Mixed messages

by Deborah H. Holdstein

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 1, 32
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

First, the good news. TOOTSIE is a wildly successful film at the box office. And it appears that the film represents the consummate group effort: three directors, approximately twenty script rewrites (with such notables as Elaine May and the Barry Levinson/Valerie Curtin team), and Writers' Guild arbitration over who should get screen credit. TOOTSIE's dialogue seems unrelentingly witty, snappy, and downright hilarious, with filmgoers and critics alike thrilled at Hollywood's "new feminism," its raised consciousness, its preoccupation with important social issues.

And that makes the news less good. Filmgoers love TOOTSIE. Mainstream critics love TOOTSIE. Inexplicably, however, these same critics gloss over or reject the film's implicit sexism and the mixed "feminist" message that undercuts itself in deference to the system that produced the picture. It depicts women as weak, powerless, banal emotional blobs. They are saved only by a man's inspiring assertiveness in the guise of a soap-opera actress-heroine in designer blouses.

Dustin Hoffman plays two roles in TOOTSIE — Michael Dorsey, unemployed, temperamental actor, and the woman he "becomes" in order to land a job, Dorothy Michaels. He succeeds, getting the role of Emily Kimberly, hospital administrator on a successful soap. He begins to ignore girlfriend Sandy (Teri Garr) as the "Michael" that's really "behind Dorothy" begins to fall in love with his co-star, Julie (Jessica Lange). The inevitable complications ensue.

Critical response unintentionally illustrates both the film's misleading "virtues" and its implicating, patriarchal structure. Even the diction in the reviews themselves reveals that condescension toward women has been vanquished only temporarily, because "Tootsie" is really a man whose words are taken seriously:

“Michael dresses up as a hopeful actress named Dorothy Michaels, who is a shy Southern belle until she opens her mouth. Out of that mouth comes the most assertive and appealing kind of feminism imaginable [emphasis added] … Simply stated, the TOOTSIE thesis is you are what you wear. Simply by putting on a dress, Michael Dorsey becomes more polite, less contentious, and more likely to defer to his superiors … women are so often trapped into subservience because, well, a dress is not a suit."(1)

Critical commentary such as this underscores the essentially patriarchal structure of TOOTSIE (not to mention the attitudes of the critics reviewing it). Michael Dorsey is not really more polite when he becomes Dorothy. If anything, it's the "manliness" of this woman that many people admire while paradoxically condemning her for her rather homely appearance.

When Michael/Dorothy goes to audition for the soap opera, s/he teaches the blatantly sexist director, Ron, a "feminist lesson." Ron wants a "broad caricature of a woman," he tells Dorothy, as power is masculine and makes a woman ugly." First, Ron's caricature as "male chauvinist pig supreme" is so broadly drawn as to be useless in teaching us anything about how people shouldn't act. No one could ever see himself in Ron, a cartoon figure who defeats any pretensions the film might have had to him as a "feminist bad example." Second, when Michael/Dorothy calls Ron a "macho shithead" and yells "Shame on you!" for Ron’s stereotyped images of power, the patriarchy surfaces.

Dorothy is "unattractive." Dorothy is really a man. Obviously, then, the so-called "feminist message" dissolves into visual images that tell us the opposite: Dorothy is powerful in telling off Ron — Dorothy is homely. And the other women in the film are beautiful, powerless, and weak-willed. Thus, TOOTSIE perpetuates these unfortunate sexist stereotypes, as well as the antiquated assumptions about any connection between a woman's physical appearance and her intelligence. Finally, it must be remembered that the only person to successfully "call" Ron on his sexism is really a man. And, I fear, it's the only way many people in a representative audience would take such a "feminist" message seriously.

One critic acknowledges that "the movie also manages to make some lighthearted but well-aimed observations about sexism,"(2) while Carrie Rickey of the Village Voice names it to her list of the top ten films of 1982.(3) Pauline Kael celebrates the fact that "Michael is thinking out Dorothy while he's playing her — he's thinking out what a woman would do."(4) Is there no insult to the notion that it takes a man in woman's clothing to articulate the needs of the women around him? That it takes a man — perhaps radiating the strong assertiveness only he can "do so naturally" — to politicize and inspire the almost stereotypically weak women around him to stand on their own two feet? And, most alarmingly, that it takes a man-as-woman, speaking sincerely about "feminist" issues, to convince the sexists in the audience, as well?

