Thursday, 28 April 2011

Tootsie revisited

Tootsie was a highly-successful comedy film released in 1982. It has always had a 'feminist' image, mainly because certain sexist characters get a jolt from a woman who won't be put down. But it's hard to see how the film could much advance the political notion of equality for women. No woman in the film actually achieves anything, except where inspired by a man who masquerades as a woman. So basically the film seems to be saying that it needs a man to get anything done or changed.

Despite this, Tootsie had impact, certainly on me. I remember it coming out, and bought a VHS tape version to watch at home, with wife and stepchild present. At the time - this was nearly thirty years ago, remember - I simply let the film wash over me. It really shook me. Here was a man so well transformed by clothing and makeup that he most definitely looked like a woman. The man concerned, Dustin Hoffman, was the most unlikely person to have made a convincing woman, apart from his short height perhaps. Yet here he was, succeeeding. The film stirred me up, made me feel uncomfortable, and if questioned about it I would have found it difficult to say why I was both fascinated and embarrassed. Thankfully nobody did.

Tootsie stars Dustin Hoffman as a perfectionist actor that nobody will hire, because he is so difficult to work with. He needs money urgently, and is so desperate to break out of unemployment that he gets into women's clothes and makeup and auditions for a part in a daytime hospital soap. The transformation (and his feisty interpretation of the character) makes such an impression that he actually lands the part. Then he goes on to boost the show's ratings with his anti-sexist portrayal of a woman who stands no male nonsense. But of course all the time he's really a man, and inevitably the story moves towards its hectic and farcical conclusion as the charade gets more and more complicated, especially after the show's producer unilaterally extends the contract, with no way out, tying Dustin Hoffman into the soap for years to come.

So the film is not about someone wanting to transition, nor even wanting to remain in a position to cross-dress indefinitely (and be paid handsomely for it). It's about a male actor taking on the ultimate acting challenge, getting away with it, and out-acting everyone else until the pretence has to stop. It has to stop because he wants to do male things, like act in his own real name, and pursue the girl he has fallen in love with.

Despite this, as a technical feat, Hoffman's female portrayal was astonishingly good, considering what lay beneath all that makeup. Disturbingly good, even. I believe he had a spot of bother about enjoying the part, and had to dodge some snide remarks concerning his sexuality and true gender. Just as anyone considering the role now would, I'd say.

I watched the DVD version again tonight. The humour and the touching moments and the farce still worked. The 'message' was however harder to determine. The sexism was the kind of stuff that just wouldn't happen nowadays: women have wised-up, and don't let themselves be so exploited, nor feel bound to put up with male condescension in the way they would have thirty-odd years ago. So the precise storyline seems a bit out of touch with modern conditions, even if it's still true that most women don't have a lot of power. Male chauvinism is far from dead.


  1. Tootsie is the only "man impersonating a female"
    movie, that I have ever truly enjoyed. I'm sure it is because Hoffman, who I have always considered to be one of Hollywoods best actors, took his portrayal so seriously. I'm afraid I can't say the same for, Robin Williams's Mrs. Doubtfire, Martin Lawrence's Big Mamma, or Tyler Perry's Madea, all of which make an embarrassing mockery of womanhood. Even Jack Lemon's and Tony Curtis's portrayals in Some Like It Hot, make me cringe, although Marilyn Monroe was the bee's knees!

    Melissa XX

  2. Lucy,

    It has been a long time since I saw the film and yes it was uncomfortable for me to watch.

    However, I thought the producers took pains to make Hoffman look unattractive. Any film that made the protagonist whether CD/TG/TS look appealing to the opposite sex would be subversive today let alone in 1981.



  3. Unlikely subject convincingly making the transformation certainly struck a chord. It has been written that the character was road tested out in the real world and worked.

    While the message to many of us was "yes I could do it too" as April pointed out Dustin was no Marilyn, in fact was too similar to one of my aunts for comfort.

    I have watched Some Like It Hot many times, finally Melissa has made me realise it was not Jack and Tony I was watching after all!


This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford