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Election (1998)

NICE GUYS FINISH LAST

by Brianna Ashby

My husband is a teacher at an all-girls private Catholic school.  He also happens to be young and dashingly handsome (if I do say so myself).  I’m no chemist, but even I can see that the combination of these two variables is potentially hazardous, even explosive. If I were prone to jealous rages and paranoid delusions, I would most likely insist that he find another line of work, or in the very least, transfer to the all-boys school across the street.  Happily, I’m not prone to either of those things, and supple young flesh doesn’t interest my husband, who clearly prefers his ladies a bit older with dark circles under their eyes from getting up seven times a night with a young baby, and who haven’t had a haircut in well over six months. No, being surrounded by lithe, perky, schoolgirls with the propensity for hiking up their skirts well above the the modesty line isn’t even remotely tempting, especially when they’re batting the lashes of their doe eyes, ever-so-sweetly asking for a little bit of, ahem, extra help.  Not at all.  Although my mate is a saint, I can certainly understand how a lesser man could fall prey to these raptors disguised as plaid skirted ingenues.  

From a young age, girls begin to recognize that they have a particular sort of power over the opposite sex, and most learn very quickly how to harness it.  Before long, the boy chasing her around the playground trying to steal a kiss is completing her book report on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” while she sits watching afternoon cartoons.  The dynamic never changes, it simply matures as the players mature, and since girls tend to mature faster, their targets change, soon moving from their classmates to their teachers and so on and so forth. This is not to say that all men are saps, but there is empirical evidence to suggest that a large portion of men will go to great, even humiliating, lengths to get their hands on a pair of breasts.  Sadly though, some men are saps, and there’s a certain breed of woman who can spot these unfortunate souls a mile away, knowing just how to manipulate them to insure that they get what they want.  These women are commonly referred to as “total bitches”.  

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a total bitch.  Quite often women who are strong, smart, ambitious, and successful are called bitches, because all of those things — especially in combination — are superlatively intimidating.  Tracy is certainly all of those things, but that’s not why she’s a bitch.  Rather, she is that certain breed of woman: her strength comes from an innate ability to recognize weakness and prey on it mercilessly.  Sure, she is driven and hard-working, but the paths to her achievements are littered with the broken bodies of all the people she had to step on to get there, most notably her former teacher and lover Mr. Novotny. 

Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik) is an ordinary guy with an ordinary home life and an ordinary job.  Ordinary men of a certain age seem more prone to being hoodwinked by the Tracy Flicks of the world, who tell them that they’re not ordinary, they’re really something! You’re better than your wife and 2.5 children, they’re just holding you back! Write that novel you’ve always wanted to write! I believe in you! YOU ARE SPECIAL! Some people are easily convinced that their lives are monotonous and boring by people who purport to be exotic and interesting - the human equivalent of new car smell.  All of Tracy’s admirable qualities — her drive, her intellect, her ambition, and her bubbly blonde personality — are intoxicating to poor Mr. Novotny, who soon finds himself convinced that he is in love with this girl, and she with him. Of course, he isn’t in love with her (and she is most definitely not in love with him); he is in love with the idea of her.  More often than not, when people claim to be in love with their partner in infidelity, it’s simply that they’ve become enamored with the idea of improving their own self-worth, and the person who “showed” them that they were worth anything at all becomes something of an idol. 

Maybe I’m being too hard on Tracy.  Tracy is lonely.  Loneliness manifests itself in different ways.  In Tracy’s case, it’s resulted in extreme overachievement and over involvement in every possible committee, group, and after school activity that Carver High has to offer. (An obvious choice for student body president, don’t you think?) The more she has to do, the less she has to think about the fact that she’s alienated all of her peers and literally ruined the life of the one person that cared enough to talk to her at all, and she’s left a hyper functional but emotionally stagnant android of a teenage girl.  Like I said, loneliness manifests itself in different ways.  Tracy the zealot, meet Linda Novotny, the damsel in distress. 

After relieving Dave of his duties as husband, Linda (Delaney Driscoll) is rendered completely helpless, unable to open pickle jars or attend to minor plumbing problems.  She needs a man.  I get it, I do.  Finding out that your spouse is not only screwing a teenager, but has justified it by proclaiming his love for the little slut, is soul crushing. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) gets it too.  Jim is a reasonable man with a reasonable dislike of Tracy Flick and a reasonable amount of sympathy for his best friend’s ex-wife.  Jim also happens to suffer from the same problem that afflicted Dave.  Jim is bored, and once Linda starts getting under his skin, he starts to notice.  He’s no longer a three-time “Teacher of the Year” winner, suddenly he’s just a civics teacher that can’t seem to make anyone understand the difference between ethics and morals.  He’s no longer happily married to his best friend Diane (Molly Hagan), instead, he’s a slave to her ovulation cycle and her demands to “fill her up” so she can have the child she always wanted.  Jim McAllister is shuffling through his homogenous existence and, frankly, no one really gives a shit, at least not in a meaningful way.  Enter Linda, poor, broken, newly divorced Linda.  Linda and her plumbing problems and busted light bulbs.  When Jim, who is not only reasonable but also a genuinely nice guy, begins offering his jar opening muscles and friendly ears, our desperate housewife realizes that she’s onto something.  Linda can see through his willingness to be at her beck and call; it’s not just a nice guy being nice because he’s a nice guy, it’s a nice guy being nice because he desperately needs to be needed. Things go from bad to worse and the rest…well, you can imagine the rest. 

I think what I’m trying to say is that what it really comes down to is need, right?  We all need something. We all have space to fill.  The difference is that some of us are far more eager than others to step in and help plug up the holes - not out of love or concern, or hell, even interest, but because it’s a distraction that helps keep us from staring too hard into our own dark spaces, our own loneliness, our own boredom.  People cheat and abet cheaters because if anyone took the time to systematically catalog their lives, they would always find that something is missing.  Does this something really ever matter?  Sometimes it does.  Sometimes it’s a huge, gaping something, an insurmountable loss or overwhelming setback.  Most of the time, it’s really nothing. 

It is baffling that people can’t seem to recognize what’s right in front of them, they just look ahead, straining to catch a glimpse of what bigger and better things would be afforded to them if only they could just shrug off the lives (and people) that are holding them back.  Somewhere along the line, a stigma was attached to living a comfortable unassuming life, to being a successful teacher or a good student with a quiet home life and a small, but meaningful, sphere of influence. It’s bullshit.  There is so much good that comes from normalcy and stability and such tremendous harm that comes from believing, even for a moment, that the grass really might be greener on the other side.  People are not landscapes and climbing into someone else’s bed does not constitute a change of scenery.  When you climb out, you’re still you.  You’re still lonely Tracy Flick, overachiever extraordinaire or misguided Dave Novotny, convenience store clerk. 

Brianna Ashby has never so much as cheated on a math test, so help her god.  She tumbls here.  Honestly.

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