The insult permeates the film’s structure and content, especially when one considers the initial information which types Hoffman's character. Michael Dorsey is thirty-nine, only intermittently employed as an actor but the finest of professionals. Dedicated to his acting students but picky and hellish for establishment theater folk to work with, Dorsey's characterization as a man devoted to people and his craft unfolds during the opening credit-montage. As the center of a circle of students, he's looked upon as a respected mentor, a victim of the theater establishment, a wise veteran of acting "wars." And because he's difficult to work with, his agent calls him a "cult failure." No one will hire Michael Dorsey.

Therein lies the crucial economic reason justifying his audition in woman's clothing for the role of hospital administrator Emily Kimberly on the daytime drama, "Southwestern Hospital." After all, only dire straits will justify a clothing sex change: Julie Andrews was starving to death in VICTOR/VICTORIA; Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis witnessed the St. Valentine's Day Massacre before they resorted to an all-girl band in SOME LIKE IT HOT, gangsters in pursuit. But lest we further dare to question Dorsey's heterosexuality, the scene of his surprise birthday gathering has him trying to pick up every woman at the party. The lines? "Oh, yeah, you were in Dames at Sea — you've got a great voice. You know, I felt like there was an aura between us in the theater." This allegedly feminist film, then, must go to great lengths to assure its audience that the protagonist is "legitimate" — straight. Dorsey seems as much of a voyeur sexist as the men he'll rail about as Dorothy.

Further, Michael justifies his role as a woman by creating a parallel between the plight of unemployed artists and women — "I've got a lot I can say to women." The film would have us believe that it really doesn't take much to be a woman at all, that women lack enough individuality or identity as a group that a man can "do" her very well, without anyone noticing or questioning.

In spite of this, TOOTSIE's allegedly feminist intent appears to illustrate the problems of being a woman or a man. It celebrates the inherently "wonderful sensitivity" of Michael's "feminist" inclinations and the implication that it's the "woman inside the man" that has brought him around to egalitarian insight. Not really. The film itself continually undercuts any pseudo-feminist "statements" that it tries to make through characterization, point of view, and the overall structure of the film. TOOTSIE's message is loud and clear. Only because of a man can a woman achieve any modicum of greatness or rise from the mire of self-doubt and psychological trauma. Only through a man will a mass-audience "feminist" message be taken seriously.

Michael/Dorothy's role as the sole voice for women's issues is further aggravated by the film's other women. As his suicidal-maniacal girlfriend Sandy, Teri Garr becomes, in Kael's sincere words, "the funniest neurotic dizzy on the screen."(5) Fine. Yet Sandy is unable to get an acting job; in fact, Michael beats her out for the Kimberly soap opera role. Michael runs lines with her before the audition, and Sandy tells him that he does a woman better than she can! She can't even "get her rage back" for the audition unless he goes with her and "keeps her angry." Worse, Michael treats Sandy poorly, thoughtlessly victimizing her — and even stealing her job!

Jessica Lange's Julie, the woman with whom Michael falls in love while pretending to be Dorothy, is also weak and unassertive. The complication, inevitably, occurs when Julie becomes "Dorothy's" best friend. The film seems to tell us that Julie's never had such a wonderful friendship with a "woman" before, as if being close, woman-to-woman, were unnatural. Manipulated by her director/boyfriend, Ron, Julie drinks too much. Only Dorothy's advice and support and her improvised dialogue as ultra-feminist Emily Kimberly redeem Julie. And yet Lange's Julie is evidently supposed to be a "liberated" woman in the positive sense, but here again whatever liberation there is, is thoroughly undercut. A single mother in "real life," Julie plays, in her words, "the hospital slut" of the soap. Surely audience response connects the damning term "slut," given Julie's emotional insecurity and weakness, to her disorganized existence. The film subtly but unmistakably implies a parallel between her TV role and her life. When Julie believes that Michael/Dorothy is a lesbian, she acknowledges her "stirring feelings." But we remind ourselves that Dorothy's "really a man" — Julie's "feelings," therefore, must be heterosexual and "natural."

The only assertive, apparently strong woman we see in the film is the soap opera's producer. But her character remains flat and incidental, only serving the patriarchal structure of the film when she tells Dorothy/Michael: "You're a breakthrough lady for us, Dorothy. You're your own person." Evidently, even a soap opera produced by a woman never would have featured a strong, assertive woman. Only a man could have initiated a change in the patriarchal system. So not only does Michael treat Sandy badly, victimizing women in a way that parallels the Ron/Julie relationship he so despises (Ron's infidelity, his condescension, pats on Julie's rear, etc., etc.), but our only strong woman character seems to victimize women as well. She casts them as weak, unassertive, spineless sorts: roles that amplify our perceptions of them as "beautiful but weak" in their "real" lives. Only when Dorothy/Michael appears does the breakthrough occur, male-initiated.

