, they don't ever have to work for anything. They think they can just all of a sudden, one day, out of the blue, waltz right in with no qualifications whatsoever and try to take away what other people have worked for very, very hard their entire lives.

HANNITY: Now, Caroline Kennedy would have done well to listen to Reese Witherspoon when she said maybe if certain older, wiser people hadn't acted like such little babies, everything would be OK.

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