Much of the humor in the film stems from Michael's thoughtless treatment of Sandy. Another source derives from the fact that it is convenient to be a man, at times, because being a woman apparently means ineffectuality. For example, Michael is about to try on a dress of Sandy's while she's in the shower. (He thinks it might be a good possibility for "Dorothy."). When she catches him with his clothes off, the only way for him to protect his heterosexuality is to say, "I want you, Sandy, I want you," comically walking around the room with his pants down around his ankles. As a result, however, Sandy is ultimately victimized by his sexual excuse as he falsely promises her a relationship he has no intention of fulfilling. (Before this, their relationship was platonic.) In another scene, when Dorothy/Michael needs to hail a cab, s/he tries meekly in her "woman's" voice, then quickly yells "Taxi!" in Michael's deep baritone. Of course, the cab stops. We laugh as we did when Dorothy/Michael slammed the head of a man trying to steal a taxi from her, using packages laden with designer clothing — such assertiveness, the ability to fight for one's rights, is a "male" characteristic, the film says. A woman doing this successfully is out of character and humorous. And, if she really is a woman, she's likely to be unsuccessful in getting a taxi anyway.

Perhaps the most blatant way in which TOOTSIE undercuts its own pretensions comes when Dorothy/Michael accompanies Julie home to her father's farm for a weekend. The film's mask of "sensitivity to woman" strips away when our point of view, not only Dorothy/ Michael's but the camera's, makes us sexual voyeurs. As Michael gradually falls more in love with Julie, the camera caresses Julie's opulent, peasant-dressed body in slow motion, from an omniscient point of view. This reveals the more directly patriarchal implications of the film. The voyeurism isn't criticized; rather, it reinforces the film's sexist assumptions and structure. The form, as usual, substantiates the content.

TOOTSIE also generates humor by ridiculing artists who attempt to deal with political issues. Michael becomes Dorothy in order to raise $8,000 to finance his roommate's play, "Return to the Love Canal." As Michael's agent wryly notes, "Nobody wants to see these things — why spend $20 to see a couple who moved back to chemical waste? They can see that in New Jersey." And the audience laughs in uproarious approval.

In presenting itself as a feminist film, TOOTSIE seems to follow in the footsteps of films such as 9 TO 5 and KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER, other Hollywood films purporting to sensitively deal with issues of concern to women. 9 TO 5 sold "working women a bill of goods,"(6) minimizing work issues with slapstick, fantasy, and women who were as guilty of victimization as the men who were the alleged focus of sexism in the film. In KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER, Dustin Hoffman's character fulfills the task of motherhood so easily that he goes from a man who didn't even know what grade his son was in to a perfect woman/mother in six months. Because woman's work isn't valued, Kramer's newfound vocation is cause for the film's pivotal emotional scenes. When men do what had before been only women's work, it becomes the stuff of which epics are made.

We ultimately learn that not only does it take a man to do work well but also that it takes a man to be a "good," powerful, assertive "woman." When Andrew Sarris marvels that Hoffman "has soared with Jessica Lange into the stratosphere of redemptive romance in a rare display of mutual enhancement,(7) Sarris misses the point. At the end, their relationship reconciled, Michael and Julie walk down the street arm in arm, her directionless personal life saved by Michael's presence. And the camera freezes for the final credits. However, Julie was redeemed only because of "a man and his strength" in its most stereotyped form. The film's final freeze-frame perhaps emphases the immutability of a manipulative, patriarchal system under the guise of feminist inspiration.


I wish to thank Norene Chesebro, Scott Chesebro, and Roger Gilman for their helpful participation in discussions about TOOTSIE.

1. Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune, 17 December 1982, Section 3, pp. 1-2.

2. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 17 December 1982, pp. 63-64.

3. Carrie Rickey, "The Ten Best," Village Voice, January 1983, p. 40. Rickey's article, however, illustrates TOOTSIE's appeal to many audiences: whitewashed "transvestitism,” another source of titillation and humor. The movie is mildly kinky entertainment, uncritical of its own inconsistencies. Rickey writes:

"1982 will be remembered as a dragfest, a cross-dressers' paradise. May I propose an award … for Best Performance in a Transvestite Role?”

4. Pauline Kael, "The Current Cinema: Tootsie, Gandhi, and Sophie," The New Yorker, 27 December 1982, pp. 68-72.

5. Ibid., p. 72.

6. Carol Slingo, et al., "9 TO 5: Blondie Gets the Boss," JUMP CUT, No. 24/25, p. 8.

7. Andrew Sarris, "Why TOOTSIE Works and SOPHIE Doesn't," Village Voice, 21 December 1982, pp. 71-